Historic icons from the Orthodox tradition survive thanks to efforts of a courageous few under Hoxha

THESSALONIKI – Rare Orthodox icons from the ethnic Greek communities of Albania, which a group of intellectuals rescued from oblivion in 1967 at risk to their own lives, are to be displayed for the first time in Greece in an exhibition that opens today at the Thessaloniki Museum of Byzantine Culture (MBPT). These are examples of the rich religious art tradition that were saved by a handful of people, including art historian Theofan Popa, who persuaded longtime Albanian strongman Enver Hoxha to collect whatever had been left standing in the Orthodox churches burnt out under the officially atheist regime. Thousands of icons were literally snatched from the flames and others dug out of the ashes, to be stored for years in the Cathedral of Zoodochou Pigis in Korce, which had been converted into a museum. About 6,500 icons were found there after the old regime fell in 1990, many of them in poor condition. Five years ago, art restorers from the MBPT were sent to Albania as part of a pilot program aimed at restoring the icons, many of which were half-burnt or damaged by the effects of time. After they were cleaned, not only were the signatures of Greek artists found on amazing scenes from the ecclesiastical tradition but so were the secrets of what was until then an unknown religious style of painting that developed in the Orthodox communities of central and southern Albania in the 14th to 19th centuries. Exhibition The exhibition, to be inaugurated by the Greek and Albanian culture ministers, Giorgos Voulgarakis and Bujar Leskaj respectively, presents 72 of the total 88 restored icons and covers a period of six centuries. It is in fact the culmination of a five-year program of Greek-Albanian cooperation between the museum, the European Center for Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Monuments and the National Museum of Medieval Art in Korce. Over the five years, the Korce museum’s restorers received training in modern diagnostic and restoration methods in an ongoing program in which the restorers each spent two months in Thessaloniki. The program was organized with the help of the previous consuls and the current Greek consul in Korce, Panayiotis Parsos. The technical skills they have acquired will help them in the job of restoring the remaining 6,500 icons in the Albanian museum. Criteria The exhibits for this exhibition were chosen on the basis of several criteria – age, artistic merit, the extent of the damage sustained, the artistic period they represent and their interest for the Greek public. «The icons provide a panorama of religious art that developed within about 20 Orthodox communities, monasteries and churches in central and southern Albania,» said Anastasia Tourta, MBPT’s director. «They bear witness to the art and history of their time and the origins and training of the artists, as well as the finances and artistic preferences of their sponsors. The Greek signatures show that Orthodoxy and the Greek language, that of the Church and scholarship, united the enslaved people of the Balkans, irrespective of their ethnic group.» The exhibition places the images within their environment (by means of a video), that is, the monasteries and churches. The signatures of artists known at Mt Athos, Kastoria, Ohrid and Thessaloniki, such as Emmanouil Tzanfournaris, Georgios Kontzas, David and others that were found on the icons, show there was a wide-ranging body of artists who represented all the artistic trends – the Paleologus (14th century), the Kastoria workshop (15th century), the Cretan artists (16th century) and those from the villages of Epirus and Macedonia (17th century), the tendency to return to the Paleologus models cultivated mostly at the Mt Athos monasteries (18th century) and the influence of Western European art. «The icons of the 14th-15th centuries come mainly from the Korce area, specifically from the hermitages of Great Prespa Lake which were difficult to access,» said Tourta. The post-Byzantine icons cover a broader artistic area of origin as far as Tirana in the north and show the continuation of the Byzantine tradition in the religious art of the Balkans.