The Wall-Paintings of the Chapel of St Demetrius

29 October 2011

The Chapel of St Demetrius on the north side of the narthex of the katholikon, which is, according to tradition1, linked with the name of Placidia, daughter of Theodosius the Great, is a cruciform church with a dome resting on four columns with a full iconographic programme, whose rich and brilliant decoration was carried out in 1721 by the painter Cosmas of Lemnos, as an inscription, now lost, related:2This holy and all-venerable Church of the holy glorious great martyr Demetrius the myrrhobletes* was painted when the All-venerable holy prohegumenos* dominus philotheos, and Parianos was sacristan; and the All-venerable holy Abbot, dominus Grigorios being abbot through the subvention and at the expense of the most venerable holy Spiritual father, dominus Parthenios, in the year 1721 = Indict 14 in the month of May νεεÑπλωξθπνβ᾿ωλχοβ΄ξνλχ which says the hand of Cosmas of the island of Lemnos”.

The wall-paintings were already admired in the last century by most pilgrims and scholars for the multitude of the scenes3, though by some they were judged to be of no interest4, in comparison, of course, with the mosaics and the Palaeologue wall-paintings of the katholikon. Attention has been drawn by leading Greek Byzantinists to their special importance in the context of the age in which they were created and to their significance in the movement towards a return to the great models of Panselinos. Xyngopoulos in his standard work5 on post-Byzantine painting – though he heads the chapter on the 18th century ‘Decline’6 – regards the painting in the St Demetrius Chapel as the most important wall decoration produced by the imitators of “Macedonian wall-painting”7. Chatzidakis, valuing them more highly, calls attention to “the exceptional colour sensitivity of the painter in his wise combinations of bright complementary tones, so that his work goes beyond a mere copying of the Palaeologue models”8. The same approach is taken by Nikonanos9, while Tsigaridas10, who recently made know the name of the painter when he published the obliterated inscription, places the wall-paintings within the more general movement, during the 18th century, of a return to the tradition of the Macedonian School which, according to this author, was limited “to the area of the Holy Mountain and to churches in the major urban centres of Macedonia and Northern Epirus”11.

The wall-paintings of the Chapel of St Demetrius are of iconographic as well as morphological interest, both as an entire iconographic programme, which shows particularity in its chronological structure of the Christian calendar, and in the number and richness of the individual compositions with scenes of martyrdom.

The cupola and the sanctuary are decorated with the iconography established by tradition – the Pantocrator, heavenly powers and prophets in the dome, the four Evangelists on the pendentives, and between them the Holy Face and the Holy Vessel.

The Ascension is on the arch above the sanctuary, while the Platytera* – Pantanassa* – is in the semidome of the conch, and the Communion of the Apostles on the upper band of the semi-lunette. On the side walls of the sanctuary are busts of hierarchs concelebrating on either side of the Breaking of Bread. In the conch of the credence side are the Extreme Humility and bishop saints.

However, the whole of the body of the church, from the arches on the arms of the cross to the floor (with the exception of the south wall) is decorated with the Menologion*, showing the main feast of the day, whether this belongs to the Christological or the Marian cycle, or commemorates the martyrdom of a saint or his departure in peace from this world.

This begins in the middle of the northern arch, where the month of September  is indicated.

The first of the month is the feast of St Simeon Stylites, while at the base of the cross’s arm the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin on 8 September is illustrated. We shall now deal with certain selected and typical scenes: on 14 of the same month we have the Elevation of the Holy Cross in the usual iconographic presentation, together with verses from the Synaxari*: “Creation, seeing Thy Cross exalted, Saviour, feels emotion rise in the throat”; in the case of St Nicetas, “thrown into the flames”, honoured on the following day, there is the appropriate verse, correctly spelt, which is a play upon words involving his name and his manner of martyrdom.

In the iconography for December, on the 25th of the month, in the appropriate place in the calendar sequence we have the Birth of Christ with the established iconography, with a single deviation: the manger is shown on top of the donkey, which has taken on an unnatural and elongated form. The position of the Baptism is similarly determined by the flow of the iconographic programme of the calendar.

The sufferings of the saints and full-length individual saints, occupying the entire surface of the walls, are depicted with the same density. A single exception is the south wall, where choirs of the righteous, saints, hierarchs, prophets, martyrs, and apostles are depicted. Led by angels, they advance towards Christ, who is shown enthroned on the west wall.

The multitude of the scenes of martyrdoms, etc. is by no means an unknown feature in the iconographic layout of the churches of the 18th century, both on the Holy Mountain and in the rest of Greece. The Phaneromene Monastery at Salamina, where the decoration is the work of Georgios Markou of Argos, a near contemporary (1735) of the Chapel of St Demetrius, is an extreme example of this ‘plethoric’ painting. An individual and rare feature in St Demetrius is the decoration of the body of the church exclusively with the illustration of the Menologion, to the exclusion from the usual key positions in the church of the Dodekaorton* and other Christological or Marian iconographic cycles.

This iconographic programme could be explained by the immediate proximity of the Chapel of St Demetrius to the katholikon, which contains the superb scenes from the Twelve Feasts of the Palaeologue period. Thus, the well-educated painter – for so it would seem from the correctness of the orthography of the inscriptions – Cosmas of Lemnos, instead of repeating scenes from the katholikon, composed a visual calendar, useful and instructive for the brothers of the Monastery, complementing the iconography of the katholikon and avoiding repetition – and comparison.

The wall-paintings of the Chapel of St Demetrius – as has been noted by everyone who has studied them12 – belong within the more general Athonite movement of a ‘return’ to the models of painting of the so-called ‘Macedonian School’, and particularly of the imitation as far as possible of kyr Manuel Panselinos of Thessaloniki, who shone forth as the moon13. The theoretical expression was given to this trend by the Athonite priest-monk Dionysios of Fourna, whose work The Interpretation of the Art of Painting was written in the decade (1720-30) in which the Chapel of St Demetrius was painted. It has already been noted that there are figures, such as “the Evangelist John with Prochorus, Luke, St Simeon, St Isidore and other individual saints [who] are faithful copies of the wall-paintings in the Church of the Protaton”14. Chatzidakis takes a slightly different view, observing that “the direct models cannot have been those which we regard as works of Panselinos, but rather those of the Astrapas – Eutychius, St Nicholas Orphanus circle”15. Tsigaridas, moreover, sees clear influences from the wall-paintings in the katholikon, for example in the Choir of the Apostles16.

The individual figures do indeed have an affinity with those of Panselinos, with the emphatic but plastic design, which lends a sense of mass more to the faces and less to the bodies. Facial features are sharply brought out, while whitened beards and hair surround the sunken, visionary faces. Elsewhere, in the case, for example, of the angels who are leading the companies of prophets and apostles, the design is rugged, with white flowing lines which stress the nobility of the figures, as in the blessedness of Paradise they advance towards Christ. The colours are bright, with daring contrasts of the cold and the warm and a complementary function. The shadows on the faces are painted in green, and on the beards almost in blue.

In the scenes of the sufferings of the saints, for which he had no models and which require compositions with large numbers of figures with lively and dramatic movement and complex postures, the artist’s weaknesses in design to a large degree manifest themselves – particularly in the rendering of the bodies. Moreover, that inner power which the original authentic creation possesses, the fruit of many constituents in the expression of a talented artist, is often lacking in the design and even more so in the colour.

In spite, however, of the weak points of the painter of the Chapel of St Demetrius to which attention has been drawn, he should not be seen as a mere imitator of the painting of the 14th century. His painting is marked by a unified iconographic approach with a sense of the monumental, design which is parrticularly successful most of all in the isolated figures, and above all a euphoria of colour which stands entirely alone in post-Byzantine art. This fine painting must be seen in relation to the creative powers which during the 18th century infiltrated the still enslaved Greeks and have to do with their economic, cultural and spiritual world. This spiritual recrudescence was especially marked on the Holy Mountain, with its ascetic renaissance – a typical representative of which was St Nikodimos the Athonite – as it added one more chapter to the sanctified spiritual history of this place of prayer and spiritual striving and found visual expression in the multitude of decorative paintings of the 18th century, among which the wall-paintings of the Chapel of St Demetrius occupy an outstanding place.




1. Uspenskij, 1880, p. 13, where he adds that one of the four columns is “the sole relic of the sanctuary of Demeter which used to stand on this spot”.

2. The inscription is contained in Codex 293, f. 45 of the Vatopaidi Monastery, copied by the deacon-monk and archivist of the Monastery, Anthimos. See Tsigaridas, ‘Περί τῆς μή σωζομένης κτητορικῆς ἐπιγραφῆς τοῦ παρεκκλησίου τοῦ ῾Αγίου Δημητρίου τῆς Μονῆς Βατοπεδίου᾿ (in the press, in the Festschrift volume in memory of D. Mouriki, publ. by the Department of Architecture of the Athens Technical University).

3. “The chapel of the martyr Demetrius in the katholikon of Vatopedi, the painting of which was finished in 1721, seemed to us both worthy of note and well preserved … The decoration of the whole of the lower part of the walls to the height of a man with groups, or in Greek ‘choirs’, of the righteous, saints, hierarchs, and prophets in movement with angels at their head seemed to us a particularly apt idea”.

4. “The wall-paintings in the chapels are new and in accordance with the tradition of the Holy Mountain; they are notable for the variety of bright colours. There is nothing in them worthy of investigation”. Capustin, 1861, p. 228.

5. Xyngopoulos, 1957.

6. Xyngopoulos, 1957, p. 283.

7. Xyngopoulos, 1957, p. 306.

8. Chatzidakis, 1987. Cf. also Chatzidakis, 1975, p. 249, and Hatzidakis, 1982, p. 422.

9. Nikonanos, 1992a, p. 180.

10. Tsigaridas, 1994, pp. 244-356, Figs 25-33.

11. Tsigaridas, 1994, p. 366.

12. Xyngopoulos, 1957, p. 306; Chatzidakis, 1987, p. 106; Tsigaridas, 1994, p. 366.

13. Dionysios, 1909, p. 3.

14. Tsigaridas, 1994, p. 344.

15. Chatzidakis, 1987, p. 106.

16. Tsigaridas, 1994, pp. 344, 349.