The Curator's Trail: In this series, we are traveling some of the world's greatest museums and galleries through the eyes and minds of a specialist team of Cabana Curators, asking them one question: if you only had an hour to spare, what would you see? This week, George Manginis, director of The Benaki Museum in Athens, selects 12 exceptional works from the institution’s Museum of Greek Culture.



Benaki Museum, Athens © Benaki Museum / Leonidas Kourgiantakis


This may sound eccentric, but it is true: my earliest memory is set at the Benaki. When I was in preschool, my class visited the museum, back then still very much the Kunstkammer that its founder, Antonis Benakis, inaugurated in 1931. I recall looking up into the ceiling of the 18th-century panelled room from Kozani and thinking: ‘How can anyone make such an intricate and beautiful thing?’ 

Almost half a century later, in a larger and remodelled institution, human creativity and skill continue to amaze me, under the same carved ceiling. I joined the Museum in 2016, having studied and taught the artistic traditions of ‘the Old World,’ Islamic, Byzantine, and Chinese. I encountered these traditions again at my new workplace, inside display cases and storage vaults across nine different venues in Athens – and one in Kardamyli. The intimate scale of these ‘Benaki annexes’ – some of them homes or artist’s studios or craftspeople’s workshops – allows impressions to penetrate deeper and incite stronger emotions. 

Every day, you can look at the Benaki with new eyes – the variety is inexhaustible. I hope my selection of artefacts, which focus on the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture - the first in our network of museums and still its heart - will help new and returning visitors to experience that which makes ‘The Benaki’ so special: the opportunity for haphazard encounters with the unexpected, the mysterious, and the wonderful. 

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Figurine of a lady, Greece,

Third century BC, terracotta; Benaki Museum 35335

Museum galleries are filled with gods and goddesses, queens and kings, the great and the good embarking on extraordinary tasks and putting in an appearance: doing miracles, falling in love, fighting wars. At times, such bravado can prove daunting, and we seek respite in images of everyday calm, in the charming detail of the mundane.

A lady adjusting her coiffure in a mirror, a baby crawling to his parents’ arms, a young man trying on new armour, they all give us glimpses into lives familiar and yet distant, transport us inside the glass case – and across time.

This delicate terracotta effigy of a young lady winding thread into a skein evokes the rustling of the pleated linen dress, the coolness of the rock, the scent of the blossoms on her wreath. It builds around us, some two-and-a-half thousand years after it was made, a sensory world of domesticity, intimacy, and peace.



Brocade, Ottoman Empire,

Mid-16th century, silk and gold thread, 46x35cm (fragment); Benaki Museum 3864, donated by Iakovos Damalas

Few objects can boast a connection with Ivan the Terrible, but this fragment of a silk brocade is among them. Well, almost. There is a length from the same bolt in the Kremlin that was allegedly presented to the notorious tsar. He probably appreciated the suggestive iconography.

The seemingly peaceful images of the Virgin depict her as the ‘Bringer of Victories’ – a fitting reference for bellicose Ivan, who spent most of his life fighting. He was the grandson of a Greek princess from the last imperial family of Byzantium, saw himself as an heir to Byzantine emperors, and ruled from Moscow, the ‘Third Rome.’

Ironically, the fabric was woven at the legendary workshops of Bursa, near Constantinople, the ‘Second Rome’ and capital of the Ottoman Empire since 1453. The carnations, tulips, and cartouches encircling the Christian imagery are unmistakably Ottoman, making this small rectangle a veritable meeting place – or battlefield – of cultural traditions.



Lidded jug, Ottoman Empire,

16th century, parcel-gilt silver, 16cm; Benaki Museum 14003

One of the treasures of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon, is a white jade jug made between 1417 and 1449 in Samarqand for the famed ruler, Ulugh Beg, grandson of Timur or Tamerlane. Unlike his ancestor, Ulugh Beg was not a fierce conqueror; he was sophisticated and artistic. Accordingly, the jug, enlivened by a serpentine dragon handle, is original and refined, merging Iranian and Chinese traditions.

In later centuries, the jug graced the collections of emperors of India, before ending in the hands of ‘Mr Five Percent’. Examples with such illustrious pedigrees boded well for the shape’s popularity, even outside the Iranian world. It was copied in Ming blue-and-white porcelain and was also popular with the Ottoman Court and elite patrons.

One such patron must have commissioned the Benaki version in silver, to be used as liturgical vessel. Embellishments were added to the Central Asian shape, a menagerie of real and fantastical animals, as well as Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge – motifs inspired by Islamic and German Renaissance metalwork originals.



The Dormition of Saint Savvas, Crete,

1570–1640, egg tempera and gold leaf on wood, 38.3 x 43.9 cm; Benaki Museum 21167, donated by Helen Stathatos

In the 1897 Thomas Cook Tourist’s Handbook for Egypt, the Nile and the Desert, the famed icons at the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai are dismissed as ‘mostly mere daubs,’ a disparaging view shared by most Europeans at the time. The appreciation for Byzantine painting is a twentieth-century development, connected with the rise of modern art. Both Byzantine and modern artists do not merely record the visible; instead, they negotiate, even reject it, in an effort to manifest the invisible. 

This icon does not try to depict the mournful ceremony following a monastic’s death. Instead, it presents us with an alternative reality, in which perspective and the laws of physics are irrelevant. Birds swimming in the sea and ships sailing it are shown at the same scale. An angel is escaping mischievous black demons, carrying the deceased’s soul to Heaven, swaddled like a baby. Silver, pink, and yellow rocks are crowded with elders and their disciples trying to attain holiness through penitence, abstemiousness, deprivation. 

A young hopeful has brought food to a ‘stylite,’ a hermit living atop a column; he is probably currying favour with the (literally) elevated senior, hoping to replace him upon his passing. The surface of this icon is an arena of solitary devotion to the divine. Among hundreds of paintings in the Benaki collection, including two of the earliest works by El Greco, this one never fails to bring a smile to my face.



Chemise, Attica,

19th–early 20th centuries, silk on cotton; Benaki Museum EE 3929

 There is a famous 1825 print by Louis Dupré, of a wedding he witnessed in Athens. The low-gazing bride, resplendent in white, is surrounded by relatives and friends, while the groom is being shaven. A married woman on the left wears an open coat over a long chemise embroidered in bright colours.

The Benaki holds a superb collection of such chemises from Attica, with wide decorative bands around the hems. The trees and flowers of their designs are abstracted to geometric shapes, outlined in contrasting stitches. Embroidery is heavy, almost three-dimensional, and it was customary to embellish it with gold, often resulting in the coloured threads being entirely covered with metal.

Luckily, this example retains not only its riotous polychromy but also its original vibrancy. When seen during a late-night opening at the museum, it resembles the dazzling dresses of Viennese socialites in Gustav Klimt portraits – and only the master could do justice to the luminous effect of such a chemise in movement.



Incense container, Jiangxi province, China and Ottoman Empire,

15th and 18th centuries, glazed porcelain and silver; Benaki Museum 33965

Chinese porcelain must be the most addictive substance on the planet. Its spell, instantaneous and lifelong, has been felt since a potter first tapped a watery-glazed bowl fresh out of a Jingdezhen kiln – and it gave a perfect ring. The enchantment then moved west, across Asia and the Indian Ocean, into the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and the Americas.

By the time this stem cup, destined for drinking wine, is fired, thousands of ceramics are being shipped out of China every month. They are hoarded at palaces in Tabriz and Constantinople, at mansions in Venice and Florence, and at courts in Prague and Lisbon. Porcelain has become the global marker of luxury.

Albeit diminutive, this cup is put to a different, nobler use thousands of miles from its birthplace. Decorated with silver rims and a lid, it is placed on the altar of a church for incense – a markedly insalubrious task compared to that for which it was originally intended. Thanks to this repurposing, ‘incense container 33965’ is one of only two Chinese items – out of over 1,400 kept in storage – that are currently on show at any of the Benaki museums.



Fibula, Alexandria, Egypt,

Third century BC, Gold, garnets, and emeralds, 16cm; Benaki Museum 2062

This gold cloak pin, or ‘fibula,’ fits in the palm of the hand. The crown is no larger than a fingernail. It is shaped like a Corinthian capital, on top of which Aphrodite crouches, wringing her hair. The detail is astonishing, with the goddess’ curls defined with minuscule incisions. Around her sit four cupids, each one holding something associated with Aphrodite’s beauty regime.

Their expressions and gestures are full of charm. One cupid raises his hand to his shoulder and bashfully rests his head on it; a butterfly has alighted there; the winged god is giggling with excitement. This diminutive pin represents the pinnacle of jewellery-making of the Hellenistic period, the (literally) golden age of luxury arts in the Greek ancient world. On the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s conquests, an unprecedented confluence of inspiration, skills, materials, and resources made possible the creation of artworks that combine extravagance, sensitivity, and humour – a recipe for the enjoyment of life.



Embroidered panel, Greece,

18th–19th centuries, silk and gold thread on cotton, 110 x 51 cm; Benaki Museum 6412, donated by Ioannis Trikoglou

From an early age, women in the Greek world were taught to embroider. They used dozens of different stitches to illustrate hundreds of geometric, vegetal, or free-hand motifs. Subject matter was representative of an island, an area, or even a town, and this specificity makes today the provenance of even fragments identifiable; technique offers further clues.

Therefore, it is unusual to be puzzled by a piece of Greek embroidery, and this colourful panel is such a case: Skyros or Ioannina? Eighteenth or nineteenth century? Sampler or table decoration? An enigmatic array of motifs –women, men, fish, men swallowed by fish, animals, harpies, centaurs, trees, ships, vases– is captioned in embroidered cursive: ‘falcon,’ ‘on deer,’ ‘on dogfish,’ etc.

On both ends, couples are guarded by blue lions in golden chains; from behind the lions’ backs, smiling suns rise – emblematic of the zodiac sign of Leo, but also of a few Iranian dynasties. The captions correspond to headings in a 14th-century book on animals, but the derivation of the illustrations remains obscure. Could we be dealing here with the original work of an inventive and educated artist? Or are we glimpsing into a whole genre of embroidery that has been lost to time?



Henry William Pickersgill, R.A. (1782–1875), Greek Girl,

1829, oil on canvas; Benaki Museum 9005, donated by Penelope Rizos-Rangavis

There is more than meets the eye in this painting by English artist H. W. Pickersgill. Superficially, it is an innocuous portrait of a blushing lady in Ottoman upper-class dress and western-European pearl jewellery. She sits on a low banquette, steps on a rosary, and holds a bouquet of flowers; to her left rests a lute; a passionflower bush has pushed a single flower.

Although the painting is redolent of the romanticism that imbued images of Greek youth in the 1820s, at the time of the country’s heroic War of Independence, it speaks of love rather than revolution. This Greek has abandoned her music (the lute) and her religious convictions (the rosary) and daydreams by a passionflower blossom of a lover who presented her with a bouquet – reasons to blush aplenty!

We are looking at an Orientalist vision, one of many popularised by ‘grand tourists’ who fell in love with Greece, its culture, history, and people. Supreme among them was Lord Byron, who died in Missolonghi three years before this work was finished. His portrait in Greek dress hangs on an adjacent wall at the Benaki, in an ideal pairing.



Jean Baptiste Vanmour (1671–1737), Woman from Phanari

Early 18th-century, oil on canvas, 34 x 26 cm; Benaki Museum 9039

There is a beautiful room in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, filled with small canvasses of Orientalist dreams: colourful rooms flooded with light filtering through gilt railings; windows opening onto cypress and rose gardens; bearded gentlemen in tall hats and long robes of silk; regal ladies overlooking the sway of girls dancing in carpeted salons.

They are the work of Flemish painter J. B. Vanmour, who in 1699 accompanied to Constantinople the French Ambassador to the Porte. The painter stayed on after the diplomat returned, and he worked for more patrons, ambassadorial and others, recording events he attended, sights he witnessed, and people he met.

This bejewelled lady probably belonged to one of the Christian elites thriving in the Ottoman capital. Perhaps her mansion graced the coastal strip of Phanari (present-day Fener), the Golden Horn suburb around the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch. Her handkerchief evokes the waft of heady fragrance as she coyly raises it to her decolletage, and her beauty spots, silk mouches stuck over makeup, exude a risqué air. Her moon face graces the cover of our own museum map, suggesting to visitors the marvels they are about to experience.



Ex-voto in the shape of a cot, Ottoman Asia Minor,

19th–early 20th centuries, silver, 15 cm; Benaki Museum 34054

The first time I saw this ex-voto, it brought to mind a work by contemporary Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum (Silence, 1994). It is a cot made of fragile laboratory glass tubes, immeasurably beautiful and evocative but, at the slightest touch, perishable and indeed deadly.

The silver version at the Benaki is more straightforward. It must have accompanied a prayer for the good health of a baby, whose abstracted figure, swaddled in a long dress and dotted with protective crosses, lies on a net of silver wires. Like most ex-votos, this object is charged with emotion – and a feeling of foreboding. It is a reminder of the most delicate age but also of the dangers associated with it.



Martinus Christian Wesseltoft Rørbye (1803–1848), A Greek at the Parthenon,

1835–1836, oil on canvas, 30x41 cm. Benaki Museum 17257

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, ‘grand tourists’ roamed the land of the Greeks in search of antiquities to study, paint, and collect. Fewer among them were those who developed an interest in the lives and culture of the people they met. Most views are taken from a distance, so that they glorify the sublime antiquities. Columns stand tall; statues tower over people, who are depicted merely for scale; the landscape helps the eye escape at the margins of the picture.

However, the gaze of Danish artist Martinus Rørbye - who makes the pilgrimage to Athens in the 1830s, after the country gains its independence - is different. He lowers his eyes and places human subjects, usually in local dress, at the front and in large scale. The models’ perspective becomes our perspective, their existence in the frame humanises haughty classical art.

The man in front of us in this delicate oil sketch is not looking at the Parthenon. Instead, he stares across the plain, to the sea, smoking his pipe. The magnificent columns are covered in a reddish skin. Capitals and other spolia lie scattered. The light is warm and falls from the west – the sun is setting.


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Join us for a tour of the Benaki Museum and its millennia of exceptional artefacts, led by Benaki director, George Manginis. Watch the full video below, filmed and directed for Cabana by Luca Cepparo.


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It is no secret that Cabana is continuously inspired by Greece: its rich heritage of decorative arts, ancient history, and cultural traditions. In our first ever collaboration with a public institution, we have partnered with the Benaki Museum to design an exclusive tableware collection inspired by its traditional Greek textiles and motifs. Following many months delving into the museum’s archives, the collection will present three new linen patterns: Ioannina, Creta and Skyros.

Discover the Collection