LIFE

An ancient decorative art form

A. KOROXENIDIS

An art that was born in Greece during the Mycenaean period and spread throughout the world is the subject of «Enamels: Color over the Course of Time,» an exhibition currently being held at the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens. About 170 items drawn from various museum collections (such as the Byzantine and Christian, the National Archaeological, the Benaki and the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki) as well as the G. Tsolozidis and the C. Antonakis private collections follow the development of the art of enameling from ancient Greece and the Byzantine period through the present and across Europe, to the Middle and Far East. Representative pieces from each period, such as jewelry, ecclesiastical vessels, religious icons and decorative or utility objects, reveal the inherent qualities in the miniature art of enameling: the detailed work, the various techniques, the intricate patterns and decorative motifs and the mixing of metals with color without the use of stones. The raw material of enamels is glass that is pulverized in a mortar and mixed with various metal oxides to produce different colors. The powder-like mixture is then placed on a metal surface and fired in a special kiln, forming an inseparable mass with the metal. The process is analyzed in the exhibition. Three rings that were found in 15th-century BC tholos tombs (circular, subterranean burial chambers) from Mycenae, Volos and Laconia place the origins of the art of enameling in the Greek civilization of the Mycenaean period. One learns that the art of enameling was perfected during the Byzantine period. It was a costly, sophisticated art reserved for members of the imperial court and Church. Most of the objects from the period are jewelry and ecclesiastical or liturgical vessels. Some are made in the cloisonne technique, one of the most sophisticated enameling techniques and one at which the Byzantines excelled. In this technique, metal wires divide the surface of the metal objects into motifs which are then filled in with different colored enamels. It was during the Byzantine Empire that the art of enameling and particularly cloisonne spread to the West, around the 12th century. In the exhibition, enamel objects from France date from the 19th to 20th centuries and include a vanity set and stationery (inkwells, seals and paperweights). From Europe, the art of enameling traveled back toward the East. In the 13th century, it became known in China and, toward the end of the 16th century, also in Japan. Decorative objects from China and Japan are among the most beautiful in the exhibition. The exhibition ends with a large section that presents enamel works (large plaques that resemble paintings) made by Costas Antonakis, an honorary research director at the National Center for Scientific Research of France. In 1960, Antonakis began research into the materials used in enameling during the Middle Ages and the Byzantine period. His research led him to the development of new techniques which, in turn, helped create new visual effects. His work helps preserve a decorative art that is not widely practiced today but, as the exhibition shows, is one of the oldest in the history of the applied arts. «Enamels: Color over the Course of Time,» at the Byzantine and Christian Museum (22 Vassilissis Sofias, 210.721.1027), to February 17.

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