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by Archaeology Newsroom

Nineteenth century representational paintings and photographs of Athos monasteries and their interpretation

The Monastic Community of Mount Athos retains a mystic aura mainly because of its fundamental religious essence.Spanning one thousand years, Athos has also been enriched on another level, by its art,by the architecture of its monasteries, the paintings in the churches, and the relics and treasures accumulated over the centuries by the faithful.

The cultural presence of Athos offers a unique feast to the eyes, its spiritual calling being accompanied by one of artistic beauty. The presence of art generates an aesthetic interest and delights every visitor, from the uninitiated and naive pilgrim to the learned expert. Furthermore, during the last two centuries it has stimulated creative impulse among artists to immortalize the Athos landscape and architecture. Off-hand one could mention the refined Englishman Edward Lear and the rich colorourist Greek painter Spyros Papaloukas, or the ‘universal’ Ghika; but equally so quite a few Russians, Serbs, Bulgarians and Georgians, that is to say, artists whose orthodox faith initiated their visit to Athos.

As a branch of painting one should also consider engraving; as for instance the very expressionistic woodcut illustrating the stunning cone of Athos. One group of such engravings, which provide us with rare representations of the Athos monasteries, in 1835, is the set of twelve vignettes surrounding the monochrome map of the peninsula found in Davydov’s Atlas. Theywere engraved according to drawings by the architect N. Efimov. A single loose-leaf sheet of this map is to be found in the Gennadios Library, the vignettes of which have been water-colored by hand at a later date, possibly around 1900. They all constitute valuable archeological documents. With the invention of photography the possibility was given to millions of people to get acquainted with millions of subjects, through the latters’ printed image. The first photographs of Athos monasteries were seemingly taken in 1854, according to information published in the French periodical “La Lumiere” of 1856. In 1857 and especially in 1859-60, many photographs were taken by an important Russian scientific expedition, headed by Count Peter Sevastianov, whose large collection of architectural drawings and photographs of architecture, murals and manuscripts was widely publicized in newspapers and magazines of the 1860s, both in Russia and in France. Still, this collection has never been published and is nowadays considered to be lost. Very few remains of this collection are to be found in Moscow and St Petersburg, and were kindly shown to the author in 1984, for inspection and photography. Other collections of photographs spotted on the Mountain by the author and worthy of mention are: 1. A large collection in the Russian Monastery of Hagios Panteleimon, which seemingly was available until 1940; of these photographs, a very important entity of views of the twenty monasteries remains in the library. These views were photographed by the author in 1968. 2. An entity of views of the twenty monasteries, well framed, was hanging in the Guest-house of the Monastery of Karakallou until August 1988, when a fire destroyed both the building and the photographs. The author was fortunate to have copied them only three months earlier. The Karakallou collection, of which we also know the photographer Benjamin I.K. Kontrakis, was probably assembled in the 80s of the previous century. 3. The 68 photographs published in G. Smyrnakis book “To Hagion ‘Oros” (1903), which were probably taken in the ‘ 90s of the previous century. 4. The 43 architectural views published in the Album of hieromonk Stefanos, in 1913, which must have been taken during the one or two years preceeding the date of publication.