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The fresco at the entrance to Danilo II church of the Mother of God at Peć

Author(s): Milanović Vesna

Journal: Zograf
ISSN 0350-1361

Volume: 2004-2005;
Issue: 30;
Start page: 141;
Date: 2004;
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Painted around 1330, this fresco is located on a large section of the western façade of the church of the Mother of God Hodegetria at Peć above the entrance that leads from the monumental narthex into the interior of the building. It is a composition, joining the unusual image of the holy patroness of Archbishop Danilo II's ecclesiastical endowment, accompanied by two figures of angels in adoration, to create an iconographic whole with a twin presentation of the archpriests, St. Nicolas and Danilo II himself bowing in prayer. After giving a careful and detailed description of the entire content and setting of the painting, first of all, the paper discusses the content and message conveyed in the choice of the image of the Mother of God with Child, which, in the given assembly of figures, is distinguished by its central position and enlarged proportions. A perception of the views maintained so far, regarding the interpretation of this composition, and the specific points related to the choice of the central figure, when attempting to decipher its meaning, leads to considering that in a certain reinterpretation of the aforesaid, quite specific representation of the patroness of the Serbian archbishop's church endowment, there also lies the key for the explanation of the twin presentation of the two hierarchs in prayer, as well as for shedding light on the inter-relationship of all the figures involved in the painting, i.e. for perceiving the logic of uniting them in one composition. Even though a new attempt at comprehending the content and the subtle message of the fresco largely rests upon the examination and thorough research of comparative material that previous research workers have already noted as being significant for the examination of the given solution, this does not hold for the conclusions arising from the observation of that material. There is a critical review particularly of the previous conclusions that remain within the confines of an overstretched and unconfirmed hypothesis about the direct historical link between the Peć figure of the Mother of God and the supposed, unpreserved, almost contemporary Constantinople prototype, or some early copy of the same model - the icon of the Mother of God Zoodochos Pege - the design of which was the result of the newly established cult of the homonymous Constantinople monastery. A certain dissociation from the highly conventional trend of interpreting the figure of the Mother God on the western facade of Danilo II's church, i.e. from the views linking it to the said cult, also depends on the results of the analysis of some of the iconographic details that so far have not been evidenced or commented. On this occasion, they are associated with an important, especially enlightened series of unusual and quite specific motives that give the Peć iconographic pattern the stamp of uniqueness among all the iconographical solutions with which it has been compared (both earlier on and in this work), including those described as the most closely related. These latter solutions were noted only in chronologically later representations, painted in the altar apses (Ohrid, Psaca, Aliveri Kastoria). And so, new more thorough and more detailed iconographic examination established a series of quite distinctive features in the depiction of the patroness of Danilo II's church in Peć, different both in terms of the typologically clearly defined Late Byzantine images of the Mother of God Zoodochos Pege and in terms of the recorded most closely related solutions that have to date mainly been classified in the aforesaid type of image of the Mother of God, but as a separate variant. Among the earlier Byzantine and Serbian artworks, there is definitely not a single work that could make it possible to distinguish an eventual, concrete model for the Peć image, in other words, which could confirm its quality as a copy, although it is possible to trace the origin of some particular elements of the unconventional iconographic assembly of the image concerned, as well as principled or conditional analogies or "borrowings". Among the iconographic motives that render the solution of the Mother of God's image above the entrance to Danilo's endowment in Peć unique and unconventional, and to which this paper pays particular attention, are the following: the ochre-golden vessel with Christ-Amnos (the liturgical Lamb) on the breasts of the Mother of God, the symbolic red colored aura οι glory around the figure of the Child, identical with the interior of the vessel and the unusual details of the costume of the Mother of God that otherwise do not appear in the other, numerous images of the Mother of God in the frescoes of Archbishop Danilo in Peć. As for the details of the costume, an appropriate place in the text is devoted, firstly, to considering the phenomenon of the particularly accentuated ochre-golden vertical bands on her tunic, as symbolic rivers of grace (potamoi), as well as the towel that like the liturgical enchiridion, tucked into the belt, peeps from beneath the vessel with Christ Amnos, identical to the appearance of the shirt the infant is wearing. It was established that through the appropriate aspects of meaning that can be attributed to them, all the said elements of the picture are linked in their own specific way with the mystery of the Eucharist itself, that is to say, with the central event of the liturgy. One can say the same regarding the posture of the figure of the Mother of God - representing her in a twofold capacity, as the supplicant and the recipient of divine grace, although with the choice of the atypical variant of the orans posture of the figure, this latter aspect is dominant, giving the former a special significance. The examination of the possible meanings of each of the distinctive elements in the formal arrangement of the image of the Mother of God, by themselves, and their inter-relationship therefore, leads one to feel that there is a common Eucharistic-ecclesiological context that conceptualizes their appearance and unification in a given, largely unconventional assembly. The meanings that are equivalent to the correlative, common context gives one reason to conclude that in the observed Peć fresco, the Mother of God's image is depicted as the symbol of the Church, that is, the holy mystery that fundamentally defines the Church, first and foremost in keeping with the well-known, dogmatically firm, vivid liturgical allusions of the Holy Fathers to the Church as "the body through which the blood of Christ flows" and which "is sanctified by the Holy Spirit ". The arguments for identifying the "mystery" of the person of the Mother of God (clearly defined by the dogma of the Incarnation of the Word) with the mystery of the Eucharist and the Church, in any case, is possible to find in theological literature, as well as in hymnographic-liturgical texts. The observed Eucharistic-ecclesiological implications of the iconographic contents in the center of the composition, and the observations referring to the particularly accentuated visual formulation which, as we also established alludes to the mystery of Holy Communion, are rounded off and indeed reaffirmed by the figures of the two archpriests - depicted in the lateral parts of the lower half of the painting, in liturgical vestments and in the characteristic posture of praying. The place of the composition, at the entrance into the church building, and the way in which the accompanying hierarchical images of St. Nicholas and Archbishop Danilo himself are connected to the dominant image of the Mother of God, reveal the dual function of the fully recorded content - the celebration of the patroness and guiding the prayer-related thoughts of those who enter the church to the "true" significance of their entry, connected with the experience of the holy mystery of the Church. The exaltation of a patron, as the basic and most frequent function of the pictures above the entrance to a church, in this case, has served, therefore, as some kind of basic motive for the affirmation of the subtle message of the Christian teachings of salvation through the Church. This kind of concept was achieved by a series of unified allusions to the liturgical, Eucharistie mystery of the "Body of Christ" (which equally implies the Body Incarnate and the Body of the Church), in other words, the sacred "incorporation" into "the Mystical Body of Christ" through the Eucharistie "Holy Mysteries" (the Holy Communion with the Flesh and Blood). In shedding light on the place and function of the presentation of the two hierarchs, which are a component part of the whole compositional arrangement of the assembly - and whose inclusion in the picture is defined in a specific way by the indicated context and the proposed comprehension of the image or motive in the center of the composition - several important and indicative moments are singled out. One should recall the fact that the two figures in elaborate hierarchical vestments, and bowed in prayer are. in fact, positioned in an atypical place in the topography of the church building, and in an unusual combination linked in a completely equal manner with the unconventional portrayal of the Mother of God (who, as it was concluded, equally represents the image of the patroness of the church just as she symbolizes the mystery of the liturgy or that of the Church). The image of Danilo II. representing the incumbent newly-consecrated archbishop (he is not depicted in his capacity as a donor), is equated with the image of the renowned saint of Myra. Meanwhile practically, it constituted the crown of the original, representative series of standing figures of the Serbian archbishops (Danilo's predecessors on the throne), distributed along the lower zone of the eastern wall of the narthex, in the section between the entrance into the Church of the Mother of God and the Royal Doors of the neighboring, oldest church of the Holy Apostles. The image of St. Nicholas does not remind one only of the prototype of the ideal bishop and one of Danilo's confirmed holy patrons (although there is no doubt that he was chosen for these reasons), but also as the coefficient of the incumbent, living shepherd of the Serbian Church. Despite the unconventionality, there is justification for the chosen solution and a definite meaning in the concrete, valid and indicative postulates of authentic Eucharistie ecclésiologie regarding this choice which, as some other, earlier studies have shown, was close to the theological ideas of Archbishop Danilo himself. One of those postulates also identifiable in Danilo's literary writings, refers to the teachings about the Eucharistic-Episcopal nature and function of the Church as an institution (a liturgical-hierarchical organism). The same implies that only through the archpriests (i.e. through their service in the priesthood and charisma), and only in the context of the holy mysteries of the Eucharist do all the faithful, the participants of the concrete, Eucharistic ally defined, congregational community and the members of a unique liturgical-hierarchical organism, become "the limbs of the living body of Christ" - the Church in all its integrity. According to the view presented in this paper, it is through the aforesaid twin figures - by means of which the Serbian archbishop, as the person who commissioned the painting and initiated its iconographic solution, deliberately points to the archpriest as the chosen recipient and conveyor of God's grace in the living liturgical and hierarchical organism of the Church - that the idea symbolically expressed and anticipated by the central figure of the patroness of the church, the Mother of God, is expanded and contextually supplemented. Moreover, this idea receives further elaboration, in a new way, in the themes of the iconographic program inside the church. In connection with the said ecclesiological postulate, one also considers the significance of the blessing, which the depicted Infant God on the breast of the holy patroness of Danilo's building conveys to the two hierarchs. The very position of the composition, as part of the concrete concept, leaves room for speculation about conveying the same blessing on all (the faithful living participants in the congregational service) who cross the threshold of the church building. The article continues with a discussion of the definition of the place and role of the hierarchs in the Church, the respective postulates concerning the relation of the "local" and the "universal" Church, as well as the tenet implying that through its bishop or rather in his person, each particular or local church is linked both with the past and with "all the centuries. The confirmation of the validity of these postulates for understanding the logic of the fresco solution above the entrance to the church endowment of Danilo II, is seen precisely in the picture of the joint prayer of the two hierarchs, and in the fact that the image of the incumbent archbishop of Peć, "the consecrated" Danilo II, was placed on an equal footing with St Nicholas. Seeking a solution for the painting that occupies a prominent place in the topography of the church building, and which, in keeping with convention, should represent the holy patron, the donor of the church and commissioner of the fresco did not opt for the standard picture of the patroness of the church building. According to the presented interpretation of the solution that was achieved, he chose the image which, in the assemblage of a more complex iconographic whole also materialized and manifested the developed theological idea of the Mother of God as an ontological image of the Church itself, and the prototype of the mystery that gives the Church its identity, with which it manifests itself during the liturgical service as an icon of the eschatological community of God and man. It involves the concept that accords with the circumstance that the donor and the commissioner of the fresco was the newly-consecrated archbishop, as well as with the fact that the church belonged to the archiépiscopal see, of which he was the head. Moreover, the depicted meaning of the image also coincides with the messages of the iconographic themes painted in the most prominent places within the same church building, and confirms the already observed coherence of the themes of the painted program that Danilo intended for his endowment dedicated to the Mother of God. The findings published in this paper offer it seems, a particularly interesting testimony of the connection of the ideas in the composition above the entrance to the church with that of the corresponding, equally rare, and uniquely resolved iconographic theme of the Communion of the Apostles at the opposite end of the church, in the altar apsis, where the central part depicts a symbolic presentation of the New Jerusalem in the form of a church. The relation of the painted themes reveals an unusual complementanness of the ideas expressed in both paintings, and indeed the consistent progression of the unique program concept, combining in a subtle way two very distinct and particularly emphasized points in the topography of the church, two fundamental antipodes on the ascending mystagogical trajectory of west-east - the symbols of "potentiality " and "realization", "designation" and "fulfillment". In a way. with the proposed interpretation of the iconographic content above the entrance in the same church, one can sec in a new light what the author of the life of Danilo II. Danilo's younger contemporary and disciple, says at the beginning of his account of the endowments of this archbishop in Peć. and especially about the church "named after the Most Blessed (Mother of God)". In that sense, the concluding considerations in the paper express the assessment that the painting which decorates the façade of the church with its dedication to the Mother of God llodegetria, as the materialization of the conception behind which the donor himself certainly stood, lends a certain weight and seriousness to the fact that the biographer and the witness of the work of his teacher and pastor called this endowment Archbishop Danilo's "feat of investiture" - laconically announcing the motives of its erection. Linked with the custom of celebrating the holy patron, and revealing itself as a certain sublimation of the pastoral profession of the basic postulates of faith in salvation through the Church of the newly established hierarch of the House of the Saviour, the content of the same painting - as it was finally concluded - fulfills and deepens in a rather special way the impression which the mentioned text offers regarding Danilo's respective motives.
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