Art History

By Jennifer Morris (Princeton University Art & Archaeology graduate student)

Image of the monasteryIf I were to sum up my experiences at Mount Menoikeion this summer in just a few words, I would perhaps describe them as unexpected, challenging, and rewarding. 

My introduction to the monastery of Hagios Ioannis Prodromos came simultaneously with one of my first real exposures to Byzantine and post-Byzantine art in situ.  As an historian of Renaissance art north of the Alps, my knowledge of eastern art in this period was rather superficial and, for the most part, disconnected from my considerations of Western European art.  I conceived of Byzantine and post-Byzantine art as having entirely different audiences, material parameters, and expressive means than the art I typically study – characteristics which require their own art historical methodologies and demand alternative modes of inquiry than those to which I was accustomed.  As I understood it, questions of authorship, originality, or individual ‘genius’ did not necessarily dictate the artistic value or historical worth of objects in Byzantium, as they often did in contemporaneous Western European art:  what mattered instead was the preservation of a long, illustrious, God-inspired tradition of religious art.

My ideas about Byzantine and post-Byzantine art and ways of looking at them were, however, quickly complicated upon my arrival to Mount Menoikeion.  At the end of our first week there, our group paid a visit to the monastery of Panagias Eikosifoinissas, the ‘sister’ establishment of the Prodromos convent, the buildings of which had undergone serious restoration in recent years.  As we approached the katholikon, the main church structure in the complex, I was confronted with a sight which completely flummoxed me:  painted on the portico, which wrapped around the katholikon and featured a series of brightly-colored frescoes, were several scenes which were unmistakably Western in origin.  Looking at these designs in further detail, I realized that they were, in fact, clearly based on the work of the great German artist Albrecht Dürer – the Apocalypse series, which he began in 1498.

Image of monasteryA number of questions flooded my mind.  What did it mean to use the designs of the prototypical sixteenth-century German artist, a “Renaissance man” with well-known Protestant associations, on a Greek Orthodox church?  When and why were they selected as part of the decorative program of the church, and by what means did Dürer’s prints come to be known here in the first place?  How did the painters justify their use of Western designs?  These queries, in turn, prompted even further questions.  Although the original date of the frescoes is unclear, it is certain that subsequent artists who updated or restored them – the most recent restoration having taken place within the past century – chose to respect the original designs, leaving them (at least compositionally) unaltered throughout the years.  Were these artists aware of the frescoes’ source, and did they – or anyone else – ever object to such a borrowing?  And how did the Dürer-based scenes fit into the larger decorative program of the church?

Returning to Mount Menoikeion with these questions in mind, I examined the katholikon at Prodromos and its surroundings with a newly sharpened eye.  To my surprise, I discovered that one of the Dürer-inspired scenes which graced the portico of Panagias Eikosifoinissas was also present here, hidden away in a high nook.  The questions again crop up:  how did these designs arrive here, and when?  By what means were they disseminated throughout northern Greece?  Is it possible to trace their lineage back to sixteenth-century Germany?  Many of these questions will no doubt remain unanswered, but the basic queries underlying them are necessary for probing such a complicated issue.

My stay at Mount Menoikeion not only exposed me to a new living environment, new kinds of art, and new methods of scholarship, but also disproved many of my former assumptions about the relationship between Byzantine (and post-Byzantine) and Western European art and art history.  The interconnectedness, I realize now more than ever, is undeniable; despite the geographic and temporal distance between my Northern Renaissance art and the treasures of Prodromos, both old and new, in the remote mountains of northern Greece, there still are tangible links between seemingly disparate fields.  My experience at Menoikeion thus taught me valuable lessons about my own studies as much as it did about unfamiliar kinds of art, and I have walked away from my two weeks there reevaluating my standard modes of inquiry and full of promising prospects for future study.