CULTURE

The Byzantine world

BY John Leonard

The Byzantine and Christian Museum (BCM), after more than 15 years of major development, renovation and reorganization, has entered the 21st century with a refreshingly progressive approach to the important role a modern museum plays in preserving and presenting the past. New semi-subterranean exhibition and storage spaces, the redesigning of the permanent Byzantine exhibition (4th-15th century), updated curation and conservation methodologies, and the introduction last month of a second permanent exhibition covering the post-Byzantine culture of Greece from 1453 to the 20th century have produced an entirely new museum ? one that draws on the strengths of its past but looks forward to the future.

The late director of the BCM, Dimitris Constantios, wrote that a museum today should display its collections not for the sake of display itself or for specialists but for the public. His vision called for presenting to the public not a ?conscripted history? or a ?single national account? but an explanation of displayed material remains using all the tools that science, history, archaeology and museology can provide. The permanent exhibitions now open at the BCM have achieved this goal admirably.

Antiquity to Byzantium

The BCM?s two wings devoted to displays each contain 1,400 square meters of exhibition space. The Byzantine section, inaugurated in 2004, like the more recently opened post-Byzantine exhibition, is organized both chronologically and thematically. Visitors entering the Byzantine wing first encounter a transitional set of displays collectively titled ?From the Ancient World to Byzantium.? In five subsequent sections are presented ?The Temporal,? focusing on public and private life in the early Byzantine era, ?Temples of the New Religion,? ?The Christianization of the Ancient Temples,? ?Christian Egypt icons became controversial and targets for destruction; Byzantine power began to wane; and Franks and Latins began to permeate the Eastern Greek culture with their Western influences.

East meets West

The blending of Eastern and Western traditions within the Byzantine Empire and during the centuries following the fall of Constantinople is one of the most interesting aspects of the BCM?s exhibitions.

As visitors move from the museum?s Byzantine to post-Byzantine galleries, passing video displays that describe Constantinople?s decline and the resulting movements of peoples, artistic intermingling appears as a major theme, introduced by the 15th-century Byzantine-Gothic-style wall painting from the Monastery of Panaghia Odigitria on Lefkada.

The design of the post-Byzantine exhibition, by architect Avgi Tzakou, cleverly contributes to the visitor?s appreciation of the multilayering of cultural influences in medieval and early modern Greece by means of a simple but effective presentational concept: Displays are positioned freestanding or against narrow backdrops flanked by gaps that encourage viewers to look through from one geographically or culturally thematic gallery into another ? thus absorbing visually and experientially the interplay between diverse lands and peoples.

The Greek islands were particularly influenced by Westerners heading east to pursue commercial interests, acquire holdings, or reinforce the frontiers of Christendom. Distinct sections within the exhibition illustrate the Venetians? cultural impact on Crete, the rise of the Ionian schools and unique works of art produced by members of the Romioi communities (Orthodox peoples of the Ottoman Empire) in Constantinople and elsewhere.

Displays in one corner explain how artists used working sketches (anthibola) and stencils perforated with hundreds of tiny holes that allowed them to lay out designs on wooden panels while preparing icons. Another area of the exhibition features large 18th-century wall paintings from the destroyed Panaghia of Kastri at Delphi, a chapel that once stood atop the now-excavated archaeological site.

Also intriguing are the carved, perforated panels of gray stone from Tinos, commonly used to let in light over Cycladic house doors.

Sometimes the smallest details or objects may capture our imagination, points out Antonis Bekiaris, a curator at the BCM: eyeglasses depicted on one male figure in a small farm scene by the great Ionian painter Ilias Moskos; icons inscribed in Turkish using Greek letters; the new use of the bright color pink in 17th-century icon painting; and symbolic metal fetters used to ?restrain? mentally ill persons believed to be possessed when they were brought into churches for healing.

Near the end of the exhibition are a series of large charcoal-on-canvas sketches by German painter Ludwig Thiersch, displayed in imposing floor-to-ceiling cases, which illustrate mid-19th-century artistic trends in Greece.

Thiersch?s drawings, inspired by wall paintings in Greece and Germany, were both progressive in their modern treatment of Byzantine art and highly controversial among critics concerned that such blending of traditions was nothing more than a foreign attempt to replace age-old Greek traditions. Little did these critics seem to appreciate that such cultural blending had already been going on for centuries and is itself something of a Greek tradition.

A fascinating permanent exhibit, despite the odds

Despite numerous trials and tribulations, including the recent death of its longtime director Dimitris Constantios, the Byzantine and Christian Museum (BCM) has at last successfully opened its doors to a fresh, fascinating, richly presented permanent exhibition on Greek culture in post-Byzantine times. Although the public has had the chance in past months to glimpse some of the coming attractions in the museum?s new galleries, the full exhibition was quietly revealed for the first time in mid-March 2010, almost a year after its initially planned opening date. The wait has certainly been worth it, as one immediately understands when entering the new galleries and being faced with a magnificent 15th-century wall painting from the Monastery of Panaghia Odigitria at Apolpena on the island of Lefkada.

This large wall painting, only three sections of which were previously exhibited due to space restrictions, has now been reassembled, provided with a state-of-the-art mounting system and positioned to be viewed much as it once could have been on the eastern wall of the medieval monastery?s katholikon. With its aesthetic and historical value now enhanced, the Apolpena wall painting, characterized by a fusion of Byzantine and Gothic styles, embodies and evokes several central themes that are visibly recurrent throughout the BCM?s new exhibition: the blending of Eastern and Western cultural traditions in medieval Greece; the application of the latest conservation and restoration methodologies, which contribute both to greater preservation and improved visitor understanding; and an innovative presentational approach ? one which weaves together into a meaningful overall design the array of intriguing thematic strands to be found in the new exhibition.

Since Constantios?s appointment as director of the BCM in 1999, the museum has gone through many positive changes evident not only in visitor galleries but behind the scenes in the management of the museum?s vast icon and other unique collections. Larger, environmentally controlled, modern storerooms have been built; objects have been transferred to these new premises and repacked where necessary with improved materials; a new unified numbering system for artifacts has been introduced; and a fully integrated digital database has been created that accommodates the many different artifact classes and the needs of the BCM?s diverse personnel who document, organize, study and conserve the museum?s important collections.

When visitors enter the BCM, passing through the arched gatehouse, they find themselves facing a pleasant, enclosed courtyard with a central fountain designed after the one in the narthex of the 11th- to 16th-century Monastery of Daphni (on the western outskirts of Athens). Two single-story loggias line the courtyard?s eastern and western sides. On the south side stands the main building of this elegant complex, called the Villa Ilisia, which was constructed in 1848 by architect Stamatis Kleanthis as a winter palace for Sophie de Marbois-Lebrun, Duchess of Plaisance. The BCM took up residence in the villa in 1930.

Visitor galleries extend away from the main gate in two underground wings accessible from the loggias. Beginning on the left, visitors enter the Byzantine exhibition, renovated in 2004, then proceed through the newly opened post-Byzantine displays. Now, with a combined permanent exhibition area of 2,800 sq.m., the BCM is able to present 1,200 Byzantine artifacts and 1,745 additional objects dating between 1453 and the 20th century. The new galleries will for the first time illuminate the medieval and early modern eras in Greece, providing fresh perspective on Venetian and Ottoman Turkish cultural influences as well as the Greek Revolution of 1821. Although Constantios sadly did not live to see the final result of his and his staff?s latest labors, he has launched the BCM on a bold, new course for the future.

An outdoor cultural experience

Not all of the exciting new exhibitions at the BCM are permanent or indoors. The uppermost gallery of the BCM?s western wing is being reserved for temporary exhibitions that will highlight how Greek religious art has evolved in the 20th century. Among artists initially to be featured are Fotis Kontoglou and Constantinos Parthenis but new works and artist profiles will be installed every six months in this regularly updated presentation. Also part of the plan, however, envisioned by late BCM director Dimitris Constantios, are traveling exhibitions that will bring selected items from the museum?s vast collections directly to the Greek public through joint projects with their respective municipalities.

Outside, work continues to complete a unique cultural park in the museum?s grounds. A small theater, wide pathways and more than 3,000 bushes and 200 trees of indigenous species have already been installed. Plants were selected based on written descriptions of native Attic vegetation by ancient and modern authors and travelers. Al fresco archaeological displays will include a Late Roman aqueduct discovered during development of the property, three Early Christian tombs and their contents uncovered during Athens metro tunneling and a sculptural display featuring ancient through modern works arranged along a path called ?The Marble Way.? The adjacent site of Aristotle?s 4th-century BC school of philosophy, the Lyceum, is also being eyed for inclusion within the final design. The BCM?s planned culture and ecology park promises to be a welcome, refreshing green space, open to the public and free of charge.

Byzantine