Mount Athos

Mysterious religious treasures from Mount Athos go on display in Thessaloniki

The monastery has been forbidden to women since 1060 and remains barely accessible to laymen, making this public exhibition an opportunity of a lifetime

“Treasures from Mount Athos” will offer the first real opportunity for half the population to see many of the greatest works of art of Greece’s remote Holy Mountain. Although men can with difficulty visit the monasteries, since 1060 women officially have been banned from setting foot on the thirty-mile long peninsula in the northern Aegean (although Lady Somers managed to camp there in the nineteenth century, no doubt exercising the strong-minded British woman’s claim when abroad to be treated as an honorary man).

Restrictions imposed by the monastic authorities mean that men who get the necessary permit are normally allowed to stay just four nights. The usual means of exploring this rugged terrain is by foot and therefore only a few of the twenty monasteries can be covered during a single visit. Even then, many of the works of art are locked away in libraries or hidden in dark corners of churches, not easily accessible.

The exhibition in Thessaloniki, “Treasures from Mount Athos,” which runs from 21 June to 31 December, is therefore a very special occasion. Mounting the show has involved delicate negotiations between the monastic authorities and Thessaloniki’s Organisation for the Cultural Capital of Europe. The exhibition promises to be the most important event of “Thessaloniki 97.”

The peninsula has been home to monks since the seventh century, the oldest surviving monastery being Grand Lavra, founded in 963. In 1926 Mt Athos was recognised as a theocratic republic under the sovereignty of Greece. In practice it is almost an independent territory. The monks practice subsistence farming and devote most of their time to prayer. There are now 2,000 Orthodox monks, down from 40,000 when the community was at its height in the twelfth century. They are mainly Greek, but include significant numbers from Russia and Eastern Europe.

The Double Holy Synaxis of the Holy Mountain, the body which governs Mt Athos, has now given its blessing for the exhibition in Thessaloniki, eighty miles to the west. Support has also been received from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew and Alexios II, Patriarch of all Russia. Seventeen monasteries are lending to the exhibition. One of the lasting benefits for Mt Athos will be the five conservation workshops set up to help preserve the Holy Mountain’s artistic treasures with a £70,000 contribution from the Greek Ministry of Culture.

Mt Athos is the richest repository of Byzantine art in Greece, with an estimated 15,000 icons. For the Thessaloniki show, 589 exhibits have been selected. These include 131 Byzantine documents, 120 manuscripts (many illuminated) and 108 icons, as well as textiles, embroidery, seals, coins, sculptures, ivories, ceramics and furniture. Among the treasures being loaned are the mosaic icon of St George from Xenofondos and a gilded chancel screen from Simonopetra.

The exhibition will be housed in the new Museum of Byzantine Culture, inaugurated three years ago. In addition to “Treasures from Mt Athos, photographs of life on the Holy Mountain, taken by Monk Gavriil of Philotheou Monastery, went on show at the Thessaloniki Photographic Centre last month.

o In Spain, feminists are putting pressure on Carthusian monks to allow them entry to the monastery church of Aula Dei, near Saragossa. The church houses the important Goya mural of the Life of the Virgin, which was recently restores with public funds. Because of Carthusian rules, the mural is only accessible to male visitors. In February the monks appealed to the Pope to intervene on their behalf.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'It’s a man’s world'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 70 May 1997