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Athos Holy Mount

Church Embroidery

The Original New Testament

The Byzantine world cherished a special fondness for the luxurious textiles made in the palace workshops for Court and Church. The law set their value as equivalent to gold, their export was forbidden and their production and sale strictly controlled. Frequently these costly draperies were given as gifts to adorn the holiest part of the church, the altar. On special occasions – the great feast days, for example, or the visit of a foreign embassy – the Eparch was responsible for decking the city with sumptuous hangings borrowed from the palace and the principal churches; he in turn would enlist the assistance of the city’s goldsmiths and cloth merchants, who would bring out their very finest articles, to be displayed together with the imperial and ecclesiastical treasures.

Today, it is difficult for us even to imagine the wealth of magnificent gold-embroidered textiles that were amassed in the imperial court and the churches: hung from the facades of public buildings on festive occasions, they contributed the brilliance of their purple silks and gold and silver threads to the pomp and splendour of Byzantine ceremonial. The delicacy of their materials, the deliberate destruction of so many to recover the gold used in their manufacture, fire, war and depredation (especially in the wake of the conquest of 1204) – all took their toll of these masterpieces of Byzantine minor arts. Those that have survived are ecclesiastical vestments preserved in the monasteries of the Balkans and the treasuries of the West. These latter were not necessarily part of the booty of the returning Crusaders; many such treasures reached the West perfectly legitimately, since Byzantine missions abroad, foreign embassies to Constantinople, the accession of the ruler of a subject state and the negotiation of a treaty were all occasions on which a Byzantine emperor could parade before foreign eyes the wealth of his realm.

Most of the surviving embroideries belong to the Palaeologan era; there are a very few older articles, but none from before the twelfth century. Echoes of those that have been physically lost are preserved in the texts that gave some idea of their history and beauty.

Although there has been considerable interest in the study of church embroideries since the 1950s, monographs on the subject are still too few to form a picture of the evolution of this art form.

In monumentality of composition, clarity of line and harmony of colour these works are on a par with paintings. They reveal an art perfect in design and execution, and a grace born of transcribing traditional religious motifs to textile. There is, however, no indication of any active collaboration between painter and embroiderer, nor does such a study seem feasible for the moment.

Remarkable indeed is the vitality the needleworker was able to impart to his creations with the modest means at his disposal. These expert craftsmen, fine artists in gold and silver thread, these acu pictores ('painters with the needle') as they are described in the texts, seem to have drawn their inspiration from religious paintings and panel icons. The decoration of an epitrachelion (stole), for example, with the Deesis and the ranked hierarchs, may well be as fine as that in the apse of a church. The representations on these vestments, dictated by a theologian and frequently designed by an experienced painter, take shape at the hand of the embroiderer with his needle and gold thread. Like a liturgy, they transport us from the mundane to the mystical. Painters and embroiderers often reach the same heights, and when the same technical perfection is present these masterpieces are no longer mere objets de vertu, but genuine works of art.

Comparison with painting is not entirely valid however, for these works are set apart by the gold that glisters everywhere among the coloured threads. It is in the work of the goldsmith that parallels should be sought for these embroideries, with their coruscating brilliance and low relief. Furthermore their small size and intended function, serving the same liturgical needs, brings these two genres closer together. To produce an aer like the one from Chelandari (no. 11.18), the embroiderer needed only to transfer to cloth the iconographic composition of the patens. Objects like the reliquary in the Stroganof Collection, with its depiction of the Christ lifeless venerated by two angels, may well have served as models for the embroidery of aers-epitaphioi.

Although it has not yet been studied, the influence of goldsmithry on gold-embroidery is undeniable. Just as the miniaturist at a certain period strove to emulate the goldsmith – and especially the enamelist –, so too did the embroiderer succeed in assimilating this technique to the point where medieval texts compare the skills of the two arts. In many cases the same phrases are used to describe processes applied to textiles and noble metals alike: 'interwoven with gold', 'ungilded' and 'a-jour' are applied equally to both arts. Like the goldsmith – and especially the enamelist – the embroiderer in gold endeavours to set his figures off against a background of imperial purple, violet or deep blue. The same attention is devoted to coloured silks, carefully selected to moderate the brilliance of the gold. Frequently the whole surface is embroidered with fine gold wire: these grounds diapered with arches, lozenges, rinceaux, etc., recall the chased ornamentation on articles of metawork, or filigree work, or even the metal icon revetments.

Both arts make use of gemstones, pearls, enamelling and semiprecious stones. Even the inscriptions neatly set into the borders, or more often filling empty spaces in the ground, are reminiscent of the products of the goldsmith’s art.

In the middle years of the fifteenth century the great centres of Byzantine culture fell, one after the other, into the Ottoman hands: Thessaloniki (1430), Constantinople (1453), Epirus, Mystras, Trebizond (1460). With them disappeared the wealthy ruling class that commissioned gold embroideries. It was not long, however, before the conqueror sought to restore his capital to its former brilliance, resettling there, from Trebizond and its environs, some five thousand families chiefly merchants, artisans and builders. These were soon followed by others, voluntary migrants who wanted to share in the opportunities offered by the renascent city. Greeks and Armenians decorated the gold-embroidered uniforms of the pashas and beys, while master craftsmen newly converted to Islam initiated the Ottomans into the secrets of their profession.

Church embroidery continued in the new social and political clime in the subject territories. The Orthodox clergy not only retained all the privileges it had acquired from the Byzantine emperors, but these were frequently increased. The jurisdiction of the Great Church of Christ was extended to all the Orthodox peoples of the Ottoman Empire. Revenues from vast land-holdings, tax exemptions and gifts from the faithful, enabled it to become a lavish patron of the luxury arts. The patriarchal court and the numerous clergy of the Balkans and the Near East needed vestments: in the devotion of the enslaved Orthodox people the art of the gold-embroiderer flourished.

There were three principal foci of Orthodoxy in the Ottoman world in those centuries. Depicted in a sixteenth-century wall-painting in the Moldavian monastery of Dobrovat, a metochi of the Zographou Monastery, these were the Lavra of St Sabas in Jerusalem, the Monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai, and Mount Athos. The eyes of the entire Orthodox world, and especially its enslaved peoples, were turned towards these three centres. The great merchants who amassed huge fortunes, the members of the new ruling class who rose to prominent positions in the service of the new regime, the Orthodox Russian and Romanian princes, all made regular donations of both money and gifts. The sacristies of these monasteries still contain precious votive offerings that made the long journey from distant Orthodox lands, were paid for by foreign potentates and frequently produced by Greek craftsmen. Unfortunately, relatively few of these treasures are known, and those only through the accounts of travellers such as Marcu Beza, N. Kondakov and G. Millet. Millet, a member of the 1918-20 French Mission to Mount Athos, paid attention to embroideries too, bringing to light a number of exceptional pieces preserved in Athonite monasteries, and for others publishing the inscriptions that are equally valuable to academic research. No systematic study of these votive offerings has yet been made.

The works exhibited here were acquired in one of three ways: as gifts, as bequests or, more rarely, by purchase. It is not always easy to assign each piece to one of these categories, for few of them bear any indication of their origin. This would have been recorded in the codices of the monasteries or in the diptychs, in the case of distinguished donors. Many of these archival documents have been lost to the combined enemies of time and tribulation: the fires, looting, piracy, swingling taxation, fines and confiscations that reduced the monasteries to poverty. This is yet another chapter in the history of Mount Athos that still awaits diligent study.

The aura of sanctity surrounding the centre of Orthodox Christendom that was Mount Athos held a powerful attraction for the Romanians. The Orthodox world that had been deprived of its legitimate protectors found sanctuary, succour and support in the Russian czars, and even more so in the rulers of the Danubian principalities. The voevodes became the new patrons and second founders of the monasteries, repairing and re-decorating their buildings, relieving them of their overwhelming burden of debt, offering icons, vessels, reliquaries, sumptuous vestments, books and manuscripts, even estates in far-away places. All these were given upon the condition that the names of their donors, 'like those of the saint founders', be inscribed during their lifetime in the proskomidi and the great synodicon, and after their death commemorated with kollyva (ritual food), liturgies and agapae (solemn feasts of brotherhood), as was customary for Orthodox emperors.

The monks of Athos repaid this support in many ways. The leading order, the monastic brothers, sent out 'Alms-begging' missions, known as 'zeteies'. The zeteia was not a form of organised mendicancy: on the contrary, the most eminent monks took part in these missions, carrying with them to Moldavia and Wallachia, Kiev and Moscow, manuscript Gospels and liturgical books, as well as chronicles of princes and archbishops, which gave great pleasure to their wealthy patrons. Many of these monks spent years in Russia and the Danubian principalities, contributing significantly to the spiritual life of those distant lands.

The exhibition includes four products of this coexistence. Two were made in Moldavia: the podea from the Monastery of Gregoriou (1500), with the Presentation of the Virgin, apparently a gift from Stefan the Great, and the epitaphios from the Monastery of Vatopedi (1651/2), a gift from the Voevode Basil Lupus. The other two came from Wallachia: the epitrachelion from the Monastery of Simonopetra (early 17th c.), very similar to the Preda Buzesti stole at Meteora although without the portraits of the donors – very often portrayed or vestments from Wallachian workshops – and the famous Blad Ventila podea from the Monastery of Koutloumousiou, with portraits of the donor, his wife and their son; P. S. Nasturel sees in this podea the account of a family drama harrowing the Wallachian court at that time.

On a number of other vestments, all from Greek workshops, the donors are named without being portrayed: these include the hieromonk Simon, the priest Constantine, and Prior Paisios the Ivirite. Through Prior Paisios we learn of the existence of an embroidery workshop in Sinope, the source of a number of embroidered vestments dating from the seventeenth century, some in the Monastery of Iviron (gifts of Patriarch Dionysios IV) and some in the Monastery of Dionysiou. Sinope at that time, and until the nineteenth century, was the principal Ottoman port on the Black Sea, where the Turks had established large shipyard there. In order to attract Greeks from the Asia Minor coast and the Aegean islands, they offered them substantial tax relief. During this same period the city also had a flourishing goldsmiths’ workshop. Greeks coming from Asia Minor to Constantinople also flocked to the city of Bursa, which was the centre of the silk trade; its merchants dealt not only in locally produced silk, but also traded cargoes brought in from Syria and other parts of the East. The tradition of sericulture and silk-work continues to this day in this region.

The art of embroidery seems to have benefited from this prosperity, for by the middle of the sixteenth century orders were being filled not only for Greek patrons but also for the boyars of the Danubian principalities and the Russian nobility and clergy. Patriarch Ieremias, an omophorion of whose is displayed in this Exhibition, is said to have had made, in 1577, 'precious and splendid vestments... robed in which the priests and deacons, when they left the sanctuary and gathered around the patriarchal throne, heads bowed as they intoned the prayer, did resemble the holy angels standing before the Celestial Throne'.

The art of gold embroidery flourished anew in Constantinople in the Phanariote period. Already in the early seventeenth century there were in Moscow splendid prelatic robes, including one known as the 'tsargradski', that is 'from the imperial city', Constantinople. The late seventeenth century was the golden age of the workshop headed by Despineta, daughter or wife of Argyris (1682-1723) of Diplokionion (now the Istanbul suburb of Besictas), the most famous embroidress of the period. Her works are preserved in all the major centres of Orthodox Hellenism, in the Benaki Museum, in Athens, from the Exchange of Populations Fund, and in Romania.

In this new flowering of the art, its basic Byzantine features lived on, now blended with Western influences inevitable in that age. The iconography retained its traditional themes, onto which new naturalistic ornaments were grafted. In the borders, the liturgical inscriptions with their profound theological content gave way to a luxuriant floral decoration of foreign inspiration. Stylistically, the artists sought to replace the austere hieratical figures of the past with more freely and idealistically rendered ones, often with dramatically expressive faces. As in the Byzantine period, the finest materials were used, but a new feature of the Phanariote period was the raised work achieved by padding beneath the gold. As before, small pearls and coloured stones enhanced the magnificence of these vestments.

Another 'mistress' of this art was Mariora (1723-58), who with her pupils (her daughter Sophia and the nuns Sophronia, Areti, Ireni, Agatha and Maria worked mainly on commissions from Patriarch Paisios for the Kamariotissa Monastery in Chalki. Works by her can be found in the Patriarchate, in many Greek churches and monasteries, and in Jerusalem: on display in this Exhibition are the epimanikia (maniples) she embroidered for Patriarch Cyril V. These are unusual both for the material used – velvet, instead of the satin she generally preferred – and for the fact that in addition to her name she has included the title 'Domna', which does not appear in any of her other works, and the phrase 'servant of God', which is repeated on her tombstone in what used to be a chapel of the Kamariotissa. In this work Mariora has obviously followed Western models: the Virgin’s shawl, instead of the mantle, and jewelled crown in front of the halo are details found nowhere else in her work. Her needlework is flawless and as always she uses the choicest materials: gold and silver threads that scintillate in the light, giving an impression of plasticity, and exceptionally fine silks for the faces, relieving them of the austere spirituality of Byzantine art.

Another of Constantinople’s famous embroidresses was Eusebia (1723-35), the creator of the epigonation (genual) made for Gregorios of Bursa, which later passed into the possession of Patriarch Cyril V. She specialised in smaller works – epimanikia, epigonatia, appliques for omophoria – which permitted her to display her consummate skill in the impeccable execution of detailed and intricate work. She too used the finest materials, copious gold and silver threads, their splendour enhanced by pearls. In many cases the luxuriance of the floral motifs tends to eclipse the religious subject, giving these little works of art an almost secular elegance, contrasting with the austerity of the Byzantine period. Their iconography, however, preserves the established themes, with the symbolism standardised over the centuries. The accompanying inscriptions – as for instance here, the sentence written in the open Gospel held by the figure of Christ-Angel: 'no man hath ascended to heaven but he that came down from heaven' – encapsulate in a single phrase the two fundamental themes of Christian cosmology a) the Descent of the Word from heaven to earth (the Incarnation) and from earth into hell (the Anastasis), and b) the glory of the Ascent into heaven (the Ascension). The difference between these two moments is underlined in the New Testament verses John 16: 28 and Ephesians 4: 9-11, analysis of which leads directly to the Symbol of Faith. These were natural themes for Eusebia to develop, living as she did at the heart of the Orthodox world. Dorothea Tsardaka, working in the early years of the twentieth century (1907), preferred more spectacular subjects, such as the view of the Monastery of Simonopetra, which she copied from a copperplate engraving.

After the Treaty of Passarowitz, in which the Sublime Porte made tremendous concessions to Austria, many former citizens of the Ottoman Empire settled in Central Europe, and especially in Vienna, which was a major centre of trade with Turkey. The large community of Greeks (mainly Macedonians from Kozani, Kastoria, Siatista, Melenikon, Doirani and Servia) established there in the eighteenth century played a major role in the economic and intellectual renaissance of the Greek people.

It was in this context that an embroidery workshop was established in Vienna, employing both Greek and local needleworkers, including Elisabeth Dorff (master-embroiderer), Marina Ruheland and Franz Filler. The most famous of them all was a hierodeacon named Christopher Zefar (or Zefarovitch or Zefarovikis), from Doirani, who had lived on Mount Athos, where he learned the art of church embroidery. Zefar, who is claimed by a number of Balkan countries, was not only an embroiderer but also a mural painter and an engraver, works of whom are preserved in Greece, Serbia and Romania, including gold-embroidered epitaphioi and magnificent prelatic sakkoi, such as the one belonging to Dionysios IV (now in the Monastery of Iviron) which with its enamel appliques is a triumph of Baroque art.

In the five epitaphioi in this Exhibition the development of this 'supreme veil', as Theodore Studitis called it can be traced. The epitaphios from the Monastery of Pantokrator, with its simple representation of Christ in the midst of four angel-deacons, is an eucharistic allegory of the Lamb of God, 'the Lord of all, surrounded by angelic hosts', in the words of the hymn sung during the Great Entrance. Through the Liturgy, the congregation of the faithful shares in the adoration of the angelic hosts, just as in the vision of the Revelation, this congregation is gathered round the altar upon which lies the Lamb, 'which was, and is, and is to come' (Rev. 4: 2-11). As in the Revelation, the Christ on the aer has an eschatological significance too: the dead Jesus, King of Glory, lying on the altar is at once the sacrificed Saviour and the Judge. This epitaphios was apparently copied from that of John Cantacuzenos, although the rendering of the figure of Christ lacks the spirituality of the model.

In the aer-epitaphios from the Monastery of Stavronikita this central theme is enriched with full-bodied angel-deacons, the Evangelists, and an elaborate outer band of double wheels (thrones), seraphs and crosses separating them. According to Symeon of Thessaloniki, the inclusion of the symbols of the Evangelists in the four corners of the cloth symbolises 'that the congregation of the Church has come together from the ends of the earth' further heightening the liturgical character of the pall.

The next epitaphios, from the Monastery of Docheiariou, was clearly inspired by the preceding piece. It retains the double border: the first narrow band with the liturgical inscription and the second identical to that of the original, with the addition of four prophets on the sides. The main innovation here, however, lies in the figures in the scene of the Lamentation, set with geometrical precision on either side of the dead Christ. The liturgical inscription, which is not the usual one, is the same as that on an epitaphios in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where, there are only two mourning figures although the liturgical features are the same. Should we assume that the Boston epitaphios came from Mount Athos, where the embroiderer Kallinikos saw it and used it as his model? The question leads to an exploration of the possibility of an Athonite workshop, but this cannot be addressed here.

The epitaphios from the Monastery of the Ascension in Jassy represents the transition to the narrative type of the Lamentation. The composition retains the traditional arrangement in zones, common to the earlier, liturgical, type. The symbols of the Evangelists remain, while the adoring angels have been relegated to the background. The fact that the dedicatory inscription is in Greek should not mislead us into assuming that this is the product of a Greek workshop: the gift of the Voevode and his wife to the metochi of an Athonite monastery would naturally be written in the language of the recipient, who indeed probably composed the text. The style, the use of velvet and the floral border are all typical of Moldavian work.

The iconography of the Pagonis epitaphios is typical of the seventeenth century. Instead of the few attendants upon the dead Christ represented in the previous example, here we have the three Maries, in lamentation, with another three women bowing in grief before the Lord, with Nikodemus leaning against the ladder used for the Deposition from the cross. The composition retains both the cross and the instruments of the Passion, which since the sixteenth century had been a canonical feature of the iconography of the epitaphios. 'The cross is a sacrificial altar. On it was stretched the Lamb, that taketh away the sins of the world ... For the sacrificial gift is great, and by this gift the altar itself is sanctified', wrote Germanos of Constantinople. At the same time, however, the cross proclaims the 'offering of the Crucified to the whole world', according to St John Chrysostom. Indeed, throughout the entire sacrament, the remembrance of the sacrifice on Calvary is accompanied by hymns of triumph. An instrument of execution, the cross is at the same time a symbol of victory. This cross of glory, 'a sign to all mankind', will go before Christ in the Second Coming. In this epitaphios too, the iconography retains its theological character.

The embroideries here exhibited for the first time outside 'the Garden of the Virgin', of outstanding historical, artistic and spiritual significance, have been chosen not just as objects of aesthetic delight, but first and foremost for spiritual reflection.

Maria Theocharis

Bibliography: Frolov 1938, pp. 461-504. Cotass 1940, pp. 87ff. Chatzidaki-Vei 1953. Theochari 1956, pp. 123-47. Theochari 1957, pp. 452-6. Theochari 1959. Theochari 1960. Theochari 1963 (1), pp. 496-503. Theochari 1963 (2). Theochari 1965, pp. 9-15. Theochari 1966-7, pp. 227-41. Johnstone 1967. Theochari 1968, pp. 535-42. Grabar 1972, pp. 125-30. Theochari 1973, pp. 66-8. Bank 1985. Theocharis 1988, pp. 185-217. Theocharis 1990, pp. 231-59. Theocharis 1991, pp. 191-231.

Exhibits per Monastery
Chronological Classification

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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

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