The Wall-paintings of the Exonarthex29 October 2011
Of the wall-paintings of the katholikon, of particular icongraphic and artistic interest are those of the exonarthex67. These wall-paintings, which have survived without the over-painting or later interventions which have occurred in the nave, co-exist in the same space with wall-paintings of 1819, the work of an artist, Veniamin, and his assistants from Galatista in Chalcidice68.
What is striking about the Palaeologan wall-paintings of the exonarthex is not only the high quality of the painting, with its variety of modes of expression, but their exceptional state of preservation, their bright colours surviving in excellent condition – as emerged after the removal of the layer of soot which covered them.
These wall-paintings have as their subjects the Passion and Resurrection of Christ and are laid out in the uppermost band of decoration of the exonarthex. This cycle from the life of Christ consists of 14 scenes, which unfold on the walls of the exonarthex as a continuous narrative. They are complemented by figures, full-length or in bust form, of prophets and saints, shown on the western wall. More specifically, on the north wall the scenes depicted are the Lord’s Supper , the Washing of the Disciples’ Feet , and Christ explaining the meaning of the Washing of the Feet to the Apostles.
On the east wall the scenes are the three episodes from the Prayer on the Mount of Olives,
the Betrayal by Judas,
and Christ being led to the Praetorium. On the south wall, where the scenes from the Passion and Resurrection continue, they are arranged in three bands, as follows: in the upper band, as a continuous narrative, the Scourging of Christ, the preparations for the Crucifixion – the scene of the Crucifixion is omitted – the Deposition from the Cross, and the Lamentation at the Tomb.
In the central band of the south wall we have, as separate pictures, the Stone sealing the Tomb,
and the Descent into Hell,
while two subjects appear in the bottom band which have to do with the appearances of Christ to the Apostles after the Resurrection: the ‘Peace be with You’
and Doubting Thomas.
On the west wall, on the lunette of the entrance to the exonarthex, ‘Christ Reclining (Anapeson)’ is depicted in an extremely interesting iconographic conception whose purpose is to stress the symbolism of the Passion and of sacrifice on the Cross of the Incarnate Word of God69. Christ, at an early age, is sleeping with His eyes closed in the embrace of the Blessed Virgin, lying on a mattress, placed diagonally.
Behind Him, three angels do reverence with the symbols of the Passion, while on the left the scene is framed by the patriarch Jacob, who holds an unrolled scroll bearing the words “He couched as a lion; who shall rouse him up? The sceptre shall not depart” (Gen. 49: 9-10). Prophets, full-length or shown to the waist, and busts of individual saints complete the decoration of the west wall.
Of these, the (full-length) prophets Ezekiel, Zechariah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Zephaniah, and Isaiah, as can be seen from the scrolls with inscriptions which they are holding, are linked with the central scene of the Anapeson, but also with the Passion of Christ depicted on the other walls of the exonarthex.
The decoration of the exonarthex concludes with a depiction of the Ladder of St John Climacus on the north and part of the east wall.
The symbolic scene of the Ladder of John, inspired by the biblical account of Jacob’s Ladder (Gen. 28: 10), is par excellence a monastic iconographic subject, devised around the 11th century under the influence of the scene of the Second Coming70.
The depiction of the Ladder in the Vatopaidi Monastery is of special interest, since it is related to an original subject, unknown to the iconography of the scene. The originality consists in the fact that a demon, shown on the left and roughly in the middle of the Ladder of John, is leading a monk to a banquet of nobles, which is shown immediately on the left71, and takes up as much space as the depiction of the Ladder. The subject of the banquet is reminiscent of that of the parable of the royal wedding at Manasija in medieval Serbia (1406-1418)72, a subject which according to the Interpretation of the Art of Painting73 is combined with the Ladder of John. Nonetheless, the combining of the Ladder and the banquet at Vatopaidi stems in all probability from passages in the discourses of St John Climacus which probably supplied the starting-point for the iconographic combination which we have described74.
The decoration of 1312 in the exonarthex is complemented by the depiction of full-length figures or busts of – chiefly monastic or warrior – saints, such as Sabbas, Antony, Euthymius the Iberian, Artemius, Arethas, Demetrius, George, etc. The 1312 decoration also extends to the narthex of the Chapel of St Demetrius, where, however, the surviving wall-paintings of this period have been over-painted.
In the case of the wall-paintings of the exonarthex of the Vatopaidi Monastery, the scenes of the Passion are presented, as we have noted, as a continuous narrative, given that there are no vertical dividing bands between the subjects as is usually the rule.
The result is that the figures in one composition blend into groups with those of another. This method of depicting scenes had been adopted to a limited extent in monumental compositions which predate those of the katholikon of Vatopaidi, as, for example, in the Church of the Protaton on the Holy Mountain (c. 1290), in Our Lady Perivleptos in Ochrid (1295), and in the Chapel of St Euthymius (1303) in the Church of St Demetrius in Thessaloniki75. But this is the first time in the monumental painting of the age of the Palaeologues that it takes on such dimensions, given that ten large-size subjects are shown in continuous narrative in a single monumental composition which spreads over three walls of the exonarthex: the Passion of Christ according to the account of the Gospel76.In this way the icon ceases to be a symbol and becomes the means of narrating historical events from the life of Christ, in keeping with the trends in iconography of the age of the Palaeologues.
At the same time, the artist incorporates the narration of the Passion of Christ into a unified conception of the iconographic programme of the exonarthex, with a view to bringing out the reality of Christ’s sufferings and sacrifice on the Cross for the race of men. It is thus, in the spirit of the harmony between the Old and the New Testaments, that he organises the iconographic programme on the surfaces of the exonarthex. The centre of this programme is the depiction of Christ Anapeson, which is a prefiguration of the Passion and Resurrection, with the prophets whose prophecies have a bearing on these on either side, while on the rest of the surfaces of the exonarthex he depicts in narrative fashion the Passion and Resurrection of Christ in accordance with the reading from the Gospel prescribed by liturgical order for Holy Thursday and Good Friday77.
In iconographic terms, the scenes of the Passion follow the tradition of the iconography of large compositions of the Palaeologue period, such as in the Church of the Protaton, Our Lady Perivleptos in Ochrid, etc. Moreover, a careful examination shows that it is obvious that in the iconographic structure of the scenes there is a direct relationship in the general pattern, but also in the details, between the wall-paintings in the exonarthex of the Vatopaidi Monastery and those in the Church of the Protaton. This can be seen from a comparative examination of scenes in the two monuments, such as those of the Lord’s Supper, the Washing of the Disciples’ Feet, the Prayer of the Mount of Olives, the Betrayal by Judas, etc.
More specifically, in the Lord’s Supper, the Vatopaidi artist has retained, with a minimum of differences, the iconographic pattern, the layout, and the stances and gestures of the Apostles of the Lord’s Supper of the Protaton, a pattern which was also to be followed by the Thessaloniki artists Michael Astrapas and Eutychius in the Church of St George at Staro Nagoricino78. Moreover, the group formed by Christ and John
is repeated almost identically in both monuments – in the Vatopaidi Monastery and in the Protaton79. In addition, in the Betrayal by Judas, the group of Christ, Judas, and the hooded Jew behind Christ, as well as the iconographic types of many of the Jews are taken from the scene of the Betrayal in the Protaton80.
The exonarthex of the katholikon also contains an iconographic innovation, in that in place of the Crucifixion, the rare subject of the preparation for the Crucifixion is introduced81.
From the point of view of style, the wall-paintings in the exonarthex are the work of two artists of completely different artistic personality, who nevertheless worked together on the execution of an iconographic programme conceived as a unity.
The first artist, who was responsible for the individual saints on the west wall and the scenes on the south – which begin with Christ being led to the Praetorium and end with Doubting Thomas – adopts figures which are tall and slender or stout with small heads, rendered in movements of reaction or in marked turnings of the body within the space.
The faces, which have mass and are supported on thick necks, are misshapen and manifest tension in their expression.
A sense of the sculptural is also observable in the rendering of the body mass, to which the plastic nature of the treatment of the folds of the garments contributes. In depicting these, the artist uses flowing, bright surfaces in successive shades of the same colour, with the result that it flows over the body, bringing out the relief of the body mass.
This artist, to whom we shall give the conventional name of the Painter of the Deposition from the Cross, expresses to a marked degree, unique in Byzantine art, a sense of realism and of drama, in that he succeeds, by means of the expression on the face, the gestures and the movement of the body in conveying the tragic element in the Saviour’s Passion and its human dimensions. Thus, the realism in the depiction of age and suffering in the face of the Theotokos and the women in the Deposition from the Cross and the Lamentation at the Tomb,
the truth in the expression which has contorted the faces of the Apostle John and Joseph of Arimathaea,
and the stamp of death on the face of the dead Christ, distorted by pain, are seen here with such veracity and expressiveness for the first time in Palaeologan painting – and in Byzantine painting more generally.
This unknown artist, with the expressionistic character of his painting in a culmination unexpected for Byzantine art, took part in the decoration of the nave. We ascribe to him not only individual figures of saints in the nave, but also scenes such as the Dormition of the Theotokos, the Washing of the Disciples’ Feet, the Three Children in the Fiery Furnace, etc. (Figs 214, 213, 215).
The second artist, whom we shall call conventionally the Painter of the Prayer on the Mount of Olives, and who did not play any part, as we have established, in the decoration of the nave, was responsible for the scenes of the Lord’s Supper, the Washing of the Disciple’ Feet, the Christ of the Mount of Olives, and the Betrayal by Judas. He shows a close iconographic and stylistic affinity with the painting of the Church of the Protaton on the Holy Mountain, and this affinity lies not only in the narrative approach to the rendering of the subjects, but also in the iconographic structure of the scenes, in their calm and monumental character, with the figures well posed and serene, incorporated into them with a rhythmic cohesion.
Although the figures of this painter are a constituent part of a unified whole, they retain their autonomy in the composition, giving the impression that they have been petrified in this position and stance for all eternity.
Moreover, by way of contrast with the expressionistic character of the work of the Painter of the Deposition from the Cross, the Painter of the Prayer on the Mount of Olives stands out for the expression on his faces, discreetly replete with spirituality, which are serene and peaceful even in scenes of violence such as the Betrayal by Judas.
Furthermore, the close stylistic relation between the Painter of the Prayer on the Mount of Olives and the painter of the Protaton, whom tradition identifies with the legendary Thessaloniki artist Panselinos, can be observed in the adoption of physiognomic types common to both, with broad faces and sturdy necks, with the same quality of expression, as can be seen from a comparison of the group of Christ and John from the Lord’s Supper, of Christ and Judas from the Betrayal, or of the apostle from the Prayer on the Mount of Olives.
Moreover, the figures, as in the Church of the Protaton, are short and plump, but robust, with a monumental breadth of the body mass, which is rendered in the manner of sculpture82.
At the same time, the treatment of the folds of the garments, which appear as broad, successive levels, with reflections of light which convey the breadth of the body mass, which is sometimes sculptural in character, as we can see in the Prayer on the Mount of Olives and the scene with Christ explaining the meaning of the Washing of the Disciples’ feet (Figs 219, 218)83.
The faces too, with their broad bright levels of ochre, which are given warmth by red marks or a complex of red lines, the green shadows, and the linear highlights in thick paint, are remarkable for the plastic rendering of mass, as well as for the peaceful, serene expression of profound spirituality, features which are representative of the art of Panselinos in the Church of the Protaton.
The mountainous landscape in the wall-paintings of the Painter of the Prayer on the Mount of Olives is low and compact and spreads horizontally, in the spirit of the landscape of the wall-paintings in the Church of the Protaton and in Our Lady Perivleptos in Ochrid, in contrast with the landscape of the Painter of the Deposition from the Cross, which spreads vertically and reaches its peak by steps, in the spirit of the painting of the second decade of the 14th century84.
A special characteristic of the technique of the Painter of the Prayer on the Mount of Olives is the use of a white outline around the head and body, his purpose in this being to detach the figure from the flat background of the wall and to stress its individuality in the composition.
This technique, which can also be seen in the Church of the Protaton (c. 1290), in Our Lady Perivleptos in Ochrid (1295), and elsewhere85, is used so effectively for the first time in the monumental painting of the Palaeologan period in the wall-paintings of the exonarthex of the Vatopaidi katholikon.
Futhermore, in the case of some of the figures of servants in the Betrayal by Judas, a white line is used to describe the outline of the face, thus breaking up the unity of the ground colouring. This technique, which gives harshness to the face, seems to have been known in the painting of Our Lady Perivleptos in Ochrid, and its use in the Protaton is a possibility86.
On the basis of what we have said above, we are of the opinion that in the exonarthex of the katholikon of the Vatopaidi Monastery the wall-paintings which we have attributed to the Painter of the Prayer on the Mount of Olives are related in technical execution and in the quality of expression with the production of the workshop of the painter of the Protaton, whom tradition identifies as “kyr Manuel Panselinos, shining forth from Thessaloniki like the moon”87. Any differences which can be observed between the two compositions may be due to a distance of time of 20 years between them, and so to the natural artistic development of the same artist and the emergence of differences between the same artist and his studio88,as can be seen in the work of Panselinos’s contemporaries from Thessaloniki Michael Astrapas and Eutychius89.
A summary of the evidence from the study up to the present of the wall-paintings of the katholikon yields the following conclusions:
The wall-paintings of the katholikon of Vatopaidi are undoubtedly the most important discovery of recent decades in the world of Byzantine painting, since they constitute a work of particular iconographic and artistic interest, precisely dated to 1312.
The wall-paintings of the nave and of the exonarthex are incontrovertibly contemporaneous. This is established, as we have seen, from the unity of the iconographic programme of the nave and the exonarthex and from the fact that the Painter of the Deposition from the Cross worked on the decoration both of the exonarthex and of the nave. The dating of the work to 1312, given as the year in which the decoration was carried out by the inscription of 1819, cannot be called into question. The comparisons which we have made show a direct relation between the wall-paintings and monumental compositions of the late 13th century (the Protaton) and of the first 15 years of the 14th (Prizren – Zica).
It would seem, in spite of the over-painting, that at least three artists, with their assistants, worked in the nave90. The first, who was responsible for the hierarchs in the sanctuary and the inner narthex (mesonyktikon), can be seen to have been conservative in his approach, since the physiognomic types and artistic modes are linked, as we have seen, with the painting of the Protaton (c. 1290) and, above all, with Our Lady Perivleptos in Ochrid (1295). The second, responsible for the scenes of the Christological cycle in the top band of decoration and many individual saints, is eclectic in his painting. It emerges from the comparisons which we have made that this painter has points of contact with the painting of the Protaton, Prizren (1307-1313), Zica (1309-1316), and Staro Nagoricino (1316-1318), which he has assimilated into his own style as an artist.
The third painter who worked on the nave, to whom scenes in the lowest band of decoration, such as the Dormition of the Theotokos, the Lord’s Supper, the Washing of the Disciples’ Feet, the Three Children in the Fiery Furnace, etc., and the figures of individual saints have been attributed, displays a unified style and is distinguished by his realism of expression, with figures which are misshapen and which are engaged in vigorous movement in the space. We have also noted that the same artist worked on the decoration of the exonarthex, and we have given him the name of the Painter of the Deposition from the Cross.
The wall-paintings of the exonarthex are the work, as we have seen, of two different artists and their assistants, who collaborated, in spite of their differing artistic personalities, on a composition unique for its narrative character in the age of the Palaeologues. In this composition, the Painter of the Deposition from the Cross is distinguished by the anti-Classical character of his painting and his explosive realism in the expression of strong emotion, of a degree otherwise unknown in Byzantine art. By way of contrast, the Painter of the Prayer on the Mount of Olives is notable for the calm, monumental character of his compositions, with their expression of a profound spirituality.
In spite of the fact that the two artists worked together at the same time on the decoration of the exonarthex of the katholikon of Vatopaidi, it would seem that they belonged to different generations in art. The Painter of the Prayer on the Mount of Olives belongs to the generation of artists of the 1290s which produced the monumental compositions in the Church of Our Lady Perivleptos in Ochrid (1295) and the Church of the Protaton on the Holy Mountain (c. 1290)91, whose technique and modes of expression he further develops to create surprising compositions in the Classical style. The Painter of the Deposition from the Cross, on the other hand, belongs to the generation of artists of the second decade of the 14th century who were responsible, inter alia, for the mosaics in the Holy Apostles in Thessaloniki (1312-1315) and the Chora Monastery in Constantinople (1318-1321), the wall-paintings in the Church of Christ in Veria (1315), in St Nicholas Orphanos in Thessaloniki (1310-1320), the Church of Our Lady in Studenica (c. 1315), the Church of St George at Staro Nagoricino (1315-1318), the katholikon of the Chilandari Monastery (1318-1320), etc. From these monumental compositions the Vatopaidi painter differs radically in his dramatic expression of the Passion of the Son of God and of human pain, with its expressionistic character.
I should also note that that the depiction of four Archbishops of Thessaloniki in the prothesis of the main church, a phenomenon unique in the decoration of the katholika of the Holy Mountain at this period, is an indication that the artists who worked on the katholikon of Vatopaidi came from Thessaloniki92.
Finally, the ascription to the workshop of the artist Manuel Panselinos of a part of the wall-paintings of the exonarthex of the katholikon of Vatopaidi is of particular importance for the study of Byzantine painting and the artistic production of Thessaloniki in the period of Andronicus II Palaeologus (1282-1328).