Although in this context the word 'painting' suggests first and foremost the art
of depicting figures and forms on walls, on the Holy Mountain of Athos, apart
from the wall-paintings which cover the interiors of the churches and refectories
(the places where the monks eat their shared meals), the art of painting also
extends to portable icons used in worship, and, most typically, to illustrated
manuscripts. In other words, any surface which plays a part in the life of worship
can be painted, whether it is a wall, wood, parchment, or paper. Thus a great
variety of works of the art of painting which have been preserved on the Holy
Mountain in incredibly large numbers serves to provide us with a knowledge of
the medieval world of the second millennium AD. Although it is true that often we
know little of the things of the past and by adding a large dose of imagination we
attempt to reproduce a way of life which is no more, this is not the case with
Mount Athos, where so many works of art and treasured objects have survived
that we can acquaint ourselves with the past with every certainty.
The examples of paintings on walls, wall-paintings, which survive on Mount
Athos extend to thousands of square metres, a figure which sounds incredible,
and rightly so. Works of centuries past have accumulated on the walls of the
churches and other buildings, the creations of faith - but also of economic power,
often in difficult times.
The oldest example of this art on Mount Athos (dating from around 1200) is
provided by the figures of the chief Apostles Peter and Paul, preserved on a
piece of wall-painting in the library of the Monastery of Vatopaidi. The two figures
are shown embracing, and what is typical of the art of that period is the marked
schematisation and the decorative nature of the rendering of all the details. From
the same background is the head of the Evangelist Mark in the icon-store of the
same monastery, and it is possible that these are fragments from works
produced on the Holy Mountain in the late 12th century by painters from
Thessaloniki or Constantinople.
It is to the same period - perhaps the beginning of the 13th century - that the
painting preserved in the 'Kelli' (monastic house) of Ravdouchou, a dependency
of the Pantocrator Monastery, at Karyes, near the Monastery of Koutloumousiou,
also belongs. The subject is again the Apostles Peter and Paul, this time painted
on the doorposts of the western side of the church. Here, apart from the
schematisation and the trend towards decorativeness, a feeling of mass in the
figures makes its appearance, a characteristic of the art of the Palaeologue
period, which is to be found on the Holy Mountain in a host of monuments and
works of art.
Although the 12th and 13th centuries are represented only by fragments of
wall-painting, the same is not true of the art of the 14th, a turning-point for the art
which survives on Mount Athos - a fact which has been stressed by all the
travellers and scholars who have studied the Holy Mountain. The most
representative monument of the art of this period, the Palaeologue period as it
usually called, is undoubtedly the monastic community's central church, and
perhaps the oldest on the Mountain, the Church of the Protaton in Karyes.
This church, which has the form of a three-aisled basilica, has wall-paintings
on all the interior surfaces of its walls, though these have been badly damaged
by damp. The paintings are arranged in three bands, and Panselenus, the
extremely able artist responsible for them, has harmonised the theological
requirements to the characteristics of the architecture with which he had to deal.
This fact, together with the brilliance of the colours and the plasticity of the forms,
the inventiveness of the details and the correct handling of the rhythm of
movement, resulted in this work of Panselenus being regarded as a model for
subsequent decoration of the churches of Mount Athos - and beyond.
It is from this period, more specifically from 1312, that the wall-painting of the
Katholikon (central church) of the Monastery of Vatopaidi dates. The work of an
unknown artist, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that it was carried out by
the workshop of Panselenus, or even by the artist himself in a more mature
phase of his art, that is, some 15 - 20 years after the wall-paintings of the
Protaton. Here the features of this art are along general lines the same: realism,
figures of considerable mass in dramatic movement, bright colours, and ease in
the handling of the iconographic details in all the scenes.
Other major works of painting which have been preserved on the Holy
Mountain also belong within the general artistic climate of the 14th century. The
most important of these are the wall-paintings in the katholikon of the Chilandari
Monastery (c. 1320), those in the katholikon of the Pantocrator Monastery
(second half of the 14th century), and those in the Chapel of St Demetrius at the
Xenophontos Monastery. A feature which these works have in common is an
attempt to imitate the wall-paintings of the Protaton, a fact which brings out in the
most striking possible way the innovative spirit of Panselenus and the way in
which this was nevertheless accepted by the strict monastic community of Mount
By way of contrast, few surviving works belong to the 14th and 15th centuries.
It is clear that the productive age of the Palaeologues was now lost, together with
the freedom of various parts of the Greek world as they fell to the Turkish
conqueror. In the 15th century the dark clouds which were gathering were visible
to all, the economy was in the grip of the fear of political changes, and questions
about the fate of the nation remained unanswered. The result was poverty of
The painting in the refectory of the Xenophontos Monastery dates from the late
15th century, and the decline of the art in terms of its means of expression if
compared with Palaeologue art is obvious. The style and the limited range of the
handling of colour are a foretaste of the art of the 16th century. This is an art
which seems closer to the monastic principles of 'renunciation of life'.
If the 14th century could be described as a period of brilliance for painting on
the Holy Mountain, the 16th could be characterised as a time which gave
expression to the monastic ideal, with painting which reflects both the difficulties
of the times and the strictness of the ascetic life.
A factor which is directly linked with the production of works of art is the
prosperity of the public who are their purchasers and the social recognition
accorded to the artist through his work. It would seem that there was a significant
improvement in these two areas in the 16th century, with the consequence that
great works of art were created on a perhaps unprecedented scale. The
economic aspect had as its basis the stability which resulted from the Ottoman
conquest and the generosity of the princes of the Danubian provinces. The
renewal of artistic expression which took place and the new models followed had
their source in contacts between Mount Athos and Crete, which had not yet fallen
to the Turks, but was still under Venetian rule.
It is from the 16th century that most of the great works of painting on Mount
Athos date. The katholikon and the refectory of the Monastery of the Megiste
Lavra, the refectory of the Philotheou Monastery, the katholikon of the Iveron
Monastery, the katholikon and the refectory of the Stavroniketa Monastery, the
katholikon of the Docheiariou Monastery, the katholikon of the Xenophontos
Monastery, the katholikon of the Koutloumousiou Monastery, the katholikon and
the refectory of the Dionysiou Monastery, and the Chapel of St George at the
Monastery of Aghiou Pavlou are the principal monuments of this period. In all
these examples the language of expression of the Cretan School is religiously
observed, the language, that is, of that trend in painting which spread from
Cretan - and other - painters to leave the mark of its austerity not only on the
16th, but also on subsequent centuries. The chief representatives of this school
are Theophanis Strelitzas and his sons, Frankos Kastelanos of Thebes, and
The 17th century was marked by the inability of artists to create any new trend
or artistic principles in painting. The Cretan School had run its course, but new
quests had not yet borne any fruit. At the turn of the century the walls of the
refectory of the Dionysiou Monastery were painted (1603). Here the austerity,
lack of movement, and limited range of colour show that the path which is being
followed is one without tensions or questioning. The painting of the refectory of
the Docheiariou (1676) is in the same spirit, while the painter of the Chilandari
refectory, Georgios Mitrofanovits, had more distinct results to show from his
explorations, though without there having been any renewal of his means of
The painters of the 18th century appear more genuine in their unashamed
decision to imitate the art of their distant ancestor, Panselenus. Now it was
consciously and on the instructions of their teachers that they copied the works in
the Protaton, seeking to imitate their every last detail. Thus we have painters like
the monk Dionysios of Fourna who give instructions on the most effective way of
making these imitations, though it has to be said that they achieved remarkable
results. This continued to be the aim into the 19th century, typical of which is the
decoration of the Chapel of St John the Baptist at the Pantocrator Monastery of
1812, the accuracy of whose imitation could fool the ordinary observer into dating
it to around 1300.
In parallel with wall-painting, painting on wood, in the form of the familiar
religious icon, developed. It is, moreover, certain that the same artists who were
responsible for the wall-paintings also produced portable icons for use in the
churches and chapels, as well as for private use. It has, for example, been
established that the famous Manuel Panselenus also painted portable icons in
the early 14th century, while the great artist of the 16th Theophanis Strelitzas
also followed the example of other great painters.
It is worth pointing out that, in comparison with wall-painting, the painter of the
icon had to engage in a kind of 'miniaturism', since often the space was limited
and the development of the subject fraught with difficulties. Thus it is by
magnifying the details of icons that one can appreciate the artistic abilities of the
In the case of illustrated manuscripts, the development of the art was parallel
with that of wall-painting and icons until the invention of printing in the 15th
century. At the same time, the fall of Constantinople into the hands of the Turks
created an enormous void, which meant that in effect the art of illustrating
manuscripts with miniatures never recovered. Although liturgical needs and the
inclinations of artists kept the production of manuscripts alive, little by little their
decoration declined, losing its last spark of vitality in the 18th century - in contrast
with wall-painting and the painting of portable icons, which, in spite of the poverty
of the art, has continued for reasons of sheer necessity on the Holy Mountain
down to the present.
A. Xyngopoulos, Manouil Panselinos, Athens 1956.
A. Xyngopoulos, Schediasma istorias tis thriskeftikis zografikis meta tin Alosin,
A. Xyngopoulos, Mnimeiaki zografiki tou Aghiou Orous, Nea Estia, issue 1285
(1981), pp. 86-100, and issue 1286 (1981), pp. 153-162.
C. Patrinelis - A. Karakatsani - M. Theochari, Moni Stavronikita. Istoria,
Eikones, Chrysokentimata, National Bank of Greece, 1974.
S. Pelekanidis - P. Christou - C. Mavropoulou-Tsioumi - S. Kadas, Thisavri
tou Aghiou Orous, Eikonografimena cheirografa, Vols I-IV, Athens 1973-1991.
M. Chatzidakis, O kritikos zografos Theofanis. I tichografies tis I. Monis
Stavronikita, Mount Athos 1986.
E.A. de Mendietta, L’art au Mont Athos, Thessaloniki 1977.
G. Millet, Monuments de l’Athos, I., Les peintures, Paris 1927.