Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Glory That Is Greece - The Byzantine and Christian Museum I

The current glory of Greece is, of course, the new Acropolis Museum. When we were in Athens last November they were allowing viewings of the facility as exhibitions were being put in place and even empty the interior was impressive. It is all raked glass floors, stone, multi levels and natural light illuminating an incredible collection of the glories of Ancient Greece. Sadly the exterior looks, as our friend Fotis suggests, like an alien space craft has landed in the middle of town. It just doesn't fit and we won't even go into the argument raging about destroying two historical houses to improve the view from the restaurant.

Laurent spent a few hours there the second day he was in Athens and was mightily impressed with both the collection and the displays. I decided that since I was only there for the weekend I would restrict myself to a Saturday morning snack with Fotis on the restaurant terrace. The entrance fee, until the end of the year, is 1 euro - so just popping in for a coffee and a salad is not a big deal. I will wait until a weekday on our next trip to view the collection at my leisure.

However one museum I wasn't going to pass up this time was the Byzantine and Christian Museum. I had gone looking for it in November and totally missed the huge signs indicating the entrance on the hoardings that hide it during extensive renovation. Founded in 1914 it is, perhaps, one of the finest collections of Byzantine art in the world. And as with most of the museums I have visited in Greece the curating and displays are amongst the finest I've seen anywhere. And it is staffed with pleasant and knowledgeable people who acknowledge your presence with pleasure - such a nice change from the glowering attendant who knows you are only there to steal their national treasures.

And national treasures they have!
As he did in so many places in the Byzantine world, Justinian greets you as you enter. Mosaics filled palaces, churches and public buildings throughout Byzantium and the Emperor featured in a good many of them.
The Orpheus legend was quickly associated with Christ in the early church - the descent into Hades being the link. This Orpheus has charmed many of the beasts of the field, fowls of the air and a few other strange creatures. But the lion killing the deer has yet to hear his music. That image - a hart being killed by a lion appears in many carvings of the period.
Clothing is perhaps the hardest thing to preserve given that fibers decay quickly however this 6-7th century liturgical robe is still in good condition. The embroidery, though not as elaborate as later examples, has the naive charm of folk art.

This child's tunic is wool and dates from the 6th century. As do the leather shoes, the small child's pair are unadorned but the adults are decorated with gold leaf.
I find the sculpture of the period - both the figurative and the abstract - fascinating. Again there is that image of the hart being attacked this time by a leopard. Often the faces have been hacked away either during one of the Iconoclastic periods or one of the Islamic invasions. I particularly like the work in archways and door lintels - often abstract or as here representing scenes from the Nativity.

And even the utilitarian can be made interesting - that little figure is actually a unit of weight measurement. And this candle holder has been turned into a miniature mobile to adorn the sanctuary of a church.

The Museum is housed in a lovely villa setting with the permanent collection in one building and special exhibits in another. I'll try and post something later this week about Refugee Art - an interesting but terribly sad display of objects from the forced migration of Greeks from Asia Minor in 1923.

25 luglio - San Giacomo il Maggiore

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]


Sling said...

I'm astounded at the preservation of the ancient clothing.
I wonder about the lives of the people that wore them.
Thanks for the photos Will!

Μαρία. said...

One of your finest posts, Willym.
The introductory photo too, showing a historical part of Athens by night
is magnificent.
Keep on reporting about all the things and places that you saw that
weekend. Did you also visit Sounion and the temple of Poseidon?

flipstinger said...

Fantastic! Thanks for the added knowledge. YOu keep me on my toes with these ARTS stuff....


absolutely beautiful...greece has always been one of the top 5 countries i have wanted to visit...sigh*..maybe some day..

Parsifal said...

So, who's Fotis???

Willym said...

Fotis is this really "adorable" guy that I met on the internet who has become a friend. He's charming, hospitable and very savey on certain subjects. You should meet him if you are ever in Athens!

sageweb said...

Oh I love all of this ..wonderful!