Icons of the Rena Andreadis Collection

The contribution of private art collectors in preserving and making accessible aspects of cultural heritage is often invaluable, not to mention a driving force behind some of the world’s most renowned museums. The Benaki Museum, which was actually born out of Antonis Benakis, an art collector, serves as a typical example of a prestigious institution which is heavily reliant on private collectors. It is therefore appropriate that it pays tribute to the late Rena Andreadis, one of the most important collectors of Byzantine icons and long-time member of the museum’s board of trustees, through the exhibition «Greek Icons 14th -18th century. The Rena Andreadis Collection» on display at the Benaki through early December. The exhibition includes only a portion of the collection, but is supplemented by a catalog that documents its entirety (72 icons and several fragments from temples) as researched by Anastasia Drandaki, curator of the Byzantine collection of the Benaki Museum. The catalog has been financed by Andreadis and is published by the Benaki Museum in collaboration with SKIRA publications. (The English edition, in a fine translation from Greek by John Avgherinos, will be distributed internationally.) A private art collection is foremost a reflection of the collector’s own taste, and in the case of Rena Andreadis it mirrors a collector with an eye for the unusual captured in attributes such as an odd iconographic detail, a distinct inscription by the donor or an image’s emotional depth. Another distinctive aspect of the collection is its variety across style, region and chronological period. There are icons from Constantinople, mainland Greece, the Ionian islands and Crete, the region which is the best represented in the collection. Among the icons are several gems: the «Volpi Nativity» from the first quarter of the 15th century and «St John the Evangelist» from the third quarter of the 16th century are both unique pieces. The collection’s broad range allows for some interesting stylistic comparisons. But for the scholar, the collection presents a major problem of attribution. Since few of the works are either dated or supplemented with information on their provenance, the scholar – in this case Drandaki – has to draw on careful comparative research in order to place each work in a historical context. This explains the detailed iconographic analysis of each icon and the comparisons with paintings, textiles and metallurgy that Drandaki has included in her analysis of each painting, a comparison that also helps map out a broader, stylistic cohesion across each period. Structured in a straightforward chronological manner, both the exhibition and the catalog begin with the Palaiologan icons. A blend of a Western and Byzantine style are typical of the four icons presented in this section. In «The Deposition of Christ» for example, iconographical details (the absence of the cross and the mother-son combination that strengthens the image’s narrative quality, for example) are largely ascribed to a Western influence and can be explained by the icon’s origins in the region of northwest Macedonia, which had close contacts with the West in the early 15th century. Another Palaiologan icon of the collection is the «Virgin Peribleptos,» an image that has many affinities with the work of Georgios Kalliergis, a renowned artist of the time. The «Volpi Nativity» (known as such from the name of its former owner), the section’s most valuable icon, is dated from the first quarter of the 15th century and serves as a smooth introduction to Cretan art from the 15th through 17th centuries when the subject matter of the Nativity as represented in the Palaiologan icon becomes especially popular. The Cretan School Artistic production in Crete makes up the Andreadis collection’s strongest section. It is represented in all its stages and developments, beginning in the 15th century when the quality of the art produced in Crete improved drastically. This was a period of economic development for the island, which also became an artistic center and a destination of artists fleeing Constantinople for fear of a Turkish invasion. The island’s economic and artistic prosperity reached a peak in the second half of the 16th century. The icons of the collection are attributed to some of the most reputable artists of the so-called Cretan School. Among them are Angelos Akotantos from the first half of the 15th century, and the workshop of Andreas and Nikolaos Ritzos from the latter half of that century. Throughout the 17th century, Cretan workshops produced icons en masse, both for a Roman Catholic and an Orthodox clientele. This is what explains the proliferation of icons in both the «maniera greca» and the «maniera latina.» An icon of clearly Western influence is Emmanuel Lambardos’s «Adoration of the Magi» from the late 16th century. The Italian mannerist style so evident in the image makes this a work comparable to the output of Georgios Klontzas, Michael Damaskinos as well as the early works of El Greco. The painting marks the peak of Cretan production, which was succeeded by a gradual decline as the threat of an Ottoman occupation approached. This final period of Cretan art is represented by artist such as Philotheos Skouphos, Emmanuel Tzanes and Theodoros Poulakis. They all tried to revive Cretan painting, but mostly did so outside Crete in either Venice or the Ionian islands. The various styles that became associated with the Cretan School spread across various areas of Greece. Echoes of Cretan painting can also be detected in the religious icons produced on mainland Greece. It is an influence that can be traced to the arrival of notable Cretan artists on the Greek mainland in the mid-16th century. Many of the icons produced by them can hardly be distinguished from the images originating from Crete during the period. But as a group of icons at the Andreadis collection indicate, iconographical details sometimes tell them apart. Diversity typifies the collection’s final section of 18th-century icons. Most of them come from the Turkish-occupied areas of Greece but there are also some examples of painting from the Venetian-occupied islands, where many of the Cretan artists had transferred their workshops after Crete’s capture by the Turks in 1669. It is this fertilization of ideas across cultures and different epochs that the Rena Andreadis collection introduces the viewer to. This, together with the fact that it has helped repatriate icons in Greece is what make the Rena Andreadis collection a valuable documentation of late and post-Byzantine icons. «Greek Icons, 14th-18th century. The Rena Andreadis Collection,» at the Benaki Museum (1 Koumbari, 210.367.1000) through December 5.