Wednesday 8 January 2014

Oddball Churches: Panagia Parigoritissa in Arta

Panagia Parigoritissa (Παναγία η Παρηγορήτισσα) in Arta

Smack in the center of town. Open every day 9-2 except Saturday.
tel: 2681071700

A Hybrid Church for a Would be Emperor

The 13th-century Byzantine church of Panagia Parigoritissa (Παναγία Παρηγορήτισσα), or Panagia of  Swift Consolation, was completed in 1290, under the aegis of Nikophoros Komnenos Doukas 1 of Epirus, (r. 1268–1297), and his second wife Anna Kantakouzene. It was probably begun in the 1260s by his father Michael11.
It is an imposing square three storey building standing in the middle of today’s mundane Arta and looks more like a public building than a church until  you notice the apses on its east side or look up and see the domes on the roof.

Its construction is odd, almost as odd as the Despotat that turned Arta from a Byzantine provincial backwater into a capital city for over two hundred years.

The Despotat of Epirus
 It all started in 1204 when Europeans raiders masking as crusaders were lured by their ally’s glittering wealth and rerouted the Fourth Crusade from Jerusalem to Constantinople which they devastated in an orgy of looting and murder that lasted for days and enriched a lot of second sons of the European aristocracy.(1)

A new and shaky Latin Empire was declared even as the Byzantine royal family scattered to various safe havens within their tattered empire, - to plot their return.

  Those in Nicaea led by the Palaiologos family were destined to get the capital back in 1261 but by then Michael 11, a minor royal was firmly ensconced in an enclave on Greece’s west coast as Despot  of Epirus. Arta was its capital and Ioannina its second city. Despot was an honorable title back then, denoting Imperial favour.

  His family had managed to keep Epirus out of the hands of the Latins after 1204 and even taken back a lot of territory, so he believed that with a little luck he could beat them as well as his own royal relatives and become emperor in Constantinople. His father, Michael 1 had secured Epirus for the Despotate in the first place, and his uncle Theodore had gone so far as to create a local bishop in 1224 to confirm the family’s claim to the throne and crown him emperor(2). So, in Michael 11’s eyes, this ambition was not such a stretch.
He lived in an era when everything was up for grabs and anything seemed possible. Over the next 50  or so years Michael and his descendants allied themselves with just about everyone – their own relatives in Constantinople when it suited them, the expansion-minded Roman Catholic Angevins in Italy when he had to.  Every victory seemed to hold out the possibility of the crown in Constantinople, every failure an opportunity to hatch yet a new alliance to make it happen.
 The dynasty’s dreams were never realized although the Despotat itself under different leadership and with various alliances limped along until 1449 when the Turks ended imperial ambitions in Epirus for good.

But no one knew that in 1290 when the newly completed Panagia Parigoritissa became the impressive Metropolitan Church of Arta, a would be emperor’s monument to the imperial ambitions of his provincial dynasty.

The Church

The ground plan of the church is that of a domed octagon, with the central dome supported by eight piers divided into three tiers. Nothing new there, but this one is unusual. The eight columns that begin the ascent to the dome are not equidistant from each other, but placed in pairs so as to almost form a square rather than the usual circle or octagon at ground level. This cutaway diagram from the Millet collection of Princeton University shows it best:

Millet Number: 2.A82.1

This arrangement has led some experts to the conclusion that the church was originally intended to be a cross in square church.  If so, the ground floor of the church must have been constructed before the rest with something else in mind.  If that isn’t convincing, the fact that the windows on the north side of the church (see the picture of the facade) are not aligned indicates a radical change of plan at some point either to accommodate an existing structure or to enlarge the plan. No one knows for sure. 

One corner of the ‘octagon’ showing the proximity of the pillars. Note that they do not start at floor lever, another oddity.
I am indebted to the following Greek site which has generously allowed me to use their excellent photos as needed. I recommend you access it just for the photographs.προσκύνημα-στην-παναγία-παρηγορήτισ

The Exterior
 The exterior decoration of the apses on the east side is quite “finished” in comparison with the other facades. - and quite elegant in the expected Byzantine style, -  (Cloisonné masonry dental bands, diamond shaped patterns etc) and well worth a close look. There has been restoration here. There are five apses, the three central ones for the main church and the ones on either end for the two chapels or paracclesia on the North and south sides.  The east side must have been either plastered or covered in marble at ground level, If the Byzantine  Ephorate in Arta answers my question about this, I will post it.

The Construction of the Dome

There is something strange about the three tiers of pillars holding up the central dome, something shocking, almost skeletal, and certainly unique for me. On two tiers the bone white pillars (all ancient) are supported by horizontal pillars buried deep into the walls, their stubby ends jutting out just enough to provide a base for the vertical pillars resting on them. Of course Arta was ancient Ambracia and pillars were there for the taking, but the effect is bizarre. They interfere with the upward movement and their placement creates a kind of tunnel effect enhanced by the fact that, as the pillars go up, the space covered by the dome diminishes, so that finally only four arches are needed to support the dome. The result is–a bit like looking down a well while looking up!  

   The dome is actually smaller than the circle defined by the base. That is ‘against the rules’ for the type.
I wonder who thought of this weird arrangement.  The quality of the mosaics in the dome  suggests that some experts from Constantinople were on hand for that bit, and I accept that the marble revetments facing the interior walls up to the woman’s gallery, now stripped, were probably Imperial enough, but this effort to support the dome looks a bit as if at some point a provincial sorcerer’s apprentice got hold of the wand and a lot of loose marble!  Fascinating though.

The Five Domes and the Lantern

Aside from the roof appearing somewhat flatter than expected, there is nothing unusual about the four windowed domes surrounding the larger central one. But that open air lantern has me puzzled. Usually placed on a roof to let in light, a lantern in the context of five domes seems to be gilding the lily and it spoils the symmetry of the roof. At first I thought it was a bell tower but, if it was, no text calls it that and there is no bell now. Like the domes, it would have illuminated the three sided women’s gallery first and then its light would have filtered down to the ground floor. The jury is still out on that one. 

More on the Interior

The original interior may have had more mosaic decoration but only those in the dome are visible to a visitor today– an imposing and beautifully executed Pantocrator surrounded by twelve prophets and seraphim and cherubim between the windows of the dome. Each prophet holds the bit of his Old Testament prophecy that came true!


 16th-century frescoes and 17th-century frescoes now decorate the main church now and, perhaps in keeping with the Despotat’s close proximity to Italy, there are a few western influences in its original reliefs and statuary (3)  - a gargoyle  or two and bas reliefs depicting Bible scenes as well.

The nativity icon in bas relief

 The east end of the church has two side chapels on either side of the main apses. The one on the left dedicated to the Archangels and the one on the right to John the Baptist.  The masonry iconostasis in the central nave is low, allowing a view of the apse in the sanctuary, but the side chapels’ are bricked off and quite separate from the main church.  If these walls were all in place from the get go is not clear. There has been a lot of building in of arches and doorways, partly to preserve the building and the overall effect today is rather drab.

The Name

There is a legend about the churches name – Our lady of the Swift Consoling – It goes like this: The master builder who had been hired to create the church had gone quite a ways towards completing it when he was given another commission. Loathe to turn down another project, he left the completion of the church to his assistant and did not return for some time. Upon seeing it he was struck with horror at the many changes his assistant had made and, at the same time, filled with jealousy because the result was so wonderful. Unable to live with this jealousy, he made up a story about a flaw he had discovered on the roof. His assistant, who considered his church perfect, readily climbed to the top with the master builder and, as he leaned over to inspect the “flaw”, the builder shoved him but not quickly enough. The assistant grabbed onto his assailant and the two of then fell to their deaths. The story goes on to say that Mary herself came down to console the apprentice’s mother and that is why the church has the name it does.
If you think that the tale of the two builders is a mere myth to explain the different rhythms of the church, then you have to find another explanation for the two distinctive red rocks side by side in the church yard. 

Apparently as they fell, the builders were turned to stone, red for the blood that was shed.

A more mundane explanation is that the icon of Panagia Parigoritissa is a variation of the type called by experts  Panagia Eleousa ( Mary of Mercy or Tenderness), but the story of Mary and the builder’s mother is a better one!

Panayia Parigoritissa is dedicated to the Annunciation of Mary and its feast day is March 25th

 The Denoument
Panagia Parigoritissa’s fortunes fell along with the dreams of her despots. Under the Turkish domination it remained a church but became bankrupt, and was turned into a dependency (metochion) of the Monastery of Kato Panayia just south of Arta. Records show that by 1578, it had become a nunnery.  There are 16 cells left on the courtyard to attest to this and the refectory which is now an archaeological museum. 
 The Conclusion

 I have to confess that I visited Panagia Parigoritissa on two occasions and both at a time when I was willing enough to make a detour to see a famous church, but not well enough informed to really comprehend its many nuances. It is worth revisiting, but unfortunately it is hard to say the same thing about Arta unless you are a farmer.
Happily , Arta  is on the way to or from a lot of places which are on a visitor’s itinerary (Ioannina,  and the entire spectacular Epirus coastline) and it is well worth a detour. If you do go, be sure to visit the archaeological museum. I remember being especially impressed by a well executed full sized replica of a farmer’s pail, not something you see every day among statues of gods and painted vases; I found it rather poignant.

(1) The pope in Rome had not been the engine behind the raid on Constantinople, (the Doge of Venice was) but he got on board quickly enough and blessed the fait accompli. Under the new so-called Latin empire, churches in all Byzantine lands were converted to the Latin rite. For the pope this must have been seen as something of a Godsend – just 50 odd years after Rome had separated from the Orthodox Church for good. 

(2) Describing the role of the Orthodox Patriarchate during the existence of the Despotate is not easy because of the shifting alliances. Until 1230 the Despotat simply declared their church autocephalous thus allowing the formation of that bishop who was willing to crown Michael 1 emperor! After 1230, lip service was paid to the Constantinople Patriarch in exile and later when he returned to the capital, - until the emperor Michael V111, in desperate need of allies,  agreed to union with the Roman Catholic Church in 1267. At that point, the Despotat claimed  to be autocephalous once again - as well as the champion of Orthodoxy - until sometime after 1282 when the emperor Andronicus 11 declared the union  agreement void, and the Despotat  again claimed allegiance to the Patriarch. To call the situation fluid is an understatement. But it does mean that when Panagia Paregoretissa was inaugurated you have the odd situation that the bishop was more or less allied to the Patriarch, but the Despot was still plotting against the emperor. Strange times…..

(3)These pictures are from an article entitled Culture in the Late Byzantine period. The base reliefs are reminiscent of early Christian art too but then, so was Romanesque which the experts say these are. The more things change……  What is interesting is that Panagia Paregoretissa’s decoration seems to be a preview the western influences that experts detect in the Palaiologan art after 1261. Well, Anna Kantakouzene was a member of the Palaiologos family, so it might have been due to her favoured artists’ vision, or just a sign of the mixed up times.

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