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December 26, 2018

Synaxis of the Panagia Antivouniotissa in Kerkyra

Synaxis of the Panagia Antivouniotissa (Feast Day - December 26)

1.From the Church history to the Museum

The building complex dedicated to the Most Blessed Virgin – Our Lady of Antivouniotissa (“Kyrá Antivouniótissa”) is one of the city’s oldest and richest ecclesiastical monuments. Located in the heart of the historic center of Corfu in the area of Campiello, it is accessible both from Pros-forou Street as well as from the monumental “skalináda” (flight of steps) that starts from Arseniou Street, which is today a coastal road lying atop the now-demolished north-ern sea walls of the city known as the “Mouráyia”. The name “Antivouniotissa” comes from a toponym, indicating the church’s location on the hill called “Antivoúni”. It lies opposite the neighboring hill of Ovriovoúni, the area where the Jews had initially settled before the creation of the Jewish quarter on the outskirts of the New Fortress in the late sixteenth century. We do not know whether the church was dedicated to the Virgin from the outset, something about which we may conjecture from the presence of an overpainted wall painting with a representation of Christ Pantocrator on the right side of the templon. In Corfu, the icon of the saint to whom a church is dedicated is normally placed in this position. However, from very early on the church must have been dedicated to the Virgin, and to the Theotokos ton Epilochíon" (Virgin of Confinement), a feast day honored by the Orthodox Church on December 26 with the name “Synaxis of the Virgin”. This is also shown by the traditional liturgy held in the church on this day, and the antimension (see pp. 270-1).

From what is essentially limited archival research to date in the extremely important and rich Archive of Corfu, we conclude that the church had already been built in the fifteenth century. More specifically, in a notarial act of 1497 (N.A. M245, f. 68r), Antivouniotissa is referred to as a parish church: “... the parish of the Most Blessed Virgin of Antivouniotissa ...”. This reference would indicate that the church was founded considerably before the date of the notarial act. Consequently it is one of the oldest churches in the city of Corfu, built outside the Old Fortress in the “borgo” long before the Venetians walled the city. In another contract of 1558 (Contract M.190, book2, f. 88r), it is recorded that the church was both a founders’ church and a brotherhood church (it was managed by a group of “brothers”), in common with most of the churches of the Venetian period on Corfu, and it belonged to important Corfiot families whose names became linked with it down through the centuries. It is noteworthy that during the period of Venetian rule, a large number of churches were built. They were distinguished into “founders” churches, i.e. privatelyowned churches built by specific individuals or families, “brotherhood” churches, which belonged to brotherhoods, and public churches, which were fewer in number. Antivouniotissa is also frequently referred to in documents of this age by the term “monastery”, as for example in a contract dated 1579. Almost all Corfiot churches were frequently referred to by this term, though its use did not mean that they operated as organized monasteries. It was also used as a cemetery, in accordance with the custom of that age for the dead to be buried in churches. This practice came from Western influence and was abolished in 1840 with the founding of the Public Cemetery in the suburb of Garitsa.

Many of the noble or wealthy Corfiot families, and even the higher clergy, maintained family tombs at Antivouniotissa. The right to burial was given them either through their founders’ or management relationship with the church (as “ktétores” [founders] or “brothers” respectively), through their having served there as priests, or simply because they had dedicated large properties or money to the church. Indicatively, the names of noble families mentioned include Alamanos, Varouchas, Vervitsiotis, Voulgaris, Galielos, Geropetris, Detzortzis, Theotokis, Justinian, Kapodistria, Quartanos, Leontaris, Loukanis, Boúas, Ungaros, Petretin, Prosalentis, Rekeletis, Rizikaris, Rodostamos, Roditis, Ki-galas, Chalikiopoulos, and others. Even today we see the crests or names of families on the tombstones that are pre-served in the church’s floor. The church was especially prosperous during the seventeenth century, when it enjoyed extensive landed wealth and fame, and as a result, many people desired to be buried there. Its size, rich heirlooms, silver candelabra and candle stands, exceptional portable icons and gilded woodcarved frames still testify to this affluent past. In the early nineteenth century, however, it experienced poverty as a result of poor management, a situation from which, however, it later recovered. In the early twentieth century, by an official state decision (ΦΕΚ, τ.Α 233/3-10-1919), the Alamanos, Goulis, Kalogeras, Lazaras, My-lonopoulos, Doria-Prosalentis, Rizikaris, and Skarpas families were recognized as founders-owners; most of them, however, later surrendered their rights.

In 1979, the owner-families Mylonopoulos, Rizikaris, and Skarpas decided to donate the Antivouniotissa complex together with its very rich portable furnishings (icons, heirlooms, and others) to the Greek public, on the condition that within five years the church would be restored and function as a museum of Christian art, and that the performance of the Divine Liturgy each December 26, the feast-day of the Virgin Mary to whom it was dedicated, would continue (notarial act of donation, 22-1-1979). There followed a difficult period of complex bureaucratic procedures required for the Greek public to be able to accept the donation and proceed to the requisite actions specified in the notarial act. During that period, the personal and tireless efforts in this regard by the late Agathi Mylonopoulou-Kopitsa, from the founders’ family, were proverbial and well known to all those involved. In the end, shortly before the donation’s provisions were set to expire, the competent state services responded to the imminent danger of Antivouniotissa returning to its founders and the donation to the Greek people being annulled. Thus, on May 21, 1984, after dealing only with the major static problems related to the church’s masonry, with the absolute minimum requisite restoration and stabilization works, the unforgettable Melina Merkouri, who was Minister of Culture at the time, inaugurated the Museum with its rich collection of conserved portable icons and a number of heirloom pieces. It was also at that time that icons from the old Christian Collection of the Sino-Japanese Museum (the modern Museum of Asian Art), housed in the Old Palace in Spianada, were transferred and placed on exhibit. However, serious problems with the buildings, which had remained unresolved in the 1984 intervention, continued. These concerned the roofs, the church’s wood-carved ceiling, the increasingly high humidity level in the floor, and the lack of personnel. The Museum operated for five years, but had to close in 1989.

2.The definitive restoration, re-exhibition, and operation of the Church-Museum

In 1992, a major works program began in Corfu in preparation for the European Union Summit, scheduled for June, 1994. Within this framework, and through the direct personal intervention of the late Prime Minister Georgios I.Rallis, who had also been a decisive factor in the selection of Corfu as the seat for the Summit, the issues involving Antivouniotissa were resolved. Through this intervention, the funding required for the project was ensured, and at the same time an older ministerial decision by Melina Merkouri (dating from 1984) was implemented with the founding of the autonomous Office of Byzantine Antiquities in Corfu, which had been pending since that time. As a result, the priority of this Office became the re-operation of the Museum, together with the oversight of all restoration works in the city connected with the Summit. From 1992-1994, the monument was studied, and its second and definitive restoration was carried out in a series of major projects, including the general repair of the roofs, reconstruction of the floor, and conservation of the ceiling. These works, as well as the new museological study for the re-exhibition, took place within the spirit of restoring the monument first and foremost as a church. Thus, in June 1994, following the second and final phase of the restoration, Antivouniotissa, having regained its former splendor, was inaugurated with its new permanent exhibition.

Six years later (2000), the Museum’s exhibition program was finally completed following restoration works and the exhibition of heirlooms-treasures in the gynaikonitis and the rectory, which was converted into a sacristy. On August 23, 2000, in concert with the celebration of the Holy Mass in the church, inaugural ceremonies were held in the sacristy and gynaikonitis. With this event, the entire complex was returned to the people of Corfu, to whom it now belongs. At the same time, starting from 1992 and for the next fourteen years, the Office had assumed oversight for all matters within its competence concerning Corfu. But it continued to be administratively subordinate to the 8th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities, based in Epirus and thus in a different region, and constantly encountered major administrative difficulties as a result of its distance from the Ephorate’s headquarters. However, as was later proven, the 1992 intervention was decisive for the subsequent course of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine antiquities in the entire Prefecture of Corfu. In 2006, having as its base the significant infrastructure of the Office, an independent service of the Ministry of Culture was finally formed under the name of the 21st Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities, with responsibility for the Prefecture of Corfu. Consequently, all the Byzantine and Post-Byzantine monuments, the extremely important historic center of the city as a whole, and the Museum of Antivouniotissa naturally fall with in the competency of this Ephorate.

Read more here.