The Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki is currently showing “Two Collections Meet,” its first exhibition of icons, liturgical items, vestments and holy relics in many years, MBC director Agathoniki Tsilipakou tells Kathimerini.
Not only are a number of the items on public display for the very first time, but they are being exhibited alongside some of the latest discoveries in research into Byzantine painting in northern Greece – especially in the areas of Thessaloniki, Mount Athos and Central and Western Macedonia.
“The intention is to show the whole that was constituted by the combinative study of objects taken from two different collections, from Thessaloniki’s Municipal Art Gallery and the city’s MBC. One collection completes the other, thanks to the combinative approach through which the various manifestations of Christian Orthodox art in the years following Constantinople’s fall have been integrated in that socioeconomic context. This allows for the completion of the catalogue listing the works of known and unknown artists and workshops. The emphasis is on the realm of northern Greece under Ottoman rule, with a special focus on Central Macedonia, Thessaloniki and Mount Athos.”
With this achievement, the MBC truly meets the aims of a loan. The icons and relics from the Municipal Art Gallery’s collection were granted by the City of Thessaloniki in 2015 in the form of a 30-year loan with the aim of their preservation, restoration and exhibition. Although the loan approval introduced by ministerial decree only covers a five-year period, it does grant permission for continuous renewal.
Aside from its contractual obligation, the museum achieved the merging of two important collections in its temporary exhibition spaces, where 129 cultural goods, portable icons, objects of private worship, utensils, vestments and relics are exhibited in total. Fifty items are from the Municipal Art Gallery collection and 79 from the MBC, all dating from between the 14th and 20th centuries. The key is that 85 of these items are being exhibited for the first time since their restoration and scientific documentation at the museum.
Tsilipakou shares another of the exhibition’s aims: “Aside from the display of these items, the museum’s main objective, as well as mine, is to convince the local community and the municipality that these objects should permanently remain at the MBC, as this is where they naturally belong.” Her predecessors shared the same desire.
The exhibition offers the visitor a complete overview, achieved thanks to the recent findings arising from the restoration and documentation of the icons at the MBC, be they from the MBC collection itself or from the Municipal Art Gallery collection. As for the exhibition’s title, “Two Collections Meet,” it resulted from the fact that, “in both collections, works from the same artist or workshop were found that had been taken from different churches in different locations.”
The visitor begins their tour of the exhibition on the ground floor with the introductory unit, comprising five sub-units which reveal the identity of the two collections, as well as the Municipal Art Gallery’s long-term loan of icons and relics from their collection to the MBC.
The collection is made up of 123 portable icons and relics, 63 of which come from the church at the Evangelistria Municipal Cemetery in Thessaloniki, which was built in 1875 by the Charitable Brotherhood of Thessaloniki. The items were added to the Municipal Art Gallery’s collection in 1987 and 1988. Most of them date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with some earlier icons dating back between the 14th and 18th centuries.
The MBC’s icon collection is one of the most important national collections in Greece: It comprises 1,025 icons dating as far back as the end of the 12th century and up to the 20th century. Most of the icons are Byzantine and post-Byzantine and were moved for safekeeping in 1916 to the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens, after the Balkan wars that led to the liberation of Macedonia. The icons remained there until 1994. In 1987, the collection grew with collector Dimitrios Ekonomopoulos’ bequest of a set of worthy post-Byzantine items – mainly icons.
The tour continues on the upper floor, where the second unit, made up of nine sub-units, analyzes post-Byzantine Orthodox religious art in Ottoman Greece, focusing on Macedonia, Thessaloniki and Mount Athos. On the walls of the exhibition, it is noted that Orthodox religious icons and murals painted in the years following Constantinople’s fall are inextricably linked to “the great tradition of Byzantine art.”
Visitors are presented with details about the painters, their communication channels, their ateliers or family workshops, and their fellowships – operating mainly between the 17th and 20th centuries.
The MBC has increased its visitor numbers from 50,000 to 100,000 visitors per year. Surprisingly, the busiest period at the museum is from March to May, even though the museum extends its opening hours during the summertime.