Friday 20 December 2013

Agia Fotini (Αγία Φωτεινή) in Mantinea

Most people discover Agia Fotini by accident en route to the ancient ruins of Mantinea. It is directly opposite the gate to the site and hard to miss. At first glance it looks like the sort of folly you might expect in some eccentric aristocrat’s estate. 

The brick work looks Byzantine as do the windows until you look closer and realize that it is Byzantine taken one step beyond into the surreal.

From 'surprisedbytime'

Scraps of ancient marble (spolia) are incorporated here and there, the top of the building looks a bit like a Roman something or other, the columns reminiscent of  but not quite ancient Greece, and the door vaguely central American.

That little bit of folk art above the door has me stumped

The Interior is simply out of this world.

Loved by many, derided by some, this is not just a building.

It is a philosophical statement rendered in stone and masonry, the work of one man, Constantine Papatheodorou, a son of Arcadia in more ways than one.

 Guides mention his name and that is about it. But such a labour of love deserves a little more attention that the usual gloss and I was lucky enough to find a 2011 interview in which he discussed his life and  his thoughts about  Agia Fotini. (1)

 Constantine Papatheodorou

Born in 1937, he is one of eight children. Although raised elsewhere in Greece, his parents were Arcadian. He studied architecture in Vienna and Berlin where he was imbued with a philosophy of architecture that made him see it as a continuum and one that should ‘rise up to the Divine and beyond’ ( ν' ανεβαίνει, προς τα επάνω, προς τα θεία και ανώτερα πράγματα).  He firmly believes in the close relationship, in the philosophical sense, between Christianity and the ancient world. (Υπάρχει συγγένεια χριστιανισμού και αρχαιότητας). This continuum seems pretty obvious to me but I am looking at it from the point of view of an historian. A churchman might feel differently. 

When he returned to Greece in 1967, he worked for the Ministry of Culture until the opportunity arose to build Agia Fotini in Mantinea. The organization which sponsored the church did so unanimously. It was an amazing opportunity for a 33 year old architect and a daring decision for the sponsors.  It is also true that the Metropolitan Bishop of Tripoli has so far refused to perform a liturgy there. The Orthodox hierarchy can be very traditional when it comes to its churches and local bishops have a lot of autonomy. It would be interesting to know if the building or the philosophy behind it has been the sticking point for the bishop.

Work began in 1970 and the architect’s role was hands on. He literally built it himself with the help of a couple of local workers and, in keeping with his own philosophy of a living and developing architecture, he altered the plans as it grew if a new idea seemed better than an old one. I think that explains the organic quality of the structure. He chose the grey slate roof instead of Byzantine tiles because it was closer to the true Arcadian style of building from ancient times on up. Like many who have studied Arcadia, he was taken with the idea that Arcadians are somehow just a little more Greek than Greeks elsewhere (2)

The exterior was completed in 1973 and the interior by 1975. The attention to detail even extends to the intricate floor mosaics which are  not only worth a look all by themselves, but yet another example of a style that defies you to neatly categorize it: folk art, island style, echo of early Christian, patio modern?

The Icons

  Papatheodorou is responsible for all of the wall paintings and there is a bit of a mystery here because the ones today are not the ones he painted at first. The ones you see are unusual enough but do fall into the iconic program more or less. Rumor had it that the original plan for the Pantocratoras in the dome was for a figure in jeans and a t-shirt.  If true, he changed his mind:

The one in place today is pretty tame! I’m not sure about the T-shirt rumor but I suspect that perhaps the originals may have been too reminiscent of ancient Greek art and sensibility, - not, well…quite Orthodox enough.
The content of the original icons is not discussed fully in the interview although it is clear that the issue is a sore point with the architect.

No matter, the ones in place are wonderful:

This is a church that seems to demand a photo in every nook and cranny whether inside or out. Anyone with even a smattering of architectural knowledge tries to categorize elements of Agia Fotini. It doesn’t work. When asked what architectural ‘rhythm” would best describe his creation, Papatheodorou  said succinctly:  “None”  He is right; it is unique.

Sometimes in searching the web, you run across a great quote. Diana Gilliland Wright in a Blog  called surprisedbytime (3)took a stab at encapsulating Ag Fotini:

Somewhere in the original design is a memory of a Byzantine church, but where nearly every other "new" Byzantine church in Greece bears the stifling ugliness of poured concrete, this one is an ecstatic revelation of materials and forms, and what seems random and disproportionate begins to reveal an intensely personal logic.
I couldn’t have said it better and I think Constantine Papatheodorou would approve.

(2) From Pausanius down to Ventris and Chadwick, philhellenes have been fascinated by Arcadia, a place that has harboured remnants or older inhabitants and older ways (see Ag Theodora in Oddball Churches) than the rest of Greece. They see them as somehow more Greek for that reason.

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