Treasures from Mount Athos to go on display in Helsinki in millennium first

For the first time in a millennium, around 100 religious relics from the secluded Greek monastic community of Mount Athos will travel abroad for an exhibition hosted by the Helsinki City Art Museum in Finland, organizers said on Tuesday. Titled «Athos – Monastic Life on the Holy Mountain,» the exhibition brings together some 500 icons, rare manuscripts, engravings, maps and pieces of jewelry from museums, institutions and private collections in Cyprus, Germany, Greece, Montenegro, Russia and Serbia. It will also provide an ultra-rare glimpse at relics from the remote monastic community in northern Greece that is considered one of Orthodox Christianity’s holiest sites, and is traditionally closed to women. And with the exception of two manuscripts loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of New York, the Mount Athos monasteries have never allowed relics to travel abroad, a monk spokesman told AFP. «We show something that is not easy to reach for everybody,» museum director Berndt Arell told a news conference in Athens. «When we met our president, Mrs Tarja Halonen… she said she’s very happy… because she can (now) visit the Holy Mountain in Helsinki,» he said. No woman has set foot on Mount Athos since 1045, when this self-governing religious community of some 20 monasteries issued a decree forbidding access to non-males on grounds of impurity. Organizers privately admit that Finland’s historic links to Orthodox Christianity, which has been practiced in the area since the 6th century, may have helped the Helsinki museum secure the monasteries’ consent. Along with Greece and Cyprus, Finland is the sole European Union country where the Greek Orthodox Church has an official status. Negotiations with the nine Mount Athos monasteries participating in the exhibition took four years, Arell told AFP. «It’s because God wanted this (to happen), there’s no other reason,» said the museum director, who counts himself among Finland’s approximately 60,000 Greek Orthodox believers. The museum’s head of education, Arja Miller, said the exhibition intends to provide a hands-on experience of monastic life, with workshops on icon and rosary making, Byzantine songs and monastery culinary culture. Special comic books on saints’ lives will also be available. The exhibition opens in August, timed to be held during Finland’s tenure of the rotating European Union presidency. (AFP)

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