The Stucco Templon of the Kokkini Ekklisia in Boulgareli (Epiros)
The Stucco Templon of the Kokkini Ekklisia in Boulgareli (Epiros)

By Flavia Vanni | University of Birmingham


The Kokkini Ekklisia, also known as Panagia Vellas, was built in 1295/96 by the protostrator Theodoros Tzimiskés as a main monastic church (katholikon). The church displays a two-columns cross-in-square plan (the columns later reinforced with pillars to secure the structure of the building), a central dome, and a dome in the narthex. The columns were of secondary use. The interior decoration included wall paintings, inlaid ceramics for the floor, and a carved wooden door. The templon and the window transennae were made of stucco. The study of the materials and workshops active in this church provides us with a snapshot of the workshops available to aristocrats such as Tzimiskés, who moved between Epiros and Macedonia. In this picture, the stucco decoration connects the Kokkini Ekklisia and his patron to Epiros.

Most of this decoration survives in fragments now preserved in the sculptural collection of the church of the Parigoritissa in Arta (Epiros).

The templon can be dated to the foundation of the church, as its wooden stylobate was found in situ below the post-Byzantine iconostasis, and no other templon was found there.

The templon was free-standing and composed of knotted colonnettes, plaques, posts, and probably an epistyle. Each element was made into a formwork with at least three removable sides. Artisans poured plaster in several phases and inserted wooden pieces and reeds to reinforce the structure and provide resilience to the mixture. The formworks had decorations carved in the negative to cast the architectural element with the ornamentation; other details were later carved once the element was already dry. Finally, the pieces were also partially painted. The window transennae were made following a similar process, but during the several phases of pouring plaster, artisans inserted bull-eye glass roundels to pierce the round openings (oculi).


Plaster reliefs, or stuccoes, were widely used to decorate Byzantine churches. Artisans used stucco for architectural decorations (e.g. stringcourse cornices, corbels, capital revetments, decorative arches and colonnettes), proskynetaria frames, window transennae (glazing), and free-standing liturgical furnishings (mainly templa). Even though stucco was used without significant interruptions from the Late Antique to the Middle and Late Byzantine periods, there is no tradition of studies concerned with this material. This is mirrored by discontinued scholars’ attempts to study this material in specific case studies. Nevertheless, recently, the studies of Papadopoulou (2001), Bouras (2012), and Vanderheyde (2020) included stucco into the broader discussion of Byzantine sculpture. Yet, stucco has been traditionally treated as an economical substitute for marble. The only survey and synthetic evaluation on stucco production in Byzantine buildings between the Middle and Late Byzantine period is the doctoral thesis of Vanni (2020). It begins to fill this gap in scholarship by discussing patterns of continuity and changes from the Late Antique period, production processes, economic implications, patronage patterns, and the importance of stucco production within the field of Mediterranean artistic production. It appears that stucco was not only a flexible and fast-working material. Its use answered specific aesthetic needs (e.g. thauma, varietas), continuing trends of late antique architectural decoration already described by Vitruvius (1st c. BCE), even with some typological changes.

The stucco production of Late Byzantine Epiros stands out from the ‘average’ stucco production recorded in other monuments, because it is composed of free-standing elements characterized by a highly specialized craftmanship. The use of free-standing stucco templa and liturgical furnishings does not find many comparisons outside Epiros, apart from late 11th-century Calabria and Sicily, and possibly Middle Byzantine Cyprus, but they differ for technical and typological aspects.

Petrographic analyses conducted by the Ephoreia of Arta (2001) have demonstrated that the templon and the window transennae of the Kokkini Ekklisia belonged to a broader production of stucco liturgical furnishings in Epiros identified in churches in the areas of Ioannina and Arta. They are the Kato Panagia near Arta (mid 13th century), the Taxiarches in Kostaniane (mid 13th century), the Koimesis in Petrovitsa (end of the 13th century), the Koimesis in Lyggos (end of the 13th century), and the Metamorphosis in Kleidonia (end of the 13th - beginning of the 14th century). The stucco decoration from these buildings records an almost pure-gypsum mixture with similar percentages of the minor ingredients. In all cases, the provenance of the gypsum is Epiros, thus, suggesting a local supply. These technical aspects, the use of the same decorative motifs, and the same typologies of posts and colonnettes indicate that the same workshop executed them.

The stucco decoration of the Kokkini Ekklisia is crucial for interpreting this phenomenon, as it acts as a chronological indicator for the artistic production of Late Byzantine Epiros. It is the only templon with a fixed date because the original stylobate was found in situ, and here stucco was used next to other materials such as marble and wood. They show us the networking of its founder, Theodoros Tzimiskés, with the Despot Nikephoros (r. 1267/68–96/98) and his collaborators and the open movement of artists and workshop practices between Epiros and Macedonia.

It has been noted that the bricks of the Kokkini Ekklisia are the same as those in the Parigoritissa in Arta, restored by the new founder, the Despot Nikephoros (r. 1267/68–96/98). The same Kokkini Ekklisia shares architectural similarities with the Parigoritissa and the Perivleptos in Ohrid (today Sv. Kliment) (1294/5) founded by the aristocrat Progon Sgouros. The Kokkini Ekklisia also shares a team of painters with the Taxiarches of Kostaniane, founded by the pansebastos Isaak Theodoros. Finally, the use of stucco is another connection with the Taxiarches of Kostaniane and the Kato Panagia in Arta (possibly a despotal foundation). This exchange of materials and artisans demonstrates the easy circulation of workshops between the center of the despotal power (Arta) and its periphery. Regarding stucco, the direction of this phenomenon (center-periphery or vice-versa) has yet to be defined as the only sure chronology is the one of the Kokkini Ekklisia.

Except for the Kato Panagia, all the other churches with stucco liturgical furnishings, Kokkini Ekklisia included, are in mountainous territories controlling passages between the valleys. Two of them (the Kokkini Ekklisia and the Taxiarches) still preserve the dedicatory inscriptions, which testify that the founders were collaborators of the Despot at different levels.

The Kokkini Ekklisia laid on a strategic position marking the border with Thessaly, halfway on the road connecting Arta to Trikala. On the Thessalian side of the road, there was the church of the Porta Panagia at Pyle, a foundation of the half-brother of Despot Nikephoros, Ioannes I Doukas (1285). The relationships between Thessaly and Epiros fluctuated, and around 1295/96 Thessalian troops invaded several territories in southern Epiros reaching the region outside Arta. The foundation of the Kokkini Ekklisia by the protrostrator Theodoros Tzimiskés, the Despot’s closest collaborator, seems to mark the presence of the Epirote rulers in this liminal area. After all, it has been recently noted that there existed a general tendency of Despot Nikephoros and later Thomas to control the fluctuating borders of southern and western Epiros via their collaborators.

Due to the symbolic meaning of the Kokkini Ekklisia and its patron, the use of stucco here cannot be explained only as a ‘cheap’ substitute for marble, but as an entanglement of cultural and economic factors. While Epiros did not have any marble quarries active in the Late Byzantine period, and marble supply came from centers with ancient monuments (e.g. Ambrakia-Arta), Theodoros had the means to secure two marble columns in his church. Due to its diffusion in Epirote mountainous areas, stucco may have been familiar to locals and worthy of use in such an important foundation. After all, stucco in Epiros continued to be valued even after the 13th century. A stucco post was re-used in the 18th-century façade of the Koimesis of Lyggos, a phenomenon usually encountered with reuse of marble and stone sculptures.

Further Reading

Bouras, Charalambos, and Laskarina Boura. Η ελλαδική ναοδομία κατά τον 12ο αιώνα. Athens: Εμπορική Τράπεζα της Ελλάδος, 2002.

In this book the authors discuss stucco decoration as a feature of 11th and 12th-century architecture.

Orlandos, Anastasios K. “Μνημεα του Δεσποτάτου της Ηπείρου. Η Κόκκινη Εκκλησιά (Παναγία Βελλάς).” Ηπειρωτικά Χρονικά 2 (1927): 153–69.

This article details the discovery of the stucco templon (pp. 163–164, figs 7–8, 20)

Papadopoulou, Barbara. “Γύψινα υστεροβυζαντινά ανάγλυφα από την Ήπειρο.” Αρχαιολογικόν Δελτίον 56, no. 2001 (2006): 341–64.

This article discusses the results from the petrographic analyses and the chemical composition of the stucco decorations from Epiros.

Riccardi, Lorenzo. “L’Epiro tra Bisanzio e l’Occidente: ideologia e committenza artistica nel primo secolo del Despotato (1204-1318).” PhD thesis, Università di Roma “La Sapienza,” 2014.

The author discusses the policy of Despots Nikephoros and Thomas in light of the monumental evidence (pp. 351–367).

Vanderheyde, Catherine. La sculpture architecturale byzantine dans le thème de Nikopolis du Xe au début du XIIIe siècle (Epire, Etoile-Acarnanie et Sud de l’Albanie). Vol. 45. Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique. Supplement. Athènes: École française d’Athènes, 2005.

This study offers a preliminary contextualization of stucco templa in the context of Epirote sculpture (pp. 83–87, 105–106, 147).

Vanderheyde, Catherine. La Sculpture Byzantine Du IXe Au XVe Siècle. Contexte - Mise En Oeuvre -Décors. Paris: Picard, 2020.

The author discusses plaster reliefs in the context of Byzantine sculpture (pp. 123-124, 161). Vanni, Flavia. “Byzantine Stucco Decoration (ca. 850-1453).

Cultural and Economic Implications across the Mediterranean.” PhD thesis, University of Birmingham, 2020, 2 vols.

This study discusses and contextualizes Epirote stucco production relative to Middle and Late Byzantine stucco decoration.

This contribution was sponsored by the International Center of Medieval Art through the 2021 Advocacy Seed Grant.


Flavia Vanni, "The Stucco Templon of the Kokkini Ekklisia in Boulgareli (Epiros)," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023,