Volume 9, June 2005, Section O052

Elements of Classical Style
in the mosaic decoration of Hosios Lukas Monastery
Phocis, Greece

Efthalia Rentetzi, M.A. (H. Art)
Assist. Professor, University of Architecture, Venice

Following a period of almost total neglect, the Hosios Lukas katholikon, one of the two church buildings in the monastery complex at Focide*1, southern Greece, has been the subject of reappraisal by many Byzantine art historians. Although the predominant thesis to emerge links the mosaic style to the Thessalonica manner, this paper argues that the mosaic decoration, completed in the first half of the Eleventh century, between 1035 and 1055, bears witness to the meeting between the old Macedonian school and innovative motifs, which can be seen in some of the earlier representations in the naos, and, most powerfully, in the narthex scenes that are stylistically far removed from the Macedonian school. These motifs not only show the dawn of the classical-Byzantine style in Hellenic areas, but also reveal the heritage of artistic skills used on the other side of the Adriatic, particularly in Torcello and St Mark’s basilica in Venice*2.

The building, dating to the first half of the Eleventh century (work began after 1011), is the oldest surviving example in Greece of an octagonal church surmounted by a large central dome and it is the only mid Byzantine example to boast almost completely conserved mosaic decoration.

Scholars have concentrated primarily on dating the monastery and on the patrons*3, whereas the exceptional mosaic decoration has been summarily defined as provincial*4. Closer inspection, however, reveals that the Hosios Lukas mosaics were executed by various groups of mosaicists, who contributed in varying degrees to the stylistic evolution of mid Byzantine pictorial art, while remaining faithful to the hieratic style*5, a trait d’union of the whole mosaic composition. The iconography is typical of Byzantine art: it is faithful to the strictly hierarchical scheme in which the church is interpreted symbolically as an image of the cosmos and the liturgical cycle. In the vertically divided, tripartite space, the figure of Christ Pantocrator*6 in the central dome symbolises the Heavens, while the relationship between the scenes and figures below is based on the symbolic dates of the festive liturgical cycle, so that the church is ‘mystically’ identified with the places in Palestine sanctified by Christ. The lower order, almost entirely covered with figures of minor saints and monks, represents the earthly world.

The number of scenes in the naos (only four) was limited in order to leave room for the numerous single representations of saints (originally approximately one hundred and thirty), confirming the katholikon’s role as a martyrion*7.

The figures of minor saints in the lower order are not of particular interest as they appear to have been executed in series using a technique somewhat similar to that of the ‘wooden’*8 figures in Santa Sofia, Kiev. Greater attention was paid to the figures of the major saints of the Greek church, in the upper register, particularly those positioned close to the Virgin and Christ Pantocrator. The judicious placing of thin tesserae, which appear almost as brushstrokes of colour, create long, thin faces similar to the stylistic features of the Constantinople school. Most worthy of note in the immense mosaic decoration in the naos, are the three scenes in the squinches, formed by the corner wells of the central dome: the Nativity, the Presentation at the Temple, and the Baptism (the Annunciation in the fourth hemi cone has been destroyed).

In the Sacred Bema the dominant figure of the Virgin and Child is represented in the apse basin, while the archangels Michael and Gabriel can be seen in the intrados of the east arch, represented as custodians wearing imperial clothing*9. The scene of the Pentecost, represented in the small low dome over the presbytery, is the only example, besides that in St Mark’s basilica, to be found in a dome.

All the figures, both single representations and those in the scenes, are represented through the dematerialization of the body, which is reduced to its most abstract and least organic form in order to leave room for the representation of the soul. There is no emphasis on a single image since the figures are merely elements in the whole. There is a predominant abstract realism, which, in the portraits of the saints, is limited to establishing individual traits within the general scheme of the face and the human body, but which, in the scenes, is circumscribed to the plausibility of the execution or action. Pictorial space is absent and there is no communicative relationship between the figures in the scenes. Their gestures and glances do not appear to reach their objectives for fear of breaking the relationship with the worshipper, who remains the true interlocutor. Narrative elements are almost entirely absent and symbolism reigns, achieved through the use of gilt tesserae inserted in the curvilinear surfaces, thus increasing the glittering of the gold and thereby creating a sense of tension and expectation that adds to the drama of the scene. The figures are placed in a paratactic manner and in isocephaly as elements of the composition, and they are arranged in rigid symmetry. There is almost no trace of psychological differentiation, however a timid attempt at intensifying movements can be noted in the curving of the drapery and the movement of the bodies, such as the figure of Simon in the Presentation at the Temple or John the Baptist in the Baptism. These are the innovative aspects that are found at their height in the four narthex scenes (The Incredulity of St Thomas, the Anastasis, the Crucifixion, the Washing of Feet), dating to approximately twenty-five years after the scenes in the naos. These scenes, however, do not abandon the hieratic style and maintain an aura of sacredness, but can no longer be ascribed to the severe style of the Macedonian school.

The half-length figure of Christ Pantocrator represented in the tympanum above the entrance door to the naos deserves further analysis. The search for ideal beauty in the figure can be seen in the classical execution and almost natural proportions, although Byzantine compositional elements have not been abandoned. The forehead is high, and the eyes remain the focal point for the worshipper-onlooker, although they are almost in natural proportion. The mouth is fleshy and the nose, which is not narrow and long, is highlighted along its length by shading, achieved through the use of tiny tesserae. The search for ideal beauty, justified by the Gospel quotation, “I am the light of the world”*10, draws near to the highest classical models. In the figure of this Christ Pantocrator, the traits and colour tones are similar to those of the Twelfth century located in the cathedrals of Cefal? and Monreale in Sicily. The two archangels, represented in the medallions in two of the four triangles*11 of the central cross vault in the narthex, come close to the classicism of Christ Pantocrator. The beauty and softness of the faces, the details executed almost with plasticity, the fair hair held by a white band and falling to the shoulders, are similar to the figures in twelfth-century Byzantine icons.

All the mosaic compositions in the narthex reveal the artist’s desire to give expression to the faces by using small tesserae of various tones, which accentuate the shading; for example the Apostles in the Incredulity of Thomas scene, placed in the niche in the south wall. Christ’s position is vital and natural, the drapery folds follow symmetrical lines and are developed so as to underline the body’s movement. The Apostles, placed on both sides of the scene’s central axis, are characterised by the expressions on their faces, animated by a common feeling of amazement, but also by specific individual traits. It should also be remembered that this scene is rarely represented in Byzantine iconography. Famous examples can be found in Dafni, Attica, dating to the Eleventh century and Monreale dating to the Twelfth century.

A break in compositional symmetry can be seen in the Washing of Feet, placed in the niche in the north wall. The central axis of the scene is occupied by the figures of Christ and Peter, with a third young apostle (probably James) behind. Christ’s long hair is tied back with the same tones repeated in his beard, and his hands are covered by a cloth which he is using to dry Peter’s right foot*12. The whole scene follows a rhythmic movement which echoes the hemispheric shape of the tympanum, and space is left for movement and the interaction of the figures*13. A further innovation in Byzantine iconography is the figure of Christ in the Crucifixion scene, placed in the tympanum in the east wall. In this scene the artist succeeds in highlighting anatomical details of the body and representing suffering in the face to create a highly dramatic representation, only equalled by rare late eleventh-century examples. Christ wears a simple, short, almost transparent himation, which is unusual in Byzantine iconography and underlines the thinness of the suffering body. The accentuation of anatomical details, the curvature of the body at the hips, the broken lines of the arms, the reclining head resting on the shoulder and the strong expressiveness of the face revealing the Son of God’s suffering and pain, succeed in involving the worshipper-onlooker in the drama of the scene.

A similar iconographic model*14 can be found in Dafni, whereas in the Nea Moni in Chios*15 the scene includes a greater number of figures, and narrative, theatrical elements prevail. At Hosios Lukas, however, symbolism, made up by the communicative gestures of the figures and the scene’s naturalistic elements, is dominant. The greatness of Hosios Lukas lies in the realistic representation of individual figures, in the pathos and suffering that pervade the scene. The figures, including the figure of Christ, marked by physical and human suffering and suspended against the gold background, are shut into their deep suffering.

Although analysis of the mosaics in the Hosios Lukas katholikon does not provide evidence of precise schools*16, it nonetheless shows that the great mosaic cycle could not have been a provincial phenomenon, circumscribed to a single monastery, but was the work of various ?quipes of mosaicists, whose style was soon to be found on the other side of the Adriatic*17. Furthermore, the belief that everything from outside the capital was artistically inferior is negated, for example, by comparing the Hosios Lukas narthex scenes with their counterparts at Nea Moni, certainly by Constantinople artists but clearly of inferior standard.

In conclusion, it can be stated that the narthex mosaics clearly reveal the advent of classical influences, seen at their height in the mosaic decoration of the katholikon in Dafni, Attica, in which, however, the theatricality of the compositions and the temptation to revert to classical beauty is achieved at the price of a loss of the full sacredness of the image and its function as a means of communication for the faithful, which is the dominant element in Hosios Lukas.

1 The other is the Panagia church, built in approximately 997 on the foundations of the old Church of St. Barbara (942-946).

2 The innovative features can be seen not only in the eleventh-century, but also in the twelfth-century mosaics. The references from the Hosios Lukas katholikon appear to have been imprinted in the visual memory of the three equipes of Greek artists who worked on the three main domes and on the arches below. This fact is documented in Efthalia Rentetzi, Le influenze mediobizantine nei mosaici dell’arcone della Passione della basilica marciana, in Arte Documento, vol. 14, 1999, pp. 50-53.

3 The problem of the dating, linked to the patrons, has a wide bibliography. The most important works are: J. Spon, Viaggi per la Dalmazia, Grecia, Levante, Bologna, 1688, Ciriaco de’ Pizzicolli, Intinerarium, Firenze, 1742, Γ. Κρέμος, Φωκικά. Προσκυνητάριον της εν Φωκίδη Μονής του Οσίου Λουκά, Αθήνα, 1880, P. W. Schultz, S. H. Barsley, The Monastery of Saint Luke of Stiris in Phocis and the dependent Monastery of Saint Nicolas in the Fields near Skripou in Boeotia, London, 1901, E. Diez, G. Millet, L’ecole grecque dans l’architecture byzantine, Paris, 1916, Γ. Σωτηρίου, "Αραβικαί διακοσμήσεις εις τα βυζαντινά μνημεία της Ελλάδος" in Χριστιανική και Βυζαντινή Αρχαιολογία, vol. I, 1942, A. Frolow, "La mosaique murale byzantine", in Byzantinoslavica, vol.XII, 1951, A. Procopiou, "Le monastere d’Hosios Lukas. L’archaisme byzantine dans les mosaiques d’Hosios Lukas", in Corsi di cultura sull’Arte Ravennate e Bizantina, 1964, F. Gerke, "I mosaici del katholikon di Dafni presso Eleusi", in Corsi di cultura sull’Arte Ravennate e Bizantina, 1964, Ν. Μουρίκη, Τα ψηφιδωτά της Νέας Μονής Χίου, Αθήνα, 1985, M. Χατζιδάκις, "Περί της Οσίου Λουκά νεώτερα", in Ελληνικά, vol. XXV, 1972, "A propos de la date et du fondateur de Saint Luc", in CahArch, vol. XIX, 1969, "Precisions sur le fondateur de Saint-Luc", in CahArch XXXII, 1972, Ε. Στήκας, Ο κτήτωρ του καθολικού της Μονής Οσίου Λουκά, Αθήνα, 1974, Οικοδομικό Χρονικό της Μονής του Οσίου Λουκά Φωκίδας, Αθήνα, 1970, Π. Μυλωνάς, "Δομική Έρευνα στο εκκλησιαστικό συγκρότημα του Οσίου Λουκά Φωκίδος", in Αρχαιολογία, vol. XXXVI, 1990, "Δομική έρευνα στο εκκλησιαστικό συγκρότημα του Οσίου Λουκά Φωκίδος", in Αρχαιολογία, vol. XXXVIII, 1991, N. Οιkonomidis, "The first century of the Monastery of Hosios Lukas", in Dumbarton Oaks Papers, vol. XLVI, 1992, E. Rentetzi, "Il Monastero di Hosios Lukas in Focile", in Ειρμός, vol. I, 2004.

4 This thesis has been shared from: A. Grabar, Bisanzio. L’arte bizantina del medioevo dall’VIII al XV secolo, Milano, 1964, pp. 129-30; A. Procopiou, "Le monastere d’Hosios Loukas. L’archaisme byzantin dans les mosaiques d’Hosios Loukas", in Corsi di cultura sull’arte Ravennate e Bizantina, 1964 pp. 367-88; Renato Polacco, La cattedrale di Torcello, Venezia 1984, p. 126; Viktor Lazarev, Storia della pittura bizantina, Torino, 1967, p. 151.

5 The starting point of which was the Gospel on the one hand and, on the other, the personifications taken from Gnostic systems, which had been accepted by orthodox theology.

6 Following the 1593 earthquake, the mosaic figure was replaced by a fresco figure of Christ.

7 The reliquary of the founder saint is conserved in the katholikon

8 A. Cutler, J. W. Nesbitt, L’arte bizantina e il suo pubblico, Torino, 1986, p. 208.

9 According to Andre Grabar in L’empereur dans l’art byzantin, (1936; repr. London, 1972), pp. 204, 226 the presence of the two archangels acting as custodians can be traced to Roman iconography, in which the emperor was accompanied by military figures or dignitaries.

10 The Corpus Dionysiacum [Dionysius Areopagita, Corpus Dionysiacum (Berlin – New York, 1991)] contains numerous references to beauty, defined as harmony and light.

11 The other two represent John the Baptist and the Virgin.

12 G. Millet, in Recherches sur l’iconographie de l’Evangile au XIVe, XVe et XVIe siecles, (Paris, 1916), pp. 310-312, suggests that the choice of representing Christ as he dries the feet belongs to the eclectic Hellenistic tradition, which contrasts with the more abstract Eastern model.

13 In the same scene in Dafni, this model is further enlivened by classical plasticism, whereas in Nea Moni the scene is composed more rigidly.

14 In Byzantine iconography the Crucifixion draws on a variety of stylistic traditions. It should be noted that the Gospels differ in their descriptions of the event.

15 Built in 1040.

16 Also because, besides the spread of models throughout the Byzantine empire, the large number of competing workshops in the area would not have been in a position to function on the basis of the commissions from a single monastery or even, possibly, a single area.

17 Particularly in the cathedral in Torcello and the basilica of St Mark in Venice.

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