on Mount Athos
The monastic state of Mount Athos began to take shape on the Chalkidiki peninsula in the tenth century as a result of the pioneering work of St Athanasios the Athonite, a monk from Asia Minor who founded the first large monastery of the Great Lavra, thereby introducing this new, organized institution into what was then a world of hermits.
Today there are twenty inhabited monasteries and many smaller monastic units – metochia and sketae – which together form a unique state which has been, and continues to be, home for thousands of monks, who are more truly citizens of heaven than of earth. This 'sacred place', Athos, has experienced a continuous course of development that has enabled strong traditions to form on many levels, both in the sphere of communal acts of worship and also in the lifestyle of the monks, who have expressed not only their faith in the doctrines of Orthodoxy but also their firmly-held conviction that the Mountain is a bastion against her enemies, be they from other races or of heretical persuasions.
These ideas are expressed in all the artistic manifestations of monastic life – architecture, sculpture, painting, frescoes, portable icons, illuminated ecclesiastical books, and even the sacred vessels and implements used in acts of worship or as church furnishings.
In the Byzantine era the founders of the oldest and largest monasteries were laymen and monks of high standing – members of the imperial court, if they were not the emperors themselves – and their foundations are built in the form of fortresses, which enclose and protect impressive churches of intricate design, large adjacent refectories and numerous chapels, together with the quarters of the hegumen, long multiple storeys of monks' cells and other ancillary buildings. Down the centuries this ensemble changed character as each era replaced earlier buildings regarded as obsolete or added new ones. The result is that today each monastery constitutes a complex of buildings which is impressive in both size and morphological diversity, often consisting as it does of a large assemblage of buildings of different styles and periods, which together form an expression of a closed world, a fact which itself lends each of the monasteries a unique and inimitable character.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to claim that the Byzantine architecture on Athos displays any local peculiarities of technique. Even the so-called 'Athonite type' of church, the triconch, has ceased to be designated thus since it was proved that the Byzantine triconch churches on Athos had originally been built as regular cross-in-square churches to which the two lateral apses were added later, as examples in the 'outside world' prove. On another level, however, it is indeed a rare thing to find so many complexes of an ecclesiastical character gathered together within a particular area.
The important thing is that the founders belonged to the highest echelons of society – at the Great Lavra, for example, apart from the emperors Nicephoros Phocas and John Tzimiskis, another great benefactor was the personal friend of Nicephoros and patron of Athanasios, the immensely wealthy Georgian dignitary (and later monk) John the Iberian, the 'great Tornikios', and his son Euthymios, who founded, amongst others, the great monastery of Iviron. The result was that in all of these large prototypes – the Great Lavra, Vatopedi and Iviron – all of which date from the tenth century, the churches bear all the characteristics of Constantinopolitan architecture.
The whole range of ecclesiastical buildings at each monastery is represented by a wide variety of architectural types. The numerous chapels are a typical case, each type possessing as it does a distinct function, whether it forms part of the large central katholikon, where it is often dedicated to the veneration of a holy relic, or located in one of the four corners of each floor of the building housing the monks' cells (taking the form of a simple room), or situated within a tower, or set in a conspicuous position within a courtyard, or sited near the entrance gates (portes) and thus dedicated to the Virgin Portaοtissa, or surmounted by a dome and situated in a metochi, kathisma or monastery harbour. Together they present a wide range of types from all historical periods, which employ the same means and techniques of construction and decoration as those used outside Athos – that is, in northern Greece – and display a parallel course of development to that of the architecture in this region as a whole.
During the post-Byzantine era many monasteries of considerable size and artistic wealth were built, perhaps the largest and most important of this period, since the donations received from benefactors – in particular the rulers of Wallachia, who sought to be recognized as heirs of the Byzantine emperors – were very generous. This phenomenon illustrates the irresistible hold that Mount Athos exerted on the Orthodox peoples of the Balkans. In no wise, however, did the benefactors influence the art or methods of the local craftsmen, who continued successfully to apply traditional Byzantine techniques up to the year 1900 (Monastery of Simonopetra, 1902).
Of quite a different character, however, was the strong, invasive presence of the Russian Church on Mount Athos in the nineteenth century, which introduced a massive, Russian scale to the monastic architecture, including the Russian type of church with large 'onion-shaped' domes, not only at the Russian Monastery of Panteleimon but at a whole host of Russian metochia – usually built out of scale with their surroundings – which were scattered everywhere, thus altering the traditional form of the Athonite landscape.
Nevertheless, the numerous katholika built during the post-Byzantine era (at Stavronikita, Docheiariou, Dionysiou, Koutloumousiou, Philotheou etc.), following as they do older local models, continue the cross-in-square type of church with lateral apses and external bays, features which by now constituted a true characteristic of Athonite architecture. During this period, it should be noted, there are important differences in the lay-out of each complex, a feature which depends on the formation of the available land, which in many cases by this time is considerably limited. Owing to their prestigious origins, these features generally came to be included as essential components in the monastic architecture of the age, not only in Greece but throughout the Balkans.
It should be added that amongst the existing buildings in all of the monasteries there survive a considerable number of edifices of secular character dating from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, unique examples of northern Greek secular architecture which have not yet been studied.
There are few surviving examples of painting from the early centuries of organized monastic life on Mount Athos. There certainly used to be more, for it is not possible that the katholikon of the Great Lavra can have remained unadorned by wall paintings until what is probably the only attested instance of its decoration with frescoes in the late thirteenth century. These hypothetical original eleventh-century wall paintings must have been covered over by later layers, since the monastery enjoys a continuous history. The same may be assumed in the case of the Monastery of Iviron.
Certain mosaic representations executed in a luxurious style at the Monastery of Vatopedi appear fragmentary and isolated, and probably did not form part of an overall scheme of decoration. These representations are the mid-eleventh-century Annunciation to the Virgin, high up on the faces of the two sanctuary piers, and the large late eleventh-century Deesis above the entrance to the inner narthex. A second, fourteenth-century representation of the Annunciation survives on either side of the same entrance. It should be noted that the monastery is in fact dedicated to the Annunciation to the Virgin. These works echo the appeal of the original patrons that their buildings should be endowed with a majesty befitting an emperor. In them, of course, may be discerned the characteristics of the art of the capital (e.g. Hosios Loukas and the Nea Moni on Chios).
At the Monastery of Xenophontos survive two large mosaic icons from the eleventh to twelfth century depicting St George and St Demetrios standing, which, on account of their size, are unlikely to have formed part of the decoration of a wall.
Few frescoes survive from the same early period, i.e. before the twelfth century. From the closing years of this century date a few fragments only of the mural decoration of the demolished refectory of Vatopedi Monastery (1199): two heads from the embracing figures of St Peter and St Paul, and the head of the Apostle Mark (?), works executed in one of the prevalent styles of the age, the most austere and expressive (Neredica). Fragments depicting the same apostles standing survive in the Kellion of Rabdouchou; they display a distinctive lighting technique, and may be dated to the early thirteenth century.
The art of fresco painting reached its peak on Athos in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century, and it is no accident that this apogee coincides with the reign of Andronicos II Palaeologos (1282-1328), an emperor who adopted the opposite policy to his father, Michael VIII Palaeologos, who had earned a bad reputation in monastic circles. Andronicos was an ardent supporter of the monks in their opposition to the union of Orthodoxy with the Catholic West. During this period the frescoes on Athos are more extensive than those in other areas because they usually cover buildings of a greater age and size. The works of this period possess a markedly avant-garde character, with the so-called 'voluminous style' and the use of vivid realistic features in the rendering of the faces and the real-life elements of the compositions. They both continue and elevate the great tradition of the thirteenth century, as we know it chiefly from those monuments still surviving in the former domains of King Milutin – in which artists from Thessaloniki worked. In the theological subject-matter, too, there are quite a few innovations at this time.
Perhaps the oldest monument of fresco painting from this new flowering is the central church of Athos, that of the Protaton in the capital Karyes, which takes the form of a basilica, as was customary for metropolitan churches. On the large wall-surfaces, in two broad bands, are depicted a number of scenes from the Gospels and the Life of the Virgin, while in two long narrower zones there are full-length figures of Biblical patriarchs and prophets above, and warrior-saints below. In the spacious sanctuary there are principally representations of Athonite saints. In such an extensive mural decoration it is natural that there should be no absolute uniformity of technique; there is, however, a uniformity of style. Thus it is very likely that at least another two painters assisted the master craftsman, though in the same spirit – in the rendering of the bulky figures with their impressive gestures, and the particularly effective execution of the angry faces of the old men, and the frequently restless lean warrior-saints heavily clad in their splendid suits of armour. The skill at portraiture which is evident in these works – a skill which lends a certain distinctive, realistic ethos to the hundreds of figures portrayed – is of no ordinary kind. The scenes contain settings which were common in the Palaeologan era, with elaborate architecture and figures moving about in a crowded landscape. Finally, this whole impressive tableau of human figures – so striking for its size, vividness and abundance of forms, and its bright, glowing, phantasmagorical colours – conveys a feeling of serene grandeur, which, where necessary, does not lack a certain grace, a scent of Hellenistic art.
The name of the painter who created this work – Manuel Panselinos from Thessaloniki – had assumed a mythical status in the Athonite tradition. This is not without significance as an indication of the important role painting of high quality played in the Byzantine Orthodox world, which regarded a consummate artist or painter as a great hero, surpassing even the great ascetics in fame. The correctness of the tradition regarding Panselinos's origins is confirmed by the fact that his art resembles other works of the period by other well-known painters from Thessaloniki, such as Eutychios and Michael, who painted the Peribleptos at Ochrid (1295) in a style closely akin to that of the Protaton. The Athonite frescoes, however, are generally superior in composition and in quality, so they are likely to be of earlier date (ca. 1290) and to have served as a model for the Ochrid frescoes.
It is very likely that Panselinos – or one of his colleagues – worked on the outer narthex of the Monastery of Vatopedi (1312). This other painter, however, who remains anonymous, took pleasure in employing elements of Panselinos's style (e.g. the portrait of St Neilos at Protaton) though with a tendency to excess, which is frequently so unnatural as to become mannered, though eminently expressive, with the result that the nobility evident in Panselinos's creations is lost, especially in the group portraits. The recently cleaned frescoes in the katholikon and narthex of Vatopedi Monastery have greatly enriched the repository of Palaeologan art on Athos. It is also likely that Panselinos spent some time at the Great Lavra, judging by the superb head of St Nicholas on a unique fragment of a fresco which has survived there.
At the Serbian Monastery of Chelandari worked another painter from Thessaloniki (see Hagios Nikolaos Orphanos) in about the year 1320. The second half of the fourteenth century saw a return to the style of Panselinos, as may be witnessed in the katholikon of the Monastery of Pantokrator. Amongst the few Byzantine frescoes which still survive (1370?) stands out that of the Deesis, with its three figures of colossal size (3 m.), a representation which covers the whole of the west wall.
There are few frescoes on the Mountain of fifteenth-century date, as is to be expected, following the falls of Constantinople and Thessaloniki. Amongst the remains of original ensembles stand out those in the refectory of the Monastery of Xenophontos (1496), where the Byzantine tradition survives with considerable vigour, while in a structure of slightly later date (1526), the Chapel of St John the Prodrome at the Protaton, the tradition of the fifteenth century has been continued on a technical level but is devoid of inspiration.
The call to remedy this impoverished state of art in mainland Greece was answered by Cretan painters, who were well equipped for the task. On Venetian-occupied Crete, painters of not always local origin had cultivated the art of the portable icon to a high degree, creating an organized basis for its large-scale manufacture and systematic exportation which made Crete the most important artistic centre in the Orthodox world during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Cretan painters who went to Athos were ready to organise rich iconographic programmes for huge areas – on a scale, that is, which bore no relation to that of the churches on Crete, with whose mural decoration they had not been concerned.
One figure who stands out is the monk Theophanis Strelitzas or Bathas (d. 1559), together with his two sons, who were also painters. Theophanis came to the Great Lavra in 1535, after finishing a work at the Meteora (1527). At Lavra he adorned with superb frescoes the large katholikon, the large domeless refectory which had recently been restored after the earthquake in 1529, part of the Docheion (oil storeroom) and the kitchen, as well as the entire refectory facade. This Cretan painter, whose knowledge of grammar was somewhat wanting, shows marvellous skill in arranging and adapting his compositions to suit the available surfaces, and in harmonizing the elegant, Hellenising figures and serene, balanced compositions he had inherited from fifteenth-century Cretan art – now of a monumental character – all in low relief against a black background with a ground-surface of green, in dominant earth colours and subtle harmonies. He created ensembles of an impeccably Orthodox character, befitting the good taste of the monastic public he was catering for and fulfilling the expectations of his patrons, who included a Patriarch, an exiled Bishop of Veroia, an extremely wealthy Bishop of Serres, and other leading Orthodox clerics.
Endowed with these qualities – high art, a rich stock of iconographic material and, above all, representations of a doctrinally impeccable character – this Cretan emigrant painting radiated its influence beyond the bounds of Athos – becoming, it could be said, the official model art of the Church, whose fame endured until the late eighteenth century, when Theophanis was believed to have been a pupil of Panselinos. Theophanis and his sons also worked at the Monastery of Stavronikita (1546), on the katholikon and the refectory, and certainly also outside Athos, where he painted a large number of portable icons (see below).
Apart from Theophanis and his family, another Cretan painter worked on Athos at this time – Zorzis, who painted the katholikon of the Monastery of Dionysiou in 1547, in a style which was in all respects very similar to that of Theophanis. Perhaps he should be credited with the frescoes in the lofty church of Docheiariou Monastery, executed in 1568, since the rich iconographic repertory there combines elements from programmes employed in both the Stavronikita refectory and katholikon.
It was also in the sixteenth century that the frescoes in the katholikon of the Monastery of Xenophontos were executed – by two painters, one of whom remains anonymous. The other, whose name is known to us, is Antonios, who did not belong to the Cretan School either in respect of his style – judging by the overpainted frescoes – or his arrangement of the iconographic programme (1544). To him have also been ascribed the frescoes in the Chapel of St George at the Monastery of St Paul (1552), as well as those in the Kellion of Prokopios (1537). His art is rooted in local traditions, though it is influenced by the frescoes executed by his Cretan contemporaries in the large monasteries.
The Theban painter Frangos Katelanos appeared on the Holy Mountain for the first time in 1560, a year after the death of Theophanis. He painted the large Chapel of St Nicholas at the Great Lavra (1560), and this is the only known work bearing the painter's signature. His art, which is of a high quality, has a different style – less austere, with compositions that make freer use of movement and space than contemporary Cretan painting – although his technique is fairly similar. It is also possible that he worked in the katholikon of the Monastery of Iviron (the anonymous and undated frescoes).
The flowering of the sixteenth century, which was fostered in part by certain favourable measures of the Ottoman state, was succeeded by a period of stagnation and graceless repetitions in the seventeenth century, which was characterised by a curious tendency to break away from the influence of the Cretan models – a phenomenon not unrelated to the gradual arrival on Athos of painters from western Greece, who brought with them various forms of local art of a different standard and probably rural provenance, and also the development of humble local workshops by monks.
In the eighteenth century painting on Athos acquired a distinctive character, for during this period a style was developed with particularly local characteristics. An example of this is the way in which the painter Dionysios from Fourna in the Agrapha, the author of the Painter's Manual (Hermeneia, ca. 1730) and painter of a chapel at Karyes (1711), taught himself the painter's art on Athos itself, and in his works the influence of the Protaton frescoes is clear. In his manual he shows himself to be a staunch supporter and pupil of Panselinos, exhorting his own pupils to model themselves on the latter's works.
This retrospective tendency appears to form part of a general trend on Athos to return to Palaeologan models – reflecting the rate of development of Byzantine painting, which advanced by returning to earlier periods of artistic greatness, over the course of at least a thousand years. Dionysios is not the only one: other painters share the same tendency, such as David of Selenitsa, from Avlona in Albania. The latter decorated the large narthex of the Chapel of the Portaοtissa at the Great Lavra (1715), and also worked in Moschopolis and Kastoria. He is a more refined copyist and more creative in the production of non-traditional scenes, where a Western influence may be discerned. Another important contemporary painter of the same tendency is Kosmas of Lemnos – unknown elsewhere – who decorated the whole of the Chapel of St Demetrios at the Monastery of Vatopedi, an interesting work from a chromatic point of view. The painter of the outer narthex of the Monastery of Docheiariou remains anonymous, as does the one who decorated the narthex of Stavronikita. It has been observed that these frescoes from the first half of the eighteenth century influenced a series of painters – all from western Greece – who worked on Athos in the second half of the century. At this time a more erudite form of painting developed on the Mountain (Monastery of Xeropotamou). This tendency also influenced many Balkan painters. At the same time, of course, the traditional style of painting of the seventeenth century continued to be practised.
Mural decoration, which is more strongly connected with worship on Athos than elsewhere, is a permanent object of concern for its monks, in terms of both its doctrinal Orthodoxy and artistic quality. This is why the best painters of the age have always been called in from the outside world. It was not easy for a local school to develop during the Byzantine era, when there were few new large or restored buildings. In post-Byzantine times, however, the number of new buildings of any size was much larger, which created suitable conditions for the formation of a local tradition through the works of crews who worked continuously on the peninsula.
Although the number of portable icons to be found in the monasteries of Athos and their dependencies today is considerable, the number of surviving Byzantine icons – those dating from before the Fall of Constantinople – used to be considered quite limited. Research, however, together with the organised programme of restoration and conservation by the Archaeological Service, has brought to light a very large number of excellent icons, many of which still await full publication.
As a rule, the Athonite monks have considered icons to be the most sacred things in their possession. The foundation of many of the monasteries is associated with the discovery or presence of a miracle-working icon, and these relics inspire awe, accompanied as they are by wondrous stories of divine intervention in man's everyday affairs, of life and death, of the power to protect, punish or heal. Many are associated with imperial donations of early Byzantine times, which increases the historical prestige of the monastery concerned. These icons, which are often covered by a silver revetment, have been shown to date from different historical periods.
The oldest known icon, dated to the end of the eleventh century, is that at the Great Lavra depicting the Five saints of Sebasteia, which it is certain adorned the chapel housing the 'relic' of St Eustratios that had been donated to the monastery by the Emperors Basil II and Constantine VIII in 978. Its style resembles that of the miniature of Botaneiatis in the Coislin 79 manuscript in Paris (1078).
Certain icons, such as that of St Panteleimon at Lavra, belong to about the same period, while a large St Peter of monumental importance at the Protaton belongs to the twelfth century, judging by its close resemblance to the beautiful frescoes at Nerezi (1160). To the twelfth century must also belong the large mosaic icon of the Virgin at the Monastery of Chelandari. The number of icons on Athos which can be ascribed to the twelfth century is not very large, although this does not mean that they did not exist. Written evidence informs us that a small monastery like that of Xylourgou (1142) possessed at least 110 icons and it is certain that the imperial patrons donated many and fine icons. The development at this time of the sanctuary screen into an iconostasis with a more or less fixed iconographic programme lent great impetus to the production of devotional icons, epistyle icons, icons of the Dodekaorton, and icons depicting the Great Deesis, with numerous apostolic figures surrounding the central Trimorphon (Christ, the Virgin and St John the Baptist), surmounted by a large cross together with the lypira. The oldest icons in this series are to be found in the Monastery of St Catherine on Sinai, although, as we have noted, at the Monastery of Vatopedi there exists at least one large epistyle with icons from the early thirteenth century, in four continuous sections depicting 15 feasts. There also exist icons from twelfth- and thirteenth-century epistyles at the Great Lavra, some of which have been detached and are now in Russia.
The largest number of icons found on Athos in recent decades belong to the Palaeologan era. Curiously, not many icons of the Dodekaorton were produced during this time, whereas the number of Apostolika produced – in the form of large, separate icons – was considerable. The icons of apostles at the Monastery of Chelandari, dating from the fourteenth century, are well known, as are those at Vatopedi, where some beautiful devotional icons also survive. Particularly worthy of note are the two beautiful large icons at Vatopedi of the Virgin and the Hospitality of Abraham, with their contemporary gilt 'jackets', and also the large Deposition from the Cross in the same monastery, where many other iconostasis icons from the same period exist. There are also double-sided icons, such as those of the Virgin and St Athanasios and the Virgin and St John the Baptist, both of which are in the Monastery of Pantokrator. Each monastery possesses numerous icons in addition to those on the iconostasis, which are intended to occupy a particular chapel or other location in the monastery or may be simply offerings from monks or emperors, such as the superb small mosaic icon of St John the Evangelist at Lavra, a late thirteenth-century work (by Panselinos?) with an enamelled mount, attributed to John Tzimiskis. Also worthy of mention is another notable painted icon at Lavra with the rare subject of the Three Discoveries of the Head of St John the Baptist, an outstanding fourteenth-century work of manifold importance.
All of these numerous, superb Palaeologan icons – many more await publication – are works of high quality, and can only be products of an important centre such as Constantinople or Thessaloniki. To the same era belongs another category of icons, the mosaic ones, most of which are preserved on Athos. They are small in size and magnificently crafted, with tiny tesserae and usually a gold background, and are all of pre-fifteenth-century date. Some have already been noted, although there are larger ones, such as that of St Nicholas at Stavronikita.
As was noted earlier, the sixteenth century saw the arrival on Athos of the Cretan painters, who had great experience of painting portable icons. It is clear that wherever they executed ensembles of frescoes they also provided icons for the new iconostases, which themselves were the work of Cretan wood-carvers. This is certainly true of the group of icons on the iconostasis – now out of use – for the katholikon of the Great Lavra, consisting of despotic icons, icons of the Dodekaorton, and the crucifix with the two lypira, the work of Theophanis Strelitzas Bathas (1535), who also painted the same series together with the Apostolika at the Monastery of Stavronikita (1546). Icons by Theophanis are also to be found at the Monastery of Pantokrator, at Iviron (a beautiful series of the Dodekaorton in a side-chapel), and at the Protaton (seven Apostolika-icons of the Great Deesis, executed in 1542). At the Monastery of Dionysiou another important Cretan painter, the priest Euphrosynos, has left his signature on five Apostolika (1542). A large number of Cretan icons, including triptychs, adorn the churches of Athos, amongst which is a unique creation by Michael Damaskinos (Monastery of Stavronikita).
After the sixteenth century the presence of Cretan painters was rare. It was time for painters, monks or otherwise, to appear from western Greece, Epirus and western Macedonia, together with the fresco-painters who introduced a new, more popular style of art (see the section above on frescoes).
Local workshops may be traced in icons bearing the signatures of monks. The most widely known are a group from the late eighteenth century, the best-known of all being that of Makarios from Galatista in Chalkidiki. The number of icons from this period is certainly large and includes many that were donated to Athos by monks or other pilgrims. To this period also belong various celebrated icons, such as the Axion Estin.
In this text we had the difficult task of providing a general outline of the main points in the development of the principal arts of this singular society of monks which is assembled on the long rugged peninsula that culminates in the impressive peak of Mount Athos itself. This society, however, has maintained indissoluble links with the 'world', which has offered and provided it not only with earthly goods but also spiritual riches. The works which embody this relationship – the phenomenon called 'The Treasures of Mount Athos' – have been kept for centuries in the fortress-like monasteries, essentially inaccessible to lay visitors from the outside world and totally inaccessible to half the population of the human race.
The organization of this magnificent exhibition in the great city of Thessaloniki constitutes a true break with this age-old tradition. Thessaloniki, which was essentially the cradle of this hallowed artistic activity, now bears witness to the diverse art forms and devotional practices of Athos, allowing visitors to the exhibition, in this, their first contact with the treasures, to appreciate each exhibit on the basis of their own knowledge of the subject.
The aim of this text, together with the other learned commentaries in the catalogue, is to enhance this knowledge, and this should not only be of great benefit to visitors but also assist in promoting a proper understanding between this heavenly state of Athos and the 'world'. I earnestly hope that we have achieved our aim.
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