lundi 18 mai 2009

Treasures from the Holy Mountain

I have such great memories of our visit to Meteora in Greece. Those jutting pinnacles and cliffs are home to several monasteries, some of which still retain its strict tradition of isolation and life of contemplative prayer. One of the changes wrought by modern times is that nowadays monasteries that allow visitors are reachable by steps hewn directly into the rock (as opposed to the being hauled up on the mountainside in baskets) and several asphalt roads. I remember being awed by these monasteries that are filled with Byzantine treasures. Magnificent Frescoes and Icons adorn their humble walls and one can see how lovingly the monks have treasured and preserved their treasures. It was something to see so much beauty preserved from the distant Byzantine era and in a way it felt like stepping back in time.

North of Greece, we heard of another area that is likewise home to monasteries dating back to the Byzantine times. We would have been extremely interested in visiting but unlike the monasteries of Meteora, those of Mt. Athos which occupies most of the Athos Peninsula severely restrict their visitors. Only men, and only 10 foreign males at that, are allowed to visit for a maximum of 6 nights but women are completely barred from entering. A bit strange this interdiction on women visitors considering that Athos is also called the Garden of Mary. So there went the idea of visiting the monasteries of Mt.Athos.

Imagine my surprise then when we heard that an exhibition titled “Le Mont Athos et L’Empire Byzantin, Tresors de la Sainte Montaigne (Mt. Athos and the Byzantine Empire, Treasures of the Holy Mountain) is currently running at the Petit Palais. This was amazing news and we didn’t waste any time. After all this was the closest we were going to get to Mt.Athos.

Quite simply this is an extremely rich and exceptional exhibition that musn’t be missed. Granted, you have to be at the very least, interested in what is mostly religious art but even without being passionate about such art, it is an important exhibition for anyone with an interest in history and culture.

The exhibition is thoughtfully curated with bilingual explanations of each major part. The organizers have taken place to situate the Mt.Athos collection within the context of the Byzantine times. As such, viewers can better appreciate their historical significance. About 200 works of art are meticulously displayed at the Petit Palais, many of which have never been seen outside the walls of their monastery. They range from the 9th to the 18th century and were taken from 9 monasteries. There are a number of magnificent icons as well as beautiful manuscripts and Psalters that have retained their lustrous illustrations (often gold was the metal of choice for the book’s bindings), a good number of parchments that are actually official decrees from the Byzantine emperors granting protection to the monasteries or deeding over land to their exclusive use and some beautiful religious inspired jewelry. All of them are beautifully and lovingly preserved. Considering their great age, this is quite a feat on the part of their guardians.
This is definitely the one exhibition of the year you musn’t miss. After all, we don’t know when another opportunity like this will come along…

Practical Details
Petit Palais
10th April - 5th July 2009.
Open every day from 10am - 6pm except Mondays and public holidays
Metro: Champs Elysee Clemenceau

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