After Byzantium - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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After Byzantium January 25, 2006
by Mark Rose

A new exhibition shows how Greek culture persevered and even flourished in times of duress.

With its newest exhibition, From Byzantium to Modern Greece: Hellenic Art in Adversity, 1453-1830, the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation partners with The Benaki Museum to bring works from one of Athens' premier museums to New York. The Benaki houses some 33,000 works, from Neolithic artifacts to modern folkart, and more than 137 of these are now on display at the Onassis Cultural Center (645 Fifth Avenue) through May 6.

Centerpieces of the exhibition include The Adoration of the Magi, an early painting by Domenicos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco (1541-1614), and elaborate jewelry such as an early seventeenth-century pendant in the form of a caravel, the ship created from gold, enamel, and pearls. But the exhibition goes far beyond these. It includes folk costumes and textiles; books, maps, and manuscripts; religious vestments, liturgical vessels, icons, and votive objects; ceramics; carved wood bed panels; and depictions of Greece and its people and ancient monuments from the time of early European travelers to the War of Independence. And all of these are linked by the common thread of the survival and, at times, flourishing of Greek culture during a most difficult period. As Angelos Delivorrias of the Benaki Museum writes in the catalogue, "The period between the demise of the Byzantine Empire, with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 and the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence in 1821, spans four centuries, long time that was anything but favorable for the survival--much less the flowering--of culture."

Everything in From Byzantium to Modern Greece attests how cultures survive in times of adversity, and all of the objects will catch the eye and imagination of those interested in Greek history and archaeology. While most of the press at the opening was pre-occupied with El Greco's The Adoration of the Magi, I was drawn instead to various works emphasizing the ties between Greece and Venice from this period during which Venice expanded in influence as Byzantine power waned, then came into conflict with the Ottomans. For example there is an atlas of the Venetian fortifications of Crete from 1646 and there is an icon of St. Mark, the patron of Venice, done in 1657 by Emmanuel Tzannes, like El Greco a native of Crete. (The apostle' faithful companion, a winged lion, serves here as a patient book rest.) Most striking is a panoramic view of Athens and its environs in September 1687 by Giacomo Verneda that has the simple title, Prospeto di Athene. Verneda, however, was an artillery officer with the Venetian arm under General Koenigsmark, and his panaroma shows the town and acropolis of Athens "al momento del esplosione di Partenone da una bomba." The siege of the Ottoman garrison on the Acropolis and ignition of their powder stores by a Venetian cannon shell is a well-known tale, but here it is, painted by someone who was present.

[image]The Byzantine imperial double eagle survived as a religious symbol after the fall of Constantinople. (Courtesy The Benaki Museum, Athens) [LARGER IMAGE]

Looking deeper into the past, there is one of the exhibition's hallmark objects, a late seventeenth-century pectoral from Constantinople. It is exquisite--a double headed eagle surmounted by a cross, both studded with rubies, amethysts, and emeralds, from which depend larger rubies and an emerald. Adopted as a symbol of the Orthodox Church under Ottoman rule, this is no other than the Byzantine imperial emblem. Its reverse side depicts, in enamel work, the Annunciation, Virgin and Child, and Crucifixion. Gold and semiprecious stone diadems and headpieces in the exhibition offer other examples of Byzantine survivals.

It is possible that some of the items in the exhibition, which could be labeled folkart, carry even earlier meanings than the Byzantine double eagle. For example, there is part of an edge of an eighteenth-century linen bridal sheet embroidered with ornate cockerels of red, blue, and yellow silk thread. The motif, according to the exhibition catalogue, may draw on ancient conceptions linking it with sun and light and endowing it with protective and purifying qualities. A cock sacrificed in building foundations became a guardian spirit of the house. Despite its ancient pedigree, in the eighteenth century perhaps it was simply for good fortune or even just a decorative motif.

Votive models of ships are another example of the long survival in folkart of ancient conceptions. Such offerings were typically pledged by mariners to a saint before or during a dangerous voyage and presented on return. Four flat silver and gilt silver ones, representing both ships and a rowboat, are on display. The most unusual, however, is a three-dimensional example made from assorted pieces and intended to represent a one-man sailing craft, perhaps a fishing boat. But the hull of the ship is a recycled bone carving of a three-masted, two-decker warship mounting 66 guns. On the hull is a cast lead figurine of a man and a single mast and sail. This unique artifact of the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century (assuredly before the age of steamships) combines disparate components from its own period to create a votive object with ancient antecedents.


Edward Lear's understated View of Marathon (1854) (Courtesy The Benaki Museum, Athens) [LARGER IMAGE]

During the nineteenth century, Western artists came to Greece in search of the monuments and landscapes known to them (and their patrons) through classical literature. Typical of the time are paintings such as Rudolph Mueller's 1863 view of the Acropolis still with the medieval Frankish tower and Louis-Francois Cassas' early nineteenth-century view of the Olympieion, the massive temple of Zeus, with colorful musicians and dancers in the foreground and the Acropolis in the distance. More effective, through its understatement perhaps, is Edward Lear's View of Marathon (1854). In the lower left foreground is a rocky shelf with a few locals in native garb resting. A trail leads into the forested slope of the middle ground, which leads down to a plain and, beyond, the Aegean. A quiet, pastoral scene, except that the plain is the site of the 490 B.C. heroic do-or-die effort by the Athenians to turn back the invading Persian army. I agree with the catalogue author who says Lear "has conveyed the historic import of the place without a trace of literary bombast but with a lyrical disposition and an acute sense of the Greek light."

The artistic use of ancient Greek or Hellenistic monuments can be traced in several of the paintings on display. In El Greco's work, the wisemen appear at right, while Mary and Jesus are at left, under overarching classical ruins. Here the old, pagan world is replaced by the new one heralded by the birth of Jesus. Two later works also employ classical ruins, but as hallmarks of past greatness and as validation for the struggle for Greek independence. German landscape painter Carl Haag's depiction, A Greek Mountaineer (1861), shows a rebel in typical folk costume (yes, pointy shoes and a "skirt") hurrying along in mountains. But this individual is serious--he's in motion, his powerful calf muscles propelling him along, and he is loaded for bear, carrying a rifle, brace pistols, scimitar, and a dagger or two. And behind him stands the temple of Apollo Epicurius in Arcadia, which the catalogue notes, indicates that his "nobility and heroism are worthy of the principles of his legendary ancestors." The painting of Lord Byron in Greek Dress (unknown artist, ca. 1830) also invokes the past, using the Athenian Acropolis in the background. Byron went to offer support from the Philhellenic London Committee to the Greeks in 1823, but died in Missolonghi in the following spring. But the painting is an homage to the poet, not to Greece or its ancient glory. The catalogue notes that "Byron is known to have been proud of the costume that he purchased during his travels." Costume is the correct word--the weapons appear decorative, attuned with Byron's slight physique and diffident pose (the catalogue charitably says he is "in reverie").

A four-masted ship pendant from Patmos dates to the early seventeenth century. The largest of several known ship pendants, it portrays in gold sheet and filigree, white, blue, turquoise, and green enamel, and pearls a two-deck warship with Victory on its prow with a trumpet. (Courtesy The Benaki Museum, Athens) [LARGER IMAGE]


The Onassis Public Benefit Foundation has sponsored 13 exhibitions over the past five years, seven of them major exhibitions. From Byzantium to Modern Greece: Hellenic Art in Adversity, 1453-1830, is a worthy addition to this list of accomplishments. It demonstrates how under times of duress a culture carries on and reflects the deep history, even to antiquity, on which modern Greek culture is based--from high art to skilled craftsmanship to folkart. For more information and exhibition times, see

Mark Rose is executive and online editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America