Three of Athens’ smaller, less-frequented museums offer large servings of Greek art, from Cycladic to Byzantine and beyond.
Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge)
Almost every day brings a drumbeat of dreary reports on Greece’s debt-induced crisis and the economic suffering of its citizens. But at least one positive consequence of the orgy of public overspending is the physical transformation of Athens. With a renovated subway system, re-asphalted avenues, and restored building façades, the Greek capital has become a place to linger—not just a stopover on the way to the islands.
Of course, the Parthenon and the Acropolis Museum still claim priority. But there are three smaller museums, located in the upscale Kolonaki neighborhood, that harbor must-see collections: the Benaki Museum, the Museum of Cycladic Art, and the Byzantine & Christian Museum. All have excellent café-restaurants. The Benaki Museum has the best gift shop, with fine reproductions of notable pieces in its collection.
The museum was founded by Antonis Benakis (1873–1954), scion of a Greek merchant family from Alexandria. Even as a young man in Egypt, he began to amass thousands of Greek art objects and folkloric artifacts. When Benakis moved to Athens in the late 1800s, his collection vaulted him to social prominence—a not uncommon strategy for wealthy immigrants from the Greek diaspora. In 1931, he turned his four-story, neoclassical mansion into the Benaki Museum, displaying seven millennia of Greek creativity from Neolithic vases to ancient Hellenistic sculpture to 20th-century portraits.
On a recent visit to the museum, I prevailed on its long-time director, Angelos Delivorrias, to guide me towards some of the highlights in the collection. “You can’t imagine how painful it is to have to select only a few pieces,” Delivorrias complains about my request. Nonetheless, he begins on the ground floor with a set of three masterpieces dating back to 3,000 B.C., in the Helladic period. Two of them are hammered gold cups with incised linear decorations, and the third is a similarly fashioned silver cup. “These are really unique objects that marked the beginning of the Bronze Age in Greece,” says Delivorrias.
We jump some 4,500 years to two paintings by Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better-known as El Greco, also in a ground-floor gallery. The first is a portrait of the Apostle Luke with the Virgin of Guitria, dated between 1560 and 1567, and painted in a sunset hue and two-dimensional flatness. “It is the period immediately before El Greco’s departure to Italy and shows the influence of late Byzantine art,” says Delivorrias. By contrast, the other El Greco—The Adoration of the Magi, also circa 1560 and 1567 —displays the fuller figures and more varied colors of Titian and Tintoretto. “This is the style more associated with El Greco in Italy and Spain,” says the director.
The final highlight of the museum’s collection selected by Delivorrias is from the period of the Turkish occupation of Greece. It is a mid-18th-century reception room transplanted from a mansion in Macedonia and restored in a large, second-floor alcove of the Benaki Museum. The room sumptuously blends wood-carved decorations, walls and ceiling gilded in gold and silver, and stained glass panes. “There is hardly an equivalent room still in existence,” says the director.
The Museum of Cycladic Art is located just two blocks away in another late-19th-century, neoclassical mansion also endowed by a wealthy family—Nicholaos and Dolly Goulandris. The couple began to collect Greek antiquities in the early 1960s, focusing on artifacts from early Cycladic culture (3200–2000 B.C.) carved mainly in marble by the inhabitants of the score of islands south of the Greek mainland. The museum opened in 1986 and also includes Ancient Greek and Cypriot art from other collections. But it is the Cycladic art—occupying the entire second floor (first floor using European building nomenclature)—that deservedly draws rave reviews from visitors and art historians.
The cream and white marble figures are mostly female nudes, with arms folded below small breasts and triangular faces whose only carved feature is a long, high-ridged nose. The feet are pointed down, making it impossible for the figures to remain standing—and lending credence to the theory that they were funerary pieces, buried horizontally. While most of these figures are less than a foot long, the most striking is a life-size, white and grey-brown mottled marble statue of a woman hung vertically in a glass case in the center of a gallery.
Incredibly, Cycladic art works were long ignored by serious collectors. “Until well into the 20th century, these were despised by the admirers of ancient Greek art as the barbaric works of primitive inhabitants of the Cyclades,” writes Christos Doumas, an eminent archeologist, in his foreword to a catalogue on the Goulandris collection of early Cycladic culture. That view changed radically with the advent of modern art. These minimalist, semi-abstract Cycladic figures exerted an obvious influence on the works of Picasso, Brancusi, Modigliani, and Giacometti.
For my final destination, I walk another two blocks to the Byzantine and Christian Museum. It was founded as a state entity in 1914. But since 2004, it has occupied its current premises—four buildings, in neo-Byzantine style with brick-tiled roofs and round-arched windows, surrounding a courtyard. The first half of the permanent collection includes some 1,200 icons, mosaics, tapestries, sculptures and architectural fragments from the fourth to the 15th centuries A.D. The second part houses 1,500 works dating from the 15th to the 20th centuries.
Rather than emphasizing individual works, the museum has organized the art in themed sections, such as its relationship to secular authority, its use in religious ritual, and objects linked to everyday life. “We try to present the art and artifacts in their historical and cultural context,” explains Anastasia Lazaridou, the museum director. “We want to make it easy for visitors to immerse themselves in Byzantine culture.”
Among the highlights, she points out a fourth-century A.D. marble statue of Orpheus stroking his lyre while surrounded by wild and domestic animals. The figure of the mesmerizing Orpheus was used by the early Byzantine Church as an allegorical metaphor for Christ, who like the ancient Greek mythological figure could summon a large following.
The museum is most renowned for its rich collection of Byzantine icons. The most famous are the double-sided, circa 14th- and 15th-century icons of Mary and the infant Jesus and of saints. Stored away in churches, they were displayed in processions. “It is a mistake to hang them on a wall because they were never meant to be shown that way,” says Lazaridou, who battles constantly on this point with directors of other museums that borrow the icons for temporary exhibits.
The biggest surprises to me are the faces of the saints in some of these icons. Instead of the flat, other-worldly features often associated with early Byzantine portraits, these bearded figures with wild eyes look like the faces of butchers and shoppers at the Athens Central Market, or the two friends sitting next to me at a counter of a food stand gulping down steaming portions of patsa, tripe soup.
I end my visit at the Byzantine Museum with a cup of thick, semi-sweet Greek coffee on the terrace of the café. To the southwest atop the Acropolis, I can see the Parthenon, eternally under reconstruction. A waiter hands me a Greek newspaper in English that brings me back to the current economic mess. The lead article is about a government plan to help cut the budget deficit by getting tourists to denounce tax-evading shopkeepers who fail to provide them with legal receipts for purchases.
My advice is to forget about naming names, and instead help out the economy by visiting the capital, its great antiquities, and its less-frequented museums.
By Jonathan Kandell