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Nicaea (Byzantium), Church of the Dormition, Mosaics

Author(s) : Kanaki Elena (6/22/2005)
Translation : Velentzas Georgios

For citation: Kanaki Elena, "Nicaea (Byzantium), Church of the Dormition, Mosaics",
Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World, Asia Minor
URL: <http://www.ehw.gr/l.aspx?id=8520>

Nikaia (Byzanz), Koimesiskirche, Mosaiken (2/15/2006 v.1) Nicaea (Byzantium), Church of the Dormition, Mosaics (2/15/2007 v.1) Νίκαια (Βυζάντιο), Ναός Κοιμήσεως, Ψηφιδωτός Διάκοσμος (3/3/2007 v.1) 

1. Introduction

In 1898 the plan of the Byzantine Dormition Church of Nicaea was drawn and the church was photographed for the first time.1 The building, which had been the katholikon of the Monastery of Hyakinthos, was perfectly preserved at the time, while some parts of its mosaic decoration had also survived. After the church was completely destroyed in 1922 during the Greek-Turkish conflict,2 the most important source of the then condition of mosaics has been the field research carried out in 1912 as well as its publication the following year. Today the church is in ruins. Theodor Schmit and photographer and painter N. K. Kluge took photographs, drew in colour some parts and possibly cleaned some mosaics.3 The now missing mosaics were very important for the history of art because they were the sole examples of the period before and immediately after Iconoclasm.

It is still unknown whether the entire Dormition Church was ornamented with mosaics. When the church was first photographed, there were mosaics only on the apse, the bema, the south side wall and the narthex of the church, which was possibly built in the early 8th century. There is no information about whether the dome was decorated with mosaics.4

2. Mosaics

2.1. Mosaics of the Narthex

Before the destruction of the church, the narthex was decorated with mosaics on the lunette over the central entrance (Imperial Door) leading to the nave and on the vault above it. At the centre of the vault there was an eight-armed cross from steatite against a gold background inscribed within a circle; the cross was consisting of two successive Greek crosses. The type of cross that was so formed imitated decoration consisting of precious stones and pearls. The circle within which the cross was inscribed was surrounded by a circumferential border with geometric motifs in light green, light blue, white and gold. The background of the central motif was in shades of light blue. Brightness increased towards the centre, which was in a uniform light grey colour. Small gold stars with 8 edges, positioned concentrically, decorated the symbolic sky.

The central motif of the cross inscribed in a circle was surrounded by four medals representing Jesus, John the Baptist and Joachim and Anna, with the names of the figures appearing on an inscription.5 Jesus was depicted on the axis above the central entrance; he held a scroll in his left hand, while his right hand was raised in front of his chest. On the opposite side of Jesus, John was depicted with the same characteristics and gestures, wearing the rough green cloak, typical of an anchorite. The busts of the parents of the Virgin Mary were more damaged than the other figures. Anna wore the usual white headband and a blue maphorion. The characteristics on Joachim’s face have been greatly rendered, while the selection of colours, which shows him quite younger and stronger, is ingenious. In the four pendentives of the vault, the four evangelists are depicted seated on their desks.

As regards style, these representations are marked by a rather austere linearity. The outlines were probably sketched before the figures were painted. For example, red lines were used to render the hands, the mouth and the ridge of the nose in the representation of Christ. However, the picture lacks plasticity. The hand of the same artist is indicated by the sketch the outlines and the selection of the colours for the portraits, as it happens in the peculiar beard of John the Baptist and the white-pinkish face of Anna.

The representation of a half-length Virgin orans (Deomeni, praying) against a gold background, was on the lunette over the central entrance and close to the abovementioned arch.6 A decorative band framed the arc. The Virgin Mary was dressed in blue and had a green headband on the head. The red girdle and the gold embroidery on the sleeve set off the plain dress. The maphorion had a single gold band around the face, while the band was double in its lower part. The artist of the mosaic created the face employing the method of contrast: green-greyish shades along with white tesserae.

The front of the arc bore the following inscription: ΚΕ ΒΟΗΘΗ ΤΩ CΩ ΔΟΥΛΩ ΝΙΚΗΦΟΡΩ ΠΑΤΡΙΚΙΩ ΠΡΑΙΠΟCΙΤΩ ΒΕCΤΗ ΚΑΙ MEΓΑΛΩ ΕΤΑΙΡΙΑΡΧΗ ("Lord, please help your servant Nikephoros, patrikios, praepositos, vestes and megas hetaireiarches"). All the public titles of Nikephoros, who sponsored the rebuilding and the new decoration of the church, appeared there.

Another mosaic representation must have been on the arc above the gate of the east wall of the narthex, which led to the southern side aisle. It probcably depicted the Virgin Mary frontally holding the Child Christ and surrounded by the figures of an emperor and a senior official of the court. Another inscription reported that Emperor Constantine I Doukas (1059/67) donated the Monastery to the abovementioned Nikephoros.7 Lots of eye-witnesses had reported until 1898 the existence of the mosaic. From then on nothing has been provided by sources. The mosaic of the lunette over the south gate of the narthex was copied during the restoration of 1834.8

2.2. Mosaics of the bema

Mosaics were found on the walls of the bema after the plaster cast with painting representations of the Virgin Mary and Jesus were removed.9 The mosaic representation of Panagia Eleoussa (Merciful – Η ΕΛΕΟΥCA) was on the northern side. The representation of Jesus Christ Antiphonites (ΙC XC O ΑΝΤΙΦΩΝΗΤΗC) was on the southern side in a worse condition.10 Both mosaics were originally accompanied by inscriptions. The lower part of the standing Virgin Mary is missing, while a very small part of the gold background has been preserved. She is carrying the Child in her left hand, while her right hand is resting on his right knee. Jesus has a scroll in his left hand, while his right hand is probably blessing. The Virgin Mary is dressed in blue, while the usual maphorion decorated with small gold crosses completes the figure. The Child is wearing a gold himation and a white chiton underneath. The black and black-red lines of the borders make the figures more strictly defined. The ridge of the nose, the mouth and the lower lip are almost like drawings. The uncovered parts of the body are coloured white, pinkish and light grey. The face of Jesus on the southern side has been completely damaged. The figure is wearing a golden cloak and a blue himation, while he is holding a book decorated with precious stones and pearls in his hand. The mosaic is in the style of the representation of Eleoussa.

An arcosolium has been added to the south wall of the south side aisle. According to tradition, the tympanum of the arcosolium included the same mosaic representation as that above the south door on the east wall of the narthex, which later was copied as a fresco.11

Until the destruction of the church, the representation of the Hetoimasia, with the golden throne covered with a red cylindrical cushion and bearing a book decorated with precious stones and pearls, was preserved on the intrados of the arch of the bema.12 This slightly damaged mosaic representation was considered one of the best preserved ones at the Dormition Church. The throne was surrounded by two wide concentric blue bands, the external being darker than the internal. The interval has been fully preserved in light blue. The area between the throne legs, which were decorated with a motif imitating precious stones and pearls, was covered with a light green cloth. In front of the throne legs there was a similarly decorated golden footrest. Under the book there is a dark blue cloth secured with a gold pin. The border of the article hangs between the throne legs and carries a pearl. Behind the throne there is a gold cross. In front of the cross and right above the book there is the representation of an off-white dove with a halo outlined in red behind its head. A cross is inscribed inside the halo. Eight beams start from the cross passing through the blue bands that surround the representation. The colours of the overlapping surfaces are white, light grey-blue and greenish blue. The dove before the cross is at the centre of the composition.

On either side of the central representation there are two angelic figures, which were considerably damaged at several points.13 The figures are represented against a gold background and they are standing on a green surface, which is decorated with tiny blooms. The angels are described by inscriptions as ΚΥΡΙΟΤΙΤΕC (Masters), ΕΞΟΥCΙΕ (Powers), ΑΡΧΕ (Authorities) and ΔΥΝΑΜΙC (Might). The following inscription has been vertically preserved between the two angels of the south side of the arch of the bema: CΤΗΛΟΙ ΝΑΥΚΡΑΤΙΟC ΤΑC ΘΕΙΑC ΕΙΚΟΝΑC ("Naukratios restores the Holy Images"). The last inscription appears on both sides below the pairs of angels: ΚΑΙ ΠΡΟCΚΥΝΗCΑΤΩ CΑΝ ΑΥΤΩ ΠΑΝΤΕC ΑΝΓΕΛΟΙ ΘῩ ("And He was venerated by all the angels").

The entire composition is strictly symmetrical. All four winged figures are represented in two pairs, facing each other. The one leg seems to carry the main weight of the body, while the other seems to be free of weight. In the one hand, which is on the inner side towards the axis of the representation, they are holding a banner bearing the words: ΑΓΙΟΣ ΑΓΙΟΣ ΑΓΙΟΣ (Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus). In the other hand they are holding a crystal sphere where their dresses and their hands are reflected in different colour tones. The wings of the figures open sideways. The play of the alternate blue and green tones underlines the plasticity of the wings. All four figures are dressed in dark blue clothes and a red, gold-trimmed long scarf (loros), where the typical rhomboid motifs are richly decorated with precious stones and pearls. The usual sleeve covers, decorated with precious stones, are also there. The four angels are wearing red boots adorned with stones. The characteristics of the angels become a little individual thanks to the different shape of the eyebrows and the corners of the mouths as well as the alternate colours of the faces.14 Dark outlines have been generally avoided. Only the eyebrows, the nostrils and the parts of the mouth are in dark violet colour. More or less, the artists use mainly white and fleshy colours for the area of the forehead, the cheeks and all forms of chin. On the other hand, green-yellow or olive drab tones have been used for shading and stressing the outlines of the faces. The figures have short hair. The dark violet mass of hair includes short, gold (green in the area of APXE) curls falling down to the neck. There is more plasticity in the series of curls above the forehead. The hair is tied with a band. All angel figures have a halo around their head. A partly preserved decorated band with gradational decorative motifs, enriched with single leaves and discontinuous helixes, surrounded the arch of the bema.

2.3. Mosaics of the Apse

By the time Schmit took his photographs, the representation of Virgin Mary holding the Child and standing against a gold background was still preserved on the barrel-vault of the apse.15 The body was represented frontally. The right leg carried the main weight of the body, while the left one was a little stretched and free of weight. The Virgin looks as if she is not actually holding the Child but only touching its shoulder and its leg. In her left hand she held a white towel and a small red cross. They stood on a gold footrest, whose corners were richly decorated with precious stones. The Virgin Mary wore a blue dress with wide folds. The red edges of her shoes could be seen underneath. The edges were adorned with fringe. On the head she had a blue maphorion, which covered the entire upper part of her body. As it usually happened in the representations of the Virgin Mary, the kerchief was ornamented with small crosses on the shoulders and knees. The hair could not be seen because it was completely hidden by a white cover.

Although the Virgin Mary was in a standing position, Jesus was sitting. In the left hand he held a white scroll, while he blessed with his raised right hand. Over his blue tunic, ornamented with silver clavi (the vertical stripes decorating the tunic of the Romans), Jesus wore a gold cloak. The garments had linear, strictly patterned folds. Jesus had sandals strapped to his feet. A white cross was inscribed in his light green halo. The uncovered parts of his body were in grey and pinkish colour, while the shades in the area of the eyes or on the ridge of the nose were olive drab.

Among the mosaics of the bema and the apse there are stylistic differences.16 There are blue bands on the hair of Jesus. The figures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary have characteristic outlines at certain points, where this is not necessary, as it happens with the stressed outline of Jesus’ face (olive green) and the linear folds of his garment. The Divine Powers on the other hand lack such outlines; for the depiction of their faces, smooth and abrupt transitions between different coloured surfaces are used. The slight stylistic differences between the mosaics of the bema and those of the apse are partly based on some tricks.17 The tesserae on the apse are much more densely laid. In this way, the representations became more vivid.

The hand of God was originally above the forehead of the Virgin Mary. The hand emerged from a semi-circle, with 3 beams directed towards her, in alternate colours of light pink, light grey and light green.18 The following inscription was among the bands: ΕΓΓΑCΤΡΟCΠΡΟΕΩCΦΟΡΟΥΓΕΓΕΝΗΚΑCΕ ("I gave birth to Thee, having been pregnant without sin"). The mosaic was surrounded with decorative bands.

The front part of the arch bore the following inscription, which was between the monograms of the founder of the Monastery of Hyakinthos:19 ΤΩΟΙΚΩCΟΥΠΡΕΠΕΙΑΓΙΑCΜΑΚΕΕΙCMAKΡOTHTAΗΜΕΡΩΝ.

2.4. Inlaid Work – Chronology

All mosaic decoration does not date to the same period. Traces in the form of fragments against the gold background of the apse and the bema indicate that various significant changes took place. Their study showed that the mosaics of the bema and the apse were replaced several times during Iconoclasm.20 Although the Virgin Mary and the Child were preserved in excellent condition, the entire representation, from the gold background to the footrest, must have been detached, as indicated by a crack or discontinuity in the shape of a cross. Moreover, an interruption in the continuity of the mosaic on the apse of the bema was noted, apart from the individual wear on the angels mainly of the northern side. In this case, the crack ran around the outlines of the bodies and included their gold background, while the parts of the legs on the green surface, where they stood, were excluded.

In accordance to the beliefs of Iconoclasts, who objected to representing holy images, the mosaic with the Virgin Mary was replaced with a representation of the cross, while the surfaces in the position of the angels were covered with a gold background. The Cross was positioned on the apse, as the case was when the icons were replaced in the period of the Iconoclasm.21 The original Early Christian decoration included the hand of God with the beams, the gold background and the suppedaneum (footrest) of the Virgin Mary on the apse, as well as the Preparation of the Throne and the gold background around the angels on the arch of the bema. The initial decoration of the church also included the decorated band-like outlines, the epigraphs at the lowest end of the bema around the hand of God and the monograms of Hyakinthos at the front of the arc. Immediately after the end of the Iconoclasm and the victory of the iconophiles (843) all the pictures were restored. This is indicated by an inscription on the arch of the bema mentioning the name of a certain Naukratios (circa mid-9th century), who was responsible for the restoration of the pictures.22

The monograms on the mosaic of the bema and the various structural elements indicate abbot Hyakinthos as the founder of the Monastery. Moreover, the minutes of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787)23 indirectly mention some abbot called Gregory of Abbot Hyakinthos. This detail might imply a possible terminus ante quem, concerning the existence of the church24 and the mosaics. Since they were pictorial representations, they must have been created before the Iconoclasm broke out (730). The representation on the apse reflects the dogmas of that period.25 The apse, as an architectural element, represents the cave of the Naitivity and the Tomb of Christ at the same time. The unity of God and his three hypostases are expressed through the three spokes emerging from the blessing hand. The presence of the Virgin reminds the dogme of the Incarnation, since it is through her that Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, is incarnated.

The huge earthquake of Nicaea in 1065 caused extensive damage to the narthex of the church.26 On the strength of both this fact and the two inscriptions of the anteroom, the mosaic decoration of the narthex, the pillars of the bema27 and the burial niche must date to the years between 1065 and 1067.28 Chronology on the strength of stylistic similarities to other monuments of the 11th century should be avoided because the use of a linear style, as it appears in the mosaics of the narthex, does not safely indicate an early date.29

1. This happened during the visit of Professor Th. Uspenkij, the director of the Russian Archaeological Institute in Constantinople, and of their associates to Nicaea. The conclusions of this first research were included in Wulff, O., Die Koimesiskirche in Nicäa und ihre Mosaiken nebst den verwandten kirchlichen Baudenkmälern (Strassburg 1903). Unfortunately, the quality of the photographs is not good.

2. Baynes, N.H. – Alpatov, M. – Brunov, N., ‘Die Koimesiskirche in Nikaia’, BZ25 (1925), from p. 267 onward.

3. Schmit, Th., Die Koimesis-Kirche von Nikaia. Das Bauwerk und die Mosaiken (Berlin-Leipzig 1927). However, this publication does not correspond to the original, comprehensive form of the work because a part was lost during the Russian-Turkish war. Yet the detailed description of the monument and the photographs that survived are particularly important.

4. Schmit mentions that the debris after the demolition of the medieval dome with the original tesserea in the mid-18th century were to the east of the building when the church was photographed. Schmit, Th., Die Koimesis-Kirche von Nikaia. Das Bauwerk und die Mosaiken (Berlin – Leipzig 1927), p. 21.

5. Schmit, Th., Die Koimesis-Kirche von Nikaia. Das Bauwerk und die Mosaiken (Berlin – Leipzig 1927), pp. 49-50.

6. Schmit, Th., Die Koimesis-Kirche von Nikaia. Das Bauwerk und die Mosaiken (Berlin – Leipzig 1927), from p. 50 onward. When Schmit photographed them, the mosaics had already suffered damages. The Praying Virgin Mary was covered with oil paints, which were removed by the restorer. The largest part of the mosaic surfaces was cleaned during that mission.

7. "I acknowledge thee both as lady of my buildings and as a leader of my thoughts; it is, however, as the lady and mistress of this house that I, Nikephorus, have represented thee, O Virgin" ("ἐγὼ σὲ καὶ δέσποινα(ν) οἷδα κτισμάτων καὶ τῶν ἐμῶν ἀρχηγὸν ἐνθυμάτων ὡς δεσπότιν δὲ κυρίαν τῆς οἰκίας ἔγραψα ΤΟΔΟΜΩΝ Νικηφόρος παρθένε"). See Mango, C., ‘The Date of the Narthex Mosaics of the Church of the Dormition at Nicaea’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 13 (1959), pp. 247-248.

8. Unfortunately during the restoration of the church the entire inscription was covered with paint.

9. Schmit, Th., Die Koimesis-Kirche von Nikaia. Das Bauwerk und die Mosaiken (Berlin und Leipzig 1927), from p. 43 onward.

10. About the type of Jesus Antiphonites, see Mango, C., 'The Date of the Narthex Mosaics of the Church of the Dormition at Nicaea', Dumbarton Oaks Papers 13 (1959), p. 251; Mango, C., The Brazen House (Kopenhagen 1959), pp. 142-148.

11. Wulff, O., Die Koimesiskirche in Nicäa und ihre Mosaiken nebst den verwandten kirchlichen Baudenkmälern (Strassburg 1903), p. 8. It is certain that Megas Hetereiarches Nikephoros was buried here. See Peschlow, U., ‘Neue Beobachtungen zur Architektur und Ausstattung der Koimesiskirche in Iznik’, IstMitt 22 (1972), p. 157.

12. Schmit, Th., Die Koimesis-Kirche von Nikaia. Das Bauwerk und die Mosaiken (Berlin – Leipzig 1927), from p. 22 onward.

13. Schmit, Th., Die Koimesis-Kirche von Nikaia. Das Bauwerk und die Mosaiken (Berlin – Leipzig 1927), from p. 23 onward.

14. Schmit, Th., Die Koimesis-Kirche von Nikaia. Das Bauwerk und die Mosaiken (Berlin – Leipzig 1927), from p. 25 onward. Fortunately, while photographing the mosaics, Schmit printed the angel’s head below the inscription ΔΥΝΑΜΙC in colour.

15. Schmit, Th., Die Koimesis-Kirche von Nikaia. Das Bauwerk und die Mosaiken (Berlin – Leipzig 1927), from p. 31 onward.

16. Schmit, Th., Die Koimesis-Kirche von Nikaia. Das Bauwerk und die Mosaiken (Berlin – Leipzig 1927), from p. 33 onward.

17. Schmit, Th., Die Koimesis-Kirche von Nikaia. Das Bauwerk und die Mosaiken (Berlin – Leipzig 1927), p. 32.

18. Barber, C., ‘The Koimesis Church, Nicaea. The Limits of Representation on the Eve of Iconoclasm’, JÖB 41 (1991), pp. 43-60.

19. Schmit, Th., Die Koimesis-Kirche von Nikaia. Das Bauwerk und die Mosaiken (Berlin – Leipzig 1927), p. 29.

20. Underwood, P. A., ‘The Evidence of Restorations in the Sanctuary Mosaics of the Church of the Dormition at Nicaea’, DOP 13 (1959), pp. 235-242.

21. Similar examples are found at St Eirene of Thessaloniki, see Cormack, R. S., ‘The Arts during the Age of Iconoclasm, in Bryer, A. – Herrin, J. (edit.), Iconoclasm (Birmingham 1977), pp. 35-44; Underwood, P. A., ‘The Evidence of Restorations in the Sanctuary Mosaics of the Church of the Dormition at Nicaea, DOP 13 (1959), p. 238.

22. Underwood P. A., ‘The Evidence of Restorations in the Sanctuary Mosaics of the Church of the Dormition at Nicaea’, DOP 13 (1959), from p. 240 onward. Probably he studied by the abbot Theodore of Stoudios of Constantinople and died in 848 (?); see Peschlow, U., ‘The Churches of Nicaea – Iznik’, in Ankbaygil, I. – Inalcik, H. – Aslanapa, O. (edit.), Isnik throughout History (Istanbul 2003), p. 205, note 31.

24. Weigand also dated the church to the early 8th century, based on the inscription bearing the name of Hyakinthos; see Weigand, E., ‘Zur Monogramminschrift der Theotokoskirche in Nicaea’, Byz 6 (1931), pp. 411-420; Kitzinger, E., ‘Byzantine Art in the Period between Justinian and Iconoclasm’, in Berichte zum XI. Int. Byz. – Kongr. Mónchen (München 1958), pp. 1-50.

25. Mango, C., ‘The Date of the Narthex Mosaics of the Church of the Dormition at Nicaea’, DOP 13 (1959), from p. 46 onward. About the interpretation of the original iconographical motif of the apse and the sanctuary, see also: Maffei, F. de, Icona, pittore e arte al Concilio Niceno II (Rom 1974), from p. 93 onward; Maffei, F. de, ‘L’ Unigenito consustanziale al Padre nel programma trinitario dei perduti mosaici del bema della Dormizione di Nicea a il Cristo trasfigurato del Sinai I., in Storia dell’ arte 45 (1982), pp. 91-116.

26. The dome also suffered damages, as did part of the main vault and the peripheral wall. Schneider, A. M. – Karnapp, ‘Die Stadtmauer von Iznik’, IstForsch 9 (1938), p. 41; Schneider, A. M., ‘Die römischen und byzantinischen Denkmäler von Iznik-Nicaea’, IstForsch 16 (1943), pp. 18-19; Mango, C., ‘The Date of the Narthex Mosaics of the Church of the Dormition at Nicaea’, DOP 13 (1959), from p. 248 onward.

27. The epithet Antiphonites is relatively rare and should be probably linked to the reign of Empress Zoe (died in 1050), when the cult of Jesus Antiphonites was particularly popular. See Mango, C., ‘The Date of the Narthex Mosaics of the Church of the Dormition at Nicaea’, DOP 13 (1959), p. 252.

28. Mango, C., ‘The Date of the Narthex Mosaics of the Church of the Dormition at Nicaea’, DOP 13 (1959), from p. 246 onward; Peschlow, U., ‘Neue Beobachtungen zur Architektur und Ausstattung der Koimesiskirche in Iznik. IstMitt, 22 (1972), p. 208. This chronology is generally acceptable. Until the research of Mango the chronology suggested by Diehl, between 1025 and 1028, had never been doubted, see Diehl, Ch., Mosaïques Byzantines de Nicée’, BZ I (1892), pp. 74-85, 525-526.

29. Although they seem less linear than those at Hagia Sophia of Kiev (circa 1045), they are not earlier than them, according to Mango. About Hagia Sophia in Kiev, see Lazarev, V. N., ‘Novye dannye o mozaikach i freskach sofii Kievskoj’, Vizant. Vremmenik X (1956), p. 164. Lazarev dates the narthex mosaics according to their style from the period after the mid-11th century. See Lazarev, V. N., Storia della pittura bizantina (1967), p. 194.


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