Ravenna – the church of San Vitale – part 2

I did an initial post on this church a little while ago, but forgot to do a follow up. The most famous mosaics in this church are the ones on either side of the altar depicting (on the left) the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and (on the right) his wife Theodora.

Both are part of processions offering gifts to San Vitale. Justinian, carrying an empty basked, is accompanied by soldiers and priests, including the local bishop, Maximianus, the only one to be named on the mosaics. The Emperor seems to hover in mid air, between earth and heaven, as befits God’s representative on earth. He is wearing a cloak of imperial purple with a gold border, a colourful, bejewelled rosette fastening his cloak at his right shoulder.

On his head he is wearing an imperial crown studded with precious jewels and pearls. Four pearls hang on gold chains from the crown (pendilia), a symbol of his imperial status.

In Theodora’s procession she is accompanied by two priests and a group of ladies in court costume. She is also wearing an imperial crown with pendilia, a rich purple cloak with gold trimming and a depiction of the three Magi.

She stands beneath a shell, holding a golden bowl or chalice. The shell has been interpreted as a symbol of her death (she died in 548 AD), perhaps reinforced by the priest to the left pulling aside a curtain to reveal a black space. The mosaics were finished in 547 before she died, so this seems unlikely. In front of the pulled back curtain is a fountain symbolising the eater of life.

Both Justinian and Theodora are given haloes, not I think as a sign of saintliness, but perhaps to emphasise their status as divine representatives. All of the faces shown in the mosaics have the large eyes seen in icons, focused not on the here and now but as if looking out into eternity.

As noted in my first post on this church, only the apse and the walls to the side of the main altar have the mosaic decorations. The mosaics are of such superb quality they must have been done by artists from Constantinople: the Great Church of Aghia Sofia was consecrated there 10 years earlier in 537 AD. Neither Justinian no Theodora ever visited Ravenna, so they never got to seem themselves immortalised in mosaic form.

It’s not clear why the rest of the church was left undecorated: did they run out of money or was it all part of the plan that only the area near the altar would be decorated? To one side of the area under the central dome is a large baptismal pool with water in it.

An unusual feature is an inlaid labyrinth on the floor between the altar and the central dome area. It’s not clear whether this is part of the original building or whether it was added later. Often they are associated with medieval cathedrals, so it would be interesting to know how old it is.

There are some beautiful floor mosaics, including several in the following style which looks very Roman or like those remaining from the Great Imperial Palace in Constantinople:

A shell motif appears in various places on the floor of the church (though the first one may be more a depiction of the sun and its rays):

A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 4 – the monastery of Iviron

Back down on the arsenas at Xenophontos, our group splits up into three as we go our separate ways to different monasteries. Our white minibus climbs steeply up the side of the mountain via a series of tight hairpin bends, expertly squeezing past another minibus making its way downhill. No idea how it managed that: I was expecting to hear the sound of scraping metall. You can’t call it a road, more like a rutted dirt-track with hollows and bumps that throw us around so violently inside the bus we could be trying to cross a trackless part of the Amazon rainforest. Soon we are deep in wild, uncultivated country with no signs of human presence and, as the road levels out, I realise we are crossing the top of the peninsula on our way to the monastery of Iviron on the east coast of the peninsula. Iviron means ‘of the Georgians’ (from the old Greek name for Georgia, Iberia) as it was supposedly built by two Georgian monks, though today it’s mainly Greek monks who live there.

Close to Karyes, the administrative capital of the Holy Mountain, the roads suddenly become metalled and on the outskirts of the town we pass a huge seminary for Greek priests. Arriving at Iviron Monastery at about 12.00, we get out of the minibus with our bags as a four-wheel drive vehicle pulls up behind us and a small group of people, including a Russian monk, jump out and stare at a flat rear offside tyre. The monk is looking angrily at it, brandishing a spanner and I wonder whether he’s going to give it a good thrashing to teach it a lesson. We enter the monastery by the back door and make our way to the guest house where we wait for the Guestmaster (Arkhontaris) to allocate us to out rooms..

I’m billeted in a dorm with our leader, Nikolaos, and 4 other people. Settling ourselves in our dormitory room we crash out for a few hours sleep after our very early start. I am intrigued by the fact that everyone puts their shoes outside the door, but apparently it’s to reduce the humidity in the room from gently cooling footwear.

Refreshed after my sleep, I leave my room mates fast asleep to go and explore the monastery with my camera. In the courtyard I meet a Russian in his 50s doing a solo pilgrimage on foot and fall into a conversation with him. He’s heading to the Monastery of St Andrew the First Called (in Karyes) and then on to the Russian monastery of St Pantaleimon. After the effort of concentration involved in listening to and speaking Greek, speaking to him in Russian is like a release: I can understand everything he’s saying and can express myself quite freely without racking my brain for the words. He is a small businessman from St Petersburg and quite critical of the current regime, though he says that after their experience in Soviet times, people can read between the lines and see through the propaganda. He makes no mention of Putin, but refers to a Russian proverb: ‘Every family has its own monster’. and adds “It may be a monster, but it’s our monster.” He says we’re all just people, all the same whatever our nationality and we’re all more or less lied to by our governments. Religious belief in Russia increased after the fall of Communism because they had nothing else to believe in but God. Personally he goes on pilgrimages and supports the monks at the monastery of Valaam (on Lake Ladoga) in Karelia.

As photography is generally allowed, apart from inside churches and of the monks. I take some shots around the monastery grounds.

The Katholikon (central church):

I walk out through the main entrance of the monastery and part way up the path that leads down to it. There are some beautiful buildings in this area.

The main entrance is accessed through a portico.

Under the portico is a large reproduction of the monastery’s (and one of Athos’s) most revered icons, the Mother of God of the Portaitissa (Gatekeeper), the original of which is kept in a special chapel inside the monastery. Its story goes back to the period of Iconoclasm in Byzantine history (8-9th centuries) when this particular icon was tossed into the sea. One night a monk on the Holy Mountain saw a great light shining out at sea which suddenly disappeared. This happened on successive nights until one night the monk walked out on the sea and saw a hand holding the icon up out of the water. He took it and brought it back back to the land and where he put it down on the seashore a sweet water spring sprang up. Then he put it in the church at Iviron and left it there. When he went back into the church on the following day, the icon was missing and was found over the entrance gate of the monastery. So the monk brought the icon down from the gate and put it back into the church. The same thing happened the following night. Then the Virgin Mary appeared to him and told him that the icon should be left over the gate so it could protect the monastery.

Looking out to sea and down towards the arsenas (jetty) the sea is beautifully clear and all shades of blue.

I think the monastery that you can see in the picture below taken from the arsenas at Iviron is the monastery of Stavronikita:

I am surprised at how much cultivated land there is around the monastery used for growing vegetables and vines.

I also suddenly realise how close we are to Mt Athos itself:

One of my fellow pilgrims, Mr Fraggopoulos, has a mechanical camera that has stopped working and I take a look at it for him. It’s clear that the film has got stuck and won’t wind on but I’m reluctant to open it up and spoil any pictures he’s already taken. I offer to take his photograph with my camera and as I frame the shot I notice one of the monks approaching from behind, striking the wooden talanto.

This is the traditional signal to indicate the imminent start of services, in this case Vespers. As monks start to arrive from all over the monastery all the church bells start ringing.

Before Vespers proper starts in the katholikon we are taken into a chapel to venerate the icon of the Portaitissa. You have to climb a few stone steps to get to the icon which is very dark and hard to make out. It’s also clad in a silver cover (a Russian custom) which symbolises the divine showing through the human nature of Christ and the Virgin Mary. In a corner of the chapel is a fresco icon of a pirate who stayed in a corner crying for 10 years before he converted to Christianity.

On the way into church for the service, Argyris takes me into a side room off the narthex to show me where some of Iviron’s relics are kept. It’s too dark to see clearly enough, but among the thigh bones, fingers and skulls on display I notice the skull of St Gregory of Nyssa, a Cappadocian Father who helped to develop the theology of the Trinity. Back in the church there’s a glass topped box on the back wall of the narthex containing the remains of the builders of the monastery which I find quite touching. I enjoy the service which last about an hour and a half and the quality of chanting is very good.

Vespers is followed by dinner sitting at long tables and benches in the refectory which is magnificently decorated from floor to celling with brightly coloured, elongated frescoes of saints. It’s a formal occasion, we pilgrims enter first and stand at our places, followed by a procession of the Abbot and senior monks and then the rest of the monastic community. The monks sit apart from the pilgrims on a separate table and the Abbot and senior monks sit at a semi-circular marble table at the top end, the sort of table you some times see in depictions of the Last Supper.

Dinner consists of fried potatoes with tomato, feta and bread with a small glass of the monastery’s own red wine (Argyris gives me his glass too), followed by an apple . Before we eat the Abbot says prayers and then taps a small bell as a signal to start eating. During the meal he taps his bell 3 more times to signal when we should drink the wine, but at least among the pilgrims, no one seems to take much notice of this.

As we eat a monk reads not from scripture, but a homily from one of the Church Fathers. I can’t make out where his voice is coming from, until peering up at the frescoes, I notice that he seems suspended in a hidden pulpit halfway up the wall, and so still that he appears to merge into the surrounding frescoes. For his reading he is rewarded with a glass of wine topped with a slice of bread, reserved for him at the top of the monks’ table.

Dinner is short (15-20 minutes), rounded off with a prayer from the Abbot. Then the monks process out two by two, preceded by the Abbot and senior monks. As we go out into the courtyard the Abbot stands to our right blessing us as we leave the refectory, while on our left are the three monks who cooked the meal bowing deeply to us. Argyris tells me this is to indicate that they are our servants. I find it deeply moving.

Then it’s a bit of relaxation and rest as monks and pilgrims mingle and talk to each other. It’s at this point that our little group has a bit of a treat as we are invited to visit Fr Prodromos’s museum. But that needs a post of its own to do it justice.




Ioannis Pagomenos – 14th century Byzantine painter

Founders’ dedication mentioning Pagomenos at the church of St Nikolaos in Maza

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).

Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki

This modern museum, built probably in the past 10 years, contains some interesting artefacts from the Byzantine era. Like many Greek museums it is very well laid out and excellently labelled in Greek and English.

It covers the history of the eastern empire as it affected Thessaloniki through early Christian tombs through it icons, old printed books and every day items, such as this tableware:

Byzantine tableware


One of the most interesting aspects are the early Christian tombs. Initially the tombs are internally decorated with scenes from nature, depicting animals, fish and plants. Unfortunately, the lighting in the museum is too dark for me to get any acceptable pictures of them. But as time goes on they become simpler and then suddenly they start to depict the Cross.

Stele with cross

There are some interesting medieval icons:

Byzantine icon-3

Byzantine icon-2

Byzantine icon

But after the 15th century there is a definite fall off in quality with a heavy Italian influence that just does not look right.

One display focuses on the mission of Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs which set off from this city and was the focus of one of my earlier blogs entries in the Fire and Ice series.

Arch of Galerius and Rotunda in Thessaloniki

Arch of Galerius

The Arch of Galerius was built in 298-299 AD to commemorate Galerius’s victory over the Persians and is in remarkable condition. The pillars are decorated with friezes celebrating the victory.

Arch of Galerius-2
Arch of Galerius-4The central arch spanned the old Via Egnatia, the road built by the Romans in 2nd century BC to connect Dyrrachium (now the city of Durres in modern Albania) on the Adriatic coast to Byzantium. Dyrrachium was a Roman colony and opposite the Roman ports of Bari and Brindisi on the other side of the Adriatic.

The Arch formed part of the road that connected the Palace of Galerius and the Rotunda. The Rotunda itself is a very impressive circular red brick structure built by Galerius in 306 AD. It’s not clear whether it was intended to be a mausoleum for Galerius himself or as a Temple to Zeus.

Rotounda-10It is one of the few intact Roman buildings in Greece. In the Christian area it was turned into a church (Agios Georgios) and later still a mosque after the city fell to the Turks in 1427 – a single minaret is still standing.

Arch of Galerius-5

Inside it is vast, with 6m thick walls and domed roof (originally with an opening or oculus in the centre) which is an impressive engineering achievement.. In the Christian era the dome would probably have depicted Christ Pantocrator, but this is no longer visible – possibly removed when it was turned into a mosque.One of the few figures that can be made out is the head and tops of the wings of an archangel.


In the dome there are some wonderful scenes of buildings and peacocks.




I managed to take the shot below of Christ appearing to the disciples, but most of the faces have been obliterated. This was a frequent occurrence when churches were turned into mosques, in accordance with the Islamic injunction against depicting the human form.


The inside of the building was undergoing a lot of restoration work, so it is hard to convey the interior through photographs (apart from the fact that it is also very dark).

Interestingly I saw this cross on one of the entrance arches into the Rotunda. During the period of Iconoclasm in Byzantium  (8th century) there was a major theological dispute in the eastern church over whether it was acceptable to depict Christ and the saints. Opponents of images (the Iconoclasts) quoted the 2nd commandment to support their case and pointed to Muslim successes in battle against them as evidence that the prohibition of images would enable them to stem the Muslim advance. Wall mosaics and frescoes depicting figures were replaced by this simple form of cross.


Finally as I left the building I noticed a feature which seems to sum up the history of this ancient city. Over one of the entrance doors, carved into the stone lintel, was Arabic calligraphy (presumably a quotation from the Quran) – and above that an icon of St George and the date 1912, the year when Thessaloniki became part of Greece again.

Rotunda with Arabic calligraphy and icon

Fire and Ice: the influence of Orthodoxy

Greek church dome

It’s some time since I last did a post on the influence of Byzantium & Greece on Russia. So today I want to look at one obvious link – Orthodox Christianity.

Vladimir of Kiev willingly adopted Orthodoxy as part of his alliance by marriage with the Byzantine Emperor. Priests, architects, icon painters, translators moved to Kiev to help establish Orthodoxy in this new land and soon churches started to spring up in the city.

The Byzantine basilica style of church architecture was adapted for the Russian climate. Initially Kievan churches were built out of wood before they moved to the use of stone. The familiar onion domes only became the main distinguishing feature of Russian Orthodox churches from the 13th century onwards. Before that churches featured either raised or helmeted domes. There doesn’t seem to be any convincing reason for this change in dome design: perhaps it was for practical reasons to stop snow settling on them and water coming through the roof; perhaps they were really meant to symbolise a candle, though I can think of shapes that more accurately mimic candles.

When Russians were baptised into the Orthodox Church they started to use the names of saints, many of whom were of course Greek. The custom was to name a child after the Saint on whose day the child was baptised. These names were contained in minei, books which described church services to be used each day and the saints to be venerated and also menologia, calendars of Saints’ days. Minei were among the first books to be translated from Greek into Russian. To the ordinary Russians these adopted foreign names must have sounded very strange and they continued to use the old pagan names alongside their new Christian first names right up until the eighteenth century.

Greek first names, suitably Russified, thus started to percolate through Russian society: Vasily, Dmitry, Nikolai, Aleksandr, Mikhail, Irina, Elena, Maria, Anna, Ekaterina, to name but a few. And it was icon painting that made these saints familiar to worshippers, a devotional form of art to which Russia became particularly attached.

In the fifteenth century, the penultimate Byzantine Emperor, John VIII Palaiologos, was desperate for a union of the churches in order to get military support against the Ottomans. So in 1439 at the Council of Florence he negotiated with the Papacy a union of the eastern and western churches that was never actually accepted by his own people. Tsar Vasily II rejected this agreement and in 1448 the Russian church appointed a Metropolitan of Moscow and All Russia, independent of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Five years later Byzantium had fallen.

Greek and Russian Orthodox churches today have some clear differences. Greek churches have seats in them whereas Russian churches have no seating at all, the congregation remains standing throughout the services. In the Russian church only the priest, the deacon and the choir vocally participate in services; in the Greek church services are a dialogue between the priest and psaltis (cantor) and normally (except in monasteries and cathedrals) there is no choir.  Interestingly in Russia it is becoming increasingly common for the congregation to join in the chanting of the Creed during the Liturgy.