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Vladimir Putin and the painted skulls

Art historian Paul Koudounaris asked permission to photograph skulls at Mount Athos in Greece. And it seems he was not the first to make that request

California-based art historian Paul Koudou-naris admits he is "a bit macabre". He has spent three years touring ancient ossuaries, documenting seldom-seen artworks crafted from human bones.

His journey led him to Mount Athos in Greece. "Every Orthodox country has a monastery there," he says. "They paint the skulls to identify the bones of monks raised to sainthood. The Russian monks on Athos are the Rembrandts of skull-painting. I dearly wanted to photograph those skulls."

So Koudounaris asked if he could. "It was like going to see the Wizard of Oz. I was on my knees before this old abbot who looked like Rasputin." The answer was no: nothing personal, but he had to comply with God's wishes.

As he turned to leave, the abbot told him that another man had once come with the same request. His name? Vladimir Putin. "He visited the monastery, and even gave them $1m for repairs," says Koudounaris. "Putin asked if he might take some photos of the skulls, but they told him no." Then the abbot offered something more: "If it makes you feel better, frankly you are a much better photographer than Putin."


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