From Byzantium to Modern Greece

Hellenic Art in Adversity, 1453-1830

December 15, 2005-May 6, 2006

photo by Joe Coscia Jr. 

"Over all, this show offers, nicely, in small bites, an enlightening glimpse of Greek achievement during unpropitious times."

                                                  - Grace Glueck, The New York Times

"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."

                                                  - Mark Rose, Archaeology Magazine

From Byzantium to Modern Greece: Hellenic Art in Adversity, 1453-1830, an exhibition of treasures from the Benaki Museum, examines the evolution of Hellenic art and culture during four centuries of tumultuous change under Venetian and Ottoman occupation. More than 137 works from all sectors of artistic production-icons, painting, woodcarving, metalwork, embroidery, costumes, jewelry, and pottery-presents a comprehensive visual history of Hellenic culture from the fall of Byzantium in 1453 to the founding of the modern Greek State in 1830. The Benaki Museum's collection of Hellenic art and antiquities from the Neolithic Age to the 20th century contains 33,000 rare and exquisite objects. Highlights from this exemplary collection, such as wood-carved bed panels, painted chests, publications, and a signed icon by El Greco, makes up From Byzantium to Modern Greece.

From Byzantium to Modern Greece explores the spiritual and artistic legacy of the Orthodox Church, the importance of home and decorative arts, the adornment of women, the depictions of Greece by foreign travelers, the Greek Enlightenment, and the Greek War of Independence that led to the founding of the modern Greek state. The exhibition places the objects within the historical and socio-economic context of the period.

The Greek World: Shared Sovereignty Under the Ottoman Turks and Franks (15th-17th Century)

Beginning in the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of  Venice battled for control of the Greek islands and coastal territories, a struggle that culminated in the partial destruction of the Parthenon in 1687. This infamous attack can be seen in a rare 17th-century watercolor that shows the temple burning after a Venetian bomb hit the Parthenon's roof, igniting the cache of gunpowder that the Ottoman Turks had stored inside.

The Growth of Greek Shipping and Trade (17th-19th Century)

In the following two centuries, as powers from the East and West continued to sail the Aegean and Ionian seas, the Greek shipping trade grew, leading to economic development, improved living conditions in the islands, and the introduction of Western ideas. These changes can be seen in scenes of nautical life and testimonies of religious beliefs and practices for the protection of seafarers.

The Spiritual and Artistic Legacy of the Orthodox Church

The Orthodox Church-which, after the fall of the Byzantine Empire, had served as Greece's main social, cultural, and political institution, and had formalized guidelines for artistic production-was the only organization to retain broad cultural significance. While religious art preserved its Byzantine influence, it began to incorporate Eastern and Western elements, as seen in the many examples of rare gold embroidery, jewelry, and silverwork in this exhibition. From Byzantium to Modern Greece also features exceptional icons from the 15th through 18th centuries that reveal the cultural blending of the Venetians, Ottomans, and Byzantine Greeks. Chief among these icons is an early work by El
Greco.

Home and Decorative Arts: Artistic Production Reflecting the Amalgamation of Byzantine Tradition, the Spirit of European Movements, and the Ottoman Aesthetics

In the centuries of Ottoman occupation, the home became the main site of artistic expression. This can be seen in the delicately carved stone fanlights and fountainheads, intricately painted wood chests and bed panels, vivid ceramics, and ornate embroideries that highlight the cultural sophistication of the Hellenic world. The exhibition also features a complete reconstruction of a bedchamber, including a rare bridal bed with an elaborately embroidered silk canopy, sheet, pillows, and valance, and a selection of delicate ceramics from a home in the Dodecanese, a diverse group of islands on the easternmost edge of the Aegean.

Female Attire and Adornment
This shift toward a more personal aesthetic will be further revealed in paintings and watercolors made by foreign travelers to Greece in the 17th to 19th centuries depicting women's adornment and attire in cosmopolitan and rural Greece. These remarkable paintings are displayed alongside richly embroidered costumes and gold jewelry, many embellished with cloisonné enamels and pearls, demonstrating the lavish taste of 18th-century Greek women.

Greece through the Eyes of Foreign Artist-Travelers

The foreign travelers who recorded women's attire also depicted the Greek landscape, ancient monuments, and quaint villages of the 17th through 19th centuries. Foreign artists accompanying exploratory or military missions as well as Europeans on the Grand Tour recorded the Hellenic landscapes they saw on their travels, infusing them with popular mythic ideals of the Golden Age. The detailed drawings, watercolors, oil paintings, and charming illustrations from travel publications featured in this exhibition depict Greece before the War of Independence as seen through European eyes-as an idyllic vacation destination and land of classical values.

The Greek Enlightenment and the War of Independence

The late 18th and early 19th centuries witnessed the birth of the Greek Enlightenment-an intellectual movement that combined Western liberal thought with a revival of the ancient Hellenic spirit-and the creation of the modern Greek State in 1830. At the same time, Western artists and intellectuals embraced Philhellenism, fueling the Neoclassical and Romantic movements in Europe and the United States. This final section features publications reflecting the interests of the age; Romantic paintings inspired by the Greek struggle; ornate weapons of Greek freedom fighters; and portraits of important European and Greek cultural figures such as Lord Byron, an enthusiastic Philhellene, and Rigas
Feraios, a major figure of the Greek Enlightenment.

From Byzantium to Modern Greece was curated by Professor Angelos Delivorrias, who has been serving as Director of the Benaki Museum since 1973; since his arrival, the museum has increased its holdings, reorganized its collection, and renovated and expanded its suite of buildings. Professor Delivorrias was educated at the Universities of Thessaloniki, Athens, Frieburg, and Tubingen, and completed post-doctoral studies at the Sorbonne and the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris. He has served in the Hellenic Archaeological Service, published in numerous exhibition catalogues and scholarly journals, and is a member of various archaeological and academic societies, and the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships.

The Benaki Museum in Athens was established in 1930 by Antonis Benakis-a member of the influential Alexandrian family who made invaluable contributions to the political, social, and cultural life of Greece-to promote Hellenic culture and introduce the Greek public to other civilizations through the organization of temporary exhibitions and the hosting of major international shows. In addition to its extensive collection of Hellenicart, the Benaki Museum has important holdings in Islamic art spanning 13 centuries and has a significant collection of historical archives, housing documents from the uprising of 1821 to the mid-20th century, and of photographic archives, consisting of photographic records of Greek life through World War II, as well as Neohellenic architecture archives. It provides a range of programs for children and adults, including art activities, scholarly lectures, musical events, literary evenings, and theatrical performances.