The National Gallery of Art recently closed its exhibition on Byzantine art: “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections.” The museum has hosted several lectures and concerts related to the show since last October, to which the Beltway Greek community turned out in force. David Hammer also produced a short film for the museum modestly titled “Five Byzantine Churches.” Therein, you may see some lovely footage of Greek Christian art and architecture.
Concerning those museum events, I attended the concert by Cappella Romana last October, and I have an interesting story about the evening. I was not able to get to the museum until fifteen minutes before the beginning of the concert. All of the seats had been taken (by those swarming Greeks!), and the museum’s staff was rushing to set up more chairs in the western garden court where the concert was held. As I was waiting at the back of the line, I watched an agitated man of a somewhat unpolished appearance start pacing and moving around. I prejudicially thought that one of the District’s many deranged homeless had come to the concert to kill some time and to relax away from the street. When the last of us were seated, I was sitting next to the aforementioned fellow. I noticed that the man had a program, which included the Greek text of the songs along with an English translation. The museum had run out of the programs before I had the chance to get one, but my neighbor had secured one in advance (which, I found out, was what he was doing when I first saw him pacing frantically). The man eventually realized that I was following the Greek on his program during the concert, and he offered me it. He also pointed out where the singers were at the time, and he was right, which shocked me. I nodded gratefully and then wondered privately how this destitute fellow knew Greek. During the intermission, the man asked me where I had learnt Greek, and we started to chat. I think that I was right about his domicile condition—he was homeless—but quite wrong about his mind. The fellow was very bright, calm, and educated. He grew up in D.C. and was part of the Greek Orthodox community. He had graduated from a nearby university forty years ago. I knew that he was telling the truth. D.C. homeless folks like to spin tales, but one comes to know when their mania and/or manipulative nature trumps truth. Anyway, I was really surprised. Movies and television sometimes showcase the smart, sane man down on his luck as the homeless specimen for character study, but I do not remember ever meeting one beforehand. Sure, I had met bright folks, but they were also all guano loco—men whom schizophrenia and other disorders had reduced to poverty. I also met many folks who had destroyed their lives with substance abuse. Maybe such played a part in my concert partner’s downfall. Perhaps, he suffered some traumatic incident from which he could not recover, where no one helped him through it. I do not know, but I found the experience pretty sobering.