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Unimagined Beauty - Icons from Macedonia at the museum Catharijneconvent
It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon. I’m riding my bike and am on my way to Museum Catharijneconvent in my home town Utrecht, the Netherlands. I’ve never been to this museum before, though I’ve lived here for six years now. I know where it is and what it looks like from the outside, but today will be the first time I’m going to see what awaits me inside. Excited and a little ashamed of myself I lock my bicycle and set out for the entrance.
Museum Catharijneconvent is specialised in Christian art and cultures. The collection comprises religious artefacts, paintings and altar pieces. The museum has a treasure room and an exhibition especially for children about religious holidays where they are taught what is celebrated at each feast. I'm sure there are a lot of adults who could use a refreshment of their memory on this subject as well. However interesting and worthwhile these permanent displays are, that is not the reason I’ve come to visit today.
Mother Gods Pantonchara with chosen saints, Dico Krstevic, 1844, panel, 57 x 41x 4 cm
National Institute and Museum, Ohrid
Last month the exposition Unimagined Beauty (Ongekende Schoonheid) opened and it will be open till the 11th of May. Every Thursday and Sunday at 2 pm it’s possible to go on a guided tour, free of charge. I've decided to join the tour this Sunday afternoon. If you prefer to wander off on your own you can get a free audio guide at the information desk. There is one available in English as well. Besides these guides there are a wide range of special activities organised during the exposition.
The museum is housed in an old monastery founded in the 15th century by the Carmalites and they named it after the Holy Catherine. There is still a church next to the museum, the church of Saint Catherine. It wasn’t until 1979 that the old convent became a museum. To enter it you have to pass an opening in the outer walls after which you arrive in a small courtyard. There you can admire the old monastery walls and the new glass made corridor. Next you go through another opening in the wall and enter another courtyard, a much bigger one this time. It’s a pretty and quiet place, a calm haven at the heart of the city centre. You can take your coffee and sandwich, available at the museum café, outside and enjoy your lunch in the open air. It seems to me that a lot of people have come here today solely for this purpose. They are sitting outside in the sun, reading their paper and enjoying a glass of wine and a bowl of soup on the peaceful terrace. Far away from the city’s noise, without having to fight for an empty seat.
I’ll have to admit it’s mostly older people who have discovered this place. I’m twenty-six years old and the youngest by far. The average age is about fifty, at least. But hey, who am I to complain. I’m sitting in a beautiful and serene church garden, the sun is shining, my cappuccino tastes excellent and I’m about to visit Unimagined Beauty, an exposition about Macedonian icons. So why should I care about the fact that the average visitor could be my mother, or my grandmother even.
The exposition shows icons from Macedonia, generously lend by the Macedonian government and displayed abroad for the first time. These treasures are greatly unknown to the Dutch public and I daresay that this is the case for other Western European nations as well. The twentieth birthday of the Republic of Macedonia is the reason for this exposition and offers a good opportunity to bring this rich culture under the attention of a wider audience. Macedonia is surrounded by nations with a glorious past. Think of the Romans, ancient Greece and the Ottoman Empire. These famous neighbours make Macedonia look like a mere footnote in history. But this is neither fair nor right.
Archangel Michael, Vinica, 5th - 6th century, terracotta, 32,5 x 20 x 4 cm
National Museum of Macedonia, Skopje
The exposition takes the visitor on a journey through the wonderful history of Macedonian icons and shows unique pieces: an iconostasis which is displayed in separated parts; a golden mask and jewellery, both thousands of years old; and several terracotta tablets. Figure two shows one of these recently discovered tablets. There are ten of these unique stones, dug up from a garden in Vinica, at display. The one shown here portrays the archangel Michael and has been created in the 5th century. This demonstrates an early influence of the Catholic church on Macedonian art and culture.
The guide of this afternoon's tour tells elaborately about the icons, their purpose, the symbols and the materials which are used for their production. She also tells a great deal about Macedonian culture, history and she places the pieces in their (art) historical context. These explanations are a wonderful addition to the exposition. Especially for someone like me, who doesn't know much about this region, it's art and it's history.
The stories that are told and the little details that are pointed out make you notice, for example, the stars on the cloth Mary (called Mother of God by the Macedonians) is wearing. These three stars represent the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. When the Mother of God is holding her son the cloak has only two stars, because the Son is already represented in the picture.
It’s anecdotes like these that make things comprehensible even for a dummy and youngster such as I. For me it really adds something extra to the exhibition. As I ride my bike back home, I think about everything I've experienced and learned today. It really was an interesting and informative tour. I'm glad to have seen so many unique pieces and thankful to have heard the underlying stories.
Icons From Macedonia
9 February to 11 May 2011
Lange Nieuwstraat 38
3512 PH Utrecht
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