The Annunciation in the Nave

29 October 2011

In the katholikon of the Vatopaidi Monastery, above the two columns which support the dome on the eastern side, there is a depiction of the Annunciation in two compartments (185 x 98 cm.), with the Archangel Gabriel

on the left, and the Blessed Virgin on the right.

The conspicuous position occupied by the Annunciation, which is nevertheless customary in cross-in-square churches with a dome, as is the katholikon of Vatopaidi, and the fact that this scene alone in the nave is executed by the technique of mosaic are to be explained by the dedication of the katholikon of Vatopaidi to the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary8.

The Archangel Gabriel, who is shown in commanding movement in the direction of the Blessed Virgin, holds a sceptre, indicative of his capacity as God’s emissary, while he stretches out his right hand in a gesture of dialogue with Mary. Gabriel wears a tunic of light blue with broad folds in shades of blue, grey, and white, and a light green cloak with folds in light shades of the same colour, patterned with light brown surfaces to accentuate the outline of parts of the body. The Archangel stands out against a gold background on ground in three gradations of shades of green. Above the Archangel, against a white background, is the inscription “† HAIL THOU THAT ART HIGHLY FAVOURED”.

On the right, in a stance of grandeur, the Blessed Virgin is shown standing before a throne without a back, turned slightly towards the Archangel. Her right hand is raised in front of her breast in a gesture of surprise, while in her left she holds the distaff and spindle with which she has been making the thread for the purple of the veil of the Temple. The Blessed Virgin wears a tunic in shades of dark blue and a maphorion* with a gold border, arranged in broad folds which fall vertically. Above the Blessed Virgin, against a white background, the inscription “THE LORD IS WITH THEE” in black letters has survived.

The lower part of the two compartments is filled with a band of decoration of a depth of 48 cm., containing an alternating stepped pyramid. This zone is separated from the scene depicted by a narrow red band.

In iconographic terms, Gabriel and the Blessed Virgin in the Vatopaidi Annunciation follow, in stance and gesture, the types customary in the monumental painting of the 10th and 11th centuries9, to be seen particularly in the mosaics of the Nea Moni on Chios and at Dafni10.

From the point of view of style, the figures of Annunciation are robust and imposing in the presentation, and are marked by the breadth of the body’s mass. The arrangement of the folds in the garments of the Blessed Virgin is on broad levels with vertical folds, permitting the suggestion, with economy of expression, of the body mass, in the spirit of the art of the mosaics of the Church of Haghia Sophia in Kiev (1043-1045), as we can see in Our Lady of the Annunciation11. By way of contrast, in the case of the archangel in the Vatopaidi Annunciation, folds are more flowing and flexible, serving to bring out the robustness of the body. A similar 11th-century trend can be seen in some of the mosaics of the Church of Haghia Sophia in Kiev and the Nea Moni on Chios (mid 11th century)12.

The faces of the Archangel Gabriel and the Blessed Virgin are broad and fully-fleshed with rugged features, deeply shadowed eyes and an intensity of expression. The faces and the neck are rendered in sharp chiaroscuro in cold shades – greyish-blue for the shadows, which are broad, and off-white for the flesh. The cold tones of the flesh are enlivened by spreading pink marks on the cheeks and, more particularly, by red lines which outline the jaw, the lips, and the bridge of the nose, and stress the arch of the eyelids.

The technique of sharp chiaroscuro on broad surfaces which are abruptly interrupted without gradation of shade, observable in the Annunciation in the Vatopaidi Monastery13, is comparable with that of the mosaic portrait of the Emperor Monomachus and the Empress Zoe in Aghia Sophia in Constantinople (1034-1042)14, of the mosaics in the Church of the Dormition of the Theotokos at Nicaea in Bithynia (1065-1067)15 and, above all, of the mosaics of the Nea Moni, Chios, which date from the mid 11th century16. Moreover, a feature typical of the affinity between the art of the mosaic of the Annunciation in the Vatopaidi Monastery and that of the mosaic of the Nea Moni on Chios is that the shadow at the bottom of the cheek takes the shape of a comb in both cases.

Furthermore, the faces in the Vatopaidi Annunciation are marked by an expression of high moral stature, and of spiritual intensity, which manifests itself through the large, almond-shaped eyes. This quality of expression of the Vatopaidi Annunciation, which contrasts with the muted expression of the faces at Hosios Loukas and in the Church of Haghia Sophia at Ochrid, places this mosaic within a dynamic trend in expression which manifested itself in the monumental painting of the mid 11th century, as we can see in the mosaics of the Nea Moni, Chios, the wall-paintings of the Church of Haghia Sophia, Ochrid (1040-1056), of the Church of Haghia Sophia in Thessaloniki (around the middle of the 11th century) and of Karabas Kilisse in Cappadocia (1060-1061)17. Thus the depiction in mosaics of the Annunciation in the Vatopaidi Monastery, which follows this trend in monumental painting towards expressiveness, with a parallel emphasis on the rendering of the breadth of the body’s mass can, in our opinion, be dated to the middle, or a little after the middle, of the 11th century, and can be ascribed to a workshop in Constantinople which had assimilated the achievements of the mosaics workshop of the Nea Moni on Chios18.