The Art of Mount Athos

Credits

Owing to its wealth of wall paintings, portable icons, and illuminated manuscripts from all periods of history, Mount Athos is perhaps the most important source from which the ordinary pilgrim, and the specialist too, can learn about the history of Byzantine and Postbyzantine painting and art in general.

Mosaics and wall paintings

The most numerous and most important examples represent the Macedonian School (13th–14th cent.) and the Cretan School (16th cent.). There is very little from earlier centuries, probably owing to disasters, fires, renovations, and overpainting.

The early examples

The Apostle Peter, Kellion Ravdouhou, Dependency of Pantokrator, Karyes, 12th c.
The Apostle Peter, Kellion Ravdouhou, Dependency of Pantokrator, Karyes, 12th c.

The only examples from the 11th century are two mosaics in the katholikon of Vatopedi Monastery, one depicting the Annunciation, with the figures of the Virgin and the Archangel Gabriel, and the other the Deesis, with Christ enthroned between the Virgin and St John the Baptist in attitudes of intercession. The rest of the church was entirely decorated with wall paintings, which were covered over by new paintings, however, in 1312.

Twelfth-century wall paintings survive in good condition in the Ravdouhos Kellion near Karyes, depicting the full-length figures of St Peter and St Paul. In the refectory of Vatopedi Monastery the heads of three Apostles survive. The style is linear and the facial expressions animated.

Examples from the early 13th century survive in Chelandari Monastery, specifically in the Kellion of the Holy Trinity and the tower of St George. The figures of the Virgin, Christ, and a number of hierarchs are monumental and skilfully painted. In St George’s, however, all the details are plainer, giving an overall impression of less meticulous, less inspired work.

The Apostle Paul, Kellion Ravdouhou, Dependency of Pantokrator, Karyes, 12th c.
The Apostle Paul, Kellion Ravdouhou, Dependency of Pantokrator, Karyes, 12th c.

The Macedonian School

The Macedonian School had its centre in Thessaloniki and flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries. Its hallmarks are realism in the depiction of the figures, not only in their external features but also in the rendering of their inner world, particularly their pathos. The compositions are crowded, with all the figures moving in the space, which is extensive and rendered in striking depth.

St Theodore Stratelates, Karyes, Protaton. Fresco by Manuel Panselinos, 14th c.
St Theodore Stratelates, Karyes, Protaton. Fresco by Manuel Panselinos, 14th c.
Sts Merkourios and Arsenios, Karyes, Protaton. Fresco by Manuel Panselinos, 14th c.
Sts Merkourios and Arsenios, Karyes, Protaton. Fresco by Manuel Panselinos, 14th c.

Painters from Thessaloniki were invited to paint Athonite foundations, and they frescoed the Protaton, the katholika of the Great Lavra, Vatopedi, Chelandari, and Pantokrator, and the refectory and cemetery church of Pantokrator. There were many famous ateliers of the Macedonian School, but head and shoulders above the rest stood the atelier of Manuel Panselinos.

All our information about Panselinos come from the Painter’s Manual, which was written in the early 18th century by an ordained monk and painter named Dionysios, a native of Fourna in Evrytania who lived on Mount Athos in the first half of the 18th century. Dionysios attributed to Manuel Panselinos the frescoes in the Protaton at Karyes, in the outer narthex of the katholikon of Vatopedi, and in the katholika of Pantokrator and the Great Lavra, and a large number of portable icons in monasteries on Mount Athos and elsewhere.

The Presentation of the Virgin, Karyes, Protaton. Fresco by Manuel Panselinos, 14th c.
The Presentation of the Virgin, Karyes, Protaton. Fresco by Manuel Panselinos, 14th c.

Scientific research has shown a number of paintings on Athos to be genuine works of Manuel Panselinos: the frescoes in the Protaton and the outer narthex of the katholikon of Vatopedi, a head of St Nicholas in the katholikon of the Great Lavra (the rest of the composition has been retouched), a portable icon of St Demetrios in the Great Lavra, and two icons of St Demetrios and St George in Vatopedi. Works of his have been located in monuments in Thessaloniki and other cities in Macedonia. Manuel’s frescoes are distinctive for their luminous colours, the consummate rendering of the figures, their welling spirituality, and the grandeur of the compositions.

Apart from Manuel Panselinos’s paintings, works of the Macedonian School may also be admired in Chelandari Monastery, where the entire katholikon was frescoed by the renowned atelier of Michael Astrapas and Eutychios.

The characteristics of the Macedonian School remained apparent in all the frescoes and portable icons on Mount Athos until the beginning of the 16th century, when there was a gradual decline in the quality of the painting. Examples include the frescoes in the Chapel of St John the Baptist in the Protaton, which were painted in 1526.

The Cretan School

The 16th century saw a departure from the characteristics of the Macedonian School, which were replaced by those of the new, Cretan, school. The lifelike rendering of the external features and the depiction of the figures’ psychological make-up gave way to a more austere iconography. The figures are now tall, slender, and lean, with a characteristic ascetic nobility.

Last Supper, Stavronikita Monastery, Refectory, Fresco by Theophanes the Cretan, Cretan School, 1546
Last Supper, Stavronikita Monastery, Refectory, Fresco by Theophanes the Cretan, Cretan School, 1546.

The chief exponent of the Cretan School was Theophanes Strylitzas from Iraklio on Crete. He painted the katholikon of the Great Lavra in 1535, and the katholikon and refectories of Stavronikita and the Great Lavra with his sons Symeon and Neophytos, who followed in his footsteps as painters. The frescoes in the Chapel of St John the Baptist in Stavronikita are also attributed to Theophanes. His frescoes are characterised by a consistent organisation of the composition, the perfect stance of the figures, an abundance of drapery in their clothing giving an impression of naturalness, noble faces, and luminous colours.

The katholikon of Dionysiou Monastery was painted in 1546/7 by a Cretan painter named Tzortzis, an artist who, although he imitated Theophanes, produced more schematic figures with an air of greater pathos. A few years later, in 1568, Tzortzis frescoed the katholikon of Docheiariou Monastery. Other representatives of the Cretan School in the 16th century painted the katholika of Koutloumousiou and Iviron, the refectories of Philotheou and the Great Lavra, and the Molyvokklissia in Karyes.

The old katholikon of Xenophontos Monastery, the Kellion of St Prokopios, and the Chapel of St George in St Paul’s Monastery were painted by Andonios, who was a native of mainland Greece but closely observed the precepts of the Cretan School, though his art does not compare with that of Theophanes. The frescoes in the narthex of the old katholikon of Xenophontos Monastery were painted by another Theophanes, not Strylitzas.

Although the subject most commonly seen in the monastery refectories is the Last Supper, on the walls of the refectory of Great Lavra the visitor may admire a number of ancient Greek philosophers and writers, including Socrates, Aristotle, and Plutarch.

St Varlaam, Great Lavra Monastery, Chapel of St Nicolas, Mural painting by Frangos Katelanos, 1560
St Varlaam, Great Lavra Monastery, Chapel of St Nicolas, Mural painting by Frangos Katelanos, 1560.

Alongside the Cretan School, the art of Frangos Katellanos was also much appreciated in this period. A painter from Thebes, the hallmarks of his work are crowded scenes and the architectural structures which fill the background of the compositions. The figures are in motion and are much more expressive than those of the Cretan School, while his luminous colours give his compositions a narrative air and the figures a greater degree of movement than those of the Cretan School. Katellanos frescoed the Chapel of St Nicholas in the katholikon of the Great Lavra in 1560, and other works of his are to be found in many monasteries elsewhere in Greece.

Cretan art continued to predominate in the 17th century, but was now leavened with elements of the folk tradition, mainly from western Greece. The most important works of this period are the frescoes in the refectory and the Chapel of the Akathistos Hymn in Dionysiou Monastery, which were painted by Makarios in 1615, and those on the phiale of the Great Lavra.

The paintings in the refectory of Chelandari are noteworthy, having been executed in 1623 by a Serbian monk named George Mitrofanovitch. His compositions reflect the influence of the teachings and the characteristics of the Macedonian School.

The 18th century

The dawn of the 18th century brought about a renewal in the style of the frescoes on Mount Athos as two trends appeared: a return to the models of the Macedonian School, the chief exponent of which was Dionysios of Fourna; and an adherence to the contemporary style of religious painting, a trend which appeared when painters from Epirus were invited to Mount Athos.

Christ Anapesson (a representation of the young Christ asleep, Kellion St John the Baptist, Dependency of Koutloumousiou Monastery, Fresco by Dionysios of Fourna, 18th c.
Christ Anapesson (a representation of the young Christ asleep, Kellion St John the Baptist, Dependency of Koutloumousiou Monastery, Fresco by Dionysios of Fourna, 18th c.

Dionysios of Fourna, best known for his Painter’s Manual, was a monk who lived in a kellion near Karyes. Examples of his art survive on the walls of his kellion and in numerous portable icons. One of these, depicting the Twelve Apostles, is on the templon in the katholikon of Karakallou Monastery. Dionysios was not a particularly noteworthy artist, but his influence on his contemporaries was considerable. A number of painters imitated the art of the 14th and 15th centuries, most notable among whom was Kosmas from Limnos (about whom we know nothing), who frescoed the Chapel of St Demetrios in the katholikon of Vatopedi Monastery.

Epirot artists painted the frescoes in the katholikon of Karakallou, the outer narthex of the katholikon of Vatopedi, and elsewhere. More specifically, David Selinitziotis from Avlona (Vlorë) in Albania frescoed the narthex of the Chapel of the Virgin Koukouzelissa in the Great Lavra. A competent painter, he allied the elements of the Macedonian School with west European influences. By the end of the 18th century, the Epirot painters had carried out many commissions on Mount Athos. But already the monks were showing a preference for engaging artists from Galatista in Halkidiki to paint their monasteries.

The Epirot painters, who were mainly from villages in Epirus, but also from Yannina and Kastoria, had incorporated numerous folk elements into their art, and used features of secular painting in their religious painting. This was because, concurrently with religious painting they also decorated houses and had evolved a common thematic repertory. They also incorporated western, Baroque-like elements into their work.

In the 18th century, the artists who painted the Athonite monasteries were influenced by western models of painting. The arrival of thousands of Russian monks in the monasteries and sketes of the Holy Mountain and the painting of the Russian foundations made this departure from the Byzantine models even more marked. The Ioasaf brethren, painters who lived at Kafsokalyvia in the 19th century, were clearly influenced by the new style.

Portable icons

There are numerous, indeed countless, portable icons on Mount Athos, in katholika, churches and chapels, icon repositories, sketes, kellia, and elsewhere. Thanks to the investigations of the Archaeological Service and the conservation and restoration work being carried out by the Centre for the Preservation of Athonite Heritage, icons are being discovered almost daily, having either disappeared or simply not been recorded anywhere. Their number is estimated at 20,000, which means that Mount Athos has the largest collection of icons in the world.

Most of the icons on Athos fall into two large groups: devotional icons; and templon icons and altar doors. The former were usually placed on iconostases or were portable icons placed in various parts of the church, according to the calendar of Christian feasts. The latter were placed on the templon, which divides the sanctuary from the naos.

Chronologically, the portable icons may be divided into three periods. The first includes icons of the Byzantine and the early Ottoman era (until 1535), the second icons painted between 1535 and 1711, and the third icons from 1711 to the mid-19th century.

1st Period (Byzantine and early Ottoman era)

There are very few icons dating to before the Palaiologan period. Until the 13th century, the Byzantines tended to favour monumental art, such as wall paintings and mosaics, more than icons. The adoption of high wooden templa adorned with icons gave something of an impetus to the production of icons.

Very few mosaic icons survive. They are mostly small icons with tiny tesserae and a gold ground. The standard of craftsmanship is high. Worth noting are two mosaic icons of St George and St Demetrios in Xenophontos Monastery (12th cent.), The Virgin Hodegetria in Cheladari (12th cent.), an icon of St Nicholas in Stavronikita, and an icon of St John the Theologian in the Great Lavra (of later date).

Icon of St George
St George, Xenophontos Monastery, Mosaic on wood, 12th c., 2nd half.

Icon of St Demetrios
St Demetrios, Xenophontos Monastery, Mosaic on wood, 12th c., 2nd half.

Icon of the Virgin Hodegetria
The Virgin Hodegetria, Chelandari Monastery, Mosaic on wood, 12th c., 2nd half.

Icon of Christ Pantokrator
Christ Pantokrator, Chelandari Monastery, Wood, egg tempera, ca. 1260-70.

The oldest icons are in the Monastery of Great Lavra. They date to the 11th century, one depicting the five martyrs of Sebasteia and the other St Panteleimon. There are 12th-century icons in Chelandari and Vatopedi.

The icons of the Palaiologan period are much more numerous and more are constantly being discovered. They come from the major artistic centres of Constantinople and Thessaloniki and reflect contemporary artistic influences. Most of them depict Christ Pantokrator, the Virgin Hodegetria, the Annunciation, or the Crucifixion. Splendid examples from this period survive mainly in Chelandari, Pantokrator, Iviron, Vatopedi, and the Great Lavra.

Icon of Virgin Hodegetria
The Virgin Hodegetria, Vatopedi Monastery, Wood, egg tempera, 13th c., last quarter.

One special category is the bifacial icons, which are painted on both sides. Usually they have the Virgin or Christ on one side and a scene from Christ’s Passion on the other. Typical examples of this type of icon are the three that were displayed in the Treasures of Mount Athos exhibition.

The first depicts John the Baptist on one side and John the Baptist with the Virgin holding the infant Jesus on the other; the second depicts Christ on one side and St Athanasios on the other (both these icons are from Pantorator Monastery); and the third, from the Monastery of St Paul, depicts the Virgin Hodegetria on one side and the Crucifixion on the other.

Icon of St John the Baptist Icon of St John the Baptist and Virgin holding infant Jesus
Double-sided icon: (a) St John the Baptist and (b) St John the Baptist and the Virgin and Child, Pantokrator Monastery, Wood, egg tempera, 14th c., 3rd quarter.
Icon of Christ Icon of St Athanasios
Double-sided icon: (a) Christ Pantokrator and (b) St Athanasios, Pantokrator Monastery, Wood, egg tempera, 1360-80.

2nd> Period (1535–1711)

Icon of St Peter
St Peter (Great Deesis), Stavronikita Monastery,Cretan School. Wood, egg tempera by Theophanis the Cretan, 1546.
Icon of the Nativity
Nativity Scene, Stavronikita Monastery, Cretan School. Wood, egg tempera by Theophanis the Cretan, 1546.
Icon of the Transfiguration
Transfiguration, Stavronikita Monastery, Cretan School. Wood, egg tempera by Theophanis the Cretan, 1546.

This period starts with the arrival of the Cretan painter Theophanes Strylitzas on Mount Athos and ends with the appearance of Dionysios of Fourna, who proclaimed the return to the techniques of the Macedonian School. In the 16th century, the Cretan artists painted whole series of portable icons, as well as wall frescoes. Almost all the Athonite monasteries possess icons of the Cretan School. The most outstanding of these are the templon icons, both large and small, painted by Theophanes and his sons in the Great Lavra, Stavronikita, Iviron, Pantokrator, and Gregoriou.

Apart from the icons painted by Theophanes, there are works by other Cretan artists, such as Euphrosynos in Dionysiou, Mihaïl Damaskinos in Stavronikita, Konstandinos Palaiokapas in Karakalou, and Ioannis Apakas in the Great Lavra. The most outstanding of Euphrosynos’s icons are those of Christ, the Virgin, and John the Baptist, making up the composition known as the Great Deesis.

The portable icons of this second period display all the characteristics of the Cretan School: spirituality, the inner world of the figures, rich colours, and detailed composition.


Christ (Great Deesis), Dionysiou Monastery, Cretan School. Wood, egg tempera by Euphrosynos, 1542.
Icon of the Virgin
The Suppliant Virgin (Great Deesis), Dionysiou Monastery, Cretan School. Wood, egg tempera by Euphrosynos, 1542.
Icon of St John the Bapiist
St John the Baptist (Great Deesis), Dionysiou Monastery, Cretan School. Wood, egg tempera by Euphrosynos, 1542.

3rd> Period (1711 to mid-19th century)

Icon of Crucifixion
Crucifixion from the epistyle of an iconostasis, Iviron Monastery, Wood, egg tempera, 18th c. 1st half
Icon of St Modestos
St Modestos, Koutloumoysiou Monastery, Wood, egg tempera, 1751

The third period starts with the output of Dionysios of Fourna, who admired the work of Manuel Panselinos, began to imitate the style of the Macedonian School, and urged his contemporaries to do the same. Other painters, such as David of Selenitsa and Kosmas of Limnos, followed this revival of the style of the Macedonian School in the portable icons they painted.

After the mid-18th century, most of the Athonite icons were painted by ateliers from Halkidiki. The icons began to acquire a provincial folk style. In the 19th century, the influence of the west European style began to make itself apparent in painting and there was a gradual departure from the principles of Byzantine painting.

St Makarios the Roman
St Makarios the Roman Skete of St Anne Wood, egg tempera, 18th c.
Icon of the Virgin Paraklesis
The Virgin Paraklesis
Pantokrator Monastery Wood, egg tempera by Michael (Thessaloniki), 1783.
Icon of St Paul of Xeropotamou
St Paul of Xeropotamou Xeropotamou Monastery Wood, egg tempera, 1870.
Sts Barbarian and Mose, Vatopedi Monastery, Refectory. Fresco by Makarios of Galatista
Sts Barbarian and Mose, Vatopedi Monastery, Refectory.
Fresco by Makarios of Galatista, 1786.

It is worth noting that we do not know enough about the painting of the 18th and 19th centuries. Many icons are still waiting for scholars to bend a scientific eye upon them.

The thaumaturgical icons

Icon of Axion Esti, Karies, Protaton
Icon of Axion Esti, Karies, Protaton
Panagia Portaitissa, Iveron Monastery
Panagia Portaitissa, Iveron Monastery
Panagia Koukoyzelissa, Great Lavra Monastery
Panagia Koukoyzelissa, Great Lavra Monastery

One distinct category is the thaumaturgical icons, those, that is, which are traditionally held to have worked—or indeed still to work—miracles. They are usually icons of the Virgin, and they usually have covers of some precious metal, such as gold, silver, or platinum.

The best known include the Virgin Axion Esti in the sanctuary of the Protaton at Karyes; the Virgin Portaïtissa in a chapel in Iviron Monastery; the Virgin Triheroussa in Chelandari; the Gorgoepikoös in Docheiariou Monastery in a chapel between the katholikon and the refectory; the Virgin Ktitorissa or Vimatarissa in Vatopedi; the Virgin Koukouzelissa in the Great Lavra; St Nicholas Streidas in Stavronikita; the Virgin Glykophiloussa in Philotheou; and the Virgin Hodegetria in Konstamonitou.

There is a strong devotional tradition behind these icons, and all occupy places of great honour in the monasteries to which they belong. The exception is the Axion Esti in the sanctuary of the Protaton.

These icons are venerated by the monks and by devout pilgrims. In recent years they have been displayed outside Athos in an effort to make them accessible to those of the faithful who are not allowed to visit Mount Athos (women, for instance) or who have great difficulty getting there.

Bibliography

  1. Icons of Cretan Art: From Chandax to Moscow and St. Petersburg (in Greek), Iraklio, 1979
  2. M. Chatzidakis, The Cretan Painter Theophanes: The Final Period of his Art in the Frescoes in Stavronikita Monastery (in Greek), Mount Athos, 1986
  3. M. Chatzidakis, ‘Postbyzantine Art, 1430–1830’ (in Greek), Makedonia 4,000 hronia ellinikis istorias kai politismou, Athens, 1982
  4. M. Chatzidakis, ‘The Painter Theophanes Strelitzas, Called Bathas’ (in Greek), Nea Estia, 74/875, Christmas, 1963, pp. 215–26
  5. M. Chatzidakis, ‘Mosaics and Wall Paintings’ (in Greek), Byzantine Art, 1964, pp. 169–74
  6. M. Chatzidakis, ‘Postbyzantine Art’ (in Greek), Istoria tou Ellinikou Ethnous, vol. VIII, pp. 274–305
  7. M. Chatzidakis, ‘Postbyzantine Art (1453–1700) and its Sphere of Influence’ (in Greek), Istoria tou Ellinikou Ethnous, vol. X, Athens, 1974
  8. M. Chatzidakis, ‘Spiritual Life and Culture’ (in Greek), Istoria tou Ellinikou Ethnous, vol. XI, pp. 244–73
  9. P. Mylonas, ‘The Protaton at Karyes and the Painter Manuel Panselinos’ (in Greek), Nea Estia, 1,089 (1972), pp. 1,657–62
  10. N. Nikonanos, ‘Postbyzantine Painting in Macedonia’ (in Greek), I neoteri kai synhroni Makedonia, vol. I, Athens, n.d., pp. 164–83
  11. E. N. Tsigaridas, ‘Portable Icons’ (in Greek), Moni Vatopediou, 1996, vol. II, pp. 35–417
  12. E. N. Tsigaridas, ‘Palaiologan Icons of Vatopedi Monastery’ (in Greek), Holy Mountain, 1966, pp. 355-65
  13. E. N. Tsigaridas, ‘Master Manuel Panselinos: The Splendid Frescoes in the Most Venerable and Renowned Church of the Protaton’ (in Greek), Kendra Orthodoxias, Epta Imeres Kathimerini, n.d., 23-7
  14. E. Tsigaridas, ‘Monumental Painting in Greek Macedonia during the 15th Century’, Holy Image, Holy Space: Icons and Frescoes from Greece, exhibition catalogue, Athens, 1988
  15. P. L. Vocotopoulos, Greek Art: Byzantine Icons (in Greek), Athens 1995
  16. A. Xyngopoulos, Manuel Panselinos (in Greek), Athens, 1956
  17. A. Xyngopoulos, ‘Monumental Painting on Mount Athos’ (in Greek), Nea Estia, 1,285 (1981), pp. 86-100
  18. A. Xyngopoulos, ‘Mosaïques et fresques de l’Athos’, Le Millénaire du Mont Athos, vol. 2, pp. 247ff.

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