Ερμηνευτικές παρατηρήσεις στο εικονογραφικό πρόγραμμα του ΠρωτάτουPart of : Δελτίον της Χριστιανικής Αρχαιολογικής Εταιρείας ; Vol.33, 1991, pages 197-220
Interpretational Comments on the Iconographic Programme of the Protaton
In 1982, debate once again arose over the dating of thewall-paintings of the Protaton. It was argued that attention should be paid to the opinion formulated by MariaSotiriou whereby the monument must have been decorated in 1290, before the painting of the Perivleptos atOchrid (1294/5). Following on from the same studyafter 1982, interest concentrated on two factors whoserelationship has been apparent since that time, namelythe tradition of the Athonite area surrounding the monument, and the texts, published or not, of Osios Nikiphoros and the Saints Athanasios and Theoliptos.These texts of the holy fathers provide us with information on views held by Athonite fathers; since they arealmost contemporary with the Protaton, they haveproved exceptionally useful in this particular study.From the unpublished texts of St. Athanasios, important information can be gleaned from his letters tomonks and holy fathers (cod. Vaticanus gr. 2219, Colonensis 58) which comment on the general situation ofthe empire and betray, amongst other things, the fearsof the holy fathers and their role in the troubled life ofthe time. From the likewise unpublished texts of St.Theoliptos, the letters relevant to the period of the Pentecost and to Monastic tradition (cod. Ottobonianus gr.405) are particularly noteworthy. The study in hand benefitted greatly from a reading of these unpublishedtexts.Broadly speaking, the relevant studies on the iconographical programme of the Protaton have not concernedthemselves in any depth with analytical study of itsgenerally limited nature. No analytical investigation hasbeen undertaken on the peculiarities of the generaleconomy of the programme as well as those of theirpiecemeal components. This is surprising, consideringthat these peculiarities markedly differentiate the monument in certain aspects from corresponding programmesof other contemporary monuments. Furthermore, theposition of the whole programme in the development ofOrthodox ecclesiastical iconography at the end of the13th century has not been established.The painted decoration of the Protaton, to the extentpermitted by the architectural form of the church, tookon a classic and particularly attentive nature as far asthe traditional taxis of the Orthodox Church was concerned. The church's programme indicates that here wehave the fruit of the Liturgical witness borne by theAthonite fathers in the annual cycle of services and in the Mysteries of the Orthodox Church. The monument's iconographical peculiarities correspond to theseservices and to Athonite spirituality. Particular associations can be discerned here between the Protaton andformulations in Liturgical text, as well as those in lettersof the pupils of Osios Nikiphoros, the Patriarch Athanasios and Theoliptos of Philadelphia.In accordance with the mystical tradition of the EasternChurch, Liturgical life and the Mystery of Holy Communion provide the possibility for every man to becomea "temple" or "monastery" of Christ, and finally tobecome One with Him. Clear traces of this tradition canbe observed in the monument and, furthermore, theyare reminiscent of the formulations of the great mysticalfathers of the Orthodox Church vis-a-vis both Man andthe Church. The particular characteristics of the churchare not immediately apparent; their contents can onlybe comprehended after particular attention and speculation is paid to the location of the various scenes. Following from this, one can immediately discern the apophatic nature and the deep experience of the Liturgical life ofthe Orthodox Church and the monastic esoteric tradition.Although the programme's general economy does notreflect that development of iconographical themes observable in other churches after 1290, it does, on theother hand, concentrate all the traits of 13th centurypainting, and prefigures most of those of the 14th century. With the exception of the Passion Cycle, the iconographical cycles are limited to the absolutely necessary scenes, while the treatment of individual scenes issynoptic. As in no other monument, the scenes of theMain Feasts of the Church are divided from those of thePassion in an exemplary manner. For its time, the cyclesof the Life of the Theotokos and scenes of the Préfigurations in the programme are exceptionally limited in bothsubjects matter and content, while the Akathistos Hymnand the Tree of Jesse do not appear at all. Unlike thenorm of the period, the Dormition of the Theotokos isconfined to a band on the west wall despite the fact thatthe church's dedication meant that greater possibilitiescould have been realised in its development. From comparisons already made during the study of other monuments, the synoptic nature of individual scenes in thePentecost and Préfiguration cycles has also been established. The synoptic character of these cycles follows thevenerable tradition of the Orthodox Church whereby the events depicted are subordinate to those "many other things" which can in no way be described. The classicarrangement of the programme is completed by thegreat groups of saints which cover the wall surfaces. Thegroups of martyr saints of November 2 and December13 are given particular prominence, as are Saints Sergiosand Bacchos. An archaising tendency can be seen incertain elements of the compositions, such as the scrollsof the prophets which reproduce prophecies that as arule belong to monuments of greater antiquity.Despite the clearly conventional character of the programme, a group of accompanying characteristics in themonument prefigure trends followed in later years.These are scenes completely unknown in the immediately preceding years which were integrated into the general programme or into the arrangement of individualiconographie themes. Examples of these innovations include the group of Forefathers, both as concerns thecontents and their location; hierarchically they replacethe Pantokrator. Likewise without precedent are thescenes with the Ascent of Christ on the Cross, Josephbefore Pilate, as well as the scenes with Christ Transfigured, and the Anapeson. Noteworthy amongst those individual components of the Dodekaorton scenes is thediscreet way in which the mandorla has been renderedin the Baptism, the Transfiguration and the Descent intoHades. Also notable'is Christ's loincloth in the Baptismand the scene with the Three Children crossing thebridge, and the Nativity, where Christ appears in swaddling clothes in the Bathing scene. Furthermore, complementary narrative passages are merged in the Baptism and in the Descent into Hades. Of the Passionscenes, the composition of the Last Supper is different;Christ here occupies the centre of the scene. All the newiconographical themes mentioned above would, in theyears that immediately followed, develop into commontopoi in monumental painting of the wider OrthodoxOecumene and Commonwealth of the period, whereinthe standing of Mt Athos was undisputed.The rejuvenating character of the piecemeal themes inthe iconographical programme follow that precision ofeconomy apparent in the programme as a whole, aneconomy based, with characteristic discernment, onboth the Evangelical tradition and on the wider tradition of the dogma of the Orthodox Church. At thesame time, the Triune Doctrine is clearly echoed here.Of the cycles included in the church, the groups of theForefathers, Prophets and the Just are associated withthe work of the First Person of the Holy Trinity, theFather; the Dodekaorton and the Passion with the workof the Second Person, the Son; and finally the Pentecostcycle leads us to the activity of the Third Person, the Holy Spirit. Consequently, while the depictions ofgroups or cycles of the Forefathers, the Prophets, theDodekaorton, the Passion and the Pentecost refer to thetradition of Holy Scripture, the Virgin cycle and thePréfigurations are linked with the wider tradition ofdogma. The cycles associated with Evangelical tradition are also carefully divided into Christological(Dodekaorton and the Passion), and Pneumatological(Pentecost) groups, both of which constitute the foundations on which the Orthodox Church is based. All thescenes in the cycles also imbue an esoteric interpretationteaching the way by which the ascetic monk can becomeOne with Christ.Quite apart from the classic economy of the iconographical scenes, the power of inner prayer is highlightedon the west wall of the NW compartment by scenes ofSt. Pachomios and the Angel, Christ amongst the Doctors, and the Three Children in the Fiery Furnace.These scenes suggest the immense strength of asceticvirtue in the powers and the wisdom of this world. Theonly Forefather who is depicted outside the Genealogyof Christ (which excludes nine of them) is Japheth, orIapetos, the primogenitor of the Greeks. Also quiteapart from any group of saints, and in a conspicuouslocation for those entering the church, is a depiction ofConstantine the Great. In the same years as the Protaton was being decorated, the Patriarch Athanasios I hadproclaimed that the then emperor Andronikos II Palaeologos was a worthy ruler on a par with the firstemperor of Constantinople, and that his policies hadfacilitated the flowering of ecclesiastical art during thisperiod.For their time, the wall-paintings of the Protaton are ofa unique and almost "avant garde" character which setthem aside as a landmark between two periods. Thestudy of this monument elucidates certain processes thathave remained unclear even for the specialist, processeswhich continued up to the crystalisation of the manyand varied trends at the end of the 13th century. Thearchaising and classical introversion characteristic of artunder the first Palaeologoi is complemented by a strongturn towards ancient ecclesiastical notions of taxis.While classicism had for some time been associated withthe Greek kingdoms which sprang up after the conquestof Constantinople in 1204, the turn towards strictly religious principles in the years concerning us here is linkedwith the re-consolidation of the empire under Andronikos II to restore Orthodoxy, a re-consolidation whichcoincides with the supplications addressed by the Patriarch St. Athanasios I to both Andronikos II and to hisflock for "a conscious return" and "repentance".