The Wall-Paintings of the Chapel of the Aghioi Anargyroi

6 November 2011

There is in the Chapel of the Aghioi Anargyroi, a three aisled, wooden-roofed basilica of small dimensions1, an interesting set of wall-paintings of the Late Palaeologan period (c. 1371), which is, unfortunately, over-painted2. This painting, known until recently only in the nave, was supplemented in 1847 by decoration which extends to the top band in the nave and to the narthex3. However, investigation carried out in the narthex has demonstrated that below the layer of painting of 1847 there is an older one – perhaps the same as that of the nave – of unknown extent. In all probability this initial layer was repeated in terms of subject-matter by the artist Matthaios, who decorated the narthex in 18474.

The over-painted wall-paintings of the layer of decoration of the late Palaeologan period cover, to an extent which is not always recognisable, the two lowest bands of the centre aisle, in the  sanctuary 5, and the first band, with full-length saints, of the north6 and south aisles7, and possibly other areas in the side aisles8.

Recently, sample cleaning, carried out in April 19959, removed the layer of over-painting from the faces of the Archangels Gabriel and Michael, in the sanctuary apse, and of St Gregory Palamas, who is depicted in the prothesis*, St Nestor, St Procopius, and St Simeon , who are shown in the nave.

These wall-paintings serve to improve our picture of the Palaeologue painting which is preserved in the chapel, now that they are added to the paintings of Our Lady Hodeghetria  and of Christ10, to be found on the front of the pier walls of the sanctuary and going with the original marble sanctuary screen, the only ones known not to have been over-painted.

Of these wall-paintings, the figure of St Gregory Palamas, in the prothesis together with St John Chrysostom, being blessed by Christ as Emmanuel, is of particular interest. The representation of St Gregory Palamas is accompanied by the following inscription, which is particularly revealing of the impression made by the personality of the Saint: “THE MOST HOLY ARCHBISHOP OF THESSALONIKI GREGORIUS AND NEW CHRYSOSTOM THE MIRACLE-WORKER”.

The description of the Saint as a latter-day Chrysostom is very rare in depictions of him11, and is accounted for by the fact that as early as the 14th century he was regarded as of equal standing with the great Universal Doctor of the Church and Patriarch John Chrysostom12. Moreover, the epithet of ‘miracle-worker’ applied to the Saint, which stems from the sources which give an account of his life, occurs in depictions of him, as far as I know, for the first time in the Chapel of the Aghioi Anargyroi in the Vatopaidi Monastery.

However, what is of particular interest is the fact that the wall-painting of St Gregory Palamas in the Chapel of the Aghioi Anargyroi is the earliest depiction of the Saint known to have survived on the Holy Mountain13. If we bear in mind that the wall-paintings of the Chapel of the Aghioi Anargyroi have been dated to 1371, this portrayal of the Saint will be seen to be – together with that in the Vlatadon Monastery in Thessaloniki14 – one of the oldest to be preserved, and one produced at a time very close to the year of his death (1359). So early a depiction of the Saint at the Vatopaidi Monastery, dating from a few years after his death, probably reflects the fact that the stay of St Gregory Palamas in the environment of the Monastery was still remembered15.

From the point of view of iconography, some of the scenes in the Chapel of the Aghioi Anargyroi, such as the Dormition of the Theotokos, are reproduced more or less identically at Manasija in what was medieval Serbia (1406-1418)16.

In artistic terms, the wall-paintings of the chapel show a close relation with monuments of the second half of the the 14th and the early 15th centuries. More specifically, the wall-painting of Our Lady Hodeghetria 17 is a faithful copy of the icon of Our Lady Hodeghetria in St Nicholas Orphanos in Thessaloniki, which has been dated by Xyngopoulos to the second half of the 14th century and by Babic to the early 15th18.

Furthermore, the figure of St Simeon in terms of physiognomy and expression has its parallel in figures from the Marko Manastir (1376) and Lipljan (1375-1389) in medieval Serbia19, the only difference being that the artistic qualities in the wall-painting in the Chapel of the Aghioi Anargyroi are obvious.

There is also an affinity in physiognomy and expression between St Procopius and the prophet Habakkuk from Manasija (before 1418)20. Connections between the wall-paintings of the chapel and those of Manasija have also been noted by Djuric, who points out that typologically St Nestor and St Procopius are to be found repeated identically in monuments of medieval Serbia, such as at Sisojevac (1402) and at Manasija21.

Moreover, the exceptionally thin, elongated figures of the saints shown at full length, with their small heads – and particularly those in the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple – are recognisable in monuments of the early 15th century, such as the Church of St George at Veria, the Three Saints at Kastoria (1401), and at Kalenic (c. 1420)22.

On the other hand, certain of the figures, such as that of the Archangel Michael , show a close typological relation with works of the artistic circle of Venice in the 14th century, a fact which indicates points of contact of the artist with Western art23.

From a technical point of view, the faces of the beardless figures, such as the archangels and St Nestor, but also that of St Gregory Palamas, are shapely and are rendered in a painterly way. Furthermore, we can recognise in the complex of parallel lines and of a red mark which spreads out on the cheeks methods familiar in the painting of the second half of the 14th and the early 15th centuries24. On the other hand, the dishevelled hair above the expressive face of St Simeon  is marked by a softness remarkable for this period, while the curls in the hair of the archangels and of St Procopius serve a decorative purpose. These methods of rendering faces and the hair are also recognisable at Manasija25.

Purely at the level of expression, the faces of the archangels and the warrior saints are suffused with a melancholy lyricism which also marks the wall-paintings of Manasija26.

On the basis of the features which we have described, it can be said that the artistic affinity of the wall-paintings in the Chapel of the Aghioi Anargyroi with works of the last quarter of the 14th and the early 15th centuries, and, indeed, with works of studios or artists who came from Thessaloniki – such as the icon of Our Lady Hodeghetria and the wall-paintings of Manasija – shows the place of origin of the artists who decorated the chapel to have been the city of Thessaloniki.

Professor Djuric27, arguing from historical data and artistic features, has attributed the building and decoration of the Chapel of the Aghioi Anargyroi to a donation of the Serbian Prince John Uglesha, who had close ties with the Monastery of Vatopaidi. Thus he dates the wall-paintings in the chapel to around 1371, a little before the death of Uglesha at the Battle of Maritza (1371) and attributes them to a Thessaloniki workshop, the source of the Manasija wall-paintings.

The view expressed by Djuric on the artistic affinity of the wall-paintings of the Chapel of the Aghioi Anargyroi with those of Manasija is supported by the new wall-paintings which we have published and the new facts which we have given. However, in our opinion, the close iconographic, typological and stylistic relation between the wall-paintings of the chapel and those of Manasija (before 1418) – in spite of the portrayal of John Uglesha as founder in the narthex of the chapel, which is of a later date – raises the question of the dating of the paintings in the chapel not to 1371 as Djuric proposes, but to the late 14th or early 15th century28. This problem, however, can only be finally resolved after the removal of the over-painting and the cleaning of the wall-paintings of the Chapel of the Aghioi Anargyroi, within the framework of av overall publication on the painted decoration of the chapel.