Athos Masterpieces: Miniature Carvings by Orthodox Monks
Among the liturgical objects of orthodox Christianity several boxwood or horny carvings adorned with miniature scenes and inserted in metal mountings have been passed down to us. The first well-known pieces might have been made in the fifteenth century; the heyday of this artistic form was in the seventeenth-eighteenth centuries, whereas in the nineteenth century it eventually started to decline. The tiny masterworks, whose completion cost immense patience, were usually carved by monks, but the richly decorated metal mountings could also be made in secular workshops. Although similar pieces were made in other cloisters of the Balkan Peninsula as well, because the Mount Athos became one of the best known centres of miniature carving, this group of artworks is called by specialist literature &8220;Athos carvings". Of course similar carvings were produced in northern orthodox areas as well, often using materials other than wood: mostly bone or horn was preferred. Boxwood proved to be especially suitable for carving artworks of a similar quality to those made of bone and soapstone, widespread in earlier centuries.
The majority of these objects are footed and hand (also called blessing) crosses. Both are constant liturgical objects on the orthodox altar; the former is kept in its middle, the latter on the right corner of the Holy Table, from where the priest removes it to give a blessing or benediction, offers it for a kiss etc. A great number of carved medallions and pectoral crosses have been passed down to us, too. The bigger ones - e.g. the panagias - could be worn by clergymen (priests, bishops, senior monks), whereas the smaller ones and amulet-like carvings by believers as well.
The carvings were usually sold by the monasteries, but often they were donated to churches or other monasteries, too.
In Hungary, several public collections are holding carvings of the Athos type. The present show puts the most beautiful pieces from the collection of the Museum of Applied Arts on display.