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Treasures from monastic Athos come to Paris

by
09 June 2009

Ladies, take your chance. Nicholas Cranfield reports

“Golden-mouthed” Doctor of the Church: an icon of St John Chrysostom, end of the 13th century, from Vatopedi Monastery, on rare exhibition in Parisphotos © VATOPEDI MONASTERY/G.POUPIS

“Golden-mouthed” Doctor of the Church: an icon of St John Chrysostom, end of the 13th century, from Vatopedi Monastery, on rare exhibition in Parispho...

AT FIRST SIGHT, the pavilion de­signed by Charles Girault for the 1900 World Fair, like its opposite neigh­bour the Grand Palais, cur­rent­ly host­ing the Paris Art Triennial, seems an incongruous setting for exhibi­tions of sacred art. Parisians, how­ever, have long known how best to stupe­fy the world, and two important shows are side by side: yet more Wil­liam Blake, and yet more Byzantine art.

The newly refurbished Petit Palais reopened its doors in 2005; alongside the permanent collection of 19th- and 20th-century French art, and more than 20,000 medieval and Renaissance objets d’art, it houses the largest collection of icons of any French public institution. Most of the five dozen or so on display are Rus­sian, but there are some out­stand­ing early Greek and Cretan examples (from the collection of Roger Cabal), which act as appetisers for the treasures from Athos.

Whenever I am privileged to visit an exhibition of religious art from the Eastern Orthodox tradition, I hear Jesus’s words of chastisement: “What was the spectacle that drew you to the wilderness? A reed sway­ing in the wind?” (Matthew 11.7).

Here, in one sense, the answer is straightforward, since all the exhibits come from the 20 working monas­teries of Mount Athos. Many have never been seen outside those con­fines, and most are not ordinarily on display. Men who have been fortu­nate pilgrims and visited the Garden of the Virgin Mary, as this peninsula in Northern Greece is often termed, may have glimpsed some of the icons, but much else is kept in use.

On the other hand, this is not an art exhibition, if judged by artistic merit or by development of schools. There are, it is true, indications of how the works, often donations from successive emperors in Constantin­ople, reached the Holy Mountain, but it is not the purpose of this show to trace Byzantine art but “to present in pilgrimage”, as the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, said, the sacred objects that accompany the be­liever in his faith.

As he went on to say, this is an attempt to share something of the daily spiritual life of the commu­nities, which constitutes “a common spir­itual heritage, not only for East­ern Orthodoxy, nor yet for the Christian world, but rather for the whole universe, since the gospel of Christ is addressed to the whole world”. In this, he has been richly abetted by the Mayor of Paris.

This offers an extraordinarily rare opportunity of seeing objects that are not from museums or private collections — whether icons, vest­ments, liturgical vessels, ivories, reli­quaries, Gospel books, psalters, or the foundation charters and imperial acts that defined and constituted the communities that came to settle the deserted land where once five clas­sical cities of the Athenian League had flourished.

The loans predominantly come from the monastery of Vatopedi, offering welcome publicity for that monastery after the revelations last year of furtive land deals with members of the Greek government and of the tensions in the community between the Abbot and the monks. Others are from Ivrion, St Paul, and the oldest of them all, the Great Lavra, founded in 963 by the Emperor Nicephorus Phocas, which has one of the richest libraries, containing some 1650 Greek codices, 650 of them on parchment.

The monastery of Vatopedi, founded on the site of the city of Dion, probably to suppress a sanc­tuary of Zeus and Demeter, tradi­tion­ally claims to hold the Virgin’s girdle among its sacred relics. The emperor, later a monk, John VI Kan­takouzenos (1347-55), a contempor­ary of the last Great Theologian, St Gregory Palamas, endowed it with a generosity that is seen in four surviving icons from the great Deisis screen of the church (1350-60), de­picting the Archangel Gabriel, John the Forerunner, and the Evangelists John and Luke; in the richly em­broid­ered epitaphios on which the Dead Christ is seemingly laid on a silver grille; and in the 26 books that were donated from his own library, including the richly illuminated hom­ilies of St John Chrysostom (1335-40), and the works of St Gre­gory of Nyssa, both from the work­shop of the Hodegon in Constantinople.

The monastery of Vatopedi, founded on the site of the city of Dion, probably to suppress a sanc­tuary of Zeus and Demeter, tradi­tion­ally claims to hold the Virgin’s girdle among its sacred relics. The emperor, later a monk, John VI Kan­takouzenos (1347-55), a contempor­ary of the last Great Theologian, St Gregory Palamas, endowed it with a generosity that is seen in four surviving icons from the great Deisis screen of the church (1350-60), de­picting the Archangel Gabriel, John the Forerunner, and the Evangelists John and Luke; in the richly em­broid­ered epitaphios on which the Dead Christ is seemingly laid on a silver grille; and in the 26 books that were donated from his own library, including the richly illuminated hom­ilies of St John Chrysostom (1335-40), and the works of St Gre­gory of Nyssa, both from the work­shop of the Hodegon in Constantinople.

John VI encouraged members of his family to act as benefactors. His parents, from Serres, in the north of Greece, gave a portable icon that holds a double-sided steatite relief, of the Virgin and Child and of six military saints, surrounded by the Apostles and the ten Cretan martyrs; and an 11th-century one of St George, whose new silver casing they paid for.

Perhaps the most outstanding treasure from Vatopedi is the Jasper cup, given to the monastery at much the same time by Manuel Kan­takouzenos Paleologus, the Despot of Mistra (1349-80). The cup was made for secular use and appears to be very ancient. It is formed of a single piece of jasper, and has been mounted as a chalice whose handles are in the form of Gothic dragons.

Around the rim run words from the Liturgy of St Basil the Great. On the base, Byzantine medallions al­ternate with imperial monograms. As a fusion of Gothic and Byzantine, it reminds us how Athos is at the centre between two great traditions.

Further indications of a syncretic tradition can be seen in the sakkos traditionally said to be that of the emperor John Tzimiskes, who suc­ceeded Nicephorus Phocas, and built the fortification walls around the Great Lavra. In fact, this rich vest­ment dates from the 16th century, and includes elements of Islamic design alongside the silver double-headed eagle. It, too, was originally a civilian’s robe, but has been long accorded holy use.

Something of this mixed inherit­ance is glimpsed, too, in the precious enkolpia, the medallion reliquaries that often set cameos and earlier rock-cut semi-precious stones in richly worked gold and silver gilt mounts. Jasper and sardonyx abound. All of them come from Vatopedi, and among them is the reliquary cross of the Bulgar tsar George I (1280-92), which com­mem­orates how wearing it had brought him victory in 1280 over the Tartar khan Nogaï.

The illuminated parchments on dis­play include the donation docu­ment of Emperor Alexis III Com­nenus for the monastery of Dionysus (1374), at the head of which are portraits of the emperor and his wife, Theodora, holding the deed in their hands, tied with the red tape and the golden seal (hence the term chrysobul for these imperial de­crees). With these, we are faced with the hieratic and, at times, rather static representations that have often given Byzantine art a bad name.

Because the spatial plane is often thought of in the same way as the temporal, it is possible to see how whole scenes are built up on top of one another. The late-15th-century icon of the death of St Ephraim of Syria (Ivrion monastery) shows anchorites and ascetics surrounding the dying saint, each engaged in the daily round of monastic office. Had the same scene been painted in blue on white ceramic, it would be easy to imagine it on a Ming vase, as the lively figures come and go.

Icons offer ways of seeing that can lead us towards God: the double icon of St Simeon and St David of Thessa­lonica, the one a stylite, the other a dendrite, suggest two very different pathways to God. It might seem a shade odd to Western minds to pur­sue God sitting atop a column or in the branches of an almond tree, but our society’s capitalism makes no ob­vious case for our having done better.

Byzantine time is still kept on Mount Athos, as is the Julian calen­dar. According to this, the day begins at sundown, which corresponds to midnight. (At Ivrion, the day begins at sunrise.) In many monasteries, the time is set every Saturday evening for the week that follows. In the hectic Parisian whirl of the eighth arrondise­ment, it is good to be reminded of this so powerfully in such a beau­tifully organised exhibition.

“Le Mont Athos et l’Empire byzantine: Trésors de la Sainte Montagne” is at the Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, Avenue Winston-Churchill, Paris 8e. Phone (00 33) 1 53 43 40 00. www.petitpalais.paris.fr

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