January 20, 2020

Chapel of Saint Euthymios the Great in Thessaloniki

The Chapel of Saint Euthymios is attached to the east side of the south wing of the transept of the Basilica of Saint Demetrios in Thessaloniki. It is in the form of a small three-aisled basilica, and is decorated with an interesting ensemble of wall-paintings. The wall-paintings of the chapel are representative examples of Palaiologan art of the early 14th century in Thessaloniki, and follow the iconographic program typical of the period, though atypical of a chapel for its grand scale, with scenes from the Twelve Great Feasts, the Miracles and Teachings of Christ, and from the Synaxarion of Saint Euthymios. The scenes are unfolded as a narrative, one next to the other, and are not divided into separate panels. According to an inscription on the north wall, the cost for the decoration was defrayed in 1302-1303 by the protostrator Michael Doukas Glavas Tarchaneiotis, who was the founder of the Pammakaristos Monastery in Constantinople, and his wife Maria Palaiologina.

In the inscription it says that Michael built the chapel "so that having fulfilled themselves with happiness (euthymia) through good deeds in the present life they will escape eternal unhappiness (athymia)," thus using words to associate it with the Saint to whom it is dedicated. Michael Doukas Glavas Tarchaneiotis was one of the ablest generals of Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (1282-1328). He directed a counterattack against the Serbians in 1297 and advised the emperor to negotiate a settlement when, because of the guerrilla tactics of the Serbians, all hopes of victory had vanished. A result of the settlement was the famous marriage celebrated in the spring of 1299 in Thessaloniki between Simonis, the five year old daughter of Andronikos II, and the forty year old Milutin of Serbia. It was probably due to this settlement that Michael earned the title of Protostrator and the dedicatory inscription in the Chapel of Saint Euthymios is the first known instance of its use.

Because Saint Euthymios was viewed as a Saint who brings happiness, as his name implies and his life indicates, it has been suggested that the chapel was built by Michael and Maria to either help them conceive, since they remained childless for many years and only bore a child later in life, or in thanksgiving for having a child in later life. In the life of the Saint we are told that Saint Euthymios himself was born to elderly parents to bring them and the Church happiness.

The association between Saint Demetrios and Saint Euthymios is an unusual one, but probably is related to the broader cultural and political milieu of the first two decades of the reign of Emperor Andronikos II. In the dedicatory inscription Saint Euthymios is called "the admirable presbyter." The scenes from his life depicted in the chapel leaves us no doubt it is Saint Euthymios the Great (377-473), the great monastic saint of the Palestianian desert. The plan of the chapel is also almost identical to the plan of the church at the Lavra of Saint Euthymios in Palestine. Placing such distinction and importance on this chapel is probably due to the high status of the military and monasticism in the Roman Empire of the time, with Saint Demetrios representing the military and Saint Euthymios representing monasticism, and it stresses their equality and harmonious coexistence.

Emperor Andronikos II's father was Emperor Michael VIII, who had to some extent persecuted monks and clergy and alienated them by his negotiations with Rome in seeking to unify the two Churches. He considered monks the chief instigators of the opposition to union. Monks viewed him as another Julian the Apostate, and he was denied a funeral by the Church. When his son Andronikos became emperor at 24 years of age, being very pious, he dissolved the union with Rome and tried in every way to restore a sense of unity in his subjects. It was during his reign that the monasteries of Mount Athos, which had been until then under the emperor, were put under the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople, whose status the emperor also tried to elevate. There is no doubt that the first two decades of the reign of Andronikos were primarily dedicated to reconciling the Church and elevating the status of monasticism in the empire. The Chapel of Saint Euthymios therefore should primarily be seen as as part of the general pro-monastic policy of the emperor and his officials.

However, the nine scenes of the life of Saint Euthymios depicted in the chapel do not reflect his monastic life so much, but primarily his life as a presbyter, healer and converter. It shows him as an active participant in the Church and not as a solitary recluse. This dual role of a monk, between the active and contemplative life, was emphasized during the reign of Andronikos II by Bishop Theoleptos of Philadelphia (1283-1322/24) and Patriarch Athanasios I of Constantinople (1289-1293 and 1303-1309). Both of these men had a profound impact on the Church at the time. Athanasios I was viewed as the conscience of the emperor and Theoleptos has been credited with absolute power in the emperor's entourage. Both were also chief inspirers of the importance of Hesychasm and leaders of the movement. They believed monks had a prophetic mission in and for the world, and not only to focus on their individual salvation. Saint Euthymios could very well have been viewed as a perfect model of a monk who devoted himself to hesychia, but also was involved in the life of the Church in the world by battling heresy and healing those who came to him, and serving the mysteries of the Church as a presbyter. The choice of Saint Euthymios for the chapel in Thessaloniki also is ideal because he goes back to the very antiquity of monasticism.

For more details on this topic, read "The Parecclesion of St. Euthymios in Thessalonica: Art and Monastic Policy under Andronicos II" by Thalia Gouma-Peterson.