The illustrated codex belonging to the Marciana Library in Venice painted by Greek miniaturist Georgios Klontzas in 1592 has never been shown in Greece, and nor has the wonderful painting by El Greco depicting Saint Francis of Assisi and Fra Leone contemplating mortality (1600-1605), currently at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan.
These are just two of the masterpieces that the Byzantine Museum in Athens is planning to show in November in an exhibition titled “Domenikos Theotokopoulos Before El Greco,” one of many in Greece and Spain to mark the 400th anniversary of the great master’s death and celebrating the Byzantine Museum’s centennial.
The Museum of Byzantine & Christian Art – its full title – was founded in 1914, but the idea of creating such an establishment was first hatched in the latter quarter of the 19th century and belonged to the Christian Archaeological Society and its founder Georgios Lambakis, a secretary to Queen Olga. The plan for a museum of Christian archaeology was never realized, however, and the society’s valuable collection became a part of the Byzantine & Christian Museum in 1923. That same year, the institution acquired a collection of items brought to Greece by refugees from Asia Minor. Giorgos Sotiriou also took over at the helm of the museum and organized its collections into five displays hosted on the ground floor of the Academy of Athens on central Panepistimiou Street.
Sotiriou’s greatest concern was to find a permanent home for the museum. In 1926, the Greek state acquired the Villa Ilissia, a complex of buildings designed by architect Stamatis Kleanthis on the banks of the Ilissos River which served as the winter residence of Sophie Lebrun, the Duchess of Plaisance, known in Greek as Doukissa Plakentia. Architect Aristotelis Zachos was responsible for turning the site into a museum.
A major potential turning point in its history was in 1960, when Byzantine historian Manolis Hatzidakis was appointed to its helm, but his tenure was stopped short by the junta.
A succession of directors tried to enrich the museum’s identity in more recent times so that it was not associated solely with ecclesiastical and religious art, staging a variety of exhibitions spanning different genres and era. The museum was given a major image makeover in two phases in 2004 and 2010, acquiring new equipment and a modern display philosophy, as well as a fresh marketing and promotion platform that showed it was becoming more extrovert and more focused on the 21st-century museum-goer.
The Byzantine Museum’s permanent exhibition consists of more than 2,500 objects on display over an area of around 3,500 square meters in a manner that takes visitors through different thematic sections in terms of the age and the conditions in which they came into being. Its total collection consists of more than 30,000 pieces dating from the 3rd century AD to the present and revealing little-known and fascinating aspects of the Byzantine and post-Byzantine world.
It also boasts one of the country’s most important centers of conservation, research and archiving, as well as an excellent publishing department, a photographic and historical archive, a department for educational programs, a gift shop and a cafe. One of its greatest advantages is its location, which is just out of the center of Athens yet enjoys an open horizon, uncluttered by towering apartment blocks, and around 3,000 sq.m. of well-tended gardens.
At a time when budgets and staff are being cut across the board, it is absolutely crucial to support the country’s biggest cultural foundations. The Byzantine Museum is without doubt one of these, as well as one of the most important museums of Byzantine art in the world.