Panagia protothrone at chalki
Panagia protothrone at chalki
The Protothrone, the large parochial church honouring the Annunciation, dominates the village of Chalki, near the main road of the island in the district of Tragaia, in central Naxos.
The surviving Middle Byzantine inscriptions provide important information and Patriarchal sigils mention “the church of the Protothronos”. Nevertheless, the history of the monument has gaps, either because the inscriptions are no longer in their original position or because they have not been fully read and interpreted as yet.
The most important inscription, incised on a marble kosmetes (of the templon?) with relief knobs and looped circles, is now incorporated in the fagade, at the base of the large triple-arched belfry of later date. Except for one or two words that are still undeciphered, the inscription reads as follows in the sequence in which it has been incorporated in the wall.
When rearranged in the proper sequence it reads: “Mother of God, our Lady and Mother of our Lord, protect, guard and save your suppliants who have renovated your glorious church, the Most Reverend Bishop Leo and the Protospatharios and Tour- marches of Naxia Nicetas and the Count and Kame- lares Stephanos and those coming in faith and fear, bless them… 1052”.
According to this inscription, therefore, the church was extensively renovated in A.D. 1052.
Four years later, in A.D. 1056, an unusually large painted funerary inscription in the NW parecclesion of St. Akindynos records: “The servant of God Anna departed on the 8th day of the month of March of the year 1056”.
A marble lintel, built into the wall above the door of the west side, shows another inscription. This, too, is datable to Byzantine times and it records, though without giving a date, that: “These churches with the propylon and the diastylon were built for the Most Holy Mother of God”.
Again, on the west side, below the Byzantine inscription, a marble plaque with я cross shows the date 1713.
The Patriarchal sigils of the 16th century (1568, 1580) which refer to the “church of the Protothronos” include “the small parecclesia of St. George and St. Akindynos”, no longer extant, at least as separate buildings. In one of the sigils, the Acrosticharios Nicetas Spanos is mentioned as founder. As already noted, the name Spanos occurs also in the inscription of the north doorway.
With respect to the dating of the building various views have been advanced, some before and some after the uncovering of the dated inscriptions.
N. Kalogeropoulos suggested the 12th-13th century, G. Demetrokallis the first millennium (end of 9th – 10th century). M. Chatzidakis assigned the painting of the dome at first to the 9th century and then to the 10th/l 1th century. This dating is accepted by M. Panayotidou who proposes, particularly for the painting of the dome, the date of A.D. 1000. In terms of architecture P. Vokotopoulos classifies the Protothrone among the earliest churches of the transitional type, dating it in the first half of the 9th century. The same, if not an even earlier date (late 8th century) is accepted by D. Pallas.
On the basis of written sources and, especially, on the evidence supplied by the architectural parts from various periods, of which the building is now composed, the history of the monument can be outlined as follows:
a) Early Christian period. Originally the church must have been a basilica. Surviving parts of this building include: the apse of the holy bema with the synthronon, the outer walls of the parabemata-pasto- phoria, and the two eastern piers in front of the sanctuary that are now built into the partition walls of the sanctuary. Sections of the original masonry are recognizable from the preserved paintings and from the seams formed by the different coatings. Quite probably, extensive parts of the lateral walls of the church belong to this Early Christian phase.
b) Middle Byzantine period. According to the inscription, the church was extensively renovated in A.D. 1052. The architectural plan of the transitional type does not conform with this chronology. Since, however, no evidence exists (at least as yet) on the interim phase — possibly in the 9th century — that would follow the architectural plan of the transitional type, we accept that the modification took place when an attempt was made to convert the already existing longitudinal building into a domed church, thus transforming it, literally, into a church of the “transitional” type. In this phase the arms of the cross had a barrel-vault roof (as it has been discovered after the removal of later-date modifications).
c) Post-Byzantine period. Various minor alterations were carried out in this period. For instance, in 1643, when at the north cross arm a door was opened and also a window that destroyed the wall paintings. Quite probably, the door of the south cross arm was also opened at that time.
The west side with the Cycladic belfry appears to have been constructed in 1713. Probably the west dome was also built at that time and the kosmetes carved with the founder inscription bearing the date 1052 was then incorporated in the fa9ade of the building.
During the post-Byzantine phase, at an indeterminable date, the barrel-vault roofs of the arms of the cross plan were converted into flat ones. In 1920-30, following a windstorm, the flat roofs were repaired and covered with a thin layer of concrete. In 1952-53, after a thunderbolt had struck down the 18th century belfry, the present-day triple-arched belfry was built above the facade of the later-date domed narthex.
In its present form the church is of the transitional inscribed-cross type with dome, strikingly reminiscent of a basilica with its longitudinal plan, four-stepped semicircular synthronon, projecting semicircular apse at the centre of the east side, parabemata in the form of pastophoria, and corner bays forming parecclesia on the west side.
Some repairs made by the local inhabitants most probably destroyed a number of the wall paintings, but have preserved the church in fairly good condition. In the last fifteen years the Archaeological Service has carried out various investigation and consolidation works in the NW parecclesion, the vaults of the church and, principally, the wall paintings.
The large size of the church and the few windows it had — initially — made available many surfaces suitable for a painted decoration. Conservation works on the wall paintings included operations of consolidation, cleaning and detachment from the walls. The entire painted surface of the dome was.removed without being cut. This exposed the earlier painting layer which was also detached. The later layer was consolidated and replaced on the dome, while the older layer was given a shape similar to the one it originally had, with the view to exhibit it in a museum. Two layers of wall paintings were detached from the curved walls of the sanctuary apse, revealing the third and oldest layer of paintings. Other paintings were uncovered on the south wall of the sanctuary, the vault of the south cross arm and very few traces on the other cross arms. These important operations were executed by the Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities of the Islands. Mr. S. Baltoyannis was in charge of the conservation works.
The present-day iconography of the church is composed of painted parts from various periods. As a result the iconographic programme seen today has no unity, a fact largely due to the intervention of the Archaeological Service, which removed or left in situ paintings of different dates.
The successive phases, or layers, of painting in the Protothrone are as follows:
First layer, Early Christian period: Apostles in the holy bema and St. Isidoros. Remnants of representations on the north and south wall of the sanctuary and on the southeast pier.
Second layer, Middle Byzantine period: arcade with crosses in the holy bema. 9th century.
Third layer, Middle Byzantine period: first layer of the dome painting, wall paintings on the vaults (Annunciation, Visitation, Presentation of Christ in the Temple etc.). 11th century (1052).
Fourth layer, Middle Byzantine period: second layer of the dome painting, wall paintings in the NW pa- recclesion (after 1052). Late 11th century.
Fifth layer, Palaeologan period: Deesis on the halfdome of the sanctuary apse, Annunciation on the south wall of the sanctuary, Hierarchs in the holy bema. 13th century.
The iconography and its problems
Holy bema. The half-dome of the conch is painted with the composition of the Deesis, and the curved wall of the sanctuary shows a representation of the Apostles standing full- length (height approximately 1.90 m.). An excellently preserved half-length portrait of St. Isidoros was discovered in the conch, on the north jamb of the window. The pier incorporated in the sanctuary wall has retained in poor condition the image of a standing deacon whose head has been destroyed by the cornice of later date. The north wall of the prothesis shows indistinct representations. On the other hand, the lower part of the south wall of the sanctuary has preserved in good condition a fine representation of the Annunciation (measuring 1.70х 1.70 m.).
Naos. The painting on the shows a central medallion with the portrait of Christ Pantocrator holding a closed Book of Gospels adorned with precious. The remaining surface of the dome is filled with fourteen figures of prophets, archangels and saints in a circular arrangement: on the east side the Saints George, Nicholas, Demetrios and Theodore, then the Archangel Uriel the Prophet Jeremiah, the Prophet Habakkuk, the Archangel Gabriel, the Prophet David, the Prophet Zephaniah, the Archangel Michael, the Prophet Elijah, the Prophet Daniel, and the cycle closes with the Archangel Raphael dressed in imperial costume.
The best preserved of the large compositions on the vaults of the cross arms are those of the south arm (third layer). The paintings on the east side include the Annunciation and the Embracing of the Virgin and Elizabeth, the two scenes being separated by the representation of a four-storeyed circular edifice. The west side shows the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. The other vaults have not preserved their painted decoration, with the exception of a few fragments like those from the Dormition of the Virgin on the north tympanum (Plan no. y), and very few traces on the east vault of the sanctuary suggesting that the paintings represented the Descent into Hell and Peter’s Denial. Probably the other vaults had been storied with scenes from the cycle of the Twelve Feasts and some other secondary representations. From a band painted with medallions of saints along the key of the north vault, the figure of an hierarch is barely visible. The flat surface of the walls below the vaults must have been painted also. A representation of the Forty Martyrs can be seen on the south cross arm, while the other scene cannot be identified. Remnants of painted decoration are found on the intrados (width 1.08 m.) of the southwest arch connecting the nave with the south aisle, where the Baptism and possibly the Transfiguration are visible.
The wall paintings of the NW parecclesion are fairly well preserved, particularly those on the east wall. The small niche is painted with the half- length portrait of St. Akindynos to whom the chapel was most probably dedicated. The Saints Philip and George stand full-length on either side of the niche, while St. Irene is depicted half-length above the niche. In the south wall on the tympanum of the arch of an arcosolium, a female figure (the Virgin?) in an attitude of prayer, turned three-quarters to the east, is barely visible.
The present-day iconography of the church is composed of paintings from different phases, extending over long periods. The iconographic programme therefore is rather idiomorphic.
countered mainly in churches of the Early Christian period, as for instance in the small churches of Bawit in Egypt (5th and 6th century), which show the Apostles painted in array in a disposition similar to that in the Protothrone. A corresponding iconography is found in the nearby cave church of the Kaloritsa, not far from the Protothrone.
The portrayal of St. Isidores on the window jamb in the sanctuary is not in accordance with the customary iconography. Apparently it depicts the martyr saint Isidoros of Chios rather than St. Isidoros Pelousiotis who would have been represented as “an old man with a pointed beard”. If so, however, the head of Isidoros does not conform to the description of the Hermeneia, which specifies that this martyr should be represented as “young with an adolescent beard” but “resembling St. Artemios”, i.e. in .the facial type of Christ. In the Protothrone St. Isidoros is young, beardless, with curly almost red hair, which together with the dark complexion give the face African-like features. This rendering is perhaps a reminder of the martyr’s Egyptian origin mentioned more than ‘once in the ecclesiastical hymns commemorating his martyrdom: “scion of Egypt”, “the defender from Egypt”, “breed of Alexandria, pride of Egypt”.
The depiction of the Deesis on the half-dome of the sanctuary apse, though not the rule for Middle Byzantine iconography, is found in churches of Cap- padocia, Trebizond, Georgia, Asia Minor, as well as in Crete, Rhodes, Mani, and Naxos. The composition is of an eschatological character and is related to Early Christian conceptions of a similar nature. The wall painting of the Annunciation on the south wall of the sanctuary is a divergence from the usual iconographic programme. The painting of an arcade with large crosses — now removed from the curved wall of the apse — has analogies in monuments and other works of art dating from the Iconoclast period.
Naos. Both layers of the dome paintings are of particular interest. The presence of the four saints in the second layer, that of a later date, is the most characteristic peculiarity. The painting of saints on the dome is not frequent in Middle Byzantine art though some exceptions are known, as for example in the church of St. Sozon at Geraki. During the Early Christian period, however, it was a favourite subject. One splendid example is the monumental composition decorating the dome of the Rotunda in Thessaloniki. Early Christian recollections are perhaps the basis for this iconography.
The origin of the whole composition painted on the dome is again the vision of Isaiah, with the Pantocrator surrounded by the powers of heaven. The dome painting of the Protothrone can be interpreted perhaps as a synoptic representation of the Old Testament (prophets) and the New Testament (saints), centred round the image of Christ. Anyhow, the reason for the choice of the particular saints included in the painting remains unknown and can only be conjectured. In an island church St. Nicholas would certainly find a place. The feast days of St. Demetrios and St. George mark the two seasons of agricultural occupations, as they are celebrated at the beginning of autumn and of spring, respectively. Beyond that, we cannot exclude the possibility that the selection was made by some of the donors or renovators of the church, with the intention to honour and worship these particular saints.
The iconographic programme of the vaults seems to have followed more closely the established pattern, in spite of the fact that the composition of the Visitation is of exceptionally large scale and that the scene of the Dormition of the Virgin is given an unusual place on the north tympanum. Such divergences may find an explanation in the fact that the church was dedicated to the Holy Virgin.
Style and chronology
First layer. On the curved wall of the sanctuary apse the Apostles (Fig. 7), tall and imposing, stand overlapping one another. They are painted with broad brush strokes,and the voluminous forms of their bodies are accented by the structural arrangement in the rich folds of their ancient raiment. The neatly drawn heads with the short hair and beard heighten the robustness of the figures. The contour of the heads, the posture of the bodies, the drapery, call to mind late Roman and — even more so — Early Christian representations like those at Ravenna or in St. Demetri- os at Thessaloniki. The poor preservation of the faces and their very dark colouring (possibly due to chemical reactions) do not permit detailed observation. Anyhow, on the basis of the above general characteristics, a dating to the 6th-7th century is possible. The same date is assignable to the portrait of St. Isidoros (Fig. 8) with the thick curly hair and the big expressive eyes. This early dating is supported by the style of the lettering in the inscriptions accompanying the painting.
Second layer. The immediately next in date layer — now detached — shows large crosses with slender arms having triangular ends, painted under an elegant well designed arcade, as well as birds and fish that have not survived in good condition — a particularly well executed work for this type of representation.
Although comparative material is scant, this wall painting could be assigned to the 9th century on the basis of the subject and in association with the aniconic trends of that age. This dating is further supported by the sequence of this layer in the successive phases of the painted decoration.
Third layer. The older layer of the dome paintings — now housed outside the church — is characterized by a bold and lively style. The composition is well balanced with the large cherubim and seraphim (Plan no. кв), above the small windows, marking the four cardinal points. Between them, two prophets flank a majestic archangel. In the centre, the imposing Pantocrator (Plan no. ty) has not survived in good condition except for the halo, which is adorned with precious stones, and some remains of colouring suggestive of a modelling through the use of many hues combining olive green and pale pink shades. The same delicate tones are used in modelling the heads of the prophets. Aged faces are framed by thick white hair with the strands rendered in crude red. The face of younger prophets, like that of Daniel, is again modelled in the same olive green tints softened with ochre, while facial features are traced with crude red. The prophets are dressed in the Greek fashion, but the folds, wide and soft, do not always follow a structural arrangement. Stress is laid on the monumental and imposing rather than the naturalistic effect.
The archangels wear either broad imperial loroi with large ornaments or a green tunic and mantle. They hold fans and glass globes and their wings are exceptionally large. The cherubim with the four large wings have almost illusional faces painted in pale pink hues.
The representations decorating the vaults of the cross arms belong to the same layer. Those of the south arm are in a better state of preservation. Further proof for the identification of the layer is provided by the similarity between the decorative subject encircling the Pantocrator on the dome and that composing the ornamental band along the key of the south vault, which divides it into two halves. On the east side are depicted the scenes of the Annunciation and the Visitation in an almost unified composition, separated only by the representation of a tall circular building, a rotunda, with four chromatic zones. This painting of the Annunciation lacks the grace and complexity of the painting of the same subject on the south wall of the sanctuary. It shows two plain figures, solidly built but without particular elegance. The round shape of the Virgin’s head and her huge eyes which fill almost the whole of her face point to Byzantine works that are in closer touch with everyday reality without losing their spirituality.
The scene showing the meeting of the two future mothers, Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, is painted in the same style. The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Fig. 15) occupies part of the west side of the vault, in a monumental easy composition. In the centre, Simeon, bent by long years of waiting, extends his hands towards the Christ Child held in the arms of the lissom Virgin. The infant Christ with arms outstretched towards Simeon and the Virgin is virtually the centre of the picture, his spread arms filling the gap and imparting a dynamic quality to the composition. The painter is master of his expressive means, with a sure brush and a concise emphatic rendering of facial features.
The figures in the Annunciation and in the Presentation of Christ in the Temple disclose an affinity to mosaics and wall paintings of the 11th century, especially to the wall paintings of Qarabach Kilisse in Cappadocia (1060-61), both in the overall modelling of the face and in the preference for the curved line. These compositions of the Protothrone also have common points with the wall paintings of the Panagia Chalkeon at Thessaloniki (1029), the murals of the Crypt of Hosios Loukas (early 11th century) and the mosaics of Sancta Sophia at Kiev. The conception of serenity in the composition, the monumental quality of the architectural and other decorative elements, which distinguish the large mosaic ensembles of the 11th century, are also dominant in the wall paintings of the Protothrone, and suggest a dating to that century. Consequently, we believe that the date 1052 recorded in the marble inscription as the year of “renovation” of the church marks the time when the whole naos was painted and is therefore assignable to the earliest layer of paintings on the dome and on the vaults of the cross arms.
Fourth layer. The composition of the second painting layer of the dome, seen today in its original position, is basically the same with that of the earlier one. The difference is that, instead of the four cherubim and two prophets, four saints were added on the east side. This painting, too, is characterized by a monumental quality, frontal attitudes, and wide folds of drapery perhaps somewhat more linear. It also displays a certain rigidity and conventionality in the modelling of facial features, a more concise conception and an indifference to beauty, if not its avoidance. These characteristic points distinguish one of the painting trends of the 11th century, during which the second layer of the dome must have been painted. If we accept A.D. 1052 as the date for the first painting of the dome, then the chronological margin between the two layers is reduced. We believe that the overpainting of the dome followed a short time after the initial storying, i.e. within the second half of the 11th century, while the rest of the church retained the decoration of A.D. 1052. Since no serious damages were discovered on the first layer to justify these alterations, the overpainting may have been due to a wish for a change in the iconography.
The portraits of saints in the NW parecclesion have all the characteristics noted in the second layer of the dome painting. In particular, the facial type of St. Akindynos (Fig. 19) resembles that of the Pantocrator (Fig. 13). There are, however, certain differences such as the red spot on the cheeks, the vigorous lines, and a simplification indicating artistic notions of the late 11th – early 12th century. The existence of the funerary inscription is a determining factor in assigning these wall paintings to a date after 1056. Thus, a dating to the late 11th or early 12th century is most likely.
Fifth layer. A painting layer on the curved wall of the sanctuary apse — now detached — had a representation of co-officiating hierarchs. Only parts of a single figure have been preserved. The hierarch is portrayed in a three-quarters attitude, wearing a polys- tavrion and an omophorion with large crosses and holding a scroll inscribed with a blessing from the Holy Liturgy, “Lord, our God, save thy people and bless thine inheritance”, found in the text usually held by St. James, the Brother of Christ. The head, preserved in good condition, is modelled in a manner stressing the round shape of the skull and beard. The plastic drawing and the gradation of colouring to convey mass relate this work to the requirements of the new Palaeologan style, as seen in churches of the Greek islands and of mainland Greece. The wall painting can be assigned to the 13th century.
The composition of the Deesis (Fig. 6) in the conch is dominated by the figure of Christ who is shown seated on a huge throne with a flat back. The throne fills almost half the painted surface and its converging lines adapt it to the area available. The imposing figure of Christ with the beautiful head framed by thick hair has the characteristic features associated with a refined tendency. White lines trace vividly the folds of Christ’s purple chiton and grey-blue himation. The same colour hues, in an inverse arrangement, are used for the elegant figure of the Virgin (brick-coloured maphorion over a grey-blue dress), while St. John, his fine features particularly marked, wears an ochre-coloured phelonion. The earthy colouring of the three figures and the cold blue of the background are not a particularly happy combination. The nobility of the figures, the rich drapery as well as the whole character of the mural permit an association with the Palaeologan art, as interpreted by local painters.
The representation of the Annunciation (Fig. 25) on the south wall of the sanctuary is one of the best preserved. The young girl, whose big almond-shaped eyes impart spirituality to the delicate sweet face (Fig. 27), is seated daintly on the embroidered cushion, holding in her left hand a spindle with red yarn. The purple maphorion emphasizes the holiness of Mary, while the halo, adorned with small blue and red crosses — an influence from polychrome enamels — lends a young girl’s charm to the figure. The angei, tall with a rather small head and slender neck (Fig. 25), is dressed in the Greek fashion with a blue chiton and a light-red himation. Turned three-quarters towards the Virgin, he delivers the divine salutation. His outspread wings, dark-purple in colour and studded with rows of white gems, bridge the space between the two figures. A magnificent edifice of ashlar masonry, below, and a curtained window, above, complete the composition. The faces are modelled in soft gradations of colour, with almost indiscernible brush strokes, whereas the features (long arched eyebrows, nose, small mouth) are rendered in brown and lighter shades. A small horizontal line drawn from the outer corner of the eye meets the arc of the brow. The representation combines traits from the monumental serenity of Comnenian art with the particular sensibility and plasticity that distinguish the art of icon-painting in the Palaeologan era. Therefore, we believe that this painting of the Annunciation can be assigned a date in the late 12th or early 13th century.
The church of the Protothrone is beyond doubt a monument of exceptional importance. It has remained alive and functioning for more than 14 centuries, during which it has been decorated with splendid paintings from many periods. The fact that it is not located in a large urban centre but on an island of the windy Aegean Sea, proves how deep the roots of Byzantine art are in the Greek territory.