May 10, 2021

The Touch of Thomas and the Queen of Ioannina in Post-Byzantine Monumental Art

Meteora, skevophylakion of the Monastery of the Transfiguration (after 1382)

Eleni Evangelou's research work: "Women and Icons - The Case of Maria Angelina Doukaina Palaiologina, Queen of Ioannina (ca. 1349/50-1394)", is a special contribution to the chapter on women in the Palaeologian period and post-Byzantine art.

The third chapter of the work is titled: "Maria after Maria: the Touch of Thomas and the Queen of Ioannina in Post-Byzantine Monumental Art".

This chapter examines some post-Byzantine representations of the Touch of Thomas, which include the figure of Maria Palaiologina. These are frescoes dating from the 16th to the 18th century and adorn the churches of Ioannina, Thessaly and Macedonia.

Eleni Evangelou writes:

"The oldest example comes from the Church of Saint Nicholas of the Philanthropinon on the island of Ioannina (1542). Christ is placed in front of the closed door of a vaulted building, between two groups of disciples, with feet pressed on the highest step that leads to it. With his left hand he pulls away the tunic revealing the wound and stretches upwards the slightly bent right hand. In the left group of apostles, just behind Thomas, is depicted Queen Maria dressed in red and varied royal clothes. The young woman is part of the composition as a mere observer: Christ does not bless her with his touch nor does he turn his gaze towards her."

Monastery of Saint Nicholas Philanthropinon (1542)

Saint Nikanor built the monastery which now bears his name in Zavorda in 1528 or 1543/1544. According to an inscription at the base of the dome, the frescoes were painted in 1595/1596. The stylistic analysis of the decoration places them in the second half of the 16th century and attributes them to the workshop of Katelanos. The scene of the Touch of Thomas is placed on the south wall of the diakonikon. Christ is presented standing in front of the closed door of a vaulted building stepping on a wide step. With his left hand he pulls away his deep blue tunic, while his right hand stretches upwards, as in the fresco of the Monastery of Saint Nichlas Philanthropinon. The natural lady of Ioannina watches what is happening without accepting the blessing of Jesus. On the other hand, the layout of the two groups in the space and the way in which the architectural depth is rendered are closer to the fresco of Barlaam Monastery. Demetrios Agoritsas claims that the painter of Saint Nikanor Monastery combined elements from the two previous scenes with the special representation of the Touch of Thomas in order to create a new composition. The correlation of the three earliest representations with the workshop and the artistic production of the Theban painter Frangos Katelanos is of great interest and needs further investigation. The presence of a woman dressed in royal clothes in this particular Gospel scene is found in three Thessalian monuments of the 17th century.

Monastery of Saint Nikanor in Zavorda (1592)
The scene with the same theme in Saint Theodora of Arta can be dated to the end of the 17th or the beginning of the 18th century. The fragmentary surviving mural is placed in the center of the north wall of the narthex. The similarities with the corresponding scene in Saint Nicholas of the Philanthropinon are strong: as long as we pay attention to the movement of Christ's right hand. Fani Gargova identifies similarities with Saint Nikanor in terms of the structure of the figures, which are probably due to the space available to the painter. Christ does not turn to Maria Palaiologina nor touch her: the queen stands behind Thomas and wears a diadem, a cord and a white tunic adorned with a red floral motif.

Monastery of Saint Theodora in Arta (late 17th-early 18th cent.)

The representation of the Touch of Thomas in Saint Nicholas of Rentina was made after 1725. The placement of the figures in the space, the architectural depth but also the characteristic movement of Christ's blessing to Palaiologina are similar to the corresponding fresco of the Monastery of Barlaam.

Church of Saint Nicholas of Rentina (after 1725)

Myrtali Achimastou Potamianou, in an attempt to interpret the presence of the Queen in the image of the Touch of Thomas, speaks of a coordinated effort to "sanctify" the public image of Palaiologina. She also notes that in monuments associated with the Philanthropinon the depiction of important secular figures is a common practice. Whatever the exact reasons behind its birth and spread, it is certain that the figure of Maria Angelina Doukaina Palaiologina originally functioned as a carrier of memory and as proof of historical links between the Byzantine past and the present of the 16th century. Let us not forget that Ioannina was occupied by the Ottomans as early as 1430. Its survival in 17th and 18th century churches is due to copying patterns and comes closer to the myth: we do not know for sure if the painters knew the identity of the young woman who is depicted in the scene of the Touch of Thomas.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.