Greek Heritage: The Benaki Collection at the Canadian Museum of Civilization

By Leroux, Georges | Queen's Quarterly, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Greek Heritage: The Benaki Collection at the Canadian Museum of Civilization


Leroux, Georges, Queen's Quarterly


You don't need to have been to Greece often to know that the land's memory, the love of the language sung from Homer to Elytis, the devotion to Orthodoxy and the popular folklore still feed off nostalgia for Constantinople: the Benaki collection's Hellenism gives us access to this love in its most serene form, in which art serves as identity's caretaker. An admirable and resilient people, the Greeks are present in each of the exhibit's objects.

THE Benaki Museum in Athens is not like other museums. Built on the collections assembled by its founder, Antonis Benakis (1873-1954), and with its Greek departments housed in what was once the ancestral family home, it opened its doors in 1931. Even confining attention to the main site, the visitor cannot help being struck by the founder's guiding principle: these collections, open to the whole of Greek history and culture, demonstrate above all a deep love of the national heritage. From monumental classical sculpture to humble embroidered cloth produced in Byzantine and Ottoman workshops, the pieces assembled by the Benakis family embody a memory attentive to the continuity and richness of Greek identity: with its roots in the Bronze Age and climbing through to the turbulent years of independence, extending over the whole of Greece's territory, it is a memory that extols the strength of a culture which often could have been annihilated, and yet has endured.

The museum was not conceived under the sole aesthetic outlook of art history: on the contrary, each piece is inscribed in Greek spiritual and political history and deeply linked to what we now call Hellenism. The exhibit recently on display at the Canadian Museum of Civilization illustrated all the richness of a tradition that emphasizes historical understanding and surpassing beauty. The two hundred or so objects lent by the Benaki Museum were divided into four broad eras: Prehistory and Antiquity, The Byzantine Period, The Greeks in the Ottoman Empire, and Towards an Independent Greek State. The tendency to separate these periods by setting them in opposition to each other might seem grounded in apparently divisive criteria: the opposition between Orthodox Christianity, with its art of the icon, and Greco - Roman paganism, for instance. But these are the very divides that the Benaki collection manages to bridge, by bringing the continuity of the Greek experience to the fore: ever enamoured of freedom, these people - small in number, and settled on a territory that once encompassed the whole of Asia Minor, the Hellespont, and Magna Graecia - have been subject to many dominations prior to their independence.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Over the whole course of this history, Greece has held its language intact and, since the establishment of Orthodoxy, a monolithic adherence to Byzantium's Christianity. We thus cannot look at the most ancient objects - such as the magnificent golden goblet (the Dendra kylix with embossed hunting hound) or the Pentelic marble head of Paris - as though they were unconnected to a tradition that continues today. The same must be said of the superb icons from Crete, the Byzantine gospels, the minor objets d'art from every part of Greece under Ottoman rule, the heroic canvases of the wars of independence. Each, in its way, bears witness to Greek identity, and this was Antonis Benakis's guiding principle: to assemble that which is Greek, to foster its memory, to show its unity.

Hellenism, Spiritual and Aesthetic

IF, like the emperor Hadrian who loved and protected them as far as he was able, we are still able to recognize the Greeks through everything that has battered them in the course of history, we are in a position to understand how the concept of Hellenism, already shaped during the Alexandrian period, was reinforced by European Romanticism and could inspire the Benakis family's patronage. The Romantic version of the concept was solidified initially in Hegel's thought, and also in Holderlin's marvellous Hyperion, as well as by all those who, at the beginning of the nineteenth century when nothing was yet assured for Greece, became the champions of her culture as a continuous historical civilization, as freedom in progress. …

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