By Paschalis Androudis | Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
The phiale (main water fountain) of the katholikon of the Great Lavra Monastery on Mount Athos, is one of the best-preserved of its kind in Byzantine monastic architecture. According to an inscription published by Gabriel Millet, it was built in 1060.
The construction of the phiale is not the original Byzantine one, since it suffered alterations and restorations after the damages caused by the strong earthquakes of 1392 and 1585. The latest renovation of the phiale was undertaken in 1634, after the Ottoman authorities issued a permission for such a project.
In its present octagonal form, the phiale consists of a large marble basin of Middle Byzantine fabric a bronze strobilion (of 13th and not of 10th-11th century as it was believed in the past) and a post-Byzantine canopy that houses the construction, with various marble slabs used as parapets in the lower zone.
All the marble slabs (intact or fragmented) that were used in the construction of the phiale are spolia, of unknown provenance. Most of them are pairs with complementary decoration. Some are sculpted in the champlevé technique which is very rare on Mount Athos for this period and it can be encountered in the slabs from the marble iconostasis of Vatopedi Monastery (attributed to the end of 10th century), as well as in the lintel of the main entrance of its katholikon.
Byzantine spolia as those from the phiale of the Great Lavra offer a unique glimpse into the monastery’s long history. First they have been variously interpreted by researchers. Some tend to believe that they once formed part of the construction of the Byzantine marble iconostasis of the katholikon, from which only some columns stand within the central part of the sanctuary. It is noteworthy that even these columns are spolia. In 1886, they were hidden behind the construction of the new marble iconostasis of the katholikon. We should also bear in mind that the Byzantine iconostasis was still in situ in the 17th century when the construction of the present day phiale was accomplished.
This contribution will present some further remarks and some thoughts about the possible provenance of the sculptures of the phiale. It is noteworthy that some of the slabs of the phiale, especially the three with geometric patterns are not intact, but they are cut in pieces. This remark, together with some other archaeological evidence, leads us to attribute them to the construction of an iconostasis for the katholikon of the Benedictine monastery of the Amalfitans.
The Monastery of the Amalfitans was very active and one of the most prosperous on Mount Athos towards the end of 10th and in the next century. Its katholikon survives in ruins, but, judging from its size, it likely had a rich sculptural decorative program. It is therefore quite possible that the two now fragmented closure slabs of the phiale of the Great Lavra decorated once the katholikon of Amalfinon. After its abandonment, the slabs were cut into smaller pieces and were transferred to the Great Lavra. If this took place then this transfer likely took place after 1287 (the date of the annexation of the ruined monastery to Lavra) and certainly before 1634, which is the date of the latest restoration of the phiale.
The great tower that is located on the site of the former monastery of Amalfitans is buttressed at its base, but its upper part was rebuilt in the 15th -16th century. In its upper part, the monogram of the Great Lavra is preserved, as well as many Byzantine marble fragments of capitals, cornices, lintels, and a fragmented slab with a single-headed eagle.
The study of the rich sculptural material in the phiale of the Great Lavra offers various interpretations, as well as a path to the study of high-quality Byzantine sculpture of the end of the 10th century and the beginning of the 11th century on Mt Athos, with the closest parallels in the examples surviving at the monastery of Vatopedi. Such a study could also trace the afterlives of sculptures and spaces within Mount Athos in the period between the 10th and the 17th centuries.
Androudis, Paschalis. “Some Thoughts on the Possible Provenance of Three Middle Byzantine Champlevé Sculptures from the Phiale of the Monastery of Megisti Lavra, Mount Athos.” In Minimalia Medievalia, edited by Fabio Coden, Atti: Accademia Roveretana degli Agiati 8, A (2018): 78‒84.
Bouras, Laskarina. “Some Observations on the Grand Lavra Phiale at Mount Athos and its Bronze Strobilion." Δελτίον της Χριστιανικής Αρχαιολογικής Εταιρείας 8 (1975‒1976): 85‒96, pl. 44‒51.
Pazaras, Theocharis. “The Old Marble Iconostasis of the katholikon of the Holy Great Lavra Monastery on Mount Athos.” In Studies on the Byzantine Sculptures on Mount Athos (in greek), edited by Theocharis Pazaras, 33‒52. Thessaloniki, 2014.
Voyadjis, Sotiris. The Katholikon of the Saint Monastery of the Great Lavra on Mount Athos: History and Architecture (in greek). Athens, 2019.
These sudies are significant and useful not only for the examination of the spolia in the phiale of the Great Lavra Monastery and their possible provenance, but also for their better dating. They are also significant for the study of the late 10th century Byzantine champlevé sculptures on Mount Athos in general.
This contribution was sponsored by the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross.