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An example of the influence of the gospel lectionary on the iconography of medieval wall painting

Author(s): Marković Miodrag

Journal: Zbornik Radova Vizantološkog Instituta
ISSN 0584-9888

Volume: 2007;
Issue: 44;
Start page: 353;
Date: 2007;
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The influence of the Gospel lectionary (evangelistarion) on the iconography of medieval wall painting was rather sporadic. One of the rare testimonies that it did exist, nevertheless, is the specific iconographic formula for the scene of Christ in the house of Martha and Mary, preserved in a number of King Milutin's foundations - Gračanica (ca. 1320), Chilandar katholikon (1321) and St. Nicetas near Skopje (ca. 1324). In all three churches, the iconographic formula corresponds for the most part to the description in the Gospel (Lk 10, 38-42). A large number of figures were painted against an architectural background, intimating that the action in the event was taking place indoors (draw. 1, figs. 1, 2). Among the figures, only Christ is marked by a halo. He is sitting on a small wooden bench, and addressing a woman, who is standing in front of him. This is certainly Martha. Her sister Mary is sitting at the feet of Christ. Next to Christ is Peter, and one or two more disciples, while numerous onlookers, men and women, are depicted behind Martha. There is no mention of either them or the apostles in the Gospel of Luke. The appearance of the disciples' figures, however, is easy to explain because they appear usually in greater or lesser numbers with Christ, in the scenes from the cycle of Christ's Public Ministry. In addition to this, this passage from the Gospel intimates that Christ entered the village in the company of his disciples. As for the figures behind Martha, at a first glimpse, one would assume that they are Judeans, the same ones that sometimes, according to the Gospel of John (11:19-31), appear in the house of Martha and Mary in the episodes painted next to the Raising of Lazarus. Still, such an assumption is not plausible because among the mentioned figures in the depictions in Gračanica, Chilandar and St. Nicetas, one can distinguish a woman above the other figures, her right arm raised, addressing Christ. This figure enables an explanation for the unusual iconographic formula and indicates its connection with the evangelistarion. The section of the Gospel that speaks of Christ's visit to Martha and Mary (Lk 10:38-42) is read out during the liturgy of the feasts of the Birth and the Dormition of the Virgin and, in the lectionary, these five verses are accompanied by a reading of two another verses the Gospel of Luke (Lk 11:27-28). The two verses recount the conversation of Christ and a woman during the Saviour's address to the assembled crowd who tempted him, demanding a sign from Heaven. Recognizing the Lord, the woman raised her voice so as to be heard above the crowd and said: 'Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you'. Two different events and two separated passages from Luke are joined in the lectionary in such a way that from the combination of the readings, it proceeds that the mentioned woman is addressing Christ while he is speaking to Martha. As a result, an iconographic formula emerged that was applied in Gračanica, the Chilandar katholikon and in St. Nicetas near Skopje. Judging by the preserved examples, this formula was characteristic only of the painting in the foundations of King Milutin. None of the other known depictions of Christ's visit to Martha and Mary, Byzantine or Serbian included the figure of a third woman, singled out from the mass of onlookers speaking to Christ. With minor variations, the text of the closing verses of Chapter 10 of the Gospel of Luke was, in the main, almost literally illustrated. The origin of this unique iconographic formula in several of King Milutin's foundations remains unknown. The most logical thing would be that the combined illustration of the two separate passages from Luke's Gospel came from an illuminated lectionary of Byzantine origin. However, the quests for such a manuscript so far have not confirmed this assumption. In the only lectionary, known to us, which depicts Christ in the house of Martha and Mary - the Dionysiou cod. 587 - the iconographic formula is the pictorial expression of the last verses of Chapter 10 of the Gospel of Luke. The two verses of Chapter 11 in Luke's Gospel, which are also included in the text of the lection, read out during the liturgy of the Birth and of the Dormition of the Virgin, had no effect on the iconography of the scene of Christ in the house of Martha and Mary in the famous Dionysiou lectionary, even though in it, the mentioned scene illustrate this very lection. The scene is located in the place where the said lection appears for the first time in the lectionary, within the framework of the readings envisaged for the feast of the Birth of the Virgin (September 8). The second part of the lectionary which refers to the same lection, i.e. to its reading for the feast of the Dormition (August 15), is illuminated with the representation of the death of the Virgin. The Dormition of the Virgin is painted in the corresponding place in several more lectionaries, while beside the pericope that is read during the liturgy of the feast of the Birth of the Theotokos, sometimes there was an appropriate depiction of the Birth of the Virgin, or simply a single figure of the Virgin. Most often, however, that part of the lectionary was left without an illustration, which can be explained by the fact that the vast majority of illuminated Byzantine lectionaries either did not have any figural ornamentation or merely contained the portraits of the evangelists. The absence of narrative illustrations is particularly characteristic of the Byzantine lectionaries that originate from the Palaeologan era. The illumination of Serbian lectionaries from that epoch is also reduced to ornamental headpieces, initials, and, in some cases, the evangelist portraits. Nevertheless, one should not altogether exclude the possibility that in some unknown or unpublished Byzantine or Serbian manuscripts of the evangelistarion, there was an iconographic formula that was applied in the painting of King Milutin's foundations. In any case, it does not seem plausible that this unusual iconographic formula may have arrived from the West. The scene of Christ's visit to Martha and Mary was also presented in the Latin lectionaries based on the five Gospel verses in which it was described (Lk 10:38-42) even though, in the appropriate pericope of the lectionaries of the Roman Church, these five verses are also accompanied by a reading of two another verses the Gospel of Luke (Lk 11:27-28). The influence of the lectionaries is not visible even in the presentations of Christ's visit to Martha and Mary that are preserved in the medieval wall painting of the western European countries.
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