Hagios geargios diasoritis
Hagios geargios diasoritis
The church of St. George Diasoritis stands in the midst of olive groves in the fertile plain of Tragaia, near Chalki. No information exists on the building and painting of this important monument. In the narthex of later date, the lintel of the door giving access to the main church has preserved part of an illegible painted inscription, in three lines, with invocations for salvation and reference to the Prodigal Son and the Publican.
This single reference, probably recording the contribution of a higher Byzantine official to the storying of the church, is of wider significance. In the large church of the Protothrone at Chalki, the known inscription of the year 1052 mentions Nicetas, the previous Protospatharios and Tourmarches of Naxia, who had participated in the renovation of what seems to have been the episcopal church. The inscriptions of the Protothrone and of St. George Diasoritis suggest that Chalki was an important administrative centre having control over the inland regions of the island during the Middle Byzantine period.
From the now lost templon, only the sockets used for its propping remain on the floor and on the walls. The few surviving sculptures are Early Christian architectural members. An ancient inscribed plaque has been used on the lintel of the door leading to the main church.
After its consolidation (A.K. Orlandos), the building is in good condition. The wall paintings have survived to a great extent, but most are incrusted with solidified salts. Works for the conservation and cleaning of the wall paintings have been undertaken periodically, since 1978, by the Second Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities in the Cyclades. The wall paintings in the sanctuary and partly those in the main church have been cleaned. Questions related to the identification of certain representations and figures, as well as to the distinction of the painting layers and their dating, cannot be answered before completion of the cleaning operations.
Slightly irregular in plan, the interior measures 5.40*8.50 m. approximately. The cross arms are bar- rel-vaulted and the corner bays have an unusual kind of ceiling with two equal barrel-vaults intersecting to form a diagonal groin. The semicircular apse of the sanctuary takes up almost the entire width and height of the eastern cross-arm. Two niches in the parabema- ta, on either side of the apse, are hollowed into the thickness of the east wall and have projecting altar slabs. The interior, with its symmetrical and distinct compartments, gives an impression of monumentality.
The simple and unadorned exterior of the tile- roofed stone structure shows an effective synthesis of architectural parts with the usual in Naxos semicircular apse and cylindrical drum. The uncovering of a small section of the base walling during recent works has added height to the building. The church is entered by a single rectangular door, with a high relieving arch, on the west side. On the same side, four stone pilasters at regular intervals betray the existence of a portico in earlier times. The pointed single-arched belfry must be of later date. Rising to the left of the door axis, it is an odd structure with proportions that do not match the facade of the church. The interior is dimly lit by a few small windows, either arched or rectangular. The little diffused light softens the architectural forms and the painted figures and produces an effect of mystic symbolism as it reveals the central cross plan of the church.
The wall paintings uniformly covering the main church and the sanctuary are thought to have been part of the original decoration of the interior. It is too soon yet to examine the few traces of a possibly earlier painting. The iconographic programme, balanced and orderly, with a hierarchical arrangement of subjects, has the typical marks of 11th century painting. Portrayals of single saintly figures are prevalent while compositional representations are rather limited. The correct fitting of the subjects to the architectural surfaces reveals a knowledge of form and function, which puts to advantage the available space and enhances the painting. The whole has a monumental character, producing an effect of hieratic solemnity and decorum. The iconographic ensemble shows that art on the island had kept pace with the established programmes for the painting of large contemporary churches of the inscribed-cross type with dome.
The composition in the dome is covered with crystalized salts. The representation in the apse is overpainted with a later, probably 12th century, wall painting of the Panagia Blachernitissa. Of the original representation (Plan no. la) only a small part is visible at the centre: the right hand of the Virgin in front of the Child who extends his hand sideways. The portrayal of St. George in the sanctuary apse confirms that the church has been consecrated from the beginning to this saint. According to the established programmes of the 11th and 12th centuries, the Archangel Michael and St. John the Baptist are honoured in the parabemata.
The Archangel Michael is portrayed, standing and holding a sceptre, in the niche of the prothesis (Plan no. 55) and the Forerunner, holding a cross, in the niche of the diaconicon (Plan no. 58). In the prothesis, to the left of the niche, St. Stephanos the Archdeacon (Plan no. 54) is depicted censing towards the Archangel. A large composition on the north wall of the prothesis shows the Archangel Michael appearing to Joshua. The Archangel Michael is depicted again on the vault of the northwest corner bay, which is painted with the scene of the Miracle at Chonae (Plan no. 83). The scene on the south wall of the diaconicon shows the Forerunner preaching in the desert (Plan no. 59). Addressing the Pharisees and Sadducees to the right, he points to the left, where “the axe is laid unto the root of the trees” (Matthew 3, 7-10, Luke 3, 7-9). The south part of the vault shows the АПОТОМН TOY TIPOAPOMOY (“the Beheading of the Forerunner”) (Fig. 12, Plan no. 60), and the east part the King- Prophets David (Plan no. 61) and Solomon (Plan no. 63) and possibly the Prophet Isaiah (Plan no. 62). The prophets hold unrolled scrolls inscribed with passages referring to Sion and, in a symbolic projection, to the Holy Virgin, who is painted to the east. Their presence emphasizes the prophetic function of “St. John, the Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist” (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom). Elijah, Zechariah, Jonah and other prophets are portrayed on the double vault of the southwest corner bay (Plan no. 68-73). Three of the six prophets are painted in roundels set on a field of tendrils and palmettes.
Two or three layers of wall paintings, perhaps of the 12th century or later, are also found in the narthex. Some are covered with crystalized salts while others are completely ruined. Here the figures are painted on a smaller scale, fitted to the area available. The use of the narthex for entombments is evident in the iconographic programme. The three-figured composition of the Deesis, the Judge of the Second Coming, with the Forerunner, the angels and the Apostles, the scene of Hell with the “fiery angel”, as recorded in the inscription, and the damned in the coils of snakes, the rich man and the beggar Lazarus, and the Parable of the ten virgins are among the visible subjects painted together with a great many inscriptions in the central and the northern bay of the narthex. On the east blind arch of the southern bay, the figure of a saint is visible at the centre. To the left, painted on a smaller scale, a donor or departed is shown standing in attitude of prayer. To the right, barely visible in the corner, St. Eustathios (Plan no. 104) is pictured on horseback in a small-scale painting resembling a portable icon with the supplicatory inscription of Ioannes the Protospatharios. This is perhaps a painting of the second layer and so makes difficult an association of the inscription with the figure of the praying donor on the tympanum of the blind arch, which is part of the original decoration. The figure in prayer is of particular interest. The man’s proud bearing and his attire denote a person of authority. He is dressed in the fashion of 11th century court officials of Constantinople, as they are pictured in miniature illustrations in Pseudo-Oppian’s Cynege- tica, Venice, and in the Homilies of St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Moscow (Julian and officials): he wears an inner garment with a very high striped collar and a girded overcoat with appliques strips on the sleeves, open in front, with wide lapels reaching to the shoulders.
The original wall paintings
The original decoration of the church, to which reference can be made today, has been preserved to an extent unique for Naxos and the wider island area of the Aegean. The only other contemporary example surviving to a similar extent is the mosaic decoration of the Nea Moni in Chios. The gradual uncovering of the wall paintings and their cleaning from the crystal- ized salts will permit a more thorough study of both the iconographic programme and the painting style.
The most important of the remarkable iconographic representations is that of the honoured St. George in the sanctuary apse, with his mother Poly- chronia to his left and an elderly saint to his right (Fig. 4, 9, Plan no. 6-8). The noble venerable figure of the latter, traces of the name inscription and the position of the portrait, corresponding to that of Polych- ronia’s portrait, at the side of the great martyr, permit an identification with the saint’s father, the senator Gerontius. Shown in the dress and posture of martyrs, like St. George, Gerontius and Polychronia take the place of accompanying figures in an iconic composition of genealogical character, revealing an interesting aspect of the particular veneration in which the saint was held. We find again Gerontius and Polychronia in the 13th century wall paintings of the church of St. George Xiphephoros at Apodoulou. Amariou in Crete. Portrayed standing and holding the martyrs’ cross, on the pilasters, they flank the riding figure of St. George, painted on the tympanum of the north blind arch.
The honourary place of the triptych in the apse of the Diasoritis, in the lower register of the curved wall, behind the altar where —as in our days— devotional icons were kept to be brought out and placed on the icon-stand on feast days, is rather unusual. Similar instances are encountered in the Panagia Chalkeon and in three churches of the 12th and 13th century: the Panagia at Asinou, Cyprus, the Holy Apostles at Pe- rachorio, Cyprus, and the Hagios Vasilios at Gefyra, Arta. Also unusual is the frame of St. George’s porеrait, which is decorated as if it were that of a portable icon, like those of wall paintings in the church of St. Barbara at Sighanle, Cappadocia. The whole representation, perfectly set on the curved wall of the apse in the small church of St. George Diasoritis, has no parallel. Its position and arrangement, its iconic completeness and the particularity of the subject suggest the existence of a portable triptych which may have served as model for this wall painting — perhaps a triptych owned by the founder of the church, who wished to have it painted on the wall of the apse. The founder’s eventual participation to a certain extent in the formation of the iconographic programme can be detected in further characteristic parts of the decoration, which suggest that the expense for the storying of the church may have been defrayed by an officer of the army or a person of his entourage acting on his behalf. There are many relevant indications.
The entire arrangement and quality of the paintings are of wider interest, exceeding the limited boundaries of this particular island. They also make possible the detection of the ideal which links the icono- graphic structure of this work to the wishes of the unknown founder.
Two groups of painters seem to have worked for the painting decoration of St. George Diasoritis. One group is responsible for the greater part of the decoration. The noticeable differences in the painting of the northwest compartment, though not due to an essential change of style, indicate that it was executed by another hand.
The technique used is a mixed one: fresco painting and, when dry, addition of distinctive details in the modelling of the faces, the drapery and the decorative elements. The working sequence is visible in various parts, for example in the triptych of the apse, the top part of which overlaps the representation of the hierarchs, and in the painting of the Archangel Gabriel, to the left, which covers a small part of the triptych.
The representations in the sanctuary apse, part of the scene of the Ascension and other compositions are painted by the hand of a master. The host of figures on the northern side of the Ascension is perhaps by a second painter. A third one probably did the wall paintings in the parabemata.
The cleaned parts of the wall paintings disclose the knowledge and experience of the master painter, who organized the iconographic programme with conciseness and order. Rhythm, symmetry and clarity are his principal qualities. The proper arrangement, relation and balance between subjects on the available surfaces are organized with a geometric precision and a monumental consistence conveying the reserved and serene spirit of 11th century painting. Axial divergences, coincidences and oppositions give life to the whole representation and movement to the action.
The balanced composition of the apse (Fig. 4, Plan no. 1-8) is a characteristic example. The vertical disposition of the hierarchs’ figures is counterbalanced by the horizontal development of the triptych, below, while the prominent position of St. George on the vertical axis in counterpoised by the dominant figure of the Virgin high on the half-dome. In the scene of the Ascension (Fig. 4, 7, Plan no. 15) four ethereal angels in harmonious pairs lift a glory painted with shafts of light and the figure of the Ascending Christ. On either side the disciples, led by an angel, stand in solemn postures befitting the miraculous event. Their thoughtful countenance and expressive gestures denote agitation, astonishment, sadness — feelings that are impressed on the onlooker in a more direct manner through the disordered heavy and intricate drapery of their garments. The composition depicting the Beheading of St. John the Baptist (Fig. 12, Plan no. 60) is adapted to the triangular shape of the vault. The young executioner stands to the right, lifting his sword. In front of him, to the left, the figure of St. John, who bends his body and extends his hands, fills the remaining space. In the corner, opposite the be- header, the tower of a gaol indicates the place of the action and adds, by its position in the curve of the vault, an impression of depth to the whole scene. The Appearance of the Archangel Michael to Joshua (Fig. 10, Plan no. 53) and the Preaching of St. John the Baptist (Plan no. 59) show the participants in array, a disposition suitable for flat surfaces, while the proportional arrangement intensifies the narrative quality of the composition. The placing of the Archangel Michael and of St. John somewhat off the central axis imparts an effect of agility to the representation and makes possible the viewing of the principal figures through the arched openings leading from the holy bema to the prothesis and the diaconicon.
The single figures of saints, painted either frontally or turned sideways, have a stately imposing appearance, regular proportions and broad high shoulders. Their faces have clear-cut features and wide-open eyes, usually glancing to one side and made larger by the shadow of the lashes. The repetitive uniformity of posture and gesture emphasizes the solemn priest-like look and produces an effect of unearthly peace — a tranquility reached after the turmoils and anxieties of life that are reflected on the faces of the saints and give warmth to their features. This tenseness is sustained by the raised eye-brows and the furrows of the austere yet compassionate countenance of the aged saints with the fiery eyes (Fig. 5, 6, 13, 14). Young saints have pure mobile features, bright eyes and an imperceptible smile that softens the grave [removed]Fig. 15-18). The deep folds, which “carve” successive shapes into the garments, mould, dissolve and recompose forcefully the position and movements of the invisible limbs. The colour, which gives depth and light to the linear forms, smooths the contours and imparts a relief-like quality to the figures.
Countenances vary in a pursuit leading almost to the individualization of facial features, but always within the limitations and possibilities prescribed by conventional iconography. A typical example is provided by the peculiar cast of features of St. Nicholas’ portrait in the apse (Fig. 6, Plan no. 5). The painting has as a model a rare icon kept in St. Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai. Similarly, the varied figures of angels in the Ascension and in the scenes of the prothesis (Fig. 7, 17) reveal a wealth of accumulated experience and indicate the tendencies and potentialities of the painter or painters of the Diasoritis. The Archangel Gabriel of the Annunciation (Fig. 8, Plan no. 56), and also the angel leading the Apostles on the northern side of the scene of the Ascension (Fig. 7, Plan no. 15), have plump round faces with rosy cheeks that call to mind the mosaic portraits of the Emperor Constantine Monomachus and the Empress Zoe at Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. On the southern side of the Ascension, the angel with the big exquisite eyes in a face of disarming youthful sensitivity and beauty comes very close to classical models. The two angels at the top of Christ’s glory present a contrast. The one to the left is an ethereal figure painted in a manner that can be traced back to ancient tradition. The other, to the right, has a tender serious face modelled with clear undisturbed lines, like those of the other angels in the Assembly of the Angels.
The combination of line and colour, the often pronounced schematization, and the rich chromatic scale of shades and tones are distinctive marks of the paintings in St. George Diasoritis and define their expressive and rather peculiar style. The line is of primary importance: in broad and usually clear strokes of the brush it draws, insisting on form and detail with a striking forceful effect. The persistent use of line is
more evident in the garments of the holy figures — for example, of St. John Eleimon (Fig. 14, Plan no. 11), of the Archangel Gabriel (Fig. 8, Plan no. 56), of the angels and Apostles in the scene of the Ascension (Fig. 7, Plan no. 15) — where it decomposes and divides planes into complex angular and curvilinear shapes forming a pattern of multiple motion. Colour plays an important part in the dispersion and restructure of the disrupted many-faceted planes into a painted surface of uniform style and cohesion. The wheat-coloured or sun-tanned faces are modelled with clarity and flexibility. Features and volumes are painted in flowing or vigorous lines, in the case of elderly wrinkled saints. Warm tones alternate with green shades along the edges which highlight the red spots on the cheeks and create lively countenances. In the northwest bay the modelling and colouring are of a lower tone. The palette is of lighter tints, the drawing is finer and the drapery simpler.
A classification of the wall paintings of the Diasoritis to a group of other closely related works is not easy. Comparison of some parts with wall paintings in the Panagia Chalkeon and in Hagia Sophia at Thessaloniki, in Qarabach Kilisse at Cappadocia, in the Protothrone at Naxos, in St. Merkourios and St. Nicholas at Corfu, with mosaics and wall paintings in S. Sophia at Kiev and other works, suggest a dating after the mid-11th century. The wall paintings of St. George Diasoritis have certain common characteristics with those of the nearby church of the Protothrone, particularly with the dome painting of the second layer and the paintings of the south cross arm afld the northwest parecclesion. They share common trits of style, but even more the ethos reflected in the holy figures, and reveal a relation between the two monuments justified by their proximity in place and tirPe.