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Athos Holy Mount

8.4 Iconostasis from the Protaton
Karyes. Holy Community Building
Wood. Hieromonk Neophytos



The Original New Testament

As has already been pointed out, the Protaton iconostasis of 1611 is the oldest and most important work of seventeenth-century wood-carving on Mount Athos.

Its creator, the monk Neophytos, moved away from a strict adherence to the styles and techniques of marble-carving and, by exploiting the technical potentialities of wood, gave his work a style of its own. He also considerably increased the number of zones above the despotic icons and thus opened the way for the spare, simple sixteenth-century epistyle to become the high entablature that would later turn the iconostasis into an impenetrable barrier between the nave and the sanctuary. Most important of all, however, is the fact that this evolution in style and form, which would certainly never have been possible without earlier developments, are made in a work of an extremely high artistic quality, in which old and new elements, both traditional and introduced from abroad, are combined in a perfect structure of supreme Orthodox spiritual presence.

The original marble parapet of the Protaton's Byzantine templon serves as the lower section of the present iconostasis (Orlandos 1953, pp. 83-91; cf. no. 6.1). Apart from colonnettes, the zone of the despotic icons also has a row of arched finials, the augmented epistyle comprises the zone of icons of the Dodekaorton together with another five relatively wide and twelve narrow relief zones, and the whole culminates in a pyramidoid scheme, formed by the great cross and the lypira. The zone of despotic icons and the section of the epistyle displayed in the exhibition, as also the zone of the Dodekaorton and the section with the inscriptions, are now kept in the vestibule and meeting chamber of the Holy Community Building, and the cross and lypira in the sacristy.

The colonnettes in the zone of despotic icons rest on and are crowned with Corinthianising capitals, and their whole surface is covered with loosely intertwining vine-shoots, which emerge from elaborately decorated little amphorae and are interspersed with bunches of grapes and vine leaves. On the row of arched finials the vine-shoots, which emerge from vases, apart from leaves, half-leaves, and grapes, are also enriched with pine cones, pecking birds, and buds; over the Royal Door the composition is even more complex, and done in fretwork. The whole section is covered with writhing tendrils with half-leaves, oak leaves, roses, and pine cones around the axis of the composition, which is marked by an open vessel containing sprigs and above it a smaller one with two confronted birds bending over it. On the slightly projecting epistyle, the three principal zones of the section (8.4a) displayed in the exhibition present a continuous succession of motifs between narrow bands of stylised leaves, ovolo mouldings, and astragals, and a rather broader band of acanthus leaves. In the middle of the lowest zone is a mask, from the mouth of which emerge vine-shoots, which go curling off to the sides, with leaves and birds pecking at bunches of grapes among them on a dark blue ground. In the middle zone, which is done in fretwork, narrow beaded bands form an interlacing pattern, interrupted at regular intervals by vertical branches and pairs of birds. The third zone too is fretted and consists of a row of vertical branches.

The base of the cross and the lypira (8.4b) consist of two curved sections decorated with spiral beaded bands, leaves, and flowers. In the middle of each one is a rectangular panel with a majuscule inscription, and between the two panels is the motif of the Pelican in her piety.

The upper inscription runs:


(We worship in the place where thy feet have trod, Lord +1611. Footstool +7199 [=1611]);

And the lower:


(+Finely worked by the hand of Neophytos, hieromonk, surnamed Routis. Pray for him).

In the Protaton iconostasis, hieromonk Neophytos married elements from the thematic repertory of both west (the mask and the vases, for instance) and east (the roses). But he selected and integrated them with the Byzantine themes with such subtlety and discretion that, despite these borrowings, he created a complete, consummate, purely post-Byzantine composition of high artistic quality, which set an example for all subsequent craftsmen to follow.

Bibliography: Corovic-Ljubinkovic 1965, pp. 114ff., 157ff., pl. LXIV. Corovic-Ljubinkovic 1966, pp. 126-7, fig. 2. Tsaparlis 1980, pp. 30-1, pl. 2.

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