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  • Writer's pictureStella Sevastopoulos, MA

A Brief History of the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens

What is the Byzantine and Christian Museum?

The Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens is a collection of over 25,000 objects exploring the history of Greek-Orthodox Christianity and the Byzantine Empire.

Exterior of Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens

Byzantine and Christian Museum History

Housed in the exquisite Villa Ilissia, once the palatial winter home of the Duchess of Plaisance, this state museum boasts a dazzling array of artefacts: from early Christian graves and marble closure slabs, to beautiful Orthodox icons and crosses, jewellery, ancient parchments, everyday drinking and pouring vessels, Byzantine armour and extraordinary wall paintings. Great insight is given into how the Byzantine style developed, as it slowly shed the influences of ancient Greece and Rome and embraced new forms and motifs. In recent years, an effort has been made to organize temporary exhibitions highlighting work by modern and contemporary artists who have also been inspired by Byzantine art.

Christianity was legalized by Roman Emperor Constantine in AD 313. He also transferred the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople in 330, and Christian art flourished from then on. At first, it was closely linked to the art of Greco-Roman antiquity, even borrowing its themes, such as the shepherd with a lamb on his shoulders which harks back to the ancient Moschophoros (or ‘Calf-Bearer’). These early Christian artists made clever adaptations to classical themes: in this case, on a table leg from the 4th century that depicts this image, the shepherd becomes Christ. Another image that was adopted from antiquity in order to represent Christ was that of Orpheus, a magical poet and musician from Greek mythology who was said to have tamed wild beasts with the music of his lyre. A beautifully carved table support of the 4th century at the museum depicts Orpheus playing his famed lyre, surrounded by real and mythical animals. The image represents Christ, who with his words tames the hearts of even the fiercest men.

The first Christian churches took their architectural inspiration from the Roman assembly hall known as the ‘basilica’. Ancient temples were also converted into churches, especially in the 6th century. Fragments of a mosaic floor from Athens’s Ilissos basilica, now on show at the museum, date back to the 5th century. It’s interesting to see how Roman motifs, such as laurel leaves, rosettes and trailing ivy, are intertwined with Christian counterparts: grapes, vine leaves and small crosses.

Constantine Palaiologos was the last Byzantine Emperor. After a two-month siege, Constantinople fell to Sultan Mehmed II in 1453 and became part of the growing Ottoman Empire. When Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire, mostly separated from the developments of Western society and art, Byzantine art nevertheless continued to be explored and practiced. Byzantine tradition was preserved through the Orthodox-Christian church, and the Greek millet of the Ottoman Empire, which was part of the Ottoman state.

From the 13th to the 16th centuries, the Venetians gained control of certain areas of Greece, such as Crete, the Cyclades, the Ionian Islands, and the Peloponnese. This prompted the infiltration of Western traditions back into Greek Orthodox culture. In Crete, for example, Byzantine art became infused with influences from the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, the mixture crystallizing in some breathtaking buildings. One such example here at the museum is the large icon (122 centimetres tall) of Saint Theodore Tiro, depicted killing a dragon. His armour has been painted with intricate detail, while a divine hand blesses him from the heavens.

Many a Greek art historian has argued that the developments in Byzantine art during the 400 years of Greece under Ottoman Rule, make up for the fact that Greece was cut off from the developments of Western art during this time. However, rarely do we find Byzantine art included in the European art history books in the way that other Christian art forms are included (such as those of the Renaissance, or Gothic periods). Maybe the time has come for a reassessment of the importance of Byzantine art and its aesthetic language. A visit to this museum will certainly provide food for thought on the matter.

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