May 9, 2024

Rare Icons of Saint Nicholas the New of Vounenis in Gortynia

Saint Nicholas the New of Vounenis is especially honored in the Peloponnesian region of Gortynia where there are many temples dedicated to him and rare icons of him. The Doctor of Byzantine Archaeology, Father Nektarios N. Pettas, with the blessing of Metropolitan Jeremiah, spoke on this topic at the 9th International Conference of the Peloponnesian Studies Society, which took place from 10/30 to 11/2/2015 in Nafplion, with the support of the Municipality of Nafplion. The presentation was titled: "Depictions of Martyr Nikolaos Vounenis in the Peloponnese."

Among other things, Father Nektarios announced:

The original text of the Saint's biography was written by another Nicholas, around the middle of the tenth century. The lack of rich biographical material combined with the later adaptations, modifications and additions of fictional elements to the original text, have sufficiently altered the image we have today of the life and activities of Saint Nicholas of Vounenis. It should be noted that the altered texts were published several times and caused no small amount of confusion, making it impossible to find the truth. However, in the year 1972, the brilliant Doctoral thesis of the late Demetrios Sophianos was published, which shed a lot of light on the case and laid the appropriate scientific foundations for further research into the Saint's life. The same researcher in his next work titled "Saint Nicholas the New of Vounenis (10th century)" provides additional evidence, anecdotal hagiological texts of Maximos (1620) and others, and confirms the historical truths about the Saint, based on new elements that have come to light in recent years.

Apart from the popular adaptations of the Life of Saint Nicholas, the Services to the Saint of the Post-Byzantine period offer the most, although they combine the truth with the rhetorical praise and the wonderous. Among these Services is the one bearing the title: "Service of the Venerable Martyr Nicholas the New from the East, who Contested in Vounenis" (Venice 1657).

According to his Life, Saint Nicholas of Vounenis lived in the years of Emperor Leo VI the Wise (886-912). He was a senior officer of the Byzantine army (a Duke). After the end of the raids in the southern Balkans at the end of the 9th century, he decided to dedicate himself to God. He became a monk in the skete of Mount Vouneni in Thessaly. There he lived in asceticism with extreme patience and diligence, shining with virtues, until barbarous tribes arrived there, in order to plunder the region and obtain booty. After many tortures and torments from these barbarians, Saint Nicholas was beheaded. According to his Life, Saint Nicholas has three qualities, in succession: the soldier, the monk and the martyr. Consequently, his portrayal as a soldier, as a monk and as a martyr fully corresponds to what is written in his Life and Services.

Despite the wide spread of the military iconography of the martyr Nicholas, from the end of the 18th century a new iconographic type of the Saint appears. Many portable icons of mainland Greece depict Saint Nicholas as a Monk. Here the Saint wears a black tunic and cloak, a belt and a black koukoulion, which covers the head, shoulders and is tied at the height of the neck. In this form he is depicted in an icon by Desfina Fokidos, which was created "at the expense of Nicholas after his wife Chrysaphos Tsourapas in 1863." It is important to say that in the icon of Desfina the Saint holds in His bosom His severed head, according to the type of the beheaded John the Forerunner. He also carries a large cross, also a symbol of His martyrdom.

Another icon of Saint Nicholas, this time from Kalamia Platanou in Kalavryta, dates back to the beginning of the 19th century (see image below). Here the Saint is depicted full-length, as a monk with a schema and a cloak and a knotted rope in his hand. He is beardless with a long mane. He holds a cross and a scroll in one hand and supplicates with the other. Behind him we see a distant landscape, with a fountain on the right. Above the Saint is depicted the Deesis on a cloud, with Christ enthroned.

In Poulitsa, Corinth, there is an icon of Saint Nicholas preserved, "in memory of the husband Christos Karathanasis 1967." Here the Saint is depicted to the waist, beardless and in monastic garb. With one hand he raises a cross and with the other he holds a scroll: "Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ."

Another exquisite image is preserved in Perivolia, Laconia. The icon, with its remarkable portrait character, dates from 1963 and is the work of the painter Lazaris.

In Sarantapichos of Corinth, he is depicted as a monk together with the homonymous Hierarch of Myra, and this because at the beginning of May they celebrate together (1907).

He also appears as a monk in Pera Vachlia of Arcadia (1914), in Kalliani of Corinth, in Dimitsana as well as in Vytina of Arcadia.

In addition to the iconss in which Saint Nicholas of Vounenis is depicted alone, there are also icons in which biographical scenes are included. One such case is the prominent icon, which is kept in the Sacred Monastery of Ano Xenia in Magnesia (fourth quarter of the 19th century). In the center of the icon in question the Saint is represented between twelve brothers of the Skete, below an arched passage. Two friezes, one in the upper and one in the lower part of the icon, include three episodes from the life of the holy martyr Nicholas: in the upper part, the Proclamation of the Saint as a Duke, his Monastic Tonsure and the Martyrdom of his fellow ascetics are depicted. In the lower part are depicted the Beating of the Saint by two executioners, the Saint Shot by Arrows according to the type of Saint Sebastian, and finally the Entombment of the holy martyr by his disciples.

A similar example of an icon with biographical scenes in the margins is the icon in Prasino of Arcadia, which dates to 1900 (see image at the top). The said icon copies the composition of the Xenia Monastery icon. This fact indicates the circulation of an engraving with this layout and subject matter.

The reasons why Saint Nicholas of Vounenis is depicted as a monk mainly in 19th and 20th century icons are not sufficiently known. This is probably due to the publication of the Service of the Hieromonk Akakios Diakrousis in the year 1791. In the Service of Akakios no reference is made to the Saint's military past. On the contrary, in every troparion in every hymn, His monastic identity is emphasized in combination, of course, with martyrdom. For example, in the first troparion of Great Vespers, under the the "Lord I Have Cried", the following is said: "Come, assembled faithful, with hymns let us honor Nicholas the New, who subdued the devil, first with asceticism, then trampled him with his martyrdom." And in the Doxastikon says: "Come... let us rise up in praise, the venerable and martyr Nicholas, the athlete in the mountains..." So it seems that the depiction of Saint Nicholas as a monk constitutes an attempt to conform to the Service composed in his honor under Akakios Diakrousis.

Moreover, this late iconographic type of the holy martyr Nicholas of Vounenis must have originated in some icon production workshop, such as the famous Byzantine Monastery of Ano Xenia in Magnesia, from which the oldest known biographical icon of the Saint comes. The fact also that the considered iconographic type predominates in the post-revolutionary years may be connected to the softening of His role as a military protector of the slaves, as it was in the Post-Byzantine era. In any case, the research continues unabated and it is certain that in the future it will gather as much information as possible about the evolution of the iconography of the miraculous holy martyr Nicholas the New.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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