The Unique Late Byzantine Image from the Epic of Digenis Akritas: A Study of the Dado Zone in the Church of the Panagia Chrysaphitissa
The epic of Digenis Akritas is one that captivates the audience’s mind as the story of a frontiersman defending the borders of the Byzantine Empire is intertwined with romance and moral virtues. The tale, in both written and oral versions, was spread for centuries throughout the empire. Remnants of the tale exist from mainland Greece, southern Italy and the Peloponnese where this paper is centered.
My thesis focuses on a singular depiction of the epic in the church of the Panagia Chrysaphitissa near modern-day Chrysapha, Lakonia: the image of a battle between Digenis Akritas and his foe and lover, Maximou. The presence of a literary figure within the context of a painted church in the rural Morea may at first appear uncomfortable and jarring. How does the faithful viewer interpret the intersection of secular folklore imagery and the religious context within an ecclesiastical context. When considered in relationship to the moment in which it was created, the image begins to convey a story of interconnections with the greater world as political unease reshaped the region.
Set against a backdrop of turmoil, shifting geo-political boundaries and centers of power, and an overall sense of unease, it is logical that one of the greatest folk heroes of the period would be a frontiersman protecting the empire. In the direct area of this church, nearby Mystras would serve as the capital of the Despotate within a century, the Byzantines and Frankish forces battled for power continually, and the Angevins made their presence in the region known. The scene of Digenis and Maximou represents the moment of a heroic Christian male overcoming his worldly foe in defense of the empire. Constructed in 1289/1290 by a sebastos, an official responsible for controlling ethnic groups, in Chrysapha we see a depiction of a protector painted within a church located in an unsettled environment.
To my knowledge, this is the single labeled image of Digenis Akritas in existence. It is thus not only significant in relationship to the space in which it was painted but also plays a significant part in the realm of image making during the period overall since it can be used as a standard marker with which to identify other images of the subject.
Painted in the dado zone of the church, the image exemplifies the elasticity of the lower register of the church walls which contains imagery that extends beyond the boundaries of traditional church decoration. In the churches of Hagia Theodora in Arta and the Peribleptos at Mystras, which were both painted within one hundred years of the dedication of the Chrysaphitissa, the Late Byzantine dado zone was one of play and innovation. Though seemingly disparate and secular, each church presents a contemporary way of looking at Christian themes and values. It is as though the religious imagery of the greater program is being “translated” into the worldly.