6 September, 2018

The architecture of the Katholikon

The architecture of the Katholikon

Stavros G. Mamaloukos


In spite of the undisputed fact that the katholikon of the Monastery of Vatopaidi is one of the most distinguished monuments of the Holy Mountain, very few references to its history and architecture exist in the academic bibliography. Following the rule for the large Athonite katholika, the central church of Vatopaidi assumed its present shape in stages, by means of successive restorations and additions to its basic shell. Thus, the impressive building complex of the central church bears, plain to see, the stamp of its one thousand year history, which is characterised by a constant and unremitting concern for its conservation and, simultaneously, for its renewal and enrichment by additional constructions and equipment of the original nucleus, which constitutes one of the most important Byzantine monuments surviving on Greek territory.

The building complex of the katholikon is located in the north-east corner of the courtyard of the Monastery, very close to the eastern wall and the northern wing, on which it abuts. The nucleus of the complex is formed by the katholikon as such, dedicated to the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin. This is a magnificent church of the Athonite type with external dimensions of 13.50 x 21.10 metres. The structure of the exterior and of the interior is typical of the churches of the so-called ‘Constantinopolitan School’. It is roofed by semi-cylindrical vaults on the arms of the cross and on the sanctuary areas and sail vaults on the angle compartments. In the interior, the walls of the naos are articulated by pilasters which are wider than the corresponding arches which bear the vaulting and by marble and plaster cornices. The interior of the katholikon receives abundant light from a great number of single-light windows and from two which are dibela, opening into the conches of the choirs. On the exterior, in the single and double-pitched roofs, which are shaped with plasticity and covered with lead sheets, the structure of the interior is clearly visible. The conches of the church are three-sided externally and its walls are articulated by blind arches in which the windows are located. The dome of the katholikon is ten-sided. At its angles there are pairs of small columns. In areas where the plaster is missing and at points where the plastering has been removed for the purposes of restoration studies, the masonry construction of the building can be seen. It consists of alternating bands of rubble masonry and brickwork using the recessed brick technique. The arches and the dome appear to be entirely constructed from brick.

Contemporaneous with the katholikon is the inner two-storeyed narthex of the complex. This is the familiar narrow narthex of cross-in-square churches, which here is known as the ‘mesonyktikon’. It is covered by a sail vault and two groin vaults. On its southern wall is founders’ tomb in an acrosolium. Higher up there is a single-light window. There are two more windows in its western wall, allowing the indirect lighting of the area. The mesonyktikon is reached from the adjacent areas by the three doors in the eastern wall, one of which opens on the axis of the western wall, and one in the north wall. All of them have marble door frames.

The floor above the mesonyktikon, like the ground floor, is tripartite. On its axis there is an area with an arched roof, the ‘catechumena’, which opens on to the western arm of the church through a triple-arch. On either side of the catechumena there is a small area covered with a cupola arranged as a chapel – it would seem at later period. The roof of this level as far as the west end and, correspondingly, to the north and to the south of the small cupolas ends in curved pediments. The walls of the two-storeyed narthex are articulated in a manner similar to that of the walls of the main church, that is, with blind arches, and constructed with similar masonry. The cupolas of the chapels on this floor are eight-sided, with small columns at their angles.

For the dating of the katholikon there is no direct historical evidence. Knowing, as we do, that the founding (or re-founding) of the Monastery took place between 972 and 9854, and taking into account the facts which have come to light from the opening up of the founders’ tomb, we can place its construction approximately in the late 10th century or early 11th century. During recent building work, which has not yet been completed, data have emerged which demonstrate that the superstructure of the church has undergone interventions – apparently in the Middle Byzantine period. However, the lower sections at least of the conches of the choirs seem to be organically united with the walls of the church, a fact which implies that the katholikon was built from the beginning as a church of the Athonite type.

The second narthex, which is known as the ‘lite’, is a relatively roomy undivided space which occupies the entire width of the church. Its western wall is taken up by a impressive pentabelon opening with an entrance on its axis and composite windows on both sides. The lite communicates via a low door of later date with a long and narrow passage attached to the northern side of the mesonyktikon, where originally there was probably a stairway to upper floor. The bearing structure of the floor of the upper storey is of wood. The level above the lite consists of a single space corresponding to that of the ground floor and is covered by a wooden saddle roof. On its western wall are three dibela openings. In spite of the lack of historical evidence, the dating of the two-storeyed lite to the Middle Byzantine period must be considered certain.

It would appear from their morphological details that also in the Middle Byzantine period two chapels were added on the north and the south of the lite. The northern chapel, which is dedicated to St Demetrius, seems not to to have had a narthex originally. This chapel is a variation of the type of composite cross-in-square church, from which the spaces to the left and right have been omitted. Small conches in the side walls of the sanctuary were used as the prothesis and the diakonikon. At a much later date a low vaulted area which served as a prothesis was added in the north-eastern corner of the chapel. The original sanctuary screen, like the later wooden one, was on the line of the eastern wall. The interior of the chapel is of fairly complex structure, with a cornice at the level from which the vaulting springs and pilasters on its walls, with the exception of the southern wall, which is of an earlier date. In the north wall of the chapel there is a dibelon opening and there are two single-framed windows. The northern and the western walls of the chapel are made up of double blind arches. Its cupola is entirely of brickwork and is octagonal with a horizontal cornice.

The southern chapel, dedicated to St Nicholas, consists of a nave and a narthex. The nave is a single area with three conches. The variation of the type to which this chapel belongs could be described as the compact Athonite type. In its interior this chapel has the unique feature of having a prothesis in a blind arch of considerable depth in the northern wall of the sanctuary. Abundant light enters the interior of the chapel through one single-framed window in the conch of the sanctuary and two successive single-framed windows in the southern conch. Its narthex is tripartite; it is covered by three sail vaults and is high in proportion to its breadth. On its southern wall there is a walled-up arcosolium. A wide triple-framed window is located higher up. From the outside, the chapel displays a rich structure of masses and facades which make it one of the most elegant Byzantine churches on the Holy Mountain. The southern face of the narthex is externally structured with a blank arcade. Above its triple-framed window ceramic decoration of the herringbone type was discovered during stripping for restoration purposes. The cupola of the chapel has alternating broad and narrow sides with small columns at the corners. It should be noted, however, that the construction of the chapel is marked by a striking irregularity unknown elsewhere in the katholikon complex. In spite of its small size, one could see in the chapel’s design the intention of imitating the adjoining katholikon, obvious both in the choice of the type of church building and in the articulation of the masses and the general composition of its elevations, with the overriding importance of the side conches, as they rise towards the cupola and the especially tall narthex, and in the shape of the cupola.

As to the dating of the holy water phiale, which is appended to the south-west corner of the building complex, the question at present remains an open one. A terminus ante quem for its date are the wall-paintings of the 17th century whichdecorate the interior of its dome. Further research is required to evaluate the indirect evidence that comes from the monograms of names and titles of the donors, of the Kantakouzinos family, which appear on the capitals of the phiale. In its original form – as can be seen from various sources and from the drawing of Barskij – the phiale consisted of an internal, circular canopy supported on columns and a square pteron with piers at the corners and two columns on each side. In 1810 the phiale underwent radical reshaping. The work appears to have consisted of the demolition of the old rectangular pteron and the erection of the present octagonal one, as well as the replacement of the columns of the colonnade which bears the central dome.

In 1678, the Chapel of Our Lady Paramythia, which lies between the Chapel of St Demetrius and the northern wing was constructed and its walls were painted “with the financial assistance” of Grigorios of Laodicea. This chapel is built above a vaulted passage. To the west of the chapel there is a straight staircase which leads to the chapel and from there to the third level of the wing. The chapel is a small compact cross-in-square church with a cupola. Of the eight-sided drum of the cupola only the eastern part is visible today, since the rest has been incorporated into the surrounding constructions.

The western end of the building complex of the katholikon is occupied by an exceptionally elongated exonarthex, a building of the late 17th century. This is a two-storeyed stoa whose western wall takes the form of two successive colonnades. The high colonnade on the ground floor has nine arched openings, three of which are closed off at a low level with marble slabs and sills. The arcade has a level wooden ceiling which covers the timberwork of the floor of the upper storey. The much lower colonnade of the upper floor has fifteen arched openings. It has a floor of marble slabs and a wooden ceiling which follows the angle of the single-pitched roof of the exonarthex. At the northern end of this stoa a staircase leading from the third to the fourth level of the wing was built at the end of the 19th century. The clock tower of the Monastery rises at the southern end of the exonarthex.

During the 18th and 19th centuries and at the beginning of the 20th, building work, usually of a limited extent, was carried out on the complex of the katholikon, giving it the form which it has today. Thus, in the opening decades of the 18th century major painting projects were undertaken on the topmost parts of the vaulting of the katholikon. It would appear these followed repair work to make good damage most probably caused to those parts of the building by an earthquake. The present appearance of the building complex, with its plaster rendered elevations, the cornices cavetto-form, and the extended frames of the door and window openings, is the result of works carried out in 1842, at the expense of Archimandrite Philaretos. On the southern side of the diakonikon and as far as the southern choir the sacristy of the katholikon was built in 1894 by Archimandrite Chrysanthos of Imbros, in place of the tombs of the Patriarchs, which had been constructed there in the 18th century. The area between the northern choir of the katholikon and the Chapel of St Demetrius is occupied by a masonry heater which heats the main parts of the church by means of a hot air system. According to the inscription on its iron gate, this was constructed in 1909.