Mount Athos Treasures On View To Women After 1,000 Years

06/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • By Thomas in Procter in Paris Independent

For the first time in almost 1,000 years, many of the legendary Byzantine treasures of Mount Athos in Greece are on view to women.

Almost 200 works of art from the male-only Orthodox enclave in northern Greece are on show at the Petit Palais in Paris until July. Most of the works have never previously left the peninsula, from which women - and even most female animals - have been banned since 1045.

The 20 monasteries of Mount Athos house one of the largest collections of Christian art in the world. Direct access to these treasures is notoriously difficult to obtain for men, and impossible for women.

But Paris has been granted the privilege of hosting this "world premiere", largely as a result of France's presidency of the EU last year. The Greek Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dora Bakoyannis, described the exhibition as a "cultural event of the first order".

"The treasures exhibited here are a part of European culture," Ms Bakoyannis said. "A large number of these relics are going 'beyond the walls' of Mount Athos for public viewing for the first time by men and women."

Previously, only two very small exhibitions have been held of Mount Athos artefacts, both in Greece. The director of the Petit Palais, Gilles Chazal, said: "The monks of Mount Athos have been very enthusiastic in their support of this project." He added that the exhibition would be "hugely significant".

The original decree banning women, and female animals (except cats, which help control the rat population), from the enclave was issued by the Byzantine emperor Constantine Monomachos in 1045. Under Greek law, a breach of the ban by a woman can still lead to a jail sentence. The ban on female animals is enforced as strictly as possible. The monks maintain that the presence of women slows their path towards spiritual enlightenment.

Particularly spectacular are the displays of imperial gifts which include "one of the most remarkable objects of metalwork of the Byzantine world": a chalice belonging to Manuel Cantacuzène (1349-1380), the son of Emperor Jean VI Cantacuzène, made from a single piece of jasper and most likely of Venetian origin.

The exhibition will remain at the Petit Palais until 5 July.

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