A different approach to Byzantine religious art

ike most religious art of the past, Byzantine icons are appreciated by the contemporary public principally for their stylistic merit and art historical value. Only a handful of people have the knowledge that allows them to interpret the content of those images and grasp the full range of the religious message which the icons were originally intended to convey. The Ecclesiastical Museum of the Metropolitan Church of Thessaloniki, which was inaugurated recently, presents Byzantine religious icons in a way that reveals the connections between the contents of the icons and the dogma of the Greek Orthodox Church. According to Matoula Scaltsa, a professor of museology at the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, who, along with professor of architecture Panos Tzonos, designed the museum, this is the first and only museum in Greece to place Byzantine icons within the context of Greek Orthodox dogma. Explanatory panels, written by Byzantinologist Athanassios Semoglou in collaboration with theologian Dimitris Tseleggidis, as well as excerpts from the gospels have been used to make the connections. High-tech museological standards have been applied to provide a sophisticated, modern effect, while the lighting reproduces an ambience of devoutness and mysticism. The museum’s holdings belong to the bishopric (they were formerly exhibited in one of the bishopric’s rooms and have never before been shown to the public) but also come from donations by other churches. According to Scaltsa, rare pieces include an icon of the Virgin Mary from the 13th-14th century, a 13th century depiction of Saint Thomas and several unusual 17th century icons, among them an icon showing Saint Demetrios in medieval armor. The driving force behind the museum is Metropolitan Bishop Anthimos, the bishop in the area of Alexandroupolis for 30 years and now the bishop in Thessaloniki. In Alexandroupolis, the bishop initiated important charity work – an example includes the establishment of a shelter for people suffering from chronic ailments – and also founded an ecclesiastical museum. (In the museum in Alexandroupolis, which was also designed by Scaltsa and Tzonos, the displays focused on showing the techniques and materials employed in the making of Byzantine icons.) A man with a low profile, Bishop Anthimos has never publicized his work and led a modest life, often putting his earnings in the service of his charity work. Scaltsa says that his plans for Thessaloniki include the foundation of a dwelling with nursing facilities for the poor. She also says that Bishop Anthimos is known for his accessibility to the public and makes a point of providing the liturgy at various churches and not just the Metropolitan Church. The museum, which is the bishop’s most recent project, has a primarily educational role. It offers a new approach to Byzantine religious icons that is likely to foster a better understanding of the dogma of the Greek Orthodox Church and cultivate a deeper, more specialized understanding of Byzantine art. The Ecclesiastical Museum of the Metropolitan Church of Thessaloniki (Mitropoleos & 7 Vogatsikou, tel 2310.250.140), open Tuesdays-Sundays 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Admission is free. The Heracles cement company and Lafarge Beton are the sponsors of the bilingual catalog and educational program.

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