Continuous Tradition, Evolving Style: Christian Art in Athens

Byzantine and Christian Museum, Βυζαντινό και Χριστιανικό Μουσείο, Athens, Greece

Having attempted to write an ill-fated PhD dissertation on early Christian art, I have a somewhat difficult relationship with the subject.  One the one hand, I find the whole subject of creating a visual language for a new religion fascinating, and on the other hand I associate it with the hatred I feel for certain idiot tutors.  Fortunately as the years have passed, I’ve learned to disassociate the two on a gut level, so I can finally enjoy looking at a mass of early Christian objects without making crude comments about my university every two minutes.  I can now say what I have to say once, and not refer to the b*stards again.

And breathe.

Having a museum focussed on Christian art from its earliest forms lets you see some of the continuities of traditions, but also how the artists created a brand new set of images which, basically, became an integral part of the religion.  The icons of the Middle Ages were central to the religious experience and when you stand and contemplate some of the images, you begin to sense some of their power.

The museum was founded in 1914 and has an extraordinary range of objects relating to Christianity from the 3rd century onwards.  It is one of the most important museums in the world because of its Byzantine paintings, and it was almost overwhelming walking around.  We’d have stayed longer, but as it was we just finished as they were about to close.  It is a deceptively large space, in part due to the large extension works which were undertaken in 2004.

Naturally this being Greece, and the Greeks being Orthodox, the art on show is predominantly in the Byzantine style.  When the Roman Empire was collapsing, and Constantine hurried the process by moving his capital to Constantinople, the city became the centre of the Christian world.  The art that developed had its roots in the Greco-Roman world, but over the centuries it evolved into its own unique style.  This is the art that continued through the centuries across the Greek-speaking world, expanding into the Russian church as well.  But it was the Greeks who started the traditions, and it’s great to finally see a museum where we could track the journey of an artistic form from its very beginnings.

Early Christian Art

Seeing the first objects created by a religion which was just finding its feet is fascinating. Various factors influenced its development. Firstly, there was the issue of persecutions, so the more vague the religion’s visual language the better – if it conformed to the Roman world around it, it could pass unnoticed.  Once it became legal, the artists could set about being more unique in their creations, and this intermediate period is great to see.

Coptic Art

I have been a fan of Coptic art for as long as I’ve known about it, and some of the most charming creations of the post-Classical culture in Egypt are the woven fabrics.  Sometimes, they’re a bit silly – funny because the images have been so clumsily rendered.  Other times, they are exquisite – the Benaki Museum down the road has some great examples too.  At this museum, there are some examples which show fine artistic understanding, and used lovely colours.

Early Christian Athens

There isn’t a huge amount from the earliest years of Christianity in the city, but there are some interesting fragments – for example, it’s interesting that illiteracy was a problem and that twin tombs existed.  Not sure which is more disturbing.

Icons

Some stunning icons are on display in a beautifully lit gallery.  The mosaic icon was incredible – that they could create something so intricate from stones is mind-boggling.  And it’s so tenderly done.  But there are plenty of beautiful frescoes as well, which show how the artistic style adapted seamlessly to whichever setting it was needed for.

Post 14th century Art

More modern icons from the Greek world show the continuation of traditions, but also the way that they changed in their details.  I don’t know if this is a true evaluation of the stylistic changes, but in these examples I was struck by how details became more of a thing – in the earlier icons, there is a simplicity in composition and the key figures, staring out and engaging with the viewer.  The later ones seem to have their figures exist in a more complex world.

So In Summary

Christian religious art is something a lot of people don’t really enjoy looking at and there is a formality to Orthodox art which may be a little off-putting.  However, I’ll take it for granted that if you’re interested in visiting this museum, you enjoy looking at the art.  In that case, I’m sure you’ll find plenty to fascinate you as you walk around.  I thought it was great – and if we hadn’t had the time pressure, we could easily have lingered over the different paintings and started to really try and understand the styles.  As it was, we got a grand overview, and I was astonished to see some works of such quality that I was inspired to find out more about the rich history behind the development of Christian art across the Greek world.

Further Information

The museum has a very good website, in English, which not only gives you general information, but lets you explore their collections in quite some depth: www.byzantinemuseum.gr

I was a bit disappointed that there weren’t many books on the collection in English.  I’m surprised they didn’t have one volume covering the whole span of the museum’s collection, as this would be a great way to introduce a non-Orthodox visitor to iconography and themes quite different from those in the more familiar (in western art) Catholic artistic tradition.

How To Get There

Athens’ transport is pretty good, and their information is available in English.  This website gives the various travel options, depending on which form you want to use: www.thisisathens.org

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