Rare Byzantine Art Radiates Beauty and Grace

A monastic community exhibits hundreds of its priceless works for the first time in a thousand years.

For the first time in a millennium, the ethereal Byzantine art treasures of Mt. Athos are available for public viewing. Brilliantly colored paintings and precious objects of gold, silver, and ivory have been lent from the Orthodox monastic community that occupies most of the rugged, easternmost finger of the Halkidiki peninsula in northern Greece.

The Holy Community of Mt. Athos, an autonomous republic of 20 monasteries and smaller communal units, is allowing the exhibition as part of the celebration of the nearby city of Thessaloniki as the European cultural capital for 1997.

The monks expressed the hope that "the other way of life" could be experienced by those visiting the stylish, industrial second city of Greece. Their greeting proclaims that the show is not only "an artistic, cultural, or historical event," but also a "gesture of practical generosity towards modern, thinking humanity."

For the 2,500 monks who live in Mt. Athos, the objects lent to the "Treasures of Mount Athos" exhibition are vital parts of a timeless faith.

In installing the exhibition in Thessaloniki's Museum of Byzantine Culture, the planners responded to the monk's challenge to display the more than 600 objects "in a worthy and becoming manner." The task meant acquainting audiences with the geography and physical appearance of the Mt. Athos communities, which have historically admitted only men who could document their faith. Women have been restricted from visiting since the 11th century. The Julian calendar (13 days behind the Roman calendar) is still in use at Mt. Athos, which offers a retreat from modernity and its diversions from faith.

Before viewers see the art treasures of Mt. Athos, they are guided through a panorama of monastic life. Large photographs fill the first hall with images of the fortress-like monasteries and richly decorated church interiors. The natural environment of the Athos peninsula, which ranges from sub-Alpine conifers to seacoast agriculture, is also pictured. Multimedia displays reveal the monks' daily life of work and worship.

The other galleries display icons, illustrated manuscripts, carved ivories, ceramics, and embroideries, primarily from the Byzantine period, AD 330 to 1453. The icons, or religious pictures on wooden panels, are central to the Orthodox faith and the exhibition. More than representations, the icons are associated with miraculous events and the presence of God in everyday life.

Numbering more than 20,000, Mt. Athos's portable icons are the largest holding in the world. One of the most powerful images in Byzantine art is that of Christ as the Pantocrator, or universal ruler. The exhibition includes several portable icons of the Pantocrator, including one from Mt. Athos's Pantokrator Monastery. In this image, Christ Jesus is portrayed against a gold background. His right hand is raised in blessing, while he holds a jewel-encrusted gospel in his left hand.

Other icons in the exhibition describe the lives of the saints and scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Hodegetria, or Madonna with Child, from the largest of Mt. Athos's religious complexes, the Vatopedi Monastery, demonstrates the symbolic language of Byzantine art. Jesus' pose in his mother's arms, his perplexed look, and his crossed legs prefigure scenes from the crucifixion.

Another scene, prevalent in Byzantine art, is the Annunciation. In the elegant version from the Stavronikita Monastery, the archangel Gabriel is dressed in imperial garb and bedecked in jewels. He moves gently toward Mary, who holds a distaff and spindle.

From the Simonopetra Monastery, which is perched about 1,000 feet up on a large rocky outcropping, comes the 16th-century depiction on paper of St. Athanasios the Athonite. In the middle of the 10th century, Athanasios went to Mt. Athos as a hermit. Later he helped found a lavishly endowed community for about 80 monks. The Great Lavra, as it was known, contrasted with the austere way of life of other communities on Mt. Athos.

Protests from monks leading a more traditional life were initially rebuffed. But in 972, the Byzantine emperor, John Tsimiskis, responded to continual complaints by proclaiming that the more hermetic monks had to coexist with those living at the Great Lavra. The fortunes of the Great Lavra bear witness to how wealthy patrons from the world outside Mt. Athos could influence its direction.

Although Mt. Athos's illuminated manuscripts have been pillaged over the centuries, the monastic libraries still contain many rarities. Among them is a lectionary, or book of liturgical lessons given throughout the church year, from the Simonopetra Monastery. Accompanying the opening text of John the Evangelist is a full-page delineation of the saint with a scribe.

The exhibition also includes a rare and intriguing proskynetarion, or illustrated travelers' guidebook, recently uncovered at the Monastery of Gregoriou. Written for religious travelers going to Palestine, the guidebook depicts places of pilgrimage and contains numerous miniatures of Holy Land sites. In the exhibit, the book is open to a rendition of the Church of the Nativity and other shrines.

Writing about the exhibition, Greek Minister of Culture Evangelos Venizelos says that "it is a noble challenge to the world to review its relationship with Time and the Word." "Treasures of Mount Athos" succeeds not only as a unique art exhibition, but also as a still point in a changing world.

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