Although the rich cultural heritage is no surprise for the visitors of Corfu and the mostly known attractions are those that have French or Venetian routes, due to the island’s long time rule by these nations, the beautiful Ionian island is full of artistic treasures, monuments and museums that cover all aspects of its wealthy history. And with the name “Corfu” deriving from the Byzantine word Korypho, describing a “city of the peaks”, it’s understandable that a visit to the Byzantine museum in the old city of Corfu will reveal another aspect of this multifarious island. Although not widely known, the Byzantine Museum together with the historic church of Virgin Antivouniotissa where it’s housed, is one of the oldest and most important religious monuments of Corfu. It covers five centuries of religious, cultural expression and is a place where one can admire significant art creations and witness that despite the promotion of the Catholic dogma, the Byzantine tradition lived on.
Besides the interesting visit to the museum and church complex, what’s equally rewarding is getting there, either by walking through the dense labyrinth of narrow alleys that form the area of Campiello, or by following the coastal road with stunning views towards Vido island.
Once you get there, you’ll see the simple church standing at the top of a wide staircase, being now the only single-aisle basilica that remains from the end of the 15th century when it was built. It’s distinctive characteristic, typical of Corfiot churches of that time, is the exterior narthex that surrounds three sides of the church, creating a simple and peaceful atrium where the bell tower also stands. As the custom of the Venetian era was, many rich families were donοrs, supporters and owners of churches. A 16th century contract informs us that this is actually the case with Antivouniotissa too. Furthermore, it was not unusual to bury the dead inside the churches and therefore in Antivouniotissa we can find family tombs of wealthy Corfiots and high rank clergymen. Look for the engraved large stones on the floor of both the narthex and the nave, some of them embossed with the names and emblems of noble families and you’ll realise how the history of this church is closely linked to the very history of the island.
Creating an interesting contrast with the simple exterior, the interior of the temple bears all the elaborate elements that are typical of Ionian churches of that period. The high pews, the frescoes on the walls and the wood carvings create an imposing atmosphere and provide the impressive backdrop for the works of iconography on display. The history of the temple took a different turn in 1979, when the 4 owner families decided to grant the church to the Greek state, along with all the precious relics and icons that had been acquired in the course of time.
Fifteen years later, the renovation of the temple was completed and the museum’s collection was ready to be displayed. Ninety of the religious works presented belong to the treasures of the church, while others come from the old Byzantine collection of the museum of Asian Art. The exhibits cover a time period that extends from the 15 to the 19th century, introducing works of art by known painters like Michael Damaskinos and Emmanuel Janes and also unknown ones. They all represent the religious, artistic creation and generally the cultural movement of this era, not only in Corfu but in the whole area of Ionian islands.
Being so closely geographically to the West and with its Venetian rule, Corfu was a hub where ideas and trends from the east met with those of the west. It also provided shelter and temporary residence for many Cretan artists that left their island after the Ottoman occupation of 1669 and set off to study in the workshops of Venetian masters. This continuous communication with the west, along with the preservation of the orthodox religion and the Byzantine traditions, resulted an individual aesthetic style for local artists.
The largest works of art are displayed on the three sides of the narthex, portraying saints and scenes from their life and martyrdom. Inside the temple, the atmosphere is imposing, with the undivided space and the golden-red tapestry on the walls. The white, stone altarpiece makes a striking contrast and holds many icons of saints in a golden background, while the decorated ceiling lifts up the eyesight with its light blue tones and the ornate gilded woodcarved themes. Apart from these individual elements, in the interior of the church you will be able to see many scenes of the old testimony framed in heavily decorated wooden frames. Climb the staircase that leads to the matroneum – where some more works of art are on display – and you’ll be rewarded with a great view of the temple from above. Before leaving the narthex-temple complex and return to the atrium, make sure you notice the most significant and beloved icon of the museum, that of the “Most Holy Virgin Kyra Antivouniotissa”, painted on cloth, covered by silver engraving and framed by golden painted wood, dating in the 17th century.
From the beautiful atrium with the serene atmosphere, you have access to the last part of the collection that is displayed in the former priest’s residence. An exterior stone staircase will take you to this small, two-storey building with the covered balcony whose roof is the extension of that of the residence, a characteristic particularly typical of the architecture of Corfu and of central Italy. This area – also known as “the cell” used to serve as an icons’ conservation workshop, until it was incorporated into the exhibition’s space in order to house some more of the museum’s treasures. After a careful restoration, the space that now resembles a sacristy of the Post-Byzantine period showcases a representative selection of vestments and altar clothes of the church’s collection, sacred vessels, gospel books, icons and other objects of religious devotion. They are all admirable examples of gold and silver workshops and outstanding craftsmanship of the period between the 17th and the 19th century.
This last part of the museum’s collection should conclude in the most harmonious way your visit to the Antivouniotissa complex, a unique case of a space with a double functionality and most importantly one of the oldest and richest ecclesiastical monuments in a beautiful town that boasts history in every corner.