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Athos Holy Mount

Illuminated Manuscripts

The Original New Testament

Despite the terrible losses of manuscripts suffered down the centuries, no other place on earth offers such a full and continuous record of the art of manuscript illumination as do the libraries on Mount Athos. Their importance to Orthodoxy and Western civilization is immense; they display the splendour of Mount Athos, the diversity of Christian thought and the evolution of Byzantine art. There is evidence of bibliographical activity on Mount Athos from the earliest days of its foundation. The manuscripts which have at various times been illuminated on Athos have an eclectic character, bearing as they do connections with the art of Constantinople as well as more ancient traditions. After the year 1300 the influence of the monumental art of Athos and Thessaloniki is evident. Numerous manuscripts, however, came to Mount Athos as donations of the faithful: the precious gifts of lords and emperors, the offerings of humble monks, priests and patriarchs who withdrew to the Mountain at various times, and also of devout pilgrims. This legacy has been piously preserved in the monasteries, sketae and kellia.

Immediately after the defeat of Iconoclasm a special edition of the psalter was brought out in Constantinople illuminated with miniatures in the margins (probably AD 843-7 or 857-65). The finest and richest copy of this edition is to be found at the Monastery of Pantokrator (Cod. 61). The miniatures depict scenes relating to the Iconoclastic controversy or display the correspondence between the Old and the New Testament. The representations stand out for the expressiveness of the figures, the dramatic compositions and their directness, a quality which was not to recur in Byzantine art.

Another luxurious edition of a psalter with full-page miniatures, a Constantinopolitan creation, is the eleventh-century Cod. 3 of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection in Washington (formerly Pantokrator Cod. 49). This stands out for its personifications, such as those of Night and the Dawn in the Prayer of Isaiah, which clearly preserved the classical style which had prevailed in Constantinople in the tenth century, during the Macedonian Renaissance. One of the most important examples of the classical revival in the art of the tenth century is the Four Gospels (Tetraevangelon) of the Monastery of Stavronikita (Cod. 43). The portraits of the Evangelists are copies of types which had been created at the beginning of the fourth century and which were derived from statues of ancient philosophers and dramatists placed at the proscenia of Roman theatres (see also Philotheou Cod. 33). This discovery is the result of one of the most exciting 'detective-style' investigations in the history of Byzantine art. There are also other types, such as the marvellous standing figures of the Evangelists in Cod. 1387 (247i) of the Monastery of Iviron, from about the year 950. In the Four Gospels of the Monastery of Stavronikita, in the decoration of the canon tables, there appears a type of ornament which was to become firmly established in Byzantine art. This type of rich illumination in general, in contrast with the simple decoration of the manuscripts produced on the Holy Mountain in the early years after its foundation, is an integral part of the Byzantine manuscript, rivalling the works fashioned in enamel or gold.

The rendering of the human form in the classical style, typical of the works of the Macedonian era, fades in the following centuries. Dematerialized faces prevail, markedly spiritual in expression, particularly in works of the eleventh century. The influence of the liturgy is profound, particularly on liturgical manuscripts, above all those of the lectionary (Evangelistarion or Evangelion), the book which contains the daily Gospel readings appointed for the immovable and movable feasts of the Church, set out in accordance with the ecclesiastical calendar. The most important lectionaries of the tenth and eleventh centuries, sumptuous manuscripts, have been preserved on Athos. The following are worthy of mention here: Dionysiou Cod. 547i, a lectionary of the third quarter of the eleventh century, the product of an imperial monastery in Constantinople, whose miniatures are true masterpieces; behind the clothing, which preserves the richness of tenth-century classical art, there are ascetic figures, which move in icon-like settings and express states of mind which were to occur two hundred years later in the work of Giotto; Iviron Cod. 1, with its monumental compositions; Panteleimon Cod. 2, one of the most important Athonite codices, with its liturgical peculiarities and artistic echoes of centres far removed from the capital; and the lectionary in the sacristy of the Great Lavra, which tradition associates with the Emperor Nicephoros Phocas, a friend of St Athanasios the Athonite. The three full-page miniatures of this manuscript are superb products of an imperial workshop (ca. 1120-30), with a dazzling wealth of ornamentation. The Nativity is one of the most beautiful examples of illumination of the Gospel lections for the eve and feast-day of Christmas.

The dematerialization and ornamental tendency which mark the eleventh and twelfth centuries are also evident in other liturgical manuscripts of the period. In the menologia the lives of the saints are usually short and illuminated with a portrait of the saint or a scene from his martyrdom (e.g. Docheiariou Cod. 5). Codex K122 of the Great Lavra, though not a menologion, contains the Life and testament of St Athanasios the Athonite, and has a full-page portrait of him, executed in watercolour on the Holy Mountain in the middle of the eleventh century. It is a spiritual image of the saint, which served as a model for subsequent portraits of him in manuscripts, icons and wall-paintings. Also unique is Cod. 14 of the Monastery of Esphigmenou, with its detailed illumination of the lives of eight saints and one homily on the Nativity, whose miniatures evoke pastoral scenes and the world of Greek mythology. The same world is evoked by two of the most important copies of the liturgical edition of the Homilies of Gregory Nazianzene (the sixteen homilies of his which are read out in church) which date from the same period (Dionysiou Cod. 61 and Panteleimon Cod. 6).

Apart from the patristic and liturgical texts, however, which make up the majority, there are other illustrated texts from the Byzantine era, such as the De materia medica (The Materials of Medicine), a botanical treatise by Dioskorides, a botanist of the 1st century AD, which has survived in many copies. The illumination of Cod. U75 of the Great Lavra, one of the most notable manuscripts on Mount Athos (11th-12th c.), follows an ancient tradition which in the tenth century was enriched with scenes of a classical character. Thus the realistic pictures of the plants acquired a human interest.

The last phase of Byzantium is also represented by works of unique value. Of the five copies of the Octateuch (the first eight books of the Old Testament) which have survived in the whole world, the thirteenth-century copy of Vatopedi Monastery is the most faithful rendering of an ancient prototype which is now lost. The cinematographic presentation of the events and the role of colour in the composition are characteristic features of this manuscript, which was probably produced in Constantinople. In contrast with the narrative character of the Octateuch, the Book of Job, which was dearly loved by the faithful, has a contemplative character and its illumination is confined to scenes of discourses. The Great Lavra copy (Cod. B.100) stands out for its expressionistic style. In the thirteenth century extensive iconographic cycles may also be observed in the four Gospels (e.g. Iviron Cod. 5).

As early as the late twelfth century iconographic and stylistic changes begin to appear in the four Gospels and lectionaries. An important one is the revival of an old tradition according to which the Evangelist is accompanied either by a personification of inspiration, his amanuensis or his symbol (e.g. Pantokrator Cod. 234 and Koutloumousiou Cod. 61). This representation was to continue in use later (e.g. Chelandari Cod. 13i and Koutloumousiou Cod. 283, from before 1362, and Koutloumousiou Cod. 291 from the year 1576) and would become thematically linked with monumental art. Stylistically, however, the works from the last phase of Byzantium display an emotional agitation. For example, the Evangelists in Iviron Cod. 5, Philotheou Cod. 5 and Pantokrator Cod. 47 are bursting with a barely restrainable explosive energy. The spirit cannot be contained within earthly bodies. The conflict between body and spirit expresses man's restless desire to encounter God.

Amongst the books of an edifying character, such as The Heavenly Ladder of John Klimax, is the romance of Barlaam and Ioasaph. Of the copies still in existence, the thirteenth-century Cod. 463 of Iviron Monastery is the earliest and the most richly illuminated. The artistic ingenuity of the composition and the liveliness of the narration give this work a special place in the history of Byzantine art.

In post-Byzantine times manuscripts, particularly of the liturgy, were produced in large quantities on Mount Athos. They impress by the wealth of their decoration and reveal artistic currents emanating from different areas of the Orthodox world, chiefly the Danubian principalities and Russia.

The cycle of copying and reading in which the monks were engaged was considerable. The reading of books, however, was also possible through their illuminations; the illustrations drew their substance from the inner life of the monks and through them this life was raised to a plane of spiritual contemplation which gradually led to union with the Divine. The manuscripts of Mount Athos give us a full picture of the spiritual role of illumination. The human form remains the main means of expression, created by the artist either by drawing on the legacy of Hellenism or through a process of dematerialization or transcendence – an endeavour to express in paint the sanctification and deification of man, which will eventually bring about the transformation of the universe and the return of the lost paradise. Seen in this light, like Orthodoxy itself, the illuminated manuscripts of Mount Athos know no geographical bounds.

George Galavaris

Bibliography: Weitzmann 1935, 1. Thesauroi 1973. Thesauroi 1975. Galavaris 1978. Thesauroi 1979. Kadas 1983. Thesauroi 1991. Galavaris 1995 (1). Galavaris 1995 (2). Mavropoulou-Tsioumi 1996. Weitzmann 1996, 2.

Exhibits per Monastery
Chronological Classification

The Authentic Greek New Testament Bilingual New Testament I

Icon of the Mother of God and New Testament Reader Promote Greek Learning
Three Millennia of Greek Literature

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