Hagios Ioannis theologos at adisarou
Hagios Ioannis theologos at adisarou
The church of St. John the Theologian stands on a site called “at Adisarou” or “at the Fountain of Adisarou”, opposite Lathrinos, not far from the village of Damarionas, in the SW region of Naxos that was once protected by the great Byzantine Castle of Apaliro. Like other Middle Byzantine churches of the island (St. Kyriake at Apeiranthos, St. George at Apeiranthos, St. Artemios at Sangri, St. Demetrios at Kynidaros), it is single-aisled with vaults and a dome and it has the same or similar architectural and structural characteristics: a simple stone construction, a projecting large semicircular apse, a dome resting on a low drum, and an articulation of three bays in the interior by means of transverse arches and blank arcad- ing on the long sides. The apse has preserved remains of a two-stepped synthronon, which must have had originally a bishop’s throne in the centre. The interior measures 7.70 * 2.50 m., or, including the depth of the apse and of the blank arcades, 8.95 * 3.27 m. The doorway and the small window on the west side are framed with marble members, perhaps from the nearby site of the ancient Telesterion of Demeter which was superseded by an Early Christian basilica. At about the middle of the north and south sides there must have been two facing doors — later condemned — which may have given access to adjacent compartments (there are traces of a vaulted structure on the exterior of the south side). The western part of the south wall and the corresponding vault, that had been ruined at some time, were rebuilt.
Recent works undertaken by the Second Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities (1980-1983) have brought to light aniconic wall paintings that had decorated only the sanctuary of the church (Fig. 3), as in the case of St. Artemios at Sangri. Sections of wall paintings from two subsequent phases of decoration—limited to certain parts of the church — were also discovered under coatings of later date. These include the composition of the Deesis on the half-dome of the apse, the portrayals of St. John the Theologian, titular saint of the church, and an unidentified female saint (Marina?) on the two western pilasters (13th century), and of the saints Mamas and George, on the two central blind arches (14th century). Under the layer of aniconic wall paintings, almost the whole of the interior was found to have been covered with a smooth plaster coating with, here and there, indistinct designs in black and crude red colour and an archaic small black cross unskilfully painted on the jamb of the south blocked up door, probably by the craftsman who worked the coating when the church was being built. The two small windows at the base of the half dome of the apse had been blocked with masonry to accommodate the 13th century painting of the Deesis.
Aniconic wall paintings
The aniconic wall paintings of the church have survived to a relatively large extent, permitting a reconstruction of the original decorative programme in the parts where it has perished. Geometric and floral motifs, vividly painted in many colours, black, crude red, warm ochre-yellow, green, on the white undercoating, spread over all the surfaces of the eastern part of the church: the apse and its front, the barrel-vault and the lower side walls, the intrados and east front of the transverse arch that supports the dome and separates the sanctuary from the nave.
In the apse, at the base of the half-dome and between the two small windows, a panel was painted with a cross of unequal arms under an arch (the extremities of the cross arms are visible). The front of the arch was painted with small tangent circles imitating a marble revetment, while an enclosed spiked rosette at the right corner recalls opus sectile. The field below the panel contained an inscription, in majuscule letters, of which only the left part of the last line has preserved the words: TON ©EON (the Lord). Immediately below, on the whitish band framing the dark-coloured cornice, another archaic inscription reads: …TEKNON TIANYKH… (…children and the whole house…). The principal inscription was written in capital letters on the kosmetes, the narrow stone moulding that marks the base-line of the half-dome. To the right can be read with difficulty: …(…the Virgin Mother of God…). Perhaps the church was at the time dedicated to the Holy Virgin.The palaeographic features of the painted inscriptions support a dating of the aniconic decoration to the 9th century.
To the left and right of the windows, the register which had at the centre a cross under an arch, was painted with looped circles, originally three on either side, with a composite star-like cruciform rosette in the circles and bud flowers in the interspaces. Right above this register, a large circle was painted at the centre of the half-dome. Part of this painting has survived to the right and shows a large polychrome circle adorned with bands running through a series of interlaced circular patterns. This great circle probably enclosed the holy cross, the dominant symbol of aniconic decorations. Aniconic wall paintings in other churches of Naxos also show a cross inscribed within a circle in the same place of the apse, as for example in the chapel of St. George near Apeiranthos and in the cemeterial church of St. John the Theologian at Danakos. The area outside the circle is decorated with a pattern of scales arranged in the same direction, imitating peacock feathers (a greater part is preserved on the right), with white pearl-like dots on the contour of the scales and wavy lines inside, converging round a circular central element. A similar scale pattern is found in the same place in the churches of St. Kyriake at Apeiranthos and of St. Artemios at Sangri.
On the curved lower part of the apse the painting imitates architectural decoration with marble revetments and opus sectile. In the middle, where the episcopal seat would be, a panel is formed, above, by a large toothed pattern, composed of polychrome quadrilaterals in a diagonal arrangement, and, below, by an inserted smaller panel with small tangent circles imitating marble revetment. On either side, originally three narrow panels framed two large panels. The latter are decorated with a rhomboid pattern, its angles forming loops, containing a cross-like rosette inscribed within a circle. The lavish pattern, which resembles a polychrome opus sectile, varies from panel to panel in the supplementary details.
The toothed pattern drawn in perspective on the central panel of the apse is repeated on the arch at the front of the east wall and on the arches of the blank arcading of the north and south sides.
Three decorative zones, converging at the lower ends, articulate the front of the apse. On the curve of the arch a pattern is formed by overlapping circles; in the middle zone the subject is not discernible; the higher zone is painted with the toothed pattern. All three registers are interrupted at the centre by a circle composed of a double rope-like band with loops (like those of the circles on the half-dome). A cross is inscribed within the circle.
On the vault the decoration probably imitates a coffered ceiling. Octagons and small squares containing four-petalled cross-like flowers are arranged in cross-forming patterns. A related design of hexagons and squares adorns most of the surface of the intrados of the transverse arch. The hexagons, placed so as to form cross patterns, enclose fusiform motifs with heart-shaped leaves. The squares contain the typical cross-like rosettes with alternate ensiform and curved petals. The lower part of the intrados, on either side, is decorated with smaller panels showing a chequered pattern: adjoining squares enclosing four-petalled and round small flowers. Lower, on the pilasters, there are remains of indistinct decorations. On the east front of the transverse arch spreads a stylized tendril forming spirals in a striking dark-coloured design painted on the whitish coating. The similarly monochrome linear design of a lily has survived on the east of the north pilaster, below. A corresponding motif would have been painted on the east side of the south pilaster.
The decorative subjects on the surfaces of the side walls vary. The only common decoration is the toothed pattern which circumscribes the arches of the blank arcading.
The tympanum of the north blind arch is divided horizontally into two sections. Below, there are traces from a broad panel with inset oblique lozenges and semicircles resting upon the centres of the lozenges’ sides. Above, a design shows horizontal rows of scales between bands, with an upright flowerwithin each scale and a heart-shaped small leaf in the space between the scales. The left side of the intrados of the arch has preserved a decorative zone of looped circles enclosing floral motifs. The upper left-hand corner of the spandrel shows a large lily-flower. The same motif must have adorned the right-hand corner.
The tympanum of the south blind arch has lost the lower part of its decoration, probably a panel corresponding to that of the north arch. The upper part is covered with tangent circles and curvilinear quadrangles in the interspaces, with quatrefoils in the circles and other floral ornaments. The intrados of the arch shows a partly preserved design of diagonally crossing lines that form polychrome lozenges ornamented with floral motifs. The front of the wall has preserved fairly well a finely executed design on a dark red background: adjoining squares, traversed by diagonal lines, are enclosing cruciform quatrefoils.
The wall paintings of St. John the Theologian at Adisarou in Naxos are remarkable for the variety of the subjects and their artistic quality, the full colours, the steady line of the drawing and the maturity of the composition. The experienced painter traced with a sharp tool the preliminary drawing, when this was needed (circular designs at the apse). At places he plotted the pattern with a grid of drawn lines (vault, arch). During the actual painting he was compelled to make some changes in the original design which he executed with a free and easy hand (east front of the transverse arch).
The decoration of architectural type reveals an artisan skilful and experienced in this kind of monumental painting. The patterns are studied in their proportions and form, suitable for the surfaces they are painted on, with accented joints wherever necessary, closely knit and conveniently arranged. They are self- contained decorations forming a well structured whole.
The models of all the decorative subjects are to be found in Early Christian art. Besides, the wall paintings of St. John the Theologian have a close connection with the Early Christian decorations of architectural type. In the work of later date the manner and character of painting are changed, but the ancient designs have been retained. Heavier and of closer articulation, they are used here to decorate walls, with ahorror vacui quite evident in the sophisticated colour variations, the pronounced ribbon-like contours and outlines, the ornamentation of geometric patterns with rosettes, half – rosettes, quatrefoils, heart-shaped leaflets, volutes, “pearls” and other supplementary elements which are strongly reminiscent of mosaic floors. Where the subject is simple, as in the case of the monochrome tendril (Fig. 9) and the similarly linear lily on the east front and on the north pilaster of the transverse arch, the stylization, the importance of the line and the dominant spreading of the design on the painted surface correspond to a different notion of its decorative function.
In general, the geometric motifs compose a framework which is often organized in cruciform patterns. This frame accepts, encloses, supports and highlights the cross-like floral ornaments which enliven and decorate the whole composition, without diminishing the geometric precision of the painting’s basic fabric.
Problems of dating and interpretation
The aniconic wall paintings of Naxos known from older and recent finds are quite numerous. The three ensembles that have survived in greater part are those of St. Kyriake at Apeiranthos, of St. John at Adisarou and of St. Artemios at Sangri. Parts of aniconic decoration have been noted or exposed in the great church of the Protothrone at Chalki in the plain of Tragaia, in the cemeterial church of St. John the Theologian at the village Danakos, in St. George near Apeiranthos (conch of the parecclesion), in the church of St. Kyriake and the nearby smaller one of St. George at the site “Kakavas” in Apeiranthos, not far from the previously mentioned church of St. George, in the church of Panagia Monasteriotissa at the village Engares, near the old ruined quarter of Mesa Geitonia, in St. Demetrios (the katholikon of an abandoned monastery) at the sites “Chalandra” near Kynidaros, in the cave church of Panagia Kaloritsa near the village Damarionas, not very far from St. John the Theologian at Adisarou. Traces of aniconic wall paintings exist in the church of St. John the Theologian at Kaloxylo in the plain of Tragaia, in the Prophet Elijah at Pota- mia and in St. Panteleimon at the site “Mersini” near Apeiranthos.
Aniconic decorations have, therefore, survived in eleven, or possibly fourteen, churches of Naxos. As a rule they are the original painted decorations of the churches — which often have two or more layers of wall paintings — with one known exception of the Protothrone where the aniconic decoration is subsequent to the original painting. The churches are of various types: single-aisled with a dome, single-aisled with a vaulted roof, of basilical plan (there are indications that the double-aisled church at Danakos was originally three-aisled) and of the free-standing cross plan with a dome. There is positive evidence suggesting that the inscribed-cross plan with a dome of the transitional type encountered in the Protothrone was originally that of a three-aisled basilica. It is not clear, however, to which building phase the aniconic paintings belong. All these churches are dispersed over the large central area of the island, in plains, valleys and mountains, on sites important to the local productivity (agriculture, cattle-breeding, emery quarries). As can be deduced from their location, they were built in places with a tradition for monuments, while their varied size indicates that they served the worshipping needs of townships (Protothrone) or of semi-rural and agricultural communities. Evidence of their use throughout the centuries, either uninterruptedly or for long intervals of time, is provided by the usually successive painting layers dating from two, three or even more periods.
The best known, more or less contemporaneous, aniconic decorations of Naxian churches are closely associated with the other aniconic wall paintings of the Greek islands and mainland: the church of St. Nicholas at Castelli Mirabellou in Crete, of St. Procopios in Mesa Mani, of Episcope in Eurytania, as well as of a ruined church in Thessaloniki. These wall paintings are usually dated to the 9th century, and more specifically in the Iconoclast period. They display affinities in the manner of painting, a similar conception in the composition of the programme and the use of common decorative features such as: the peculiar and characteristic in these wall paintings cruciform rosette with the alternating ensiform and curved petals either in a single or in successive rows, the crosses under arches and within circles, the patterns with the large loops, the tangent or intersecting circles etc.
The surviving numerous aniconic wall paintings of churches on Naxos, in association with the location and the size of the buildings, bear witness to the extent of an aniconic current in art spread unhindered over the island and to have been generally accepted. This is a most interesting occurrence, the study of which may shed light on an unknown and significant chapter of the island’s history. It is not known whether and to what extent this trend is related to the Iconoclast movement nor how long it prevailed, whether it is connected with a certain political attitude of the islanders who, for reasons of wider interest, resorted to aniconic decoration in the face of the Arab threat which made its presence felt in the Cyclades. Nor do we know if it is related and in what way to the possibly important position Naxos had then in the administration of the Aegean.
A clue, or one of the important clues, for the interpretation of this trend is provided by the wall paintings of the large, and in all probability episcopal, church of the Protothrone at Chalki (see relevant chapter). This church has preserved an aniconic decoration on the curved wall of the sanctuary apse: crosses under an arcading with schematized trees on either side of the crosses, a toothed design and other decorative elements which complete the subject. Under the layer of the aniconic representations was discovered the earlier wall painting with the full- length Apostles from the original painted decoration of the apse. Datable to the 7th century, this painting can perhaps be associated with the presence on the island for about a year of Pope Martin I, banished from Rome about A.D. 653 (Chatzidakis).
This succession of iconic and aniconic painting in a church as important as the Protothrone, leads to certain thoughts.lt suggests: a) the probably official acceptance of aniconic art by the clergy, the local authorities and the population of the island, b) the later appearance here of aniconic paintings, at a definite period of time and obviously for serious reasons, since in the same church there exists an earlier important iconic decoration, c) hence, the rather unlikely possibility of associating the wall paintings of the Protothrone and of other churches on the island with the continuation of an aniconic practice from Early Christian times; all the more so, since in Naxos, only iconic paintings have survived from the pre-Iconoclast period (Protothrone, Drosiani). d) the possibility of assigning this trend to the Iconoclast period, a possibility further supported by the fact that the wall paintings before and after the aniconic representations in the same position of the apse in the Protothrone are datable to the 7th and the 10th century respectively.
The great number of aniconic wall paintings in Naxos reveals that this kind of decoration — irrespective of the reason for which it had been adopted — thrived on the largest of the Cycladic islands for an indeterminable length of time. The technique and the subjects vary, betraying individual inspiration and the use of a rich repertoire of decorative motifs. The style of painting and the palaeographic features of the surviving inscriptions support a dating of the wall paintings to the 9th century. Their affinity to other aniconic decorations in Greece, and to certain “iconoclast” wall paintings in Cappadocia and at the Midye Monastery in Turkish Thrace, is based on similarities noted in specific decorative subjects and also in the manner and organization of the painting, particularly that of the sanctuary apse, which is most important for the programme. This affinity denotes that aniconic art in Naxos was expressed in forms and types “established” in other parts, most probably at the same epoch.
The aniconic wall paintings of St. John the Theologian at Adisarou have a place in this framework. They are among the best examples of this art found on the island of Naxos and elsewhere. Their style compares to some extent with that of the aniconic paintings in the Protothrone and in St. Kyriake at Apeiranthos, and marks a peak in the period during which they were painted. A number of decorative subjects, especially those of the architectural type, like the narrow and broad panels on the curved wall of the apse, the octagons imitating coffers on the vault, and the homologous hexagons on the arch, add to our knowledge of the repertory used by the painters of those times. They also stress the close ties of 9th century wall paintings with the decorative stock of Early Christian art, an art revived, transformed and enriched, giving expression to new ideas.