Who we are, the AXIA story

We have been specialists in Early Christian, Byzantine & Islamic art since 1975

Hello and welcome to our website.  My name is Yanni Petsopoulos, the founder of AXIA, a specialist art business which opened its doors in London in 1975

Our story begins a few years earlier, at the beginning of the 1970s, during my years of training as an architect at London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture (the AA). A research project there exposed me to the interaction between Christian and Muslim architecture in the eastern Mediterranean world. The realisation that these two cultures cross-fertilised each other across the entire spectrum of artistic creativity sparked in me a life-long fascination with the past of that part of the world, a fascination which has been at the heart of my personal interests and professional activities ever since. The principal vehicle I chose to pursue them has been the trade in the artifacts from the early Christian, Byzantine and Islamic worlds. Alongside, I pursued my research and academic interests in my subjects as author and publisher.

The section ‘Milestones' highlights a few of AXIA’s past successes now in major institutional collections. The larger ‘Portfolio’ section shows our current offerings. The selection of items it contains may at first sight appear random; it is not. I have included pieces which in their individual ways represent different aspects of the multifaceted artistic production in the Eastern Mediterranean world. By deliberate choice, I have not confined myself to ‘important’ masterpieces, though there is a fair number of items that merit that label; nor do they all fit into easily definable categories. Indeed, in the section ‘For the Discerning’ we have included some modest pieces which nonetheless speak eloquently to me about the skills and sensitivity of the unknown artists and artisans who created them and about the richness and diversity of the culture that brought them about. What I hope to put across through the objects on this website is my approach to looking at and understanding the relics of a long-gone past.

This approach has been honed over 40 years, but perhaps the one event which set its course is worth recounting. It happened on my first visit to Russia in 1971, very much the Soviet Union in those days. The purpose of my trip was to look at the frescoes in churches and the early icons in museums, since I had until then only known the aspects of this art in the Greek South of ‘the Byzantine Commonwealth’. My trip to Moscow had been arranged by my close friend Johnny Stuart. Through him, I had the privilege to meet in Moscow’s Grabar Institute the great icon restorer and painter Adolf Ovchinikov. As I did not speak a word of Russian, the painter Sergei Essayan acted as my interpreter. Adolf Nikolayevich was never one to mince his words. When it came to icons, he had a poor opinion of most art historians and their pronouncements. He insisted that to understand an art so different to western painting which lay at the root of Art History as a discipline, one had to approach icons the way their creators did. To him, there were two prerequisites. The first required one to learn the complex language of strokes and rhythms at the heart of icon painting; how these changed with scale and adapted in accordance to the distance the icon was to be viewed from. He held that this could only be learned by copying the masters, by which he meant tracing their strokes on oiled paper placed over a full size image of the original. Moreover, for an art which had been going on for over a millennium and evolved—albeit subtly—with time and place, understanding and recognising the variations was not something which could be learned overnight; a lifetime might just suffice!

His second diktat came as even more of a surprise. He insisted that on first exposure, an icon should always be taken to a dark room with an open window and lit only with candles or oil lamps. This way, the play of the flickering flames on the icon’s surface would make the figures come alive and appear to the viewer as the artist intended. Without replicating the conditions an icon’s creator had expected it to be seen in, one would never understand the purpose and role of things like the chrysography highlighting the garments. Only after one had thoroughly absorbed its ‘aura’ should it be looked at under bright electric light to be examined in detail. The demonstration he made in an annex to his studio left me speechless.

Unknown to me at the time, this encounter was to have a determining influence on my future career. The broader lesson I learned from it was that knowledge from books and from looking at objects behind glass in museum cases could only ever tell part of their story, and in many cases, not necessarily the most significant part. In a nutshell, it was all about gaining first-hand experience of the art and familiarity with ancient techniques which can only be obtained through touching, handling and looking, looking and looking again. Another word for this is connoisseurship, a word which then already was beginning to be shunned as elitist by the new climate which was starting to permeate art-historical education. I could not then and cannot now disagree more with the disavowal of connoisseurship. To me, the necessity of making value judgements is at the heart of understanding and appreciating art. Doing so serves to focus and refine one’s own set of criteria and helps one to define excellence in concrete terms. I have always believed that being non-judgemental when faced with paintings or works or art of varying quality is to dodge the central question: that of recognizing beauty coupled with mastery.

It is with these ideas firmly in my mind that I chose AXIA as the name for my art business. In Greek, the word means merit, value, or worth. Latin translators of Aristotle interpreted ‘something with axia’ as something of importance; something esteemed; something that must be respected. They translated axia as dignitas. In keeping with its name, AXIA has over the last 42 years supplied works of art redolent of dignitas to many of the major museums and private collectors across the world.

AXIA continues along this path and we hope you will find our current offerings on this website equally worthy of merit. The broad range of the material we hold includes ceramics; textiles, from courtly silks to village weavings; architectural decorative elements in wood, marble or stone; metalwork in gold, silver or bronze; precious jewellery, but most importantly, icons, the ultimate artistic expression of Byzantine spirituality.

For ease of use and navigation, all the items shown on the website are presented to you in a standard format, each provided with all the salient information a potential buyer would want. Moreover, the quality of our images and the special zooming facility we provide will allow you to focus on even the smallest detail of an item. There are pieces, however, where for a variety of reasons a more thorough treatment and discussion—including putting them in context with comparative material—is required. In these cases, you will find in the item’s standard entry a button ‘See extended entry’. We encourage you to read these illustrated essays on a device larger than a smartphone.

We always welcome feedback and would like to hear from you. Please get in touch with us at [email protected]

Yanni Petsopoulos