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Athos Holy Mount

Monumental Painting

The Original New Testament

While the oldest churches on Mount Athos – the Protaton and the katholika of the Great Lavra and the Monasteries of Vatopedi, Iviron and Xenophontos – date from the tenth century, no mural decoration from that period remains. Indeed, the only extant examples from the eleventh century are two mosaics in the Monastery of Vatopedi: the Annunciation on the front of the pilasters separating the bema from the parabemata, which from its resemblance to the mosaics in the Nea Moni on the island of Chios can be dated to the middle of the eleventh century, and the Trimorphon (Christ, the Virgin, and St John the Baptist) on the lunette over the main door which, although executed towards the end of the eleventh century, belongs to the anti-classical movement of the middle Byzantine period, best represented by the mosaics in Hosios Loukas in Phocis. A portrait bust of St Nicholas above the gate of the chapel dedicated to him is also probably contemporary. I consider these to be isolated works, probably commemorative or votive images, rather than the beginning of a global decorative programme which, for reasons unknown, was twice interrupted in its early stages. The only other wall mosaic preserved on Mount Athos is an early fourteenth-century Annunciation in the outer narthex of the katholikon of the Monastery of Vatopedi.

It has been calculated that the frescoes decorating the churches and refectories in the monasteries on Mount Athos cover a total surface area of some one hundred thousand square metres. While most of this is post-Byzantine work, the frescoes pre-dating the Fall of Constantinople are not few in number, and include some of the finest masterpieces of Byzantine painting: the mural decoration of the church of the Protaton is one such example.

The oldest wall paintings on Mount Athos are to be found in the Monastery of Vatopedi. Two detached fragments depicting – one – the Embrace of the Apostles Peter and Paul and the other St Mark have recently been attributed to the 1170s (nos. 1.1, 1.2), while some figures of saints and prophets recently revealed in the katholikon probably date from the second half of the twelfth century. The foliate cross and the full-length figures of the Apostles Peter and Paul in the Kellion of Rabdouchou near Karyes date from around 1200. They are marked by a pronounced linear stylisation closely resembling the wall paintings in the hermitage of St Neophytos near Paphos, which date from 1196, and the late twelfth century work at Arkhazi and Nereditsa, in Russia.

The church in the Kellion of the Metamorphosis (Transfiguration) belonging to the Monastery of Chelandari was decorated in about 1260 by a most talented artist, who used rosy flesh tones and green shading to create extremely expressive faces; all that remains, however, is a fragment of the decoration of the apse (no. 1.3). In the conch we have the Virgin, flanked by two angels and holding Christ in a medallion, while the cylindrical section is occupied by frontal hierarchs. A chapel on the upper storey of the Tower of St George, inside the Monastery, is entirely covered with approximately contemporary frescoes; these are inferior in quality but extremely interesting iconographically, for they narrate the life of St George and the Canon for the Dying. From the thirteenth century on Byzantine artists decorating churches, portable icons and manuscripts made more and more use of scenes taken from ecclesiastical hymns. Only three cycles depicting the Canon for the Dying are now extant, and even these are only fragmentary: one is a twelfth-century manuscript Horologion in the Monastery of Leimonos on the island of Lesbos, the second is this mid thirteenth-century fresco in the Monastery of Chelandari, while the third, which dates from the second decade of the fourteenth century, decorates the outer narthex of the Church of Hagia Sophia in Ochrid.

The detached fresco fragment from the Monastery of Vatopedi, depicting the Archangels Gabriel and Michael on either side of the Virgin and Child, has been attributed to the second half of the thirteenth century.

During the reign of Andronicos II Palaeologos three of the most important churches on the Mount were decorated with magnificent frescoes, expressing different manifestations of the Palaeologan Renaissance in painting. The most significant ensemble of monumental painting on Mount Athos is found in the Protaton, the cathedral church as it were of the monastic state. Unlike the various remaining katholika, the Protaton is a basilica, and its mural decoration dates from the late thirteenth century. Later sources attribute it to the Thessalonikan painter Manuel Panselinos, of whom nothing other than his name is known. This attribution to a workshop in the Macedonian capital is confirmed by the close resemblance of the decoration in the Protaton to the wall paintings in the Chapel of St Euthymios in the basilica of St Demetrios, which are dated by inscription to the year 1303. Panselinos’ wall decoration is arranged in four bands. Ranks of full-length saints occupy the top and bottom bands: the youthful martyrs and warrior saints, with their masculine beauty, wear an expression of tranquil serenity, while the faces of the prophets and the hermits, with their piercing and sometimes passionate gaze, betoken an intense spirituality. The middle bands contain scenes from the Gospels; these are not separate, but form continuous friezes permeated with epic inspiration. The four Evangelists, who in domed churches occupy the pendentives, are here placed among the scenes from the Gospels. It has been argued that this iconographic programme is a reflection of the views of the Hesychasts. With its monumental character, its plasticity of modelling, especially in the rendering of the human body, its ample draperies and its light colours, the mural decoration of the Protaton is one of the principal expressions of the cubic or 'voluminous' style characteristic of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century.

A fragment of a fresco from the Great Lavra, with the head of a white-bearded saint, possibly St Nicholas, which probably comes from the initial decoration of its katholikon, is certainly the product of the same workshop.

Two other extremely important ensembles of mural decoration from the same period are preserved in the katholika of the monasteries of Vatopedi and Chelandari. Those in the Vatopedi date from 1312, but in many places the original painting has been covered by more recent work, dating from the seventeenth, eighteenth or nineteenth century. The apse and the bema, for example, were redecorated in 1652, the dome and the pendentives in 1739 and the inner narthex in 1760; the nave of the church was partially redecorated in 1789, while in the outer narthex the original frescoes co-exist with scenes painted in 1819 by artists from Galatista.

One interesting feature is the portrayal in the cylindrical section of the prothesis of four archbishops of Thessaloniki: this may be taken as an indication of the origin of the artists. The nave is decorated with scenes from the Lives of Christ and the Virgin, as well as portraits of a number of saints, some as busts and some full-length. Dominating this area are the populous scenes of the Baptism and the Lamentation, which occupy the lateral half-domes. In many of the figures the head is outlined in white, a detail which also occurs in the outer narthex. Some of the frescoes in the nave have a considerable affinity with the mural decoration of the Protaton, Zica and the Bogorodica Ljeviska in Prizren. Others are characterised by the distortion and the remarkable movement of the figures: this is particularly true of the scenes of the Last Supper and the Washing of the Feet. These two tendencies are also displayed in the outer narthex, whose mural decoration, depicting scenes from the Passion and the Anastasis plus a number of full- or half-figures of saints, is in excellent condition. The first painter preferred rhythmic, monumental compositions with serene and robust figures, reminiscent of those in the Protaton. The other painted tall, slender figures, with small heads, sturdy trunks and misshapen faces; characteristic of his work are the expressionistic distortion of the facial features and the non-organic bulk of the drapery.

The third great ensemble of mural decoration from the reign of Andronicos II Palaeologos is found in the katholikon of the Monastery of Chelandari. Its walls are covered with episodes from the Lives of Christ and the Virgin, prophetic visions, scenes from the lives of saints and a number of portraits of saints. As in the Vatopedi, the dominant scenes are the monumental compositions of the Baptism and the Lamentation occupying the lateral half-domes. These paintings date from around 1320, but unfortunately were over-painted in 1804. It is however possible to form an idea of their style from the few scenes that escaped the nineteenth century renovation and a number of others which were cleaned some twenty-five years ago. The faces are tranquil, the gestures measured and graceful, the modelling soft. The predominant colours are a bright red and a whole range of blues. This work has been variously attributed to Georgios Kalliergis, who in 1315 was working in the Church of Christ in Veroia, to the Thessalonikan painters Michael Astrapas and Eutychios, and to the workshop that was responsible for the decoration of the Church of St Nicholas Orphanos in Thessaloniki at about this same time. Of the three, the last seems the most plausible. The remnants of the initial decoration of the refectory and the cemetery church in the same monastery date from approximately the same period, but are of inferior quality. The frescoes in the Chelandarian metochi of St Basil, which have been almost entirely painted over, probably date from the second quarter of the fourteenth century.

Of the frescoes from the second half of the fourteenth century still preserved on Mount Athos, the most important are those constituting the initial decoration (now largely painted over) of the katholikon of the Monastery of Pantokrator; this work dates from the founding of the monastery, shortly after 1360. This is a most imposing piece of work, both in the monumental size of the individual figures (some of which are 3.5 metres tall) and in the extraordinary freedom of the modelling. The painted decoration of the chapels of Hagioi Anargyroi (Sts Cosmas and Damian) in the Vatopedi and of the Archangels in the Chelandari, also dating from this period, have been largely over-painted. The former shares a number of common features with that in the Church of the Prophet Elijah in Thessaloniki.

The katholika of three more monasteries were decorated during the second quarter of the fifteenth century, when Macedonia had in its entirety fallen to the Ottoman conqueror: those of Konstamonitou (1433), St Paul (1447) and St Panteleimon, situated at an hour’s distance from the present foundation (1451). Of these paintings there remains only a single fragment from the Monastery of St Paul (no. 1.4). This work, representing the head of a saint, most probably Athanasios the Athonite, is characterised by a pronounced linearity and stylisation. The murals on the facade of the Kellion of Prokopios, in the vicinity of the Monastery of Vatopedi, have also been attributed to the first half of the fifteenth century.

Only very few frescoes can be attributed to the second half of that century and the first quarter of the next. The recently cleaned frescoes in the refectory of the Monastery of Xenophontos date from 1496/7. Here the figures are short and squat, entirely without elegance or spirituality. The Koimesis in the narthex of the Protaton dates from 1512, and the decoration of a chapel in the gallery above the narthex from 1526; these were both most likely the work of artists from northern Greece.

Suddenly, starting in 1535 and lasting for the next thirty or so years, there was a veritable frenzy of activity, resulting in the mural decoration of numerous Athonite churches and refectories. The katholikon of the Great Lavra was decorated in 1535, the Kellion of Molyvokklesia (near Karyes) the following year, the Kellion of Prokopios (near Vatopedi) in 1537, the Chapel of the Koimesis in the Monastery of Pantokrator in 1538, the katholikon of the Monastery of Koutloumousiou and the refectory of the Monastery of Philotheou in 1540, the old katholikon of the Monastery of Xenophontos in 1544, the katholikon and the refectory of the Monastery of Stavronikita in 1546, the katholikon of the Monastery of Dionysiou in 1547, the Chapel of St George in the Monastery of St Paul in 1552, the cross-in-square church of St Nicholas, attached to the katholikon of the Great Lavra, in 1560, the narthex of the Xenophontos in 1563, and the katholikon of the Monastery of Docheiariou in 1568. The decoration of the refectory of the Great Lavra, which is approximately contemporary to that in the katholikon, and of the katholikon of the Monastery of Iviron, are not exactly dated.

Most of this body of work belongs to the Cretan School, which flourished from the fifteenth century until the fall of Crete in 1669; and the most important of it all is the 1535 decoration of the katholikon of the Great Lavra, the work of Theophanis Strelitzas, or Bathas, a monk of that foundation who eight years earlier had worked in Meteora. His work is typically firmly drawn, with sharply-defined 'Coptic' drapery and figures remarkable for the serenity of their expression and the restraint of their gestures and attitudes; the composition is always harmonious, and the background generally black. It is based on fifteenth century Cretan prototypes, which harked back to compositions from the late Palaeologan period, and is enriched with discreet borrowings from Italian art. Theophanis is extremely successful in adapting his compositions to the vast surfaces of the Athonite type of katholikon, as well as of the refectory of the Great Lavra, which he also decorated at about this time. A few years later, in 1545-6, he and his son Symeon decorated the much smaller katholikon and refectory of the Monastery of Stavronikita. The majesty and the beauty of Theophanis’ work inspired many other artists, including those who decorated the Molyvokklesia and the Koutloumousiou, and the painter called Zorzis who in 1547 decorated the katholikon of the Monastery of Dionysiou. The frescoes of the large katholikon in the Docheiariou are more calligraphic and stylised.

Only one ensemble of decoration on Mount Athos is attributable to the extremely important workshop known indifferently as the Theban, from the origin of its principal exponents, or of the Northwestern Greece, from the area where most of its extant work may be found. This is the mural decoration of the spacious Chapel of St Nicholas in the Great Lavra (1560), the only signed work by the most important of that group, the Theban Frangos Katelanos. The chief points of difference with the Cretan School are the livelier movement, the intensity of expression in the faces, the brighter colours, the use of relief in the haloes and parts of the dress, and the marked western influence.

An anti-classical trend, lacking the nobility of feature and the eurythmy of composition typical of Theophanis and the other Cretans, is represented by the work of a painter known only as Antonios, who in 1544 signed part of the mural decoration of the older katholikon of the Monastery of Xenophontos. According to Manolis Chatzidakis, it was Antonios who decorated the Kellion of Prokopios in 1537 and in 1552 the Chapel of St George in the Monastery of St Paul (he rejects the earlier dating of 1423).

The first decades of the seventeenth century saw the Cretan painter Merkourios working on the Holy Mount; Chatzidakis describes him as displaying great technical skill but revealing little artistic personality. In 1622 Georgios Mitrophanovic, the most important Serbian painter of the seventeenth century and a monk in the Chelandari, decorated the refectory of the monastery. It was also during this period that extensive narrative cycles of the Apocalypse began to appear on Mount Athos, heavily influenced by German engravings of the Renaissance. During the second half of the century no major work was done; the only mural decoration was of a host of small chapels, and was no more than mediocre, a far cry from the excellence of the Cretan School.

During the first forty years of the next century Mount Athos was the centre of a movement which sought to return to the Palaeologan prototypes of four hundred years earlier and which stressed imitation of the work of Panselinos. The theoretical exponent of this trend was the painter and monk Dionysios, from Fournas in the district of Eurytania who, between 1728 and 1733, wrote a Painter’s Manual, which advised hagiographers to apply themselves to their work from their childhood and to imitate 'as far as possible that splendid luminary from Thessaloniki, Master Manuel Panselinos'. He himself decorated the walls of the church of the kellion in Karyes to which he retired (1711). To this movement, of which the principal characteristics are the broadness of modelling, luminous colours and the suggestion of body volume, belong the decoration of the narthex of the Chapel of the Virgin Koukouzelissa in the Great Lavra (1715), which has been attributed to David of Selenitza, the Chapel of St Demetrios attached to the katholikon of the Monastery of Vatopedi, which is the work of Kosmas of Lemnos (1721), and the outer narthex of the katholikon of the Monastery of Docheiariou. This same period also saw the revival of a conservative movement characterised by flat figures and pronounced linearity of design: the principal exponent of this school was Damaskinos of Ioannina, who decorated the katholikon of the Monastery of Karakalou (1716) and the nave of the Chapel of the Virgin Koukouzelissa in the Great Lavra (1719).

During the second half of the eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth, the artists commissioned to decorate Athonite churches and refectories were mainly from the central Balkans. Thus it was that the middle of the eighteenth century saw a band of monk-painters from Ioannina working in the Monasteries of Pantokrator and Karakalou, while the brothers Constantine and Athanasios from Korytsa painted the katholika of the Monasteries of Philotheou (1752 and 1765) and Xeropotamou (1783) and the kyriakon of the Skete of Xenophontos (1766). In the first two decades of the nineteenth century artists from Galatista decorated at least eight chapels and narthexes of katholika; in 1852 the outer narthex of the katholikon of the Great Lavra was decorated by Zacharias Christou Zographos, the most important representative of the Samokov workshop near Sofia, and two years later the Chapel of the Hagioi Saranta (the Forty Martyrs) by Manuel Georgiou of Selitza, near Siatista. The work of these painters is remarkable for its luminous colouring, the sweetness of the faces, and the enrichment of the iconography with edifying scenes and episodes from the Old Testament and the Apocalypse.

To sum up, then, the following conclusions may be drawn from this brief survey of nine centuries of monumental painting on Mount Athos:

1. Very few wall mosaics have been preserved, and those only isolated examples, while a number of other monasteries remote from major urban centres, such as Hosios Loukas in Phocis and the Nea Moni on the island of Chios, were decorated with impressive mosaic ensembles.

2. The chronological distribution of the decoration of the Athonite monasteries is unequal. Certain periods, such as the Macedonian and the Comnenian, are hardly represented, and there is very little from the period of the Angeloi, the thirteenth century or the early Ottoman era. Similarly unequal is the representation of the various schools and workshops: the Kastoria workshop, for example, which was extremely active in western Macedonia and the Northern Balkans in the late fifteenth century, is entirely absent, as are the painters of Linotopi, whose activity extended from Aetolia to northern Macedonia from the middle of the sixteenth to the middle of the seventeenth century. Wall painting on Mount Athos enjoyed two periods of superb achievement: these were indisputably the first quarter of the fourteenth century, when artists from Thessaloniki created the astounding corpus of work in the Protaton, the Vatopedi, the Chelandari and, apparently, a number of others, although these works have been lost, and the second and third quarters of the sixteenth century, when the Athonite authorities commissioned work to the best artists of the Cretan School and the Theban workshop.

3. Mount Athos was not an autonomous art centre, but an importer of painters and artistic movements. The sole exception was the reversion to Palaeologan tradition in the first half of the eighteenth century, a movement that developed on Mount Athos and was expounded by an Athonite monk (Dionysios of Fourna), but did not influence monumental painting in other places.

4. Few of the painters of the Byzantine period and the first centuries of the Ottoman occupation of whom anything is known were monks; the exceptions, however, included such outstanding figures as Theophanis the Cretan and Georgios Mitrophanovic. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, by contrast, most of the decorating was done by monk-painters.

5. Artistic creation was of course affected by the political and economic situation. It is not fortuitous that the most important works date from the reign of Andronicos II, who was favourably disposed towards the monks, nor that the intense activity of the second and third quarters of the sixteenth century ceased abruptly with the confiscation of ecclesiastical property by Selim II in 1568 and the economic crisis which followed the devaluation of the Ottoman currency in 1586.

6. Little is known of the patrons who made this work possible, at least during the Byzantine period. The decoration of the katholikon of the Monastery of Chelandari was paid for by King Milutin of Serbia, and that of the Monastery of Pantokrator by its founders, who were members of the Byzantine aristocracy; while the decoration of the Chapel of Hagioi Anargyroi in the Vatopedi and of the katholikon of the Monastery of St Paul was paid for by Serbian rulers. More is known about the mural decoration executed during the period of the Ottoman occupation: of the important sixteenth-century works some were the gift of Moldo-Wallachian or Georgian rulers (the katholikon of the Monastery of Dionysiou and the refectory of Philotheou, respectively), while others, such as the katholika and the refectories of the Great Lavra and the Monastery of Stavronikita were the gift of high-ranking prelates. The frescoes in the katholikon of the Monastery of Koutloumousiou and in the chapel decorated by Frangos Katelanos in the Great Lavra were paid for by Athonite monks. Most of the decoration effected in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century was paid for by the monks themselves, some by lay patrons and in a very few instances by rulers of the Danubian principalities or by bishops.

Panagiotis L. Vocotopoulos

Bibliography: Millet - Pargoire - Petit 1904. Millet 1927. Djuric 1964, pp. 59-98. Chatzidakis 1969-70, pp. 309-52. Chatzidakis 1975 (1), pp. 83-93. Djuric 1978, pp. 31-61. Chatzidakis 1982 (2), pp. 296-305, 340-51, 414-25. Chatzidakis 1986 (1). Chatzidakis 1987. Kalomoirakis 1989-90, pp. 197-218. Kalomoirakis 1990, pp. 73-100. Djuric 1991, pp. 37-81. Steppan 1994, pp. 87-122. Tsigaridas 1994 (1), pp. 315-68. Tsigaridas 1994 (2), pp. 317-24. Tsigaridas 1996 (3), pp. 219-84. Tsigaridas 1996 (4), pp. 147-60. Tsigaridas 1996 (5), pp. 401-25.

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