The engravings

3 November 2011

Side by side with the great paintings and other works of art with which the Monastery of Vatopaidi abounds are also the more ‘humble’ works of engraving. These are far from insignificant in number and interest. As evidence for this there is the recent republication (1994) of a series of 25 copper engravings from plates which the Monastery itself possesses1. As we shall see below, many of these works are of a high quality of execution, in the proportions and in their detail. At the same time they also provide a good deal of historical information about the Monastery.

By the term ‘engraving’ we normally mean the art that produces an identical imprint on paper or on fabric from an original plate. Early plates were of wood (wood engraving) while later ones were of copper (copper engraving) or stone (lithography). Of these plates only a very few examples have been preserved, since on the one hand the wooden ones, being perishable, were lost2, whereas the copper could be returned to the foundry to be used again from the start. However, on the Holy Mountain a fair number of examples of all three types have survived; the majority of them, as we shall see below, being imprints from copper plates.

But what was the reason for these works being produced at the time when they were created, and what purpose did they serve? Before we answer this question, we should realise that although engraving as a practice of producing identical works from an original relief (the plate) was known even in ancient civilisations (such as the Minoans), it was only after the invention of the printing press in the 15th century that the use of ‘prints’ became more general. Eventually it became a separate art in itself and naturally took its place alongside other artistic trends in the various periods. In this fashion copies of the works of the great artists of the Renaissance made an appearance. By this means of cheap production they became accessible to a wider public. Simultaneously, however, original engravings which were used to decorate printed books started to be produced. That is to say, they occupied the position that was earlier held by miniatures in manuscripts. It seems that the same printing press would also circulate engravings independently of the books for which they were destined, and that these were given as ‘blessings’ to the pilgrims who visited various religious institutions3.

It is to this latter category of engravings, that is to say, those printed as gifts to pilgrims, that all of the works of art, other than the antimensia*, which are examined here belong. The antimensia are an exception because they had an entirely different role: they were destined for liturgical use, namely, in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, as is still the case today.

Undoubtedly, the most impressive group of engravings is that which has as its subject the Monastery of Vatopaidi itself. The engravings cover three variations of the one theme in which the central role is played by the building complex of the Monastery, while various supplementary subjects frame the main theme. Features that remain constant are the sea in the lower section, the procession of the icon to the right, the landscape around the Monastery with its garden, and four small scenes – two on each side – which relate to the history of the Monastery. Lengthy inscriptions at the bottom provide additional information about the donors, the place and the date of printing, etc.

The oldest print bears the date 1767, but it seems from the signature that is to be found in the lower section that this is a reprint of an older publication. Indeed what is characteristic is the note that it was “…copper engraved a second time…”, which indicates that a previous copper engraving, which for some reason ceased to be of use, became the model for a new engraving, undoubtedly because its subject was of interest and served the purpose for which it circulated4. Indeed, a copy of this kind has been located with the date 1774 and with Vienna as its place of issue, that is, the same as the later one5.

The affinity with the next copper engraving is very clear. This has once again as its subject the Monastery of Vatopaidi6. The basic features are repeated – the four small scenes to the left and to the right, the procession, the buildings, etc – but there are also some differences – for example, the number of sailing boats in the lower section – revealing that this is a new engraving of an older subject. Indeed, a one-line inscription at the bottom informs us that the engraving and the printing were completed in 1769, that is, two years after the previous one, this time, however, not in Vienna but in Venice, and that the engraver was the celebrated Giulian Zuliani, known also from other engravings.

Undoubtedly, the most impressive copper engraving with the Monastery of Vatopaidi as its subject is that which bears the monogram A B among the eight columns of a verse inscription in the bottom section. These are the initials of the printer Antonio Bortoli of Venice, the place, it seems, where the copper plate that is kept today in the Monastery of Vatopaidi was also engraved. It should be pointed out that whereas at first sight this engraving essentially copies the earlier one, a long period has, however, intervened between the two pieces. At Bortoli’s printing house the impression was made as late as 1802, at the expense of Prokopios Kartsiotis, even though the engraving was made ten years earlier (1792) as the result of a commission by the Prohegoumenos of Vatopaidi, Arsenios of Zakynthos, who had in the meantime died7. Thus, we can to a large extent reconstruct the ‘publishing’ activity of the fathers of the Monastery of Vatopaidi at this time. And, most important, we are able to appreciate the original engraving of 1744, which, by the interest of its subject, survived for more than 50 years, reproducing essentially the same design.

Before we proceed to other smaller subjects from the Monastery of Vatopaidi, it is worth pausing before a more general depiction of the whole of Mount Athos. This is essentially two works, engraved on two separate plates, which nevertheless together constitute a single entity which is both impressive and, one might say, bold for its time. Even though this kind of depiction of the Holy Mountain is not unknown8 (the lengthy peninsula with the peak of Athos at one end and the group of monastic foundations chiefly by the sea made possible a comprehensive presentation of all of the subjects from only two viewpoints), it nevertheless seems that this particular engraving, whose plates are still preserved at the Monastery, is unknown to us from other copies.

The date which is given in the left half of the painting is 1713 and from the inscriptions it seems that there were different donors for each part of the engraving. Although there is an apparent similarity with a print of the early 18th century currently preserved in Paris (the engraver being Alexander a Via of Venice), particularly with regard to the subject of the peak of Athos, the differences, nevertheless, are considerable, not only in the basic, but also in the auxiliary subject-matter (such as the sea and the boats in the foreground, the scenes above Athos, etc.)9.

There are two works of smaller dimension which ­once again show the building complex of the Monastery, but this time as a secondary theme in the lower part of the picture. The earlier piece shows Our Lady of Vatopaidi – the Esphagmeni, as she is called. It is dated 1763 and was printed in Venice by the engraver Giulian Zuliani, who is know also from other copper engravings10. The later of the two (1817) has as its subject the Holy Girdle and its engraver is the painter Nikolaos Chios of Constantinople. In both of these examples there are, to the left and to the right of the Monastery, two columns of text.

Before we move on to an examination of the antimensia­, we should mention two more pieces of engraving: the one a copper engraving and the other a lithograph, which have as their subject the Monastery of Vatopaidi and its dependencies. The copper engraving depicts St Demetrius on horseback as he overpowers Skyloyannis, who has already fallen under the hooves of the saint’s horse. The lower section shows the Skete of St Dem­etrius, its central church and bell tower, and from left to right kalyves* belonging to the Skete. Although in the bottom section the names of the donors are mentioned (“through the subvention of the most reverend Polykarpos Karitziotis and with costs defrayed by his brother according to the flesh dominus Dimitrios”), there is no indication as to when and where the piece was printed. It seems, however, that the names refer to the well-known family of Kartsiotis from Astros in Kynouria, members of which also met the expenses of other engravings of the Monastery during the second half of the 18th century11.

One plate from which lithographs were produced which survives today in the library of the Monastery of Vatopaidi (its dimensions are 54.5 x 70.5 cm) depicts three subjects: two on one side and one on the other. These three compositions, familiar from elsewhere, had been brought here in 1879 for purposes of reproduction at a workshop in Vienna, as we are informed by an inscription at the bottom of one side. St John the Baptist, the patron saint of the Monastery of Dionysiou, and the Our Lady Portaitissa icon of the Monas­tery of Iveron are portrayed on one side, while on the other the Monastery of Vatopaidi is shown12. However, an additional feature here is the fact that two of the subjects are taken from engravings (in the case of St John the Baptist, of 1858, and the Virgin from the beginning of the 19th century) and the third from a photograph before 1879, with no attempt to alter the earlier details.

Of the antimensia (at least 200) which are kept at the Monastery of Vatopaidi, we shall deal here with only four13. The oldest is dated 1719 and has inscriptions in Slavonic characters. The central scene is made up of the Lamentation at the Tomb, the Instruments of the Passion, and the four Evangelists in the four corners. Underneath this scene is an inscription in capitals stating that “these have been blessed and sanctified by the hand of the Most Holy Metropolitan Mitrophanis – 1719”.

An unusual iconographic pattern is to be seen on the antimension of the Patriarch of Antioch Silvestros, dated 1724 and 1731. In addition to the four Evangelists in the corners, we have to the left the Baptist and the Deposition, and in a corresponding position to the right the Holy Trinity (above) and two inscriptions (below). One of these reads: “Consecrated by His Beatitude and Holiness, the Patriarch of the Great City of God, Antioch, and of All the East, Dominus Dominus Silvestros, in the year of salvation 1724, in the month of September”. Further down, on two lines, we read: “The supplication of the servant of God and pilgrim Diamantis Moysis Mazlis son of Antonios, 1731”. From these two inscriptions it is clear that it was possible for a donor to make a commission in a year entirely different from that in which the Patriarch performed the consecration.

In bringing to a close this discussion of engravings, let us turn for a moment to two antimensia which display a different level of interest, not so much connected with their age as with other aspects of the subject which they present. In addition to the normal Greek inscription, the first also bears a text in Arabic script which, inter alia, commemorates the name of Metropolitan Philaretos and gives the date 184614. The second has lengthy inscriptions and constitutes a typical example of an 18th-century antimension (dated 1765): the original engraving, executed by an unknown craftsman, is dated 1733; at least two later engravings on the same subject are known, and reproductions of the same series survive in different parts of Greece (Mytilene, Hydra, Athens, the Holy Mountain)15. Consequently, we are able to confirm yet again that engravings were not only widely disseminated, but that they also endured through the years, both from the point of view of iconographic subjects or as objects used in worship.