Corfu Town’s Byzantine Museum is a little gem, one of the town’s top museums with an excellent collection of Byzantine art in a 15th-century church.
Set along the corniche road between the Old Fortress and the Old Port, the Byzantine Museum houses one of Corfu’s greatest artistic legacies. The 15th-century former church is the perfect home for some 90 icons dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries. They represent one of Greece’s most important contributions to medieval art.
The official name of the museum is actually the Museum Antivouniotissa, after the church in which it is housed, but everyone refers to it as the Byzantine Museum so we’ve stuck with that.
The Church of the Panagía Antivouniótissa, built at the end of the 15c, is one of the oldest and richest religious monuments on Corfu. Standing atop a steep flight of steps, the single-aisle, timber-roofed basilica with its plain exterior is characteristic of Corfiot churches of the time. The museum preserves the church’s impressive interior features, while using the narthexes which surround it on three sides to display its priceless collection of icons.
From the fall of Constantinople in 1453 until 1669, Venetian-occupied Crete was the most important artistic centre in Greece. An eclectic style of icon painting flourished, known as the Cretan School of Art, attracting commissions from monasteries and noblemen abroad. Corfu became a major stepping stone for Cretan painters en route to Venice, such as Thomas Bathos who lived here in 1585-87.
Emmanuel Tzanés, whose works can be seen in the museum, is credited with introducing the Cretan style to Corfu in the 17the century. After Crete fell to the Ottomans in 1669, many more artists found refuge on the island and their influence spread. Thus a vital force in Byzantine traditional art was kept alive on Corfu.
A museum visit begins upstairs in the former sacristy, where church silver, richly embroidered vestments, jewelled crosses, gold communion vessels and other Byzantine treasures are displayed. The Lamentation, a 19th-century altar cloth, is an incredible work of raised embroidery depicting the laying of Christ’s body in the tomb.
Downstairs, icons are displayed in chronological order around the vestibules, beginning with early pieces of fresco. Most belong to the church, while others come from the old Byzantine collection of the Museum of Asiatic Art. They feature popular Byzantine subjects including the Virgin and Child, Christ Pantokrator, and St George slaying the Dragon.
More icons are displayed in the church, which has been beautifully restored. Above the high wooden pews the painted walls have been stencilling to look like flocked wallpaper. The coffered ceiling is ornamented with gilded woodcarvings. A balcony at the back affords a closer look and a fine view over the nave.
In the rear vestibule on the outside wall of the church, look for the large icon depicting Saints Sergius, Bacchus and Justine by Michael Damaskenos (16th century), one of the greatest masters of the art. Notice that, compared to other icons, there is more detail and shadow in the faces, knees and legs, which gives his work a more realistic human form.