From expedition to exhibition: Princeton’s Mount Athos collection

Jun 12, 2019

In 1929 a group of three men, including a Princeton alumnus, traveled to Mount Athos and Meteora on an unofficial expedition “to obtain cinematographic and pictorial record of life and architecture of ancient monasteries.” Nearly 90 years later, the expedition’s collections, which include photographs and film footage, were serendipitously discovered in Princeton’s McCormick Hall.

Today, the Department of Art and Archeology’s Julia Gearhart, curator of image and historic collections, and Maria Alessia Rossi, a postdoctoral fellow at the Index of Medieval Art, have curated an exhibition that displays some of these amazing finds on the walls of McCormick, the home of art and archeology. 

In this article, Gearheart and Rossi share their research findings about the expedition and its members, the collection’s incredible discovery story, and the plans for the future of the Mount Athos collection.

Discovering the collection

The collections of the 1929 expedition were discovered when items were moved out of the “Expedition Room” — where the archives of the department archaeological expeditions were stored — on the third floor of McCormick Hall. A barrel in the corner turned out to hold nine canisters of nitrate film of which only half were able to be digitized due to serious deterioration. One of the barrels had the name of Gordon McCormick, department alumnus and architect, and sleuthing led to the names of Hollywood cinematographer Floyd Crosby, and Russian émigré and painter Vladimir Perfilieff. While doing an inventory of a separate collection 254 photographic prints were recognized as being part of the same journey.

Mount Athos

Another important re-discovery was recently made: many years ago, Dimitri Gondicas, director of the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies, and William Childs, former professor of classical art and archaeology, looked through the department lantern slide collection for original photography of Athens. Though they did not find what they were looking for, Gondicas saw a drawer labeled “Mt. Athos” and brought it back to Visual Resources. There it sat until we realized that these 81 glass lantern slides were also from the 1929 expedition. 

Finally, it was once again Gondicas who casually mentioned some watercolors of Mount Athos in the graphic arts collection of the library. While we can’t say for sure, we believe these watercolors to be the work of the expedition’s captain, Vladimir “Vovo” Perfilieff.

Uncovering the story

A large portion of the footage and several of the lantern slides are devoted to an encounter between the three explorers (Crosby, McCormick, and Vovo), and Father Ilya, a hermit that lived near the monastery of St. Panteleimon on Mount Athos.

Ilya

At a first glance, these images speak to the rare artistic documentation of a different time and place, and its profound spirituality. But the story of the expedition is not as straightforward as it might seem. Vovo was born a Cossack in Eastern Siberia, served in World War I, then fled to the United States after the Bolshevik revolution. He crafted a persona in the U.S. built on his being a rugged explorer, artist and soldier. This persona was his means of supporting himself. He hired a manager and traveled a lecture circuit regaling audiences with stories of his life. We do not know exactly how Vovo ended up befriending McCormick, but as a student, poet Struthers Burt remembered that Vovo spoke almost no English but the word “cocka-tail.”

Father Ilya also might not be who he seems. He is not wearing the black attire typical of monks and his beard is well trimmed. Probably most telling of all, he is not surrounded by icons. Icons can be found all over Mount Athos and in particular decorating the living quarters of hermits. Could it be possible then that Father Ilya was just an actor?

Another fascinating aspect of the expedition is Crosby’s role as cinematographer. How difficult it would have been to carry the camera equipment up the steep trails in Meteora, to hang the camera out of a monastery window in order to get an angled shot of people on the trails, and to capture the interior of a cave with no electricity! Crosby was clearly a major talent who was interested in pushing the limits of this new technology. In fact, he would later be the first person to film in color underwater.

Floyd

Following the 1929 expedition, he met up with the directors Robert J. Flaherty and F.W. Murnau in Tahiti to shoot a film, using the same camera he used on Mount Athos, for which he would earn an Oscar in cinematography at the fourth annual Academy Awards in 1931. One can sense in the 1929 film footage his adeptness with distance and landscape which you see in his later film “High Noon” (1952), for which he won a Golden Globe for cinematography. It is simply amazing that we have found, in 2017 and at Princeton, the first footage of such a talented Hollywood legend.

Turning the collection into an exhibition

Princeton’s ties to Mount Athos go far beyond the 1929 expedition. Mount Athos features prominently in Byzantine and Medieval studies, particularly manuscripts. The Department of Art and Archaeology holds the collection of images taken in 1935 by former art and archeology professor Kurt Weitzmann of manuscripts from various monasteries on Mount Athos. Because of the historic difficulty of traveling to Mount Athos, as well as the difficulty of obtaining photography of items within the monasteries, these images have served scholars at Princeton and beyond in the study of manuscripts and iconography for decades. Requests for these images continue as the department has become known for them and those of Byzantine icons of Mount Sinai (Egypt), another photographic expedition Weitzmann made in the late 1950s.

Given the quality of the cinematographic and photographic material, as well as the incredible story behind this 1929 expedition, it did not take long for the idea of exhibition to develop. As we started researching the material we decided, with the support of Gondicas, to screen the footage as part of the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies event series and at the Symposium “Eclecticism at the Edges: Medieval Art and Architecture at the Crossroads of the Latin, Greek, and Slavic Cultural Spheres (c.1300-c.1550).”

We also began reaching out to monasteries on Mount Athos and Meteora to help us with the identification of buildings and with retrieving information regarding the expedition. These contacts have led us to an important collaboration with the Mount Athos Center in Thessaloniki. The outcomes will be a website catalogue of the collection (housed and managed by art and archeology) and a travelling exhibition that will first be presented in Thessaloniki in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Mount Athos center.

The recent acquisition of a topographical engraving representing Mount Athos, gift of the Program in Hellenic Studies with the support of the Stanley J. Seeger Hellenic Fund and matching funds provided by a gift of The Orpheus Trust to the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies, reproduced as part of our exhibition itself, exemplifies the significance and lasting influence of this renowned Orthodox center well beyond the Art and Archaeology Department to the broader Princeton community.

We are also planning a screening and an additional exhibition in the Princeton Athens Center for Research and Hellenic Studies in 2020.
 

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