Roots of Europe’s religious art

A small part of one of the most important collections of Cretan and Ionian island religious icons owned by the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens is currently being exhibited on the museum’s premises on the occasion of a European cultural program held earlier in the summer. In the program, specialists from European institutions studied select examples of European religious painting and compared results. Analyzing religious painting produced from the 15th century to the present, but narrowed down to a shared iconography (the «Cycle of Divine Economy» which includes subjects related to the Nativity, Crucifixion and Resurrection), the idea was to trace cross-cultural influences in iconography and compare different scientific approaches to religious painting. The sample selected from Greek Byzantine work were 12 paintings from the so-called Loverdos Collection of the Byzantine and Christian Museum. A number of them are by famed masters of the post-Byzantine period: «The Adoration of the Magi,» painted in 1667 by Emmanuel Tzanes; «The Holy Trinity, the Descent into Hell and the Lamentation» by the 17th-century painter Theodoros Poulakis and the early-18th-century icon «The Nativity» by Nikolaos Kallergis, are counted among the most outstanding examples. The first two are some of the finest works of the Cretan school of painting, known for producing a style heavily influenced by Western religious painting. Nikolaos Kallergis, a painter from the Ionian Islands who was a pupil of both Tzanes and Poulakis carried their style through to 18th-century work from those islands. The 12 paintings that were studied under the specific program are being exhibited at the museum together with a selection of other post-Byzantine paintings from the Dionysios P. Loverdos Collection. The nucleus of the collection are the 200 icons that the philologist Alexios Kolyvas had obtained during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When Kolyvas died, the younger Dionysios Loverdos, a banker from Cephalonia, bought the paintings and enriched the collection with hundreds more paintings, which he kept at his home in Athens. In 1979, nearly 50 years after Loverdos died, his daughters handed over a large part of the collection to the Byzantine and Christian Museum entrusting it for conservation and storage. The works – 470 paintings and a carved wood iconostasis – were restored at the museum and were soon put on display in a special exhibition held at the museum in 1980. Since then, the collection has been kept in the museum’s storerooms. There are plans to exhibit the collection again some time in the near future. The collection is important for documenting the longevity of Byzantine art after the fall of Constantinople as well as for the diverse iconographic range that the artistry obtained throughout the period. It contains exquisite icons by Angelos Akontatos and Damaskinos, the expatriate Cretan painters Tzanes and Moskos and Ionian painters, such as Nomikos, Kontaris and Kontarinis. The specific project is part of the EU-funded Culture 2000 program aimed at exploring crossover influences and cultural interaction between European cultures. The European institutions participating in the project were from Italy, Spain and Finland. The University of the Basque Country studied Western religious painting ranging from the same period covered by the Byzantine museum. The Valamo Art Conservation Institute studied 19th-century icons and the Academy of Fine Arts A. Galli studied religious ex-votos. (Reproductions of these works are included in the exhibition). The works were fully examined in terms of their stylistic, iconographic, technical and historical aspects and the results were used for comparative research. A large part of the research involved the use of recent techniques in art conservation and restoration (the use of stereoscopic microscopes, X-ray, micro, macro and digital photography and ultraviolet rays). The researchers studied the formal aspects of each icon (structure, composition and proportions) and their relationship to iconography. This research has been documented on CD-Rom produced by the Athens Technological Educational Institute (TEI) and the University of Westminster. A rather unusual aspect of the project is that it sought to illustrate the ways in which contemporary artists are inspired by Byzantine iconography and religious themes. The works, not exactly on the cutting-edge of contemporary art, are included in the exhibition. The diARTgnosis project will also continue in the future with follow-up exhibitions organized by and displayed in the co-organizing countries. Through this succession of events, the objective is to advance the study of religious European painting but also to document and fully research some of its best examples. The Loverdos Collection exhibition will be on show at the Byzantine and Christian Museum (22 Vassilisis Sofias Ave, 210.729.4926) through the end of the month.