Ένα εικαστικό εγκώμιο του Μιχαήλ Η΄ Παλαιολόγου : Οι εξωτερικές τοιχογραφίες στο καθολικό της μονής της Μαυριώτισσας στην ΚαστοριάPart of : Δελτίον της Χριστιανικής Αρχαιολογικής Εταιρείας ; Vol.33, 1991, pages 221-240
A Visual Encomium of Michael VIII Palaeologos : The Exterior Wall-paintings of the Mavriotissa at Kastoria
Recent research has dated the exterior wall-paintingsof the katholikon of the monastery of the Mavriotissa atKastoria to between 1259 and 1264, and has associatedthem with the emperor Michael VIII Palaeologos, hisbrother John, and with the victory at the battle of Pelagonia.A fragmentary figure identified as the Apostle Peter canbe discerned to the left of the now blocked southernentrance of the main church. On the other side, we mayconjecture the presence of the Apostle Paul. The lunetteabove the entrance bears a depiction of the TheotokosVrefokratousa, in a variation of the Hodegetria type.The accompanying inscription reads MP ΘΟΥ Η MABPHQTICA, thus indicating that the monastery borethis name before the thirteenth century.The Tree of Jesse is shown to the left. The ForefatherJesse is shown at the base while further up are theProphets David, Isaiah, Micheas, Solomon, Habakkuk,Daniel and Jeremiah. The Prophet above Daniel is notidentifiable due to damage. The Theotokos, of the Kyriotissa type, appears at the top of the Tree. The existence of depictions of the Tree of Jesse in the 12th century is attested only from the sources, but from thePalaeologan period it is encountered at Sopocani,Arilje, Bogorodica Ljeviska and in the Holy Apostles inThessaloniki. In the three Serbian monuments, the depiction serves to underline the concept of legal succession to the Serbian throne. Consequently, the figures ofthe Forefathers and the Tree of Jesse (where even Christis attributed with the virtue of aristocratic origins) referto the aristocratic lineage of the emperors. The idea thatnoble lineage was a great virtue was stressed in the 11thcentury as one of the basic components of the policies ofthe Comnenian emperors, and is reflected in the intenseinterest taken to trace the aristocratic lineage of Christ.Initially, this concept finds its artistic expression in thegenealogical wall-paintings of emperors and aristocratsknown in Constantinople from the 12th century. Thesemust have served as a model for the depiction of theTree of Jesse and, in Serbian monumental art, of theTree of Nemanja which proclaims the genealogy of theSerbian sovereigns.To the left of the Tree of Jesse are four figures in twohorizontal rows. The lower depicts two warrior saints, George and Demetrios. Both wear a coronet, an exclusive privilege reserved for members of the imperial family and which appears in depictions of warrior saints inthe Comnenian period (from the 12th century) to underscore their aristocratic lineage. This reflects the closerelationship between the military and imperial authoritythat the Comnenoi had fostered. In the upper row aretwo figures with imperial vestments and loroi. The figure next to the Tree of Jesse holds the symbols of imperial office: the scepter and orb. The remnants of aninscription are visible: ...[KOMJNINOC AOYKAC Ο ΠΑAAI[OAO]roc. The first emperor to use these three familial names was Michael VIII Palaeologos and, consequently, the inscription can be reconstructed as follows:[ΜΙΧΑΗΛ EN XPICTQ ΤΩ ΘΕΩ niCTOC BACIAEYCΚΑΙ ΑΥΤΟΚΡΑΤΩΡ ΡΩΜΑΙΩΝ ΚΑΙ NEOC ΚΩΝΟΤΑΝTINOC KOM]NINOC AOYKAC ΠΑΛΑΙ(ΟΛΟ)ΓΟ€. Theaccompanying figure holds a chrysobul with the finalsection of the inscription preserved: ... [ΑΥΤΟΚ]ΡΑΤΩΡΡΩΜΑΙΩΝ Ο KOMNHNOC. Both figures are completelyanalogous, and it is clear that the second is a scion of theimperial family of the Comnenoi. The chrysobul heholds indicates that he is an emperor; a donor or thefounder of the monastery. He may be indentified withAlexios Comnenos since, just as Michael was the founder of the Palaeologan dynasty, so Alexios was the firstruler of the Comnenian dynasty. Above the figure ofMichael, two angels would have been depicted offeringa kamelavkion and a staff, thus indicating the divineorigin of imperial power. Christ would have appearedat the top blessing the emperor. Other figures to theright do not exist since careful investigation of the wallpaintings within the church and on the exterior showedthat the church initially had only a small narthex, andnot the spacious liti it has today.The external wall-paintings of the Mavriotissa are remnants of an iconographical programme with a pronounced political and symbolic content. The placementof the imperial figures above those of the warrior saintswith the coronets emphasises the high military aristocracy's support for the emperors, as well as the latters'origins from within their ranks. The juxtaposition of thefigures of Michael VIII and a Comnenian emperor underlines the descent of the former from the latter. This symbolical formula is parallel to that of the adjacentTree of Jesse (which expresses the descent of Christfrom the royal line of David), with the aim of ideologically supporting Michael Palaeologos' claim to thethrone he had usurped. In accordance with this comparison, just as Christ was descended from the kings ofIsrael, so Michael VIII came from the line of the Doukaiand the Comnenoi (cf. the relevant section in his autobiography). Furthermore, we have here an attempt tolegalise Michael's claim to the throne, not only vis-a-visJohn Laskaris, whose throne he usurped, but alsoagainst the despots of Epirus who coveted the throne inthe capital.The scrolls of the extant Prophets on the Tree of Jesseunderline the ecumenical nature of Christ as King ofIsrael. Thus the emperor is compared to Christ as theonly ruler of "New Israel". Blemmydes, by virtue ofJohn Laskaris' birthday on Christmas day, comparedhim to Christ. Michael took care to sunder this association by blinding John on his birthday and taking hisplace not only on the throne, but also in relation to thecentral motif of his association with Christ.Michael Palaeologos used the icon of the Hodegetria inhis triumphal entry into the capital in 1261. In this manner he stressed that God had ordained that heshould liberate the city. Correspondingly, on the exterior wall-paintings of the Mavriotissa, the figure of theVirgin Kyriotissa-Holy Zion on the top of the Tree ofJesse holds Christ in her hands and presents Him to theworld as redeemer of humanity and King of Israel, making a direct reference to the concept of ConstantinopleNew Zion presenting the world with a new redeemerand King of the New Israel, the emperor Michael VIIIPalaeologos.The interpretation of the symbolic contents of thesewall-paintings leads to the conclusion that this is anartistic parallel to a rhetoric encomium which wasexecuted after the recapture of Constantinople in 1261,and possibly after the signing of the Peace Treaty withthe despot of Epirus, Michael II, in 1262. The wallpaintings of the Mavriotissa should thus be seen in thecontext of the building and artistic activity undertakenby Michael in the newly captured area of Macedoniawhere his foremost aim was the implementation of hispolicies. This activity betrays the last vestiges of an imperial theory of universality whose seeds were laid in thetime of Justinian.