The Wall-paintings of the Nave29 October 2011
In the nave the iconographic programme is accommodated in three bands.
The subjects of the Dodekaorton* predominate and are arranged on the three arches and the two lateral choirs. At the same time, a cycle, limited in the number of scenes, which deal with the Blessed Virgin, to whose Annunciation the Monastery’s katholikon is dedicated, appears in the lateral choirs. The rest of the surfaces of the nave are covered with a host of saints, full-length or in bust form, in complete harmony with the architecture of the surfaces which they cover.
The scenes of the Dodekaorton, following trends in the layout of the iconographic programme in churches with a dome – which became established as early as the Middle Byzantine period and continues in churches of the Early Palaeologue period17 – are distributed in groups of three on the surfaces of the arms of the cross and of the semidomes of the lateral choirs.
In greater detail: in the sanctuary, the original decoration of 1312 is not accessible, since, as we have seen, the apse, the side walls and the eastern arch of the sanctuary are covered with a layer of painting of 1652, and consequently we cannot know what the previous iconographic programme of this space was. Furthermore, in the prothesis* and the diakonikon*, a part of the surviving decoration, chiefly that of the eastern walls, is due to interventions of the 18th-19th centuries, while the 1312 decoration, with very few later interventions, covers the arches.
The arches of the prothesis and the diakonikon are decorated with portrayals of 15 and 11 hierarchs, respectively. Included in the row of hierarchs shown in three bands in the prothesis, belonging to the decoration of 1312, are four Archbishops of Thessaloniki, who are labelled as follows “saint Basil of Thessaloniki” (9th century), “saint George of Thessaloniki” (early 11th century), “saint Eustathius of Thessaloniki” (second half of the 12th century), and “saint Basil of Thessaloniki Glykys” (mid 13th century)18. Among these, a place of especial honour is occupied by St Eustathius, Archbishop of Thessaloniki at the time of the taking of the city by the Normans in 1185, as he is shown between the Patriarchs of Constantinople Proclus and Nicephorus.
The fact that St Eustathius is depicted in the katholikon of the Vatopaidi Monastery is particularly interesting, not only because he was one of the most important spiritual figures of the 12th century, but also because at present his portrayal elsewhere is known only in the monuments of medieval Serbia whose decoration is the work of or is attributed to the Thessaloniki artists Michael Astrapas and Eutychius19.
From a technical point of view, the figures of the hierarchs in the prothesis are marked by the breadth of their bodies, their wide faces, fierce expression, cleft and fleshy noses, and the bringing out of the cheeks by a complex of red lines, which, together with the green shadows, lend warmth to the ochre of the flesh.
At a physiognomic and technical level, the hierarchs of the Vatopaidi Monastery seem to have some points of contact both with the painting of the Protaton – as can be seen from a comparison between St Flavian
and St Patapius – and with the wall-paintings in the Church of Our Lady Perivleptos in Ochrid, to be seen from a comparison between St Cyriacus and St Chariton20.
The iconographic programme in the nave, which is contained in three bands, is made up chiefly of scenes from the life of Christ, supplemented by scenes from the life of the Theotokos, together with a host of individual figures of prophets, hierarchs, saints, etc., shown full-length, to breast height, or in medallions.
The Dodekaorton in the nave, if we leave aside the mosaic of the Annunciation (mid 11th century), is represented by 14 subjects, which are arranged, as we have said, on the four arches and the two lateral choirs of the katholikon. The iconographic designs of the scenes of the Dodekaorton , which are set out with respect for the archcitecture of the surfaces which they cover, spread over large uninterrupted surfaces and impress by the size of the compositions and the numbers in them, as well as the robustness of the figures.
More specifically, in the upper band on the southern arch, from the cycle of the life of Christ, the Nativity
and the Transfiguration
are depicted. A dominant position is occupied by the Baptism, which is shown in the semidome of the southern choir, in a place corresponding to the Lamentation at the Tomb, which is shown in the semidome of the northern choir21. The lowest band of decoration of the southern choir is made up of two subjects from the Passion of Christ – the Lord’s Supper
and the Washing of the Disciples’ Feet – on either side of the window22.
On the western arch, in scenes of large dimensions, the Raising of Lazarus
and the Entry into Jerusalem are shown,
while on the face of the western wall, in a semicircle around the lobes of the trefoil window, is the Day of Pentecost23. The Crucifixion
and the Descent into Hell are shown on the northern arch, while the semidome of the northern choir is occupied by the Lamentation at the Tomb24.
The subject of the Ascension of Christ, in the centre and repeated on either side in two different groups – the Apostles with the Theotokos, and the angels – extends to the whole of the eastern arch25.
The Presentation in the Temple, as is often the case with this subject, is divided into two parts and occupies the same position as in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Thessaloniki26. Simeon, with the Infant Christ, is shown on the face of the arch which joins the south-western column of the katholikon with the southern wall, and the Blessed Virgin and Joseph on the arch which links the north-western column with the north wall. It should be noted that the scene of the Annunciation is not repeated in the iconographic programme of 1312, since this place is occupied by the mosaic of the 11th century.
The cycle of the life of the Theotokos is represented by five scenes, which are arranged in the second band of the iconographic programme of the side choirs in the following way: in the south choir, the Prayer of Joachim and Anne, together with the Nativity of the Virgin27; in the north choir, the Blessing of the Priests in one picture, and the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple28 .
In the lowermost band in the north choir we have a depiction of the scene of the Three Children in the Fiery Furnace, and of Christ explaining the meaning of the Washing of the Disciples’ Feet29, and on the north wall of the north-eastern compartment, of Christ teaching in the Temple.
Individual saints, full-length or in bust form, are arranged in the iconographic programme of the nave in small groups. In the lowest, narrow band which runs round the Church, are busts of the Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebaste, while on the front of the arches of the north and south choirs, martyrs of the Church are shown in medallions30. Among these, conspicuous places are occupied by the five Persian martyrs Elpidophorus, Pegasius, Acindynus, Aphthonius, and Anempodistus, and by the group of five martyrs commemorated on 13 December: Orestes, Eugenius, Eustratius, Auxentius, and Mardarius.
In the western part of the church – as in the Church of the Protaton and that of Our Lady Perivleptos in Ochrid31 – on either side of the Dormition of the Theotokos,
and in a place of special honour, are the warrior saints Theodore the Tiro and Theodore the Stratelates (Commander), together with Sts George and Demetrius, the latter of whom is accompanied by his fellows Sts Nestor and Lupus. The cycle of martyrs of the Church also includes Sts Mercurius, Artemius, Arethas, Menas, etc.
Of the healer-saints, Panteleimon, Cosmas and Damian are shown, while St Constantine is accompanied, by way of exception, by St Helen32. Bishops of the Church appear on the intrados of the arches of the side compartments, including Sts Clement, Antypas, Amphilochius, Parthenius, Polycarp, Hierotheus, Spyridon, and Eleutherius. The host of saints, martyrs and bishops depicted in the church expresses the conviction that the Church is founded on the blood of the martyrs and lives through the work of the bishops.
The depiction of monk-saints is omitted – deliberately, it would seem – from the iconographic programme of the nave, since they appear in that of the exonarthex33. This fact provides important proof of the unity of conception and execution of the iconographic programme of the main church and the exonarthex.
As we have seen, the choice of iconographic programme in the nave involves no particular innovation. The arrangement of the Christological cycle with the interspersing of scenes from the life of the Blessed Virgin is usual in churches of the period of Andronicus II Palaeologus (1282-1328). This can be seen, to go no further than the Holy Mountain, in the Church of the Protaton and in the katholikon of the the Chilandari Monastery34.
The most important episodes from the life and Passion of Christ, particularly those which confirm His divine nature and his role as Saviour, had already been included in the Middle Byzantine period in the cycle of the Dodekaorton in the decoration of cross-in-square churches with a dome. From this cycle the artist of the katholikon of the Vatopaidi Monastery has chosen 14 subjects, some of which – following the trends in iconography in the first Palaeologan period – such as the Baptism, the Lamentation at the Tomb, and the Dormition of the Virgin, have had their subject-matter enriched by the influence of the liturgical texts and hymns.
It is striking that the scenes chosen from the Passion of Christ are limited to four (the Lord’s Supper, the Washing of the Disciples’ Feet, the Crucifixion, and the Lamentation at the Tomb), in contrast with the narrative tendencies of the time in the illustration of the Passion. This is to be explained by the fact that the artist designed and executed in the narthex an extensive cycle of scenes from the Passion of Christ – further confirmation of the unity of conception and execution of the iconographic programme of the nave and the exonarthex.
Furthermore, it should be noted that the artist responsible for the iconographic programme limited himself to the depiction of basic scenes from the life of Christ, in the spirit of the trends in iconography in the decoration of churches of the early 14th century35,and does not have to show the wealth and variety of subjects observable in monuments of, chiefly, the second decade of the 14th century, as, for example, in St Nicholas Orphanos in Thessaloniki, in the katholikon of the Monastery of Chilandari, and in St Nicetas at Cuçer, in St George at Staro Nagoricino, in the katholikon of the Monastery at Gracanica (medieval Serbia), etc36. Thus the iconographic cycles devoted to the miracles and the parables of Christ, the life of the patron saint, the Akathist Hymn, etc. – cycles which are commonplaces in the monuments cited above – are absent from the iconographic programme of the katholikon.
Nevertheless, the iconographic cycle of five scenes from the life of the Virgin in the katholikon of the Vatopaidi Monastery is the most extensive to survive in any church dedicated to the Theotokos on the Holy Mountain. In similar cases, as in the Church of the Protaton and the katholikon of the Chilandari Monastery, the scenes from the life of the Blessed Virgin – if we except those of the Annunciation and the Dormition, which belong within the cycle of the Dodekaorton – are limited to two: the Nativity and the Presentation of the Virgin37. Thus the cycle of scenes from the life of the Theotokos in the katholikon of Vatopaidi is a foretaste of the extensive cycle of scenes from her life which would appear in the churches of the period 1310-133038.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that the scenes inspired by the Old Testament are limited to the scene of the Three Children in the Fiery Furnace,
which is a foreshadowing of the martyrs of the New Testament (Dan. 3:21-28) and a pre-typification of the Theotokos. On the other hand, the prefigurations of the Theotokos normal in the the iconographic programme of churches of this period – unless they appeared in the exonarthex – are absent39.
It is also interesting to note that there are features in the arrangement of the iconographic programme common to the katholikon of the Vatopaidi Monastery and the katholikon of Chilandari. Thus, in spite of the fact that the Chilandari katholikon shows greater variety of subject-matter, as we have seen, the Baptism and the Lamentation at the Tomb occupy the same dominant position in the iconographic programme, as they appear, as in the katholikon of Vatopaidi, in the semidome of the south and north choir, respectively40. Moreover, the Lamentation at the Tomb, as in the katholikon at Vatopaidi, is flanked by the Crucifixion and the Descent into Hell. In addition, the scenes of the Nativity and Presentation in the Temple of the Blessed Virgin, which face each other in the two choirs of the katholikon of Vatopaidi, occupy the same position in the katholikon of the Monastery of Chilandari41. This connection in the iconographic programme of the two katholika requires further investigation, in order to establish if and to what extent the iconographic arrangement of the subjects in the katholikon of the Chilandari Monastery, whose decoration dates from 1318-1320, was influenced by that of the katholikon of Vatopaidi, and, if so, the question of whether there is an artistic affinity between the two schemes of decoration – and what it is – will need to be examined.
Because of the great extent of the decoration of the katholikon of the Vatopaidi Monastery and the groundbreaking character of the present text, I shall, as concerns an iconographic and artistic assessment of the wall-paintings, confine myself to a commentary on the style of some only of the scenes from the Christological cycle. I shall not deal with the scenes relating to the life of the Blessed Virgin, since they have all been over-painted, so that painting has lost its authenticity.
The Raising of Lazarus and the Entry into Jerusalem, imposing and robust compositions, predominate on the surfaces of the western arch and are striking in their dimensions and the way in which the natural and built environment is suggested. Almost the whole of the Raising of Lazarus
has been preserved with minimal later interventions, confined to the servant on the right who is lifting the tombstone, the chest of Christ, and parts of the natural landscape. From the point of view of style, the Apostles here, with their tall, full figures, the way in which the folds of the garments cling to the body, with angular creases at the feet and haunches, are recognisable in the Communion of the Apostles at Prizren (1307-1313)42. Moreover, certain of the figures, in terms of physiognomy and style, have their parallel in the painting of the anonymous artist in the same monument. This can be clearly seen from a comparison of the group of Jews
of the Apostles Andrew and John with figures from the Communion of the Apostles at Prizren53.
As we have seen, it is only the figures of the Apostles in the scene of the Transfiguration which belong to the decoration of 1312.
They are shown in lively movement, indicative of the fear which they feel in the face of the “brightness of unapproachable glory”. The Apostles are rendered in similar stances and with similar gestures in the Transfiguration in the Church of the Protaton (c. 1290) and in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Thessaloniki (1312-1315)54. Of the Apostles, Peter
, with the soft colouring of the face and his snow-white hair and beard, has stylistic links with the figures in the Communion of the Apostles at Prizren. Again, in the case of the Apostle Peter, the white outline around the face, which we have seen used on other figures in the nave, is observable55.
In the scene of the Ascension, the Apostles are divided into two groups on the two sides of the arch, while at the top, Christ is shown in a nimbus of light, held by four angels. The figures which make up the Ascension have all, unfortunately, had their faces and clothes painted over.
From the point of view of style, the figures of the Apostles are robust and imposing, tall and with mass of body, standing in the space with the weight of a monumental presence. This type of these figures can be seen in the painting of the nave, particularly in the scene of Pentecost and, even more so, in the Lamentation at the Tomb,
as can be seen from a comparison of Joseph of Arimathaea
with St John the Divine and with the Apsotle Mark in the Ascension.
From the point of view of typology, the figures of the Apostles in the Ascension, with their statuesque stance, are descended from the painting of the the Protaton56. However, they can be paralleled at more or less the same period in the figures of the Apostles Peter and Paul at Zica. This is obvious from a comparison of the Apostle Mark from the Ascension in the katholikon of the Vatopaidi Monastery with the Apostle Paul at Zica57. Features which the two monuments share are the tall robust figures with their full faces, with their feeling of the monumental.
The scene of Pentecost58 in its semi-circular arrangement of the Apostles and in the way in which the different races are depicted has the same iconographic pattern as the Pentecost in the Protaton (c. 1290), Our Lady Perivelptos in Ochrid (1295), and, above all, Zica (1290-1316)59. In spite of the fact that a large part of the central section of the scene was replaced in 1789 with new painting on new mortar, four apostles on the left and two on the right have survived intact, with light over-painting on the garments.
The figures, to judge by the apostles on the edges, are sturdy with broad, full faces and rich flowing folds in the treatment of the garments with bring out the breadth and mass of the body.
This breadth of body, the width of the flowing folds, and the expression which they wear link the Pentecost in the Vatopaidi Monastery with the painting of the Protaton, as we can see by comparing the beardless apostles on the edge of the scene of Pentecost with the figures of the Protaton60. Moreover, the figure of the beardless apostle on the left , from the point of view of physiognomic type and the technique by which the face has been rendered, shows a close relation with the face of Prochorus in the Church of the Protaton61.
In addition, certain figures which are shown in medallions, such as St Plato
, from the point of view of the portrayal of the face and, above all, from a technical viewpoint, stem from types and methods familiar in the painting of the Protaton. A similar affinity of portrayal and style is observable between St Auxentius in the Vatopaidi Monastery and St Pegasius in the Protaton62.
The scene of the Lord’s Supper
retains in its entirety the original iconographic pattern, the only difference being that the faces, though observing the initial design, have been painted over. On the other hand, later interventions on the clothing are limited in extent. The scene, which continues in the Palaeologue period an older iconographic pattern, with Christ sitting on a couch, not in the centre of the table, but to the left, impresses not only by the emphasis on the body mass and the proportions of Christ and the Apostle Peter, but by the troubled figures of the Apostles with their uneasy movement, who, in spite of the over-painting, retain the uncouthness in the expression of their faces.
What is striking in the composite building, which like the stage set of an ancient theatre, frames the scene, are the band with shields, the zone with spiralling tendrils which frame medallions, and the figures, full-length or in medallions on the surface of the wall, which, in a monochrome technique, express, I would say, a nostalgia for antiquity.
This expressionistic painting – in spite of the later over-paintings – with the fleshy faces, with thick necks and eyes which give the impression of protruding, is to be encountered in other scenes or individual figures in the nave, which are also over-painted, such as in the Washing of the Disciples’ Feet, the Dormition of the Theotokos,
in the scene in which Christ explains the meaning of the Washing of the Feet, in the Three Children in the Fiery Furnace63,etc.
Of course, this painting, which differs radically from that of the nave, can also be found in scenes in the exonarthex which we shall examine, and this is particularly important, because it permits us to conclude that the decoration of the nave and that of the exonarthex are contemporaneous.