Monday, 17 September 2007

Byzantine Roots - Thessalonika

My recent holiday took me to Greece, where I toured Byzantine sites, seeing the sources of the art and architecture of our Cathedral, as well as gleaning a few ideas!

Thessalonika (or, in modern Greek Thessaloniki) is Greece's second largest city, but unlike Athens has enjoyed an unbroken history as a major city. After its capture by the Turks in 1430, it remained a largely Greek city until the arrival of the Jews expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella.

Its Byzantine remains are second only to those in Constantinople itself, and the mosaics and frescoes of its Churches, although they have suffered the ravages of time, represent some of the highest artistic treasures of the Eastern Roman Empire.

In the 7th century basilica of Haghios Demetrios, patron saint of the city, are to be found some of the most beautiful mosaics I have seen, softening ikonic formality with a personal intensity. This is what mosaic work is all about. Above is the figure of St Sergios. The mosaic of St Demetrios with two children (below) may well have been presented by the parents of the children depicted, following a cure or a favour granted by the saint.

The face of the saint is portrayed with an intense and sensitive expression of prayer, and serene repose.

Below, St Demetrios is portrayed with the two founders of the basilica, Bishop Ioannis on the left, and the Byzantine Governor Leontios on the right. Their square halos indicate that they are still living, and an inscription beneath translates: "Here you see the founders of the glorious house on either side of St Demetrios, who repelled the Barbarians and saved the city.

Below, St Demetrios is shown with a cleric. An inscription translates: "Blessed martyr of Christ, care for the city you love, her citizens and guests."

The nineteenth century Cathedral of St Gregory Palamas gives a breathtaking vision of a complete decorative scheme.

Craning my neck to see the vast dome, and the image of Christ ruling from the heavens, I tried to imagine how such a scheme would transform our own Cathedral!

The seventh century church of Haghia Sophia (below) is, like its great namesake in Constantinople, an experiment in fitting a large dome onto a traditional basilica.

The drum upon which its dome rests is curiously shaped, implying that the architect was experimenting with the triangular form of the pendentives supporting it. The mosaic depicts the Ascension; Christ is supported by two angels, and around him stand fifteen figures. It is thought that the figure of Christ dates from the ninth century; the apostles and virgin from the eleventh.

Finally, in the apse is the eighth century figure of the Virgin, representing humanity redeemed through the sacrifice of Christ, celebrated in the Mass. This was a theme present in the apse of every Church I visited, and one we intend to copy in the apse of Westminster Cathedral.


Anonymous said...

These pictures bring back fond memories of our visit last year with SSG friends and fr Allen Morris.

Anonymous said...

What? No pixilated widows on the horizon, no felt banners, no lego crucifix, come on monsignor move with the times!

Seriously, I'm delighted you claim beauty and faith for God's house. The cathedral is in good hands. May God bless all your work.

Anonymous said...

Gorgeous pictures!

Anonymous said...

I wish I've visited the some places... I've been in London and once more visited your beatiful cathedral

Dr. Peter H. Wright said...

This is a very interesting post about icons.
Is there really a plan (however vague and however far away) to depict the Theotokos in the apse of the Cathedral ?
It would look stunning.
No harm in a little day dreaming..

John the organist said...

Great pictures and we haev visited 2 of these churches. We could not get into Hagia Sophia.We were there just before the feast of St Demetrios.

Anonymous said...

Stunning images Monsignor. If only we could recapture a sense of our eastern artistic roots and the richness of that spiritual legacy. How impoverished many of our churches seem in comparison with the splendour of the Byzantine basilicas.

Mark Langham said...

The plans for the mosaic decoration of the Cathedral do indeed include a Theotokos in the apse. As she appears on the reverse of the Great Rood as 'Our Lady of Sorrows', leading suffering humanity towards the sacrifice of our redemption celelbrated at Mass, so the Apse mosiac will show her as the examplar of humanity redeemed by that sacrifice.

Dionysios said...

As an Orthodox Christian I am pleased to see my sisters and brothers of the Roman Patriarchate rediscover your ancient artistic heritage in the iconography and the architecture of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

I look forward to visiting Westminster Cathedral in the near future firstly to pray and most certainly to see the beautiful building and its art.

Let us pray for the union of the churches of Christ.

Unknown said...

Fantastic pictures. I hope to someday tour the old churches and see the structures and icons myself, instead of just seeing it through the eyes of someone else.

God bless.