Holy Mountain: Icons from Mount Athos and Photographs by Frank Horlbeck

January 27–March 26, 2017
Oscar F. and Louise Greiner Mayer Gallery


Mount Athos is a remote and rugged peninsula in Northeastern Greece about 100 miles from the city of Thessaloniki. It is considered among the most sacred sites for the Eastern Orthodox Christianity, a place of particular devotion to the Virgin Mary. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is home to over 2000 Orthodox monks and twenty historic monasteries built during the Byzantine Empire as early as the 10th century. The terms monk and monastery, which derive from the Greek “monos”—meaning one or alone--refer to the solitary life of celibate men living a life devoted to seeking God in prayer and worship. Although solitary hermits first inhabited the peninsula in the fourth century, the earliest extant monastic buildings date from the second half of the tenth century when cenobitic or communal monasticism began to flourish. The first of these new monasteries, the Great Lavra was founded by Saint Athanasios of Athos in 963 at the southern tip of Athos beneath the summit of the mountain. The patronage of Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros Phocas established a long tradition of generous imperial donations that contributed to the lavishly appointed church interiors, icons and relic collections of the Athonite peninsula and allowed the monasteries to survive long after the collapse of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks. Largely protected by the Ottoman Empire, Mount Athos gained independence and joined mainland Greece in 1912.

This exhibition is about the sacred landscapes, monastic buildings, icons and rituals of monastic life. As entrance to the Holy Mountain is legally forbidden to women, except for the Virgin Mary herself, and only a limited number of male pilgrims is admitted, the photographs in this exhibition offer a rare glimpse of the Holy Mountain for the general public. The photographer, Emeritus Professor of Art History, Frank Horlbeck has made documented all aspects of the landscape, architecture and life of the monks during frequent extended visits to the Holy Mountain between the 1970s and 2015. Like many “documentary” photographers Frank Horlbeck uses the medium to record the historic architecture and icons of Mount Athos, including its ongoing transformations due to frequent fires and renovations. But his photographs are more than mere records of the past, or illustrations for teaching; they capture the spirit of the place and its people through unanticipated views of rituals, chance encounters with individuals and through the varied lighting and compositions which frame the confluence of landscape and man-made enclosure in picturesque and sublime views.

The exhibition includes about fifty digital prints made from a collection of over 20,000 slides and digital images to tell the story of Mount Athos in four distinctive sections: Monks and the Rituals of Daily Life; Sacred Landscape and Monastic Enclosure; Architecture and Sacred Space; and Icons. The last of these sections includes fourteen contemporary icons made by monks of Mount Athos, collected by Frank Horlbeck. Two icons stand out because they were made by Orthodox nuns. While nuns can’t come to Athos, the Athonite monks support a number of convents on the mainland, including the convent of Akritohori from which the embroidery of Christ, and the icon of John the Baptist come.

Generous support for this exhibition has been provided by the Chazen Museum of Art, the Chipstone Foundation of Milwaukee, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison Department of Art History.


This exhibition was researched and organized by Prof. Thomas Dale and the students in his curatorial studies class: Ellyn Baski, LauraLee Brott, Chloe Butler, Kristin Edwards, Özlem Eren, Matteuz Ferens, Benjamin Huang, Juri Lee, Claire MacDonald, Jenna Madsen, and Michelle Prestholt.