The Byzantine and Christian Museum

I led the Regular Members through the Byzantine and Christian Museum with the help of Associate Member Christina Stancioiu who graciously talked about icons for us.  I’ve posted my notes here.

George Lampakis: Thrace-Constantinople (1902) (see also here)

George Lampakis (1854-1914) was a key figure in the formation of the Byzantine and Christian Museum collection. He was educated in Athens in theology and in Germany in the developing field of Christian Archaeology. Upon his return to Greece, he participated in the growing willingness to understand Byzantium as a crucial part of Greek identity. He was among the founders of the Christian Archaeological Society and circulated in elevated circles becoming a close associate of Queen Olga (the Russian bride of King George I who claimed descent from the Byzantine Anglos family). He traveled extensively and his photographs, some of which are on display at the Byzantine and Christian Museum, and form an important resource for the study of late 19th and early 20th century Greece. He also worked to document and in some cases collected artifacts important to both Byzantine and the more recent Christian culture of Greece. As such he should be understood as part of a larger movement toward embedding Greek history within the larger narrative of both the Orthodox church and the Byzantine empire. This reinterpretation of the Greek past, of course, contributed to the Great Idea and the irredentist movements that it spawned, but perhaps should not be read as purely a nationalist movement. The conflation of Greece’s Byzantine past and the modern life of the church gave Lampakis’ collection of Byzantine and Christian antiquities an ahistorical quality evocative of liturgical time and distinct from the modern historicist narratives characteristic of the emerging nationalist histories.

Byzantine and Christian Museum 

The Byzantine and Christian Museum developed out the collection of the Christian Archaeological Society which Lampakis curated. The Museum itself was founded in 1914 soon after the capture of Thessaloniki, a city of particular significance to the Byzantine patrimony of the modern Greek state. The first director of a distinct Byzantine and Christian Musem was Adamantios Adamantiou, and he and his successor, George Soteriou, both expanded the collect and shifted its focus. They drew upon the growing prestige of Byzantine material and Byzantine history within Greece, which by the second half of the 19th century had emerged as a counterbalance to Classical philhellenism and its association with Western political and cultural interventionism. This use of Byzantium found parallels elsewhere in Europe where scholars, particularly in Austria and German, increasingly asserted the cultural autonomy of Byzantine and Late Antique material. The artistic, stylistic, and historical autonomy of Late Antique and Byzantine culture (as opposed to reading simply as a decadent or debased form of Classical art) made it particularly suitable for scholars seeking to understand Byzantine Greece as the cultural predecessor of the independent nation-state. By 1930, Soteriou established the collection in its present location – the Villa Ilissia which had been built in the 1840s for the eccentric American Sophie de Marbois who had married into the Napoleonic aristocracy. He arranged it to demonstrate the uninterrupted development of Byzantine art from the Early Christian period to the early 19th century.

Villa Ilissia

In keeping with the modernist and scientific underpinnings of both museum and the nation-state, Soteriou organized the religious artifacts collected by Lampakis as well as material from his own excavations in two ways. One group of rooms organized icons, portable objects, and church vestments chronologically and typologically transforming the kinds of religious objects, which continued to be venerated and used in neighborhood churches throughout Greece, into objects susceptible to systematic and scientific investigation. More interestingly, however, Soteriou placed the best examples of sculpture, furnishings, and architectural sculpture into reconstructed examples of churches built in a series of rooms in the Museum. These rooms, designed by Aristotle Zachos, who was also the architect responsible for the reconstruction of St. Demetios in Thessaloniki after the fire of 1912, served to create secular churches which abstracted the material culture of everyday sacred experience in Greece and rendered it suitable for integration within the historicist narrative of the modern nation.

The current museum underwent significant renovations since Soteriou’s time. The shadows of Soteriou’s organization, however, persist in many of the displays. For the Early Byzantine period, the influence of material collected from Soteriou’s excavations at the Ilissos basilica and the churches at Nea Anchialos is evident. The majority of the material in the collection derives from Athens (particularly the Acropolis and various Byzantine and post-Byzantine churches destroyed in during the transformation of the city during the 19th century) and Attica (Mygdaleza, Stamata, Anavyssos, and Damalas (Troizene)). It also includes a significant collection of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine icons of the Cretan and Ionian schools from private collections.

SecularChurch2SM SecularChurchSM
Museum as Secular Church


J. Elsner, “The Birth of Late Antiquity: Reigel and Strzygowski in 1901,” Art History 25 (2002), 258-279.
K. Kourelis, “Byzantium and the Avant-Guard: Excavations at Corinth, 1920s-1930s” Hesperia 76 (2007), 391-441.
S. Marchand, “The Rhetoric of Artifacts and the Decline of Classical Humanism: The Case of Josef Strzygowski,” History and Theory 33 (1994), 106-130.
M. Rautman, “Archaeology and Byzantine Studies,” ByzFor 15 (1990), 137-165.
G. Soteriou, Guide du Mussée Byzantin d’Athènes (Athens 1932)
P. Vokotopoulos, “Museums and Collections of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Art in Greece,” BalkSt 37, 207-234.

  1. Tim
    March 9, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    This is really good stuff. I can add some other information. Are you archiving all this so it will be available? When I was teaching at the School 1979-81 I typed all such stuff out, then ca. 1983 I saw I could do it on the computer. Nobody was interested at the School. I’m slowly trying to digitize all that, but it’s too bad an effort wasn’t made then.

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