Category: Archaeological sites

Plato in Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Art

Plato is depicted in Byzantine and post-Byzantine art mostly in paintings outside the churches’ nave as a Greek sage, with iconographic elements that vary, and as a member of the cycle of ancient Greek sages who spoke of the (God’s) Word.

The depictions of ancient philosophers in the Eastern Christian art is a phenomenon that occurs in early Christian times (in funerary art), continues in the late Byzantine period and flourishes in the 16th century onwards. The first 'Christian' depictions of Plato should perhaps be attributed to the Gnostic sect of the Karpokratians (2nd century) that venerated both the image of Christ and that of philosophers such as Plato. Paintings of Greek philosophers, and probably Plato, in churches are attested for the 12th century (Holy Cross Monastery Jerusalem, Church of the Nativity Bethlehem). Certain is the existence of a painting of Plato at Prizren (Church of Assumption 1307-13, destroyed), at St. George Viannos (Crete, 1401), and at Livadia Mylopotamou (14th-15th c.); he was depicted perhaps at a damaged mural at St. Apostles in Thessaloniki (1329?). Plato can be identified with some of the many anonymous philosophers depicted in Crete (Church of Assumption Meronas Rethymnon 14th century, St. Georgios Ierapetra 14th century, Vorizia Heraklion 1431). Unknown is the dating of destroyed paintings in narthexes in Iconium, in some of which is testified that Plato wore a halo• local legends connect multiple locations with Plato, even with his grave!

Plato is usually depicted among other philosophers in the iconographic type of the Root or Tree of Jesse (the family tree of Jesus), a multi-branch tree whose branches end in prophets wearing halos and holding folding rolls with prophecies about the coming of Jesus, while below are placed ancient Greeks holding similar prophecies. Other figures depicted are: Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Sibyl, Pythagoras, Solon, Plutarch, Cleanthes, Philo (or Heilon), Galen, Sophocles, Euripides, Thucydides, Josephus, etc. The depictions lie in narthexes (not inside the main part of the church) or in monastery refectories.

The iconographic type of post-Byzantine Plato is not fixed. He is usually inscribed as 'Plato', sometimes as “Wise Plato” and at least once as “Greek Plato” (Philanthropinon Monastery, Ioannina), in order to be distinguished as a pagan from the Christian saints. He is pictured standing, often uplifting, usually as an old man with white beard and once as a beardless youth. His clothing varies and has religious and secular items contemporary of the time the painting or of the imitated iconographic pattern; in no case they correspond to antiquity clothing: vestments, purple, Byzantine ruler’s or officer’s uniform, robe. He is wearing a headdress (bearing cover (royal, orientalizing) or a crown and is rarely pictured bareheaded. In his hands he is holding a big open scroll where is legibly written a saying (full or often abbreviated): “The old is new and the new is ancient; father is in the son and son in the father; one is divided into three and three in one; fleshless is carnal and mortal becomes immortal (or: is made from heaven)." The wording is not Plato’s but an invented one to best suit the climate of the prophecy concerning the advent of Jesus. The same applies to another mural (Church of Assumption, Prizren): "Some day the Word will come on earth to live incarnated." The context of the following sayings is trinitarian: "I speak of a God Almighty in three ..." (Libadia Mylopotamou). Finally, another saying is also assigned to Plato, rarer and closer to his thought and writings (Lavra Monastery, Mount Athons): "God was and is and always will be, having no beginning and no end" (cf. Symposium 211a).

The depictions of philosophers refer to the iconographic motif of the circle of philosophers or wise men that is known from Late Antiquity and survives to the post-Byzantine period. In Philanthropinon Monastery (1560) the inscription of the painting explains: "Seven philosophers met in a house in Athens and began to speak with wisest and secret reason of the presence of Christ our God”; among them stand Plato and Apollonius of Tyana. The theological justification of their presence is clear and conscious, regardless of whether it is historically and philosophically accurate. According to Dionysius of Fourna (in his Painters’ Manual [Interpretation of the art of painting], §§135-136; written at the beginning of 18th century, but draws from older sources), they are the "Greeks" (i.e. pagans) who spoke "of the economy of the incarnate Christ" and, in the painting, they all look or point at the depicted birth of Christ. Thus the Jew prophets of the Old Testament are correlated with the Greek thinkers, as if all of them are expecting the coming of the Messiah. Plato is consistently represented almost in all paintings, something indicating his great importance, but not greater than Aristotle’s who is never absent. He is chosen because he accepts God, next to Socrates, Pythagoras, Aristotle and Plutarch –besides, according to the theory of seminal word (see Early Christian Platonism: Clement of Alexandria), he was considered a Christian before Christ and a kind of monotheist, and he was associated with the prophets (pseudo-Justin, Exhortation to the Greeks, 26-27).

Such correlations with sayings as the mentioned above exist in different medieval small collections of texts that served as iconographical instructions for the Tree of Jesse (the oldest surviving is Paris. gr. 400 of 1344, ff.33-34; see also Spetsieris, 430, Premerstein, 662-3). This Byzantine tradition must also be a source of the monumental sculpture composition at the façade of the Orvieto Cathedral (1305-1308).

The frequent appearance of Plato and other ancient sages in post-Byzantine churches was associated with the rebirth of the Christian culture and its connection with the ancient Greek culture, with the general interest of (Modern) Greeks for their ancient past, and with the attempt to reconciliate figures and symbols of the Christian world with new or recurrent moral and social values. However, paintings bearing such depictions disappear since the late 18th century, a period coinciding with the Patriarchate’s opposition to the turn in philosophy.

Post-Byzantine depictions of Plato. Mount Athos: Lavra, refectory (1522-1530/1535-1541), Iviron (1683), Vatopedi (1858), Stavronikita (1546, destroyed). Epirus: Philanthropinon M., Ioannina (1560); St. Nicholaos, Tsaritsani (1615), Vellas Mon. (1745). West Macedonia: St. Paraskevi/Prophet Elias, Siatista (1744). Peloponnese: St. Demetrios, Chrysafon Laconia (1641); M. Zoodochou Pigis, Golas Laconia (1673). Bulgaria: Arbanasi (1649), with Slavic inscriptions; Mary Petritzonitissa, Batskovo (1643). Romania: Choumourouloui (1530); Vatra Molovitsei (1536); Voronets (1546) with Greek inscriptions on the external surfaces of the churches; St. George of Suceava, Soukevita; Peter and Paul, Iaşi (1671/2). Russia: Church of Annunciation, Kremlin, Moscow (16th cent.). In vestments: gold-embroidered podea (apron), Leimon Mon., Lesvos (first half of the 17th century).

Author: George Zografidis
  • Bees, N.A. "Darstellungen altheidnischer Denker und Autoren in der Kirchenmalerei der Griechen,." Byzantinisch-Neugriechische Jahrbücher 4 (1923)
  • Dujčev, I, Antike heidnische Dichter und Denker in der alten bulgarischen Malerei. Sofia, 1978.
  • Nandriş, G. Christian Humanism in the Neo-byzantine Mural-Painting of Eastern Europe. Wiesbaden, 1970.
  • Premerstein, Α. von. "Griechisch-heidnische Weise als Verkünder christlicher Lehre in Handschriften und Kirchenmalereien." Festschrift der Nationalbibliothek in Wien Wien (1926)
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