Christian Spolia in Medieval Greece

The study of spolia in a Medieval context is certainly not new and it has received particular intensive attention in the last few years.  Most scholars, however, have focused on the use of Ancient spolia in a Medieval context and focused on monuments like the 9th-century Panayia at Skripou (see in particular A. Papalexandrou, The church of the Virgin of Skripou : architecture, sculpture and inscriptions in ninth-century Byzantium (Ph.D. Thesis, Princeton University, 1998)) or, here in Athens, the Little Metropolis.  One almost wonders whether this emphasis on the use of Classical stones represents a lingering apologia for Medieval period monuments — an effort to prove that even the Byzantines recognized the importance of Classical Antiquity or reinforces the timeless aesthetic of Classical monuments or an abiding sense of continuity with the Classical past.

We know, however, that by far the largest class of spolia reused in Byzantine monuments did not date from antiquity, but rather the Early Christian period.  Columns, column capitals, marble chancel barriers, inscriptions, even mosaic decoration complemented obvious efforts to mark the place of earlier buildings in the landscape. 

Two relatively recent works highlight the significance of studying this Christian spolia in a Medieval context. L. Nixon’s Making a Landscape Sacred: Outlying Churches and Icon Stands in Sphakia, Southwestern Crete. (Oxford 2006) (for more on this book see my: Sacred Landscapes in Crete and the Corinthia) focuses some attention on the reuse of Early Christian spolia in Venetian era buildings in Crete.  She argues:

“I suggest that what we have in Venetian Sphakia is the expression of a particular chronology of desire, made material and visible through the incorporation of earlier Christian elements, especially in the case of he churches built over basilicas, but also in the churches which include palaeo-Christian spolia. The desired chronology is one that links local Orthodox Christianity with an earlier authentic and original Christian presence, ruined but not destroyed (according to local tradition) by the Arabs. The placement of new churches over basilica sanctuaries shows a precise awareness of the older structures, and a desire to bind two points in time into one authoritative chronology.” (p. 72)

Oddly, she over looks the work of John Xenos (for more on him see: To Crete with John Xenos) who many centuries earlier on Crete showed a similar sensitivity to reconfirming the Christian landscape of the island.  It can perhaps be added to her argument that this was not only building physical continuity with Early Christian remains on the island, but also in practice by re-performing deeds documented in the texts of their Byzantine predecessors. 

Another recent article shines valuable light on this matter as well.  B. Kiilerich, “Making Sense of the Spolia in the Little Metropolis,” Arte Medievale 4 (2005), 95-114 not only offers a relatively radical re-dating of this building, but also notes the important role of Christian spolia in a building perhaps better known for its wide array of ancient stones.  The basis for redating the building to the 16th century is an inscription built into the church but recorded by Kyriakos of Ancona among stones said to be near the agora.  Kyriakos was unlikely to record an inscription built into a church without noting the church and its wide array of other spolia suggesting that the building was, in fact, not built until after his visit to Athens in 1436.  Kiilerich argues fairly convincingly for a date in the 1450s after the city had fallen to the Ottomans.

More interesting for a discussion of spolia, however, is her idea that the church sought to integrate both pagan and Christian spolia into a monument as a mark of a distinct Byzantine and Greek identity.  Her final paragraph summarizes this nicely:

“The most prevalent sign on the spoIia is the cross. It is presented more than fifty times on the exterior of the church, and on the northern wall, inscribes itself upon a particular large number of ancient and medieval reliefs. In this context the many crosses – some of which were probably inserted into the ancient images long before the stones were reused in the church – were hardIy due to superstitious minds fearing pagan imagery; rather, they were aimed at the Ottomans as a visual manifestation of religious identity, The Little Metropolis was a monument to Athens and the Orthodox faith in the form of a church that displayed tangible physical evidence of Athens’ Byzantine and antique culture. The spolia with the dominant sign of the cross were markers of identity, visual reminders of Christianity, the auctoritas of which was rooted in antiquity.” (p. 111)

Both Nixon and Kiilerich demonstrate a willingness to see spolia in a Medieval context as capable of evoking an Early Christian past as much as what scholars would see as an ancient one.  Kiilerich in particular is even willing to see pagan spolia in a Medieval context noting that some of the material used in the Little Metropolis may have had crosses already inscribed in it from previous reuse.  Thus, some ancient spolia might not necessarily function to evoke a Classical past that at times seems to be of more interest to contemporary archaeologists and historian than to Medieval Greeks who reused the stones. 

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