Ioannis Pagomenos – 14th century Byzantine painter

Possible Pagomenos signature (top left) at the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God at Alikampos

Possible Pagomenos signature (top left) at the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God at Alikampos

So at last I come to the Cretan painter Pagamenos, mentioned fleetingly in my previous posts on Kyriakoselia, Alikampos 1 & Alikampos 2 and Argyroupoli. He is a mysterious figure because nothing is known about his life: not even when he was born and died or where he lived. The only record of his life is through the surviving churches that he decorated, some of which record his name as the painter .

It is from these inscriptions that we get a picture of his artistic activity over a period of 34 years. He is first mentioned in a building inscription at the Church of Aghios Georgios, in the village of Komitades in Sfakia, which refers to him painting the church in 1313/4. The last reference is an inscription of 1347 in the Church of the Dormition at Prodromi (Sfakidia) in the Selino district. If, allowing for a lengthy apprenticeship, Pagomenos was aged 25-30 when he painted his first signed church then he must have been born in the mid to late 1280s. This would have made him 65 by the time he completed his last church.

The name Pagomenos, which means ‘very cold / frozen’, is not found still in south west Crete where most of the churches he decorated are found. However the surname can still be found in Irakleio, so maybe this is where he came from originally.  It is likely that he trained here, as at the time Chania was not well developed. Perhaps he even trained in Byzantium.

There are 845 decorated churches in Crete (as catalogued by Gerola and Lassithiotakis in the 1960s), most of them in the countryside and by far the biggest proportion in the Selino district of south-west Crete, including half of the churches painted by Pagomenos.

Why were so many churches decorated in this part of Crete? Typically the churches are small single aisled, vaulted churches, built in often rather remote spots. It seems to me that the churches had existed for a while (perhaps 100-200 years) before they were decorated. So perhaps it was a combination of changing tastes and increasing affluence caused by the Venetian occupation of Crete that stimulated the demand for decorating churches in this way.

The congregations for them must have been tiny, yet they became aware of the possibilities of church decoration and more importantly they had the money to commission an artist to paint them. It has been argued that the money came from the sales of products that the Venetians valued, such as wine, wheat, cheese or wood (for shipbuilding / repairs). In this part of Crete it is more likely to have been wood that was traded. Probably the traders who took the wood from the south-west ports to Irakleio became aware of the possibilities for adorning their own churches and made contact with artists there that they then commissioned to do the work. The evidence is from church inscriptions that there were multiple sponsors of the work, rather than a small number of wealthy individuals.

There are apparently 8 churches that can be attributed from inscriptions to Pagomenos:

  • Agios Georgios in Komitades, Sfakia (1313/4)
  • Agios Nikolaos at Moni, Selino (1315)
  • Theotokos in Alikampos, Apokoronas (1315/16)
  • Agios Georgios in Anidros, Selino (1323)
  • Agios Nikolaos in Maza, Apokoronas (1325/6)
  • Michael the Archangel in Kandanos, Selino (1327/8)
  • The Panagia in Kakodiki, Selino (1331/2)
  • The Panagia in the village of Prodromi (Skafidia), Selino (1347)

Looking at this list, I am puzzled by some of the gaps, especially the ones between 1316-1323 and 1332-1347. What was Pagomenos doing during these years? Did he paint other churches, which have not been preserved? Did he work on other larger churches in collaboration with other painters? Did he turn to other types of religious painting (eg icons)? If he trained in Irakleio he must have been aware of the trade in icons. Crete had been controlled by Venice since 1211 following the sacking of Byzantium by the Fourth Crusade and there was an increasing demand for icons from Italy.

In addition to the 8 churches mentioned above that can be attributed to Pagomenos there are others which may be by him but which cannot be authenticated, including:

  • Church of Agios Ioannis in Kandanos (1328/9)
  • Agios Panteleimon in Prodromi
  • The Virgin Mother of God in Kadros, Selino, in the community of Kakodikio

Apart from these, there are other churches (eg the Panagia in Anisaraki) which, whilst not Pagomenos’s work, were possibly completed under his influence. And of course, as I found at Argyroupoli other churches beyond this list have also been attributed to him because he is a well-known fresco painter, though there are about 15 other painters whose names are known from inscriptions.

Since most of his work was in the west of Crete, it is possible that he was based somewhere in the Chania area. He couldn’t work in the winter because the weather would have made travelling very difficult. Chania is the closest place from which he would have been able to buy the materials he needed and he must have had to base his family somewhere (there is evidence of a son who worked with him).

Finding and travelling over the mountainous terrain to the remote churches which commissioned him must have been very difficult. It has been estimated that by mule a traveller could cover up to 14km per day; so on that basis it must have taken up to a week to get to some of these churches from Chania. Travel was also very dangerous for someone on their own, so maybe he travelled with an assistant and used pack animals to carry his materials (a special plaster was need to prepare the base for the frescoes). Also on arriving in the area where he was commissioned to work there would have been few houses which would have been big enough to house him in addition to the people who already lived there.

From my experience of trying just to photograph his work, I marvel at how he managed to create his frescoes. How did he light the interiors sufficiently well to paint them? Did he use oil lamps? There seem to be so many obstacles to his creative activity. It was clearly a very difficult and precarious way of life, yet he managed to produce work of the quality of the Alikampos frescoes.

I am very grateful to Dr Angeliki Lymperopoulou, Senior Lecturer in Art History at the Open University and an expert in the decorated churches of Venetian Crete for her help and encouragement in writing this series of blog posts. In particular I have been greatly stimulated by, and taken an enormous amount of information from her article Fourteenth-century Regional Cretan Church Decoration: the Case of of the Painter Pagomenos and his Clientele (Series Byzantina VIII, pp150-175).

In addition I would also like to acknowledge the following article in Greek on Pagomenos by Konstantinos Kalokyris, Ioannis Pagomenos, o Vyzantinos zografos tou ID’ aionas (Kritika Khronika 12 (1958) pp347-367).


The Byzantine frescoes of Aghios Nikolaos in Argyroupoli


I love guidebooks. I can read them for hours especially on holiday. They provide huge amounts of information in digestible form, and they tempt and prompt exploration with their descriptions. Just occasionally though they can be so misleading that you start an angry dialogue with the absent writer.

So it happened in the village of Argyroupoli up in the mountains above the Georgioupoli to Rethymno road in Crete. We had explored the hill-top village, having quickly driven through the lower village famed for its running waters, because it was full of tourists and their coaches. We had walked around the quaint streets, admired the Roman mosaic, (eventually) found the old portal with the Latin inscription Omnia mundi fumus et umbra. But we just couldn’t find the “delightful chapel of Ayios Nikolaos dating from the eleventh century, with fourteenth century frescoes by Ioannis Pagomenos’ (that man again!) The Rough Guide describes it as being a pleasant walk from the northern end of the village beyond the pension Morfeas.

We circled the village several time in the mid-day heat. No signs of the church. At a taverna we got directions to a St Nikolaos in the village itself, but it’s a modern church. On the way out of the village gate I asked the main in the avocado products shop. “Oh, you want the Pagomenos church” he said. Leading me inside his shop, he carefully drew a map explaining the directions as he did so. The ‘delightful walk’ is a 2 kilometre drive. Even then it is very easy to miss the turning off to the right as it’s little more than a track and there’s no sign. We passed it in the car and had to turn back. Once on the track there is a little notice mentioning the church (not visible at all from the road), but no indication as to where the church is.

We parked the car, trying to pull off the track as much as we could in case tractors or other farm vehicles needed to get through. From the avocado man’s hand drawn map I knew we had to go down a track and somewhere off to the left and that the church was in the middle of a field. We walked downhill amidst endless groves of olive trees and tried the first track off to the left. It wound round several corners until it ended in a stock fence, beyond which was a building. This must be it. Opening the stock fence we moved forward until we saw sheep and then noticed washing hanging on a line. It must be a shepherd’s or farmer’s house. So, wary of attracting attention particularly from Cretan guard dogs, we retraced our steps, closed the stock fence and made our way back to the main track.

We carried on walking downhill until we came to another turn off to the left. It was baking hot in the afternoon sun and I determined that this would be out last shot at finding the church, so I went ahead of my wife to see where the track led. After about 200 metres, the track forked: the right hand path started to descend into the valley and the left one went up hill slightly. Still no signs. I took the left hand fork and after another 50 metres I suddenly saw a flash of white building through the trees. This time we were in luck it was the church and then I realised that I had forgotten to ask the avocado man whether it would be open.

Aghios Nikolaos-2

A traditional Cretan single nave church with barrel-vaulted ceiling, it really is in a remote place with wonderful views across the valley towards the mountains on the other side. Why on earth was it built here with no villages or houses nearby?

Fortunately the church was open and I was able to take a quite a lot of photographs. The frescoes are in a poor condition and much has been lost. Once again the lighting conditions were very bad, so I apologise for the quality of the photographs as I was frequently shooting in the near dark and it was hard to focus.

Here is an Archangel:


and the Resurrection:

Liturgical prog 3

with a close up of the figure of Christ:

Christ 2

There’s a very faded Pantokrator in the sanctuary:

Christ 2-2

and the traditional depiction of the four Hierarchs behind the altar:

Hierarch 1

Hierarch 2

Hierarch 3

Hierarch 4

As you can see a lot of the paint has been lost leaving at best the mere outlines of the original paintings and at worst great expanses of bare plaster. It makes it difficult to understand what scenes are being depicted in many cases.

Liturgical prog 1

Liturgical prog 2

This is a particularly intriguing scene. At first I thought it was the raising of Lazarus, but the figure with the raised arm is not Christ, so I’m not sure what it depicts.

Liturgical prog 6

Here is a fine depiction of the Transfiguration:

Liturgical prog 4

I think the following fresco is the Presentation of Christ (or the Mother Of God) in the Temple:

Liturgical prog 7

and this is the Nativity:


with a close up of the infant Christ being washed by handmaidens:

Nativity - detail

Here’s a badly damaged Baptism:

Liturgical prog 9

A dramatic scene showing the Apostles at the Assumption – it was disappointing to see Greek graffiti on this one:

Liturgical prog 14

I originally thought this was a Mother of God with female saints, but I’m not now sure that this is what is shown here:

Liturgical prog 15

A badly damaged head from a depiction of the Mother of God:


Three heads from the same fresco scene:

Saint 1-2

Saint 2-2

Saint 3

Could this be St Nikolaos or a Desert Father?


This looks like one of the warrior saints, St George or St Dimitrios:

St George

It’s amazing that these frescoes have survived for 700 years though of course sad they’re in such a poor state now. After seeing the Pagomenos frescoes at Alikampos which I wrote about here and here, I am not convinced that these frescoes are by the same hand. I’m no art historian, but they look more stylised and formal, as if copied straight out of the iconography style book. They are also not painted with the same skill and flair as the Alikampos frescoes.

In my next post I am going to explore the mysterious figure of Ioannis Pagomenos and his work and how he came to paint such extraordinary works in remote areas of Crete.

Aghios Nikolaos

Finally, the concrete buttresses for the walls are really ugly. This little gem deserves something better.



The Byzantine frescoes of Alikampos – programme of scenes from the liturgical year

This is second of my posts about the wonderful frescoes at the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God in Alikampos and will cover scenes from the Orthodox Church’s 12 festivals of the liturgical year. You can read my first post here about frescoes of individual saints at Alikampos.

The first scene on the upper tier on the left hand side of the church is the Crucifixion:


Next to that is what I think is the Presentation of the Mother of God in the Temple:

Presentation of MoG in the Temple

and then finally on this side of the church the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan:


On the right hand side nearest the iconostasis is the Nativity. In this fresco, I love the expression that the painter has given to Mary lying in the cave; the washing of the full-grown Christ by handmaidens in the lower right hand corner; and the devil trying to sow doubt about the birth in Joseph’s mind at bottom left.


The middle scene on the right hand side shows the Resurrection:

Descent into Hell

The final panel is a very dramatic presentation of the Betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane.


In the centre Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss, whilst the soldiers have their swords raised ready to strike. One of the soldiers points accusingly at Christ while to lower right St Peter tends Malchus, the servant of the High Priest, whose ear he has cut off. I am intrigued by the hats in this fresco: there are the conical-shaped hats of the two soldiers above Christ and the one on the right behind the soldier’s raised sword. The two figures on the left hand side have two different types of hats, one round (a bit like a Byzantine Emperor’s) and the other more like a turban. Two other soldiers stand on the right wearing different types of hat again. The clothes the protagonists are wearing are also an interesting mix of re-imagined robes from the time of Christ, Roman soldier’s uniforms and Byzantine court costume. I wonder why the painter Pagomenos used such a variety of types of clothing and hats.

I was intrigued by the next scene which I couldn’t fit into any of the liturgical festivals. However, I have subsequently discovered that it forms part of the fresco of the Ascension (where Christ is depicted in a mandorla in the middle of the vaulted ceiling). It clearly shows Mary in the centre and possibly St John on the right with St Paul possibly to his left. Traditionally St Peter is depicted to the left of the Mary. I can’t work out who the other figures are. I particularly like the way Pagomenos depicts the Mother of God, both here and in other scenes. He uses a very simple, almost folk art representation.

MoG in sanctuary

The next scene is a bit of a mystery as I can’t work out what it depicts. Who is the angel greeting? Is it St Paul?

Assumption detail

Assumption detail 3

Our guide tells us that local people think the figure on the right is wearing glasses:

Assumption detail 2

I think this next scene shows the Presentation of Christ in the Temple of Jerusalem. I understand that the figures depicted are (from left to right): St Joseph, Mary, Simeon holding the the baby Jesus (who is looking back towards his mother) and Anna.


The final scene is the one that gives the church its name, the Dormition of the Mother of God, and it is painted over the entrance door:

Dormition of the Mother of God

At the bottom of my picture, beneath the bare plaster you can just see the original fourteenth century lintel above the entrance door, though originally there would not have been a door fitted.

To the right of the entrance, Pagomenos depicted two of the donors of the church holding what must be a representation of the Alikampos church itself:

Fresco of the donors of the church

Above the fresco is a list of all the donors, but it has suffered major damage and is now very hard to read:

Names of the Donors of the church_

Dr Eleftheria Lehmann has kindly provided me with some information about this founding inscription which was reconstructed and translated by A Sucrow in a doctoral dissertation in 1994: “| has been painted…[ the Church…] of the most holy Mother of God of…| by the | Money and support of Mikhailos [As]…| and his wife | and his | children | and of Theo…ni and his | wife | and his children…|of | …Asproto | and his wife | and his children and D[…] [T…] Ma […] and through…| by the hand of Ioannis |Pago|menos | in the Year 6824, Index 14

Finally I would like to draw attention to some of the detail in the sanctuary of the church. To start with here is a general view of the altar:


The altar table is a rectangular block of stone. The floor is the original flagstone one and the front of the altar has a simple decorative design also on stone:


Finally, to the left of the altar is what I took to be a basic seat for use by the priest during long services. However, I subsequently found out that it is actually a Prosthesis or Table of Oblation, used for the preparation of the bread and wine during the liturgy. It’s not particularly well painted, but I found its folksy design somehow very touching.

Sanctuary - priest seat

On the outside of the church seashells are visible in the rock, showing the origins of the rock and connecting the church with even more remote ages:

Exterior view-2

I tell Giorgos, our local guide, that the village must be very proud to have to have such a beautiful and historic church in its midst. Unfortunately, he tells us that most people aren’t interested in it and don’t help to keep it clean and tidy.

I am very grateful to Dr Eleftheria Lehmann for taking the time and trouble to comment on and correct some errors in this and and my other post on the frescoes of Alikampos.


The Byzantine frescoes of Alikampos – figures of the saints

Exterior view

This is the third in my short series of posts on Byzantine churches in Crete which started with a visit to the stunning Church of Aghios Nikolaos in Kyriakoselia (where I was unable to take any photographs of the interior) and then covered the Church of the Dormition in Vamos (which was locked). This time we visited the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God in the village of Alikampos in the Apokoronas district of Crete to see the fourteenth century Byzantine frescoes. The good news is that not only was it open, but I also had a guide and was able to take lots of photographs. So I have split the post into two: this one on the figures of saints and a second one on scenes from the Orthodox liturgical year.

Alikampos is a village about 6km south of Vrysses off the main road to Hora Sfakion. Enquiring about the key to the church in the village square kafeneio we are led to the house of Giorgos who jumps in our car and leads us down to it. The church is outside the village on the side of a valley and is very well hidden. Built in the typical Cretan style, it’s a single-aisled church with a barrel vault and, as you can see from the above picture, from the outside it’s not much to look at. It certainly doesn’t look old enough to date from the early fourteenth century.

Inside though it’s a completely different story. The whole of the interior is richly decorated with frescoes painted by the Byzantine artist, Ioannis Pagomenos between 1 September 1315 and 31 August 1316. I will come back to the painter Pagomenos in a later posting. Compared to other churches we visit, the frescos at Alikampos are in still in very good condition.

The lowest tier of frescoes on the left and right hand sides of the nave in the main depict individual saints. The first figure to the left of the door is St Mamas:

St Mammas

The obliteration of the face as here, or the eyes, is something you frequently see in Orthodox churches in Greece and is often explained as something that was done during the period of Ottoman rule. This ‘defacing’ was done for religious reasons as Islam forbids the depiction of the human form in art. If this was the case, then it seems to have been implemented in a haphazard fashion as we will see from other paintings in the same church.

The next figure, St Kyriaki, is a case in point as her eyes are wonderfully intact:

St Kyriaki

The warrior saints Dimitrios and George on horseback follow. I like the way the horses are depicted and how they are differentiated, not just by colour but also by the details in their bridles, saddles, position of their heads and even the binding round the tail of St Dimitrios’s horse. St Dimitrios’s cloak billows out behind him giving a sense of movement to the figures.SS George and Dimitrios on horseback

Finally on the left hand side by the iconostasis is a depiction of the Enthroned Mother of God:MoG 1

Then on the right hand aside closest to the iconostasis is a beautiful Pantokrator:


followed by a depiction of Archangel Michael holding the staff of an Imperial messenger:

Archangel Michael

Finally on the lower right hand tier are Constantine and Helena with the True Cross (fragments of which Helena brought back from her pilgrimage to the Holy Land):



On the left in the sanctuary is another depiction of the Mother of God featuring the Annunciation:

MoG in Sanctuary-2

and behind the icon screen on the right are two bishops (left and centre) that I don’t recognise with Aghios Titos (follower of St Paul and patron saint of Crete):


Behind the altar are the traditional depictions of the hierarchs (Aghios Nikolaos, Aghios Ioannis Chrysostomos, Aghios Vasilios and Aghios Grigorios the Theologian) concelebrating the Eucharist:

Hierarchs 1

Hierarchs 2

On the lower tier to the left hand side of the altar is Aghios Stefanos, swinging a thurible:

St Stephen

Above that is an Archangel Michael part of the Annunciation to Mary who is depicted on the other side of the apse:


On the right hand side of the altar is the diaconicon, the place where vestments and books were kept and the clergy washed their hands before services. Often in this location, as here, there is a fresco depicting St Romanos, swinging a thurible in his right hand and holding a miniature church in his left hand on a purple cloth as an offering. Giorgos, our guide, thinks this is evidence that the painter, Pagomenos, was trained in Byzantium as this saint is particularly associated with Byzantium and had a church dedicated to him there.

Unknown saint (from Byzantium-)

In a tympanum above the altar is a fresco of the Mother of God ‘Eleousa‘ (the Panagia of Grace) with a small figure of Christ in her chest entitled ‘Loving Kindness’:


The medallion depicting Christ also shows another name given to Christ, ‘EMMANUEL’ (ie God is with us):
Infant Christ

And above that are two depictions of Christ (the top one being a superbly painted mandelion, the image of Christ imprinted on a cloth as he wiped his face on the way to crucifixion). On either side of these two are Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Mother of God.

Overview of Christ on mandelion_

Finally on the vaulted ceiling over the altar is a beautiful, dynamic and flowing depiction of Christ in glory:

Christ in mandorla

In my next post I’ll cover the programme of New Testament scenes at Alikampos that feature in the Orthodox Church’s liturgical year.

I apologise for the quality of some of these photos. The lighting conditions inside the church were poor and some of the shots were taken in near darkness.

I am grateful to Dr Efeftheria Lehmann for her very helpful comments and for correcting some of my misunderstandings of these frescoes.



Church of the Dormition near Vamos, Crete

Church 2

This is the second in my short series on Byzantine churches in Crete. You can read here about the first church I covered, Aghios Nikolaos in Kyriakoselia.

The Church of the Dormition is in the middle of olive groves on a dirt track off the Vamos to Vrysses road. The dirt track is barred by a stock fence to stop the sheep getting out, but once you get the hang of the way it works, it’s easy to get through.

Allegedly this church has beautiful frescoes from the 11-14th centuries. I say allegedly because the church was locked so we couldn’t check this for ourselves. The consolation though is that the church is in a beautiful setting, looking towards the White Mountains, worth visiting for that alone.

Church 1

It used to be part of a monastery of which only the ruins now remain.

Church exterior 3

Church exterior 4

Church exterior


Revisiting the Byzantine frescoes of Kyriakoselia

Kyriakoselia 1

It’s been a little while since I posted anything substantial on this blog, so I want to get back into blogging again with a little series of post on churches I visited in Crete this year, ending with one on the mysterious 14th century Cretan painter, Ioannis Pagomenos.

I have blogged before about the church of Aghios Nikolaos at Kyriakoselia in Crete, but from the perspective of the difficulty of accurately capturing with a camera what I see . On that last visit we had not been able to get into the church to see the 13th century frescoes as it was locked and we couldn’t find out who held the key. This time I was determined to get into the church to see them, and so with the help of the Tourist Office in Vamos we made an appointment to visit it.

The key to the church is held by the lady who runs the Taverna Lemonia in the tiny village of Khiliomoudou just up the road. The taverna itself is huge and clearly used to hosting large groups. As we arrive a large coach is disgorging its load of Dutch tourists who are stopping there for lunch. The owner’s heavily pregnant daughter takes us down to the church. It turns out that she lives in Athens and is staying with her mother on holiday.

The church is now only open on the feast day of Aghios Nikolaos on 5 December, for funerals and for the 3, 6 and 12 month anniversaries of deaths.

Kyriakoselia 7

Inside, leaning against the left hand wall is a beautifully carved  iconostasis of relatively recent date compared with the rest of the church.

It takes a little while for my eyes to get used to the dark interior and then I start to pick out the frescoes which have a rich, dark blue background. It soon becomes clear that there is much mutilation of the saints’ faces from the time of the Turkish occupation and a lot of names carved into the frescoes at ground level. In places where the walls are badly warped the frescoes are in a poor state of repair. From floor level up to a height of 18 inches -2 feet many of the frescoes have been damaged and there is only plaster left on the walls. Although hard to imagine at this, the hottest time of year, the damage must be due to water or damp, as the church is in the bottom of a valley.

The names of the saints on the frescoes are very difficult to decipher, as is the detail of the liturgical programme of paintings. I can make out Aghios Nikolaos and on each side of the nave are six Apostles. I can also make out key scenes such as the Baptism in the Jordan, the Transfiguration and miracles. Behind the altar are the hierarchs: Aghios Vasilios, Aghios Grigorios the Theologian, Aghios Ioannis Chrysostomos and Aghios Nikolaos.

In the tympanum above the altar is what looks like a city scene  – perhaps the new Jerusalem? On the ceiling is what probably was a depiction of the Christ or the Theotokos (Mother of God) in a mandorla (pointed oval shape) which has either been defaced or has deteriorated. There is another depiction of the Theotokos at ground level in the nave. Some of the frescoes are separated by borders painted with geometric shapes which have a folk art look to them.

The quality of the painting is excellent and there’s something very moving about the frescoes. In many places the colours (mainly reds and golds) are still very vibrant against the dark blue background. As usual I want to be able to capture the frescoes with my camera so that I can study them in greater detail when I get home. However, to my great sadness, our guide has already told me that it will not be possible to take photographs inside the church.

And then I see it. Looking up into the drum there’s a wonderful, powerful  Pantokrator painted, in contrast to the tonal range of the frescoes in the nave, in gold, cream and shades of brown. The light from the windows in the drum illuminates the fresco in such a way that it seems to be glowing and in a different dimension from the characters in the nave. It has not been defaced, but has clearly deteriorated over time. By now our guide has left the church and I am left standing beneath the drum, camera in hand, struggling with my conscience as to whether to take a picture. I decide on this occasion to walk away just with the memories of the experience.

Kyriakoselia 4

Kyriakoselia 5

On one of the external walls is an arch. Evidently at one time it has a cruciform shape.

Kyriakoselia 6

High above the church on the side of the valley is the Monastery of the Prodromos (John the Baptist).

Kyriakoselia 2



The multisensory experience of worship in Haghia Sofia

Haghia Sophia - the nave from the upper floor I have blogged about my experience of visiting Haghia Sofia in three previous posts (1, 2 and 3) and it’s somewhere I feel particularly strongly attached to.

So it was with great interest that I recently read an extraordinary study of the multisensory experience of worship in Haghia Sofia. The study, by Bissera V Pentcheva of Stanford University, looks at the visual, olfactory and sound world of worship in the Great Church. Her study called Hagia Sophia and Multisensory Aesthetics (Gesta, 2011) is well worth reading and can be found here.

Pentcheva’s proposition is that the use of gold on the mosaics and book match marble cladding of the lower parts are not accidental. Although there is no written record of the intentions of the original architects (Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles), the impact of the space on worshippers is still clear, though impossible for a modern visitor to experience as the museum doesn’t open until 9.00am.

In the 6th century when Haghia Sophia was built the main services took place on Saturday evening (Vespers) and Sunday morning (Divine Liturgy), ie at sunset and sunrise. The effect of the light at these times was to create a shimmering effect (marmarygma) that accentuated the rippling of the marble on the columns and wall cladding and created a sense of moving water. At the same time the light from the gold mosaics was reflected on the face of the worshippers, the scent of incense punctuated the services and the chanting of the choir reverberated through that enormous space.

The cumulative effect of these multisensory factors was to create a sense of the inert material (gold and marble) of the physical structure being animated by the Holy Spirit, almost like one enormous icon.

One of the most interesting aspects of her work is the attempt to recreate the acoustics of Haghia Sofia. The Church is now a museum and it is forbidden to perform or record music in it, so it’s impossible to have a direct experience of how music would sound there. Working with the department of computer and music acoustics at Stanford however, they found a way round this by creating a virtual Haghia Sofia sound space. This was based on modelling the acoustics obtained by popping balloons and recording the results in the nave. The details are contained on a separate website here.

The reverberation is a staggering 10-11 seconds, which means that it is poor for speech and clarity generally. They then enlisted the help of the great Capella Romana to sing Byzantine Chant which was processed through the model and output through speakers. The results are stunning. There is also a short video made by Pentcheva that illustrates the effect of light in Haghia Sofia combined with some of the Byzantine chant in the recreated soundspace:

There are live performances on You Tube by Capella Romana in the Bing Concert Hall at Stanford from 2013 using this technique. Unfortunately they won’t embed in the blog, so here’s the link.

I found it a really imaginative exploration of the interplay between architecture, sensory experience and worship.