The Annunciation of the Exonarthex

29 October 2011

The spiritual, intellectual and artistic renaissance of the age of the Palaeologues receives expression in the second scene of the Annunciation (Figs 188,189), which is preserved in the exonarthex and is arranged in two compartments, one each side of the entrance to the narthex of the katholikon from the exonarthex38.

This mosaic depiction of the Annunciation flanks the mosaic of the Deisis, which appears, as we have seen, on the lunette of the entrance.

The conspicuous position of the Annunciation on either side of this entrance is to be explained by the fact that the katholikon of the Vatopaidi Monastery is dedicated to the Annunciation39. On the other hand, the association of the scene with the chronologically earlier depiction of the Deisis is the result of the theological relationship between the two scenes, given that the Annunciation is a scene which serves as an introduction to the mystery of the Incarnation, to which the Deisis is, inter alia, testimony and serves as recognition of the reality of the Word of God’s taking of human flesh40.

A similar conjunction of the two subjects is to be found in the Church of Haghia Sophia (1042-1046) and St Nicholas Kasnitzis in Kastoria (1160-1180), where the Deisis is shown on the eastern lunette of the east wall, flanked by the two figures of the Annunciation, who are shown in the band immediately below, on either side of the conch of the sanctuary41.

In the Annunciation of the Vatopaidi Monastery, the Archangel Gabriel is shown on the left of the entrance, standing and in an attitude of dignified approach to the Blessed Virgin. In his left hand he holds a sceptre, while he holds out his right in a gesture of dialogue towards Mary. He wears a bluish cloak and a violet tunic and stands on a green ground, while the whole of his figure stands out against an all-gold background, without any suggestion of place. In the corner, top right, is the inscription, in capitals: “HAIL THOU THAT ART HIGHLY FA-VOURED THE LORD IS WITH THEE” (Luke 1:28).

On the right of the entrance, the Blessed Virgin, following the account of the Protoevangelium of James42, is shown sitting on a throne without a back, with a slight turn of the body in the direction of the Archangel. Her right hand, with the palm open towards the onlooker, is raised in front of her breast in a gesture of surprise, while in her left she holds the spindle with the purple thread. She wears a tunic of light blue and a dark blue maphorion, folded in the middle in a wealth of undulations. The maphorion is gold-edged with gold tassels. In the top left-hand corner, from a quarter circle, which symbolises heaven, the hand of God appears. On the top edge of the picture the inscription “BEHOLD THE HANDMAID OF THE LORD BE IT UNTO ME ACCORDING TO THY WORD” (Luke 1:38), which expresses acceptance of the will of God, appears.

From an iconographic point of view, the Archangel Gabriel and the Blessed Virgin of the Annunciation of the Vatopaidi Monastery follow, in stance and gesture, types established in the iconography of the scene43. Nevertheless, the total absence of any architecture to suggest place, as was usual in the iconography of the scene during the Palaeologue period, is striking44. The absence of buildings in the Vatopaidi Annunciation, a feature rare in the iconography of the scene during this period45, marks a return to types of mid-Byzantine art46.

From the point of view of style, the figures of the Annunciation are slender, with normal proportions, untroubled stances and movements, full of grace and nobility, not lacking in grandeur. More particularly, the face of the Archangel

is fine and oval, with a narrow, hooked nose, a pointed chin, full lips, and shadowed eyes. The outlines within the face are imperceptible, while on the outside they are of a marked red. The shadow is in chestnut and alternates with a green ‘softening’ which changes shade abruptly with the flesh, which is rendered in shades of light ochre and is given warmth by markings of red on the cheeks, on the forehead, and on the neck, while small bright marks on the chin, the lips, the nose and around the eyes show that the face is shining.

The employment of this technique results in the face having a fully-fleshed appearance, while the method of lighting gives brilliance and tension to the expression of the figure. A similar technique can be observed in the mosaics of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Thessaloniki (1312-1315), the Chora Monastery in Constantinople (1315-1320)47, and in wall-paintings of the decade 1310-132048.

The face of the Blessed Virgin is relatively wide, with a broad chin, tight lips, a fleshy nose, and large bright eyes. In terms of technique, the features of the face are rendered with clarity of line, while the flesh of the face is level. The chiaroscuro, with the limited extent of the grey-blue shadow, is not sharp, as it is in the case of the archangel, and the red marks, which are dull, spread to larger surfaces on the face and the neck. This technique, with gentle chiaroscuro, helps to give the face of the Virgin an expression of calm. At the level of physiognomy and technique, the face of the Virgin is reminiscent of types and methods in the mosaic decoration of the Holy Apostles in Thessaloniki, in Our Lady Pammakaristos (second decade of the 14th century), and in the Chora Monastery in Constantinople49.

In the case of the archangel, the tunic is of a light blue, with linear off-white highlights, while the cloak is rendered in two shades of violet, with the surfaces of the body which project in off-white and serving as reflections of light on the clothing. This technique, with the flexibility of the lines and the levels with sharp chiaroscuro in abrupt gradations, results in the highlighting of the body’s mass, which takes on a character almost of sculpture.

In the case of the clothing of the Blessed Virgin, the ridges are deep and flexible and clearly trace the articulation and movement of the folds of the garment, which are arranged on large flowing surfaces and rendered in two shades of dark blue and light blue, with soft gradations between them. This technique in portraying the clothing of the Virgin permits the discreet but clear suggestion of the body and its individual masses, which are covered by a richly articulated garment. Similar methods of dealing with the rendering of the clothing can be seen in the mosaics of the Holy Apostles in Thessaloniki and of the Chora Monastery in Constantinople50.

On the basis of the technical and stylistic features which we have discussed above, we can say that the figures of the Archangel and the Blessed Virgin in the Vatopaidi Annunciation, with the flowing folds in the garments, which bring out the mass of the body, the ‘Hellenising’ grace of the stances and movements, the soft fashioning, in the manner of painting, of the face and the clothing, and the expression of lofty spirituality, are the product of the spiritual, intellectual and artistic renaissance of the Palaeologue period, and have connections, as we have seen, with the art and the period of the mosaics in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Thessaloniki (1312-1315) and in the Chora Monastery in Constantinople (1315-1320).

It is, then, our view that the mosaic of the Annunciation in the katholikon of the Monastery of Vatopaidi belongs to the second decade of the 14th century51, a period in which, as we know from the evidence of inscriptions, the painted decoration of the katholikon was renovated under Andronicus II Palaeologus52.