Michail I. Asfentagakis | National and Kapodistrian University of Athens
Four churches of Symi preserve frescoes from the 13th century and the Knights Hospitaller Period (1308–-1523) in the Dodecanesian complex of islands. These are St. Ioannis tis Tsagrias, St. Marina tis Neras, St. Prokopios and the old katholikon of the Monastery of Archangel Michael Roukouniotis. The monuments were unpublished until 2021, but their wall-paintings were well-known to the local scientific community. They have also been mentioned in several studies but without any analysis.
The small church of St. Ioannis tis Tsagrias is built on the mountains, far from the chora (capital) of the island. Its architectural plan is simple, as the whole building is constituted of the naos and the holy bema (with one semi-cylindered apse), covered by a semi-circular roof (4.70 x 2.00 m). Only a few depictions, from the Christological Cycle (the Transfiguration of Jesus, the Betrayal of Jesus, the Crucifixion of Christ. The Entry into Jerusalem and probably the Last Supper), are still preserved on the north and south walls of the naos and they likely date to 1270–80.
St. Marina tis Neras is built very close to the Monastery of Sotiris o Megalos (Saviour the Great), not far from St. Ioannis. Its architectural style is the same as the one of Tsagria church (5.88 x 2.81 m), but in this monument almost the whole iconographic program is still visible in the interior. Two dedicatory inscriptions are preserved on the semi-cylinder of the apse of the holy bema and only one scene, next to the prothesis, from the iconographic cycle of St. Marina survives. The frescoes have been recently dated to the first half of the 14th century.
The church of St. Prokopios follows the same architectural style as the other two (6.25 x 2.69 m), but its iconographic program is the most interesting, compared to the other byzantine churches of the island, especially because of its unique in byzantine monumental painting iconographic cycle of St. Prokopios. The frescoes were recently dated in ca. 1380.
The Monastery of Archangel Michael Roukouniotis constitutes one of the most important foundations in the Dodecanese. Inside the old katholikon, a free cross church, with dome and narthex (14.65 x 5.50 m), frescoes from two different chronological periods are preserved. From the first (byzantine) phase only the depiction of St. Lawrence survives and it is dated in ca. 1450. All the other iconographic themes are dated, perhaps, in the 17th century, but they haven’t been examined thoroughly yet.
The majority of the evidence we have for the monumental painting in the Dodecanese during the Knights Hospitaller Period concerns mainly Rhodes, as the spiritual and cultural center of the complex. Even the other big islands, like Kos, do not have, so far, so much information to offer about the local artistic activity, apart from some exceptions of course. About the smaller islands of the Dodecanese, things are even worse, since many of the monuments there remain unpublished. The Ph.D. thesis of Th. Archontopoulos (2003), M. Sigala (2011), K. Kefala (2012) and M. Asfentagakis (2021) lightens somehow the unknown aspects of the activity of the painters in the churches of Rhodes, Chalke and Symi (basically) from the 13th century until the withdrawal of the Hospitallers in 1523.
The church of St. Ioannis tis Tsagkrias constitutes the only monument on Symi, which is decorated with frescoes dated in the second half of the 13th century. Also, the wall-paintings of the second painting phase of St. Georgios o Kylindriotis, on Symi as well, are dated in around 1200, but we cannot be sure if they were made at the end of the 12th century or the beginning of the subsequent one. Not many depictions are preserved and we can’t have a global view of the iconographic program of the church. However, some observations about the painter and his style could be made. He is a capable painter and his work is a bit conservative, with some visible late-Comnenian features. An important remark concerns the similarities between the depictions of St. Ioannis and many artworks from the same period in Cyprus, as maybe show us an artist from Cyprus, or a Dodecanesian one, who had some contact with Cypriot creations, especially portable icons, and he was influenced by them.
St. Marina tis Neras and St. Prokopios are the only churches on the island with decoration dated in the 14th century, after the occupation of the Dodecanese (1308). The quality of the art of the frescoes in St. Marina is medium (several times the drawings of the depictions are not well-made, the size of the figures is not always balanced, etc.) but there are some really interesting and remarkable details in iconography and style. It’s worthy to mention the rare iconographic cycle of St. Marina (just one scene is preserved today, the Interrogation of Prefect Olyvrios), which is the only one in the Dodecanesian Complex, as well as the figure of Prophet Daniel in the scene of the Anastasis (Resurrection of Jesus). As we know from the published monuments, so far, the prophet does not appear in any other depiction of the Descent into Limbo in byzantine art. We suppose that the role of Ioannis, who was priest and nomikos (jurist), according to the inscriptions in the holy bema, was catalytic in the formation of the iconographic program. He and his wife, presvytera (priest’s wife) Maria, were the people behind the patronage, but, as one of the inscriptions show us, probably Ioannis did not stay alive until the end of the work.
In St. Prokopios, not only the quality of the art of the frescoes, but also the iconographic choices of the patron and/ or the painter are really notable. First of all, the iconographic cycle of the homonymous saint is unique, as it is the only one which is still preserved in the Byzantine monumental painting, as well as the depiction of the equestrian St. Prokopios. The iconographic program of the church shows us a well-educated and wealthy, probably Symian, male patron, who had connections with the Grand Master’s court. Parts of the iconographic program in the holy bema and naos reflect his desire for protection and salvation, whilst some others “betray” the respect he had to the Order of Saint John. An important remark concerns the depiction of the Anastasis, where some details, like the shiny dress of Jesus and the unique bright sheepskin of St. John the Forerunner, possibly indicate the influence of Hesychasm, chiefly, on the society of Rhodes (we assume that the painter came to decorate the church from the capital of the complex).
As concerns the old katholikon of Roukouniotis Monastery, the well-preserved depiction of St. Lawrence gives us valuable information about the high quality level of the art of the workshop which decorated the interior of the church. The coat-of-arms where is detected in front of the north entrance of the katholikon clearly indicates the significant role of the Hospitallers in the decoration (and maybe in the erection) of the church. The combination of some gothic elements in the architecture of the building and the figure of St. Lawrence, who is a popular saint of the Catholic Church, possibly reflects the Knights as the main funders of the work which took place in the monastery.
Archontopoulos, Theodoros A. The Church of St. Aikaterini in the Old Town of Rhodes and the Painting of the Late-Medieval Period in the Dodecanese (in Greek). Rhodes-Athens, 2010.
Asfentagakis, Michail I. Mosaic Pavements and Monumental Painting on Symi during the Βyzantine and the Knights Hospitaller Period (6th - beginning of the 16th century) (in Greek). Athens, 2021 (unpublished doctoral dissertation).
Katsioti, Angeliki. “Aspects of the monumental painting of the 13th c. in the Dodecanese” (in Greek). Archaiologikon Deltion 51-52 (1996-97), Part 1 – Studies: 269-302.
Kefala, Konstantia. The Wall-Paintings of the 13th Century in the Churches of Rhodes (in Greek). Athens, 2015.
Sigala, Maria. Chalke from the Early Christian Period till the End of the Period of the Knights (5th c. - 1523 A.D.): Monuments, Architecture, Topography, Society (in Greek). Athens, 2011 (unpublished doctoral dissertation).
All the authors examine and analyze, basically, the painting decoration of a number of interesting monuments in the complex of the Dodecanese and give to the scientific community valuable information about the art of a narrow or wide period of time in the capital of the Dodecanese (Archontopoulos, Kefala), on close to Rhodes islands (Sigala, Asfentagakis) and in the whole complex (Katsioti).
This contribution was sponsored by the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross.