Byzantine Museum reopens

Its 90th birthday ushers in a new era for the newly reopened Byzantine and Christian Museum. Bright and gleaming, it has acquired new spaces to display the first exhibitions of its permanent collections. The collections include sculpture, ceramics, jewelry, textiles and its renowned icons, thought to be among the best in the world. The precious exhibits will be displayed in line with the concepts of modern museology so as to attract even the most uninformed visitor. Many unknown works from the museum’s vast holdings will be on show for the first time. Tickets (which cost 4 euros) can be purchased at the old museum building on Vassilissis Sofias Avenue, the villa of the Duchesse de Plaisance, which was built as a winter palace and dominates the courtyard. To the left and right are semi-basement halls (the new extensions of the museum). The upper floor will be used for temporary exhibitions. The exhibition begins with an introduction to the Byzantine Empire, dominated by a vast mosaic copied from San Vitale in Ravenna, and donated to the Byzantine Museum by the Metropolitan Museum. «Seventy percent of the exhibits in this exhibition are on display for the first time,» said the museum’s director, Dimitris Constantios, who explained that this was the outcome of cooperation between specialists Niki Dimitrakopoulou, Evgenia Halkia, and Eleni Tsakanika, who wrote the museum study. The new exhibition takes up half of the museum’s 4,000 square meters of exhibition space. It contains 195 sculptures, and the director spoke with pride of the new fiberoptic display cases designed by an Italian firm. The main part of the exhibition starts in the room on the right. «From the Ancient World to Byzantium» is divided into six subsections. Sculptures show how Christians borrowed familiar forms from the Greco-Roman world and gave them new content. The figure of a shepherd with a sheep in his arms, which is derived from Greek statues of figures bearing calves or rams, was used to render the notion of Christ as the Good Shepherd, while Orpheus, the mythical lyre-player from Thrace whose playing enchanted the animals, was used by Christians as an allegory of Christ. «All this shows that life goes on even though the religion had changed and a new empire held sway. Figures simply took on different symbolism,» said Constantios. Downstairs, the next section deals with public and private life in the Early Byzantine era, which retained the features of Greco-Roman tradition almost intact. Clay vases, lamps and objects from everyday life reveal customs. The carefully preserved and cleaned figure of Isbardia, a priestess from Asia Minor, exerts a magnetic attraction for the visitor. In «Temples of the New Religion,» visitors can admire the basilica of Ilissos, whose mosaics are on show for the first time. One of the Early Christian churches of Athens, it dates to around the fifth century and is dedicated to the martyr Leonides, who was put to death in Corinth with seven deaconesses during Decius’ persecution in 250. The fourth section, «The Christianization of the Ancient Temples,» shows the changes brought to all the provinces of the empire by the legalization of Christianity around the sixth century. Parthenon transformed The transformation of the Parthenon into a Christian church was striking. The prime exemplar of the ancient world became a late sixth-century basilica with a gallery, two narthexes and a baptistry. We can see the architrave, an inscription, the breastwork, the pulpit, and above it a drawing by Manolis Korres that fills out the picture. On the next level down is «Coptic Art,» with objects taken from tombs which reveal the life and death of Christian Egyptians and which are on show for the first time. A naked Aphrodite next to two saints shows how the figures of antiquity coexisted with up-and-coming Christianity. To the left, down three stairs, the first part concludes with «Christians in the Face of Death,» which presents two tombs from Stamata, Attica, and inscriptions from funeral monuments. In the «Byzantine World» section, a whole wall is given up to the Avgeris coin collection in a specially illuminated display which is seen in its entirety for the first time. All the emperors of Byzantium are there in glittering gold. But the pinnacle Byzantium attained in the sixth century owing to the far-reaching, expansionist policies of Justinian was followed by a tougher time, when the empire came under attack from enemy forces and lost much of its eastern territory to Arab expansionism. Artistic output also suffered a heavy blow and the difficult period of the Dark Ages began. One product of this turmoil was the Treasure of Mytilene, which is also on display for the first time. A group of silver utensils, gold coins, and jewelry, it was hidden in the seventh century and found in 1951 at Kratigos, outside the city of Mytilene. These were items buried by their owner to save them from being pillaged by raiders. The «Age of Crisis» section covers the iconoclasm dispute, with the example of Aghia Irini, while the triumph of Orthodoxy unfolds in all its glory in «Worship and Art.» Capitals, icon screens, architraves, all conserved and cleaned, are presented with 30 exceptional double-sided icons that demonstrate the opulent decoration of Byzantine churches. Episkopi in Evrytania and its famous murals, painted in three layers showing Christ immobile (10th century), and other figures from the 13th century allow the visitor to see the differences. Attica was an important province of the Byzantine Empire. When Justinian closed down the philosophical schools in 529, the city fell into decline, but it flourished again in the post-Byzantine period. The dome of the Pendeli Monastery is impressive, as are the remains of churches and monasteries in Athens. «All the decorations from Kapnikareas to the Petraki Monastery and Aghioi Asomati are masterpieces. They continue a centuries-old tradition,» said Constantios. Eighty percent of the exhibit «Franks and Latins in Byzantium» is being shown for the first time. The Frankish tongs from Thebes, which were used to seal up the Communion Host, are unique, as are most of the objects in «Aspects of Public and Private Life,» which mirror customs, lifestyle, trade and women’s toilette. The final room contains just three icons and a display case with the Four Gospels and some manuscripts. «What should the visitor focus on here?» we asked the director. «On all four exhibits,» he said. The three large icons from imperial workshops in Constantinople are the museum’s chief attractions. On the right is Archangel Michael (14th century), opposite is St George from Asia Minor, «the handsome one» as the museum’s archaeologists like to joke, and in the center up above is the double-sided icon of the Crucifixion which has just returned from the New York exhibition. Perfection combined with tragedy and austerity – it makes for an impressive finale to the exhibition. Dimitris Constantios: ‘I want the general public to come’ Not all parts of the museum will open this year. The study for the second part of the exhibition, covering the post-Byzantine period to the 19th century, should be ready next year, and was supported with funds from the Culture Ministry, which the much-discussed refurbishment of the building deserves. The study has already been approved and the contractor will start work in October; the little theater and park might by ready in a few months. Constantios is already planning the museum’s future. «I want the general public to come. Museums are not just for initiates. I’m not worried about visitors because they’ll turn up anyway. «But if people won’t come to us from Peristeri, the Byzantine Museum will go to them, with traveling exhibitions to places like Aegaleo, Nikaia and Perama. The Byzantine Museum is coming to you; you come and see us later. «All that will be in cooperation with the municipalities. Besides, our storerooms are crammed with treasures.»

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