Antique Greek Tools Achieve a Higher Purpose

by Mary Papoutsy

Pantelis Mountis, owner of eponymously
named store.
Photos by author.
On a visit last year to Athens, we happened to meet a master woodworker at his shop, George Mountis. Intrigued by the exquisitely carved wooden furniture and ecclesiastical items, we paused to ask questions about his work and his life story. The tale that unfolded about his upbringing, his defeat of adversity, won our admiration.

But the craftsman wished instead to talk of his children, how proud he was of them, how grateful he was to have such good children. At the close of our conversation, he urged us to visit his son's shop which was "just around the corner" from his workshop. We bid farewell, promising to go to the other store.

As it happened, however, we became too busy to visit the son's store, but kept the business card that the father had given us. On our next visit to Athens, we brought with us copies of the article that we had written about his father, complete with photos. Delighted to see us, the son remembered that his father had mentioned our visit a few months earlier. And, despite siesta-time, the gracious son ushered us into a store whose wares mesmerized us.

Breathtaking icons and gleaming religious items shone from every corner of this neat and attractive store. We turned slowly in our spots, taking in the cornucopia of sights. Burnished censors reflected strong sunlight off to the right behind showcases. In front of us icons of every size held our gaze. Off to the left, large, intricately carved icon stands impressed us with their delicate filigree--clearly the work of highly skilled artisans. And in the recesses of the store, we spotted immense icons of unusual size on curved wooden planks. Perhaps it was the angle of the light at that time of day, but it seemed to us if the entire collection emitted a golden glow, each halo bursting forth from the confines of its painted demarcation.

As we marveled, Pantelis Mountis, the proprietor, related that his store was really a family venture. His father, whom we had already met, prepared the wooden materials and items, while his sister and mother painted the icons. He himself managed their retail store on Ag. Filotheis Street (they have another on Apollonos St.), and in his rare leisure time, he liked to travel to distant mountain villages to search for antique wooden tools. Acquiring these vintage implements was a hobby for him; he would bring them back to his family and they, in turn, would condition the wood and paint icons upon them.

Bread bowl converted into Nativity scene
"Really?" we asked him. "Your mother and sister paint on wooden tools?" we asked again, unable to hide our disbelief. With twinkling eyes, he beckoned us to the rear of the store. Behind his desk, he slowly drew out a 5-foot tall wooden board bearing an oversized icon on the top section. We stared for a few moments at the bold colors, looking up and down at the gigantic image before us, taking in the imagery. While he waited for us to absorb this revelation, he quietly pulled out a similar, but smaller, piece of wood.

He explained that he had just recently acquired this antique tool. It had the same flat underbelly and end curvature as the larger piece, but this one had not yet been conditioned for painting. The underside of this heavy plank still bore the markings of protuberances that were used in threshing grain. Farmers (or their donkeys) used to drag this board over the harvested grain to separate the chaff. Pantelis explained that children would often ride on the tops of the boards to help weigh them down--a hay-ride of sorts--an activity which they all enjoyed. Rescued from oblivion, this particular threshing board now depicted the fateful end of St. John the Baptist. A fitting transformation, we reflected, for a wooden tool that had once separated the wheat from the chaff.

Smaller implements could also serve as boards for icons, too. Pantelis then brought out several wooden bread bowls--large, oblong, and shallow-- which bore striking images. Vividly leaping out from one large bowl was a Nativity scene, skillfully painted across the inner curve of the bowl. Our minds quickly recognized, again, the interesting selection of iconographic imagery by the artist: just as the bowl formerly brought forth a loaf of bread, in the Nativity scene, too, a Child was brought forth into the world. Were these choices deliberate?

It seemed quite ironical to us that vintage tools of so long ago, roughly hewn from different types of wood by local farmers and craftsmen, would undergo a transformation from helping to feed the physical body to helping sustain the spiritual body as holy icons. Nevertheless, these "reconditioned" tools had managed to transcend the purely physical with their vivid rebirth into the ecclesiastical world--all thanks to the creative and dedicated efforts of the superbly talented Mountis family.

Threshing board--icon of St. John the Baptist

Store interior--wall of personal icons

(Posted originally 11 Nov 2006; reformatted 21 Mar 2014.)

Mary Papoutsy is a Classicist and former educator at the secondary and collegiate levels. She lectures on the Classics and Hellenic genealogy, having established the Hellenic Historical and Genealogical Association in 2000. Mrs. Papoutsy and her husband, Christos, are active members of Hellenic communities in the U.S. and elsewhere. Together they created the Christos and Mary Papoutsy Endowed Chair in Business Ethics at Southern New Hampshire University, the John C. Rouman Classical Lecture Series Endowment at the University of New Hampshire, and the Christos and Mary Papoutsy Vatoussa, Lesvos Revitalization Foundation. In 2000 they founded Hellenic Communication Service, and continue to serve as its publishers. For more information about Mr. and Mrs. Papoutsy, see the About Us section of the HCS Home Page at .

HCS readers who have enjoyed this article may wish to read others in the Travel section of the Site archives, especially "Athens: A Study in Contrasts of Expression."

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