22 May, 2010
I had two days to see 3 museums and the archaeological sites of Athens, and as the weather was threatening to rain today, I decided to go to the museums.
I walked through the city to get to the museums. Along the way I was pleased to notice a shop selling mastic products from Chios.
My first stop was the Byzantine Museum, which displayed various artefacts from the Byzantine Empire (4th to 15th centuries AD), focusing particularly on the history of the territories that are part of modern Greece.
There was a lot to learn about the evolution of the Byzantine empire and the transition from pagan to Christian worship in the 4th to 6th centuries. There was a lovely nativity scene from the Greek Island of Naxos, dating to this early period.
There was also a marble closure slab from the pulpit of the Christian Parthenon.
In the 5th or 6th century the Parthenon was converted to a church (and later on it became the cathedral of Athens). Sadly, in this 'Christianising' phase throughout the Empire, a great deal of damage was done to 'pagan' works of art and architecture. The Parthenon itself suffered significant damage. I could both understand the desire to make a break from the pagan past, and also lament the damage and destruction that resulted.
The museum contained a number of other arterfacts (including icons) that were good to see, but nothing else that needs to be mentioned specifically here.
Next, I went to the National Art Gallery, which focuses particularly on Greek art of the 19th and 20th centuries. I was particularly taken by the works of Nikolaos Gysis (1842-1901) and Konstantinos Parthenis (1878-1967), both of whom painted religious themes as well as secular ones. This painting by Nikolaos Gysis was entitled, "Behold the Celestial Bridegroom Comes". The orange colour in the picture was highly luminous and with this and the huge crowd of people lining the sides of the steps, there was a sense of immensity about the painting and about the heaven it was depicting.
Another impressive picture was a very large painting by Konstantinos Parthenis of the crucified and living Christ. The light was coming from above him and it was dark below. He looked as if he was just in the process of coming out of the land of the dead.
This painter used colour and light beautifully. I loved a landscape by him with wildflowers that shone out of the grass.
There were also a number of more modern works that were very striking. Perhaps the most outstanding of these was this picture of the sea.
I loved the way that the sea was on an angle, as it often appears when you are viewing it from a boat.
After the art gallery I set out for a private museum - the Benaki Museum - that had been highly recommended by the guide books. It contained an amazing collection of artefacts from the whole of Greece's history.
Like the National Archaeological Museum, this museum had a beautiful display of ancient golden treasures and jewellery. However, there were a couple of ancient pottery exhibits that particularly stood out for me. The first exhibit was a lovely couple of vases from the 8th century BC. The painting was particularly quirky - I loved the horses and the way the gaps were filled in with various designs.
The second exhibit I liked was this vase painting of lions, sphinxes and geese. I thought the lions' faces were particularly well-designed and whimsical.
There were some fine icons of the Cretan school, including the following one by Andreas Ritzos.
The top floor of the museum contained artefacts from the Greek war of independence that was fought with the Ottoman Empire. It was a long-drawn out and bitterly fought war, and there were a number of bloody massacres, including the massacre of the population at Chios in 1822 (see my post from May entitled 'In Chios'). This massacre was widely denounced in Western Europe verbally and also through artistic depictions of the massacre by Eugene Delacroix and others. In the Benaki Museum, there was a picture by Chudiakov, entitled The Massacre at Chios, that caught my attention.
At the end of the day, as I left the Benaki Museum, I had an unexpected bonus. I saw 3 Evzones (members of the Presidential guard) marching in their very stylised manner down the street. The tomb of the unknown soldier is in this area, so they had presumably come from a period on duty there.