Originally created 07/12/97

Exhibit gives peek at treasures of ancient `Holy Mountain'

SALONICA, Greece - It was a padded, boxed and shrouded cargo, protected by tight security and even tighter secrecy.

Last month, the cargo of icons, altar panels and other objects left ancient monastery gates and traveled by a special naval flotilla from the Christian Orthodox religious community of Mount Athos to Salonica, about 75 miles to the northwest.

The distance is small but the leap is huge: from the centuries-old rhythms and traditions of an all-male enclave to crowded museum corridors as a centerpiece of Salonica's year as Europe's culture capital.

The exhibit "The Treasures of Mount Athos" marks a landmark public foray by the historically insular monks. Nearly all the 1,500 artifacts and antiquities have never been off the craggy peninsula in northern Greece or seen by women, banned from the monasteries for a millennium.

"The monks realized that this treasure is not just theirs and that it belongs to all. The time came to show it and open up," said Ioakeim Papagelos, an art historian who helped put together the show, which opens June 21.

There is also a timely nature to the timeless aura of monastic life and religious art. Interest in early Christianity and its artistic legacy has been building since the collapse of European communism, which allowed a new generation of researchers and curators full access to explore the riches of the monasteries and cloisters.

In New York, a recent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art paid homage to the intriguing cultural and ethnic breadth of Byzantium, the Orthodox empire that covered Asia Minor and the southern Balkans until the 15th century.

For the Eastern Churches, which claim more than 350 million followers, the shows in New York and Salonica are an opportunity to emphasize that their erstwhile brethren - the Roman Catholic Church - are not the only guardians of Christianity's artistic patrimony.

"It's a phenomenon," said Ihor Sevcenko, a professor emeritus of Byzantine history and literature at Harvard University. "There is a large public interest in Byzantine art at the moment."

Signs also suggest a renewal for Mount Athos, known in Greek as the "Holy Mountain," a cluster of 20 monasteries. A steep decline in the number of monks has leveled off and, for the first time in decades, new members are joining and pushing the population toward 2,000.

"Many were saying at one time that the Holy Mountain would just become a museum itself," said Mr. Papagelos.

The Mount Athos monasteries celebrated 1,000 years of existence in 1963, but scholars believe Christian communities were formed on the peninsula centuries earlier. The monasteries have been respected by the area's many overlords, including the Muslim Ottomans. In 1926, it was declared a semi-autonomous region.

The best-known symbols of the Orthodox faith - its elaborate and gilded icons, crosses and altar doors - will provide the core of the Salonica show. The monasteries' earliest icons, dating from the 11th and 12th centuries, are mostly simple representations of the Madonna and child. Later examples, particularly under the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, are encrusted with precious metals and jewels.

Bibles and documents, too, show the faith's increasing pull toward lavish embellishments as technologies and traditions evolved. Some of the oldest objects planned for exhibit are 10th-century hand-copied manuscript pages. Its counterpoint is a 19th-century silver-bound Russian Bible that weighs almost 60 pounds.

The show represents just a fraction of the monasteries' wealth, but will include some of the most valuable pieces. Two mosaic icons have been valued at more than $75 million, media reports say. All proceeds from the show will go to Mount Athos.

Exhibit organizers also have taken care to illustrate the artistic continuity between the stylized Byzantine forms and later schools of art, including Renaissance and 20th-century forms. In one altar door panel, painted about 1500, the Madonna's face is pressing into her shoulder at a sharp angle and the shadow line is stark.

"Couldn't this be a Picasso?" asked artist-architect Giorgos Triantafillidis, who helped assemble the show. "It shows that this is a living, breathing faith. Orthodoxy was forgotten, but never dead."

To emphasize the point, items of daily monastery life will be on display - from unadorned chalices to a 22-ton wine barrel and a frying pan capable of handling 50 eggs.

The monks insisted on adding the ordinary objects, said Mr. Triantafillidis. Their fear was appearing too indulgent by only showing their riches.

The show's catalog even went through three revisions - each time taking a more modest icon for the cover.

"Our problem was how to avoid the impression that we're marketing the faith," said Mr. Triantafillidis. "The monks don't care whether the exhibit is great, good or fantastic. They care about the meaning."

"For them," he added, "every scrap of Mount Athos is part of their family quilt."


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