I am by no stretch of the imagination an expert on Orthodox wall paintings but by dint of reading, asking and looking over ten years I have garnered a small amount of knowledge on the subject. To really understand the subject one would need to dedicate one's life to their study, as have many scholars - and it is to these brave souls that I am indebted for these, my own, poor explanations.

How old are the paintings?

A difficult one, as few of the earlier artists either signed let alone dated their work and inscriptions, when they do exist, are difficult to decipher and can easily refer to a rebuilding, restoration or repainting. At first I was making completely wild guesses and usually attributing 18th century paintings to much earlier periods - and most of the paintings you will see in Mani are, in fact, from the mid 1700s when there was a boom in wall painting. After a while one gets a feel for these things and can become almost blasé, 'Aaah Yes…circa 1760, if I'm very much not mistaken…'. What can be assured is that, amongst all the areas of Greece, Mani is particularly rich in churches and many of them are painted, so no-one will go short of chances to get as knowingly pedantic as yrs truly!

In some churches, usually post-Byzantine examples, one will find an inscription on the walls. These are generally formulaic and refer, with short prayers for their long life and well being, to the Patrons or Sponsors of the building, restoration or painting of the church. Also mentioned are members of their family and sometimes the local papas at the time. The painters' names, if they are extant, will normally be in smaller writing and at the bottom of these homilies. It must be remembered that many painters, and their patrons, will have been illiterate.

Two inscriptions. Left Ag. Iannis Prodromos, Milia 1706 (painter - Christodolous Kalliergis of Mykonos) and Ag. Anagyroi, Kipoula 1265 (painter Nikolaos of Retziza) - an extremely rare Byzantine example.

In fact according to a list of painters' inscriptions in Mani churches by Prof. Drandakis published in the journal Lakonikai Spoudai, only two Byzantine period Mani churches have painters names (Ag. Anagyroi at Kipoula and St. Michael's Polemitas) and there are surprisingly few later examples. At least with most post Byzantine dates they are usually in a format westerners can understand - whereas the earlier Byzantine dating system is radically different to the modern*. Most dating by experts is done by comparing and contrasting iconography and painting styles from church to church. It is a fascinatingly pedantic form of study and I have to admit reading some texts is an immensely arid experience concerning the ways in which the folds of clothing are depicted.

*Basically the Byzantines dated from the beginning of the earth (ab origine mundi) and the date of Christ's birth was in the year 5509

There is also a continuum in Orthodox Church painting which means that iconography has remained fairly constant, if not completely static, for centuries. Take for instance the military saints. St. George (Ag. Giorgios) is usually depicted riding a white horse and Ag. Demetrios a chestnut horse. In later centuries manuals were written down and woe betide the painter who tried to buck tradition as the iconography had to stay. The costumes worn by the military and lay characters can sometimes give some indication of the period in which they were painted. For instance the soldiers in the magnificent but alas fast fading depiction of the Arrest of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane in the 13th century church of Trissakia (Tsopakas, Lakonia) are depicted in distinctly Frankish or Crusader military garb. Other details of lay costume and the depiction of sailing vessels can help one date to the nearest century or so. That said there are changes in iconography and style throughout the centuries which can give the experts clues to dating paintings.

Examples of Byzantine armour depicted in medieval frescoes (Ag. Giorgios from Kitta and Pentakia- Kounos) - they are wearing lamellar armour - steel plates held together with leather thongs

The age of the church building is also no real clue to the date of the frescoes. Many Byzantine church structures are decorated with much later frescoes and there are plenty of examples where overpainting and touching up has occurred. Whenever possible in these pages I have given dates for the paintings, and if they are exact (i.e. 1752) I have got them from a reliable source or from the church. If I date them to a century then they are often conjecture or informed guesswork. Many of the general tourist guides to Greece and Mani are woefully inaccurate and in one the church of Ag. Spiridon at Kardamili is dated to either the 6th or 11th century on the same page and the church is described as having wall paintings. In fact it is early 18th century and is whitewashed. In general, when they date buildings or paintings, the Rough, Lonely Planet, Blue and Cadogan guides are accurate. Locals, even those entrusted with the keys, are also rarely good sources for dating and will either describe paintings as "old", which can mean anything, or tend to ascribe things to the Byzantine period.

As a very broad rule of thumb there are some features which tend to show up the difference between early and late frescoes. Byzantine (by which we mean medieval - up to circa 1460 - when Mistra and the Byzantine Despotate of the Morea fell to the Ottoman Turks) and Post Byzantine. Of course there is no sudden break in painting styles, stylistic shifts took a long time to change but there are differences between, say, 13th/14th and 18th century painting styles and themes which mark them out from one another. It is also a broad generalisation but Mani wall paintings do tend to fall into those two categories although there are few examples of wall paintings from the 15th or 16th centuries in the peninsula.

While the Byzantine Empire existed, even as a ghost of its former self there were major "schools". Constantinople, Thessaloniki and in the Morea, just over the mountains from Mani, was Mistra. These 'schools' dominated the entire Byzantine orthodox world. With the fall of 1453 these major centres were snuffed out. Extremely local forms grew up, often based around monasteries, Mount Athos being the prime example. There are also distinct western influences in post Byzantine paintings - the Cretan School - out of which came El Greco, has distinctive western painting styles - these are most marked in areas where western powers still had influence - Crete, for example, was under Venetian rule until the seventeenth century. The Rococo and Baroque had little direct influence on post-Byzantine painting - though the wooden carved iconostases of the 18th and 19th centuries are obviously influenced by these artistic trends.

Post Byzantine frescoes at Ag. Charalambos - Zarnata. The depiction of Ag. Georgios has definite western influences and is undoubtedly copied from a print of an Italian Renaissance painting - possibly Uccello?.

Byzantine paintings are often larger in concept and size. Post Byzantine painting is often overcrowded with imagery and almost cartoon/comic book in style (following a distinct framed sequence - though frames are found in Byzantine frescoes). In the Mani (and elsewhere) many Post Byzantine iconography tends to dwell on Martyrs, executions, tortures and maimings (in which those inflicting the punishments are often given Turkish appearance) and there is a tendency to add in what may seem to be slightly tendentious religious imagery such as the signs of the zodiac (in fact these are part of artistic interpretation of the Psalms - the Ainoi - of which more later). As the post Byzantine centuries progressed there is a move towards more local themes: festivals, weddings and local costumes start to appear in frescoes. One theme, common in Byzantine painting is the 'Harrowing of Hell' or 'Anastasis'.

The 'Harrowing of Hell' from Ag. Nikolaos, Kastania and Ag. Anagyroi, Kipoula both late Byzantine (13th century)

In this Christ, in the time between his death and the resurrection, descends to 'hell' or at least the limbo into which various Old Testament figures have been confined until He can come and deliver them. This scene seems to have gone out of favour in Post-Byzantine times and is dropped from the Easter festival in the late 17th century "Painter's Manual" of Dionysios of Fourna, and is either missing or takes a much smaller role in 18th century Mani churches.

It is also sadly true that, in general, Byzantine painting is more human and their depiction of faces is more realistic and post-Byzantine rather more stereotypical. You can recognise individuals in some Byzantine paintings and can surmise that the painter was basing the portrait on a real person - in 18th century wall paintings faces are types. Indeed as the centuries stretch away and the scheme of painting becomes more rigid so the images become more formulaic and trite.

Even allowing for the patchy condition the medieval Byzantine portrait ( left - from Ag. Petros - Kastania) is much more realistic and individual than the bland and formulaic 18th century depiction of Ag. Demetrius (right - from Ag. Charalambos, Zarnata)

In fact it is likely that painters used sets of sketches (anthevola) and templates which were passed down from generation to generation. Certainly in the later Post Byzantine period some of these would be based on western art transcribed into prints. For example the depiction of Adam & Eve in the katholikon of the Monastery of Ag. Georgios (nr. Proastio), which is, unusually, in outline only, is possibly based on Dürer's or Cranach's engravings of the subject and is radically different to conventional Greek interpretations of the scene.

Another example of the difference between Byzantine and Post Byzantine painting styles. The earlier Byzantine painting (top) seems like a real person peering out from a layer of later plaster and the much more formulaic Post-Byz' figure. Church of Ag. Iannis & Nikolaos - Stavropigi.

Most general books on Byzantine Art tend to concentrate on a fixed number of locations: the paintings in the Peribleptos and Pantanassa at Mistra, the remnants of mosaics in Hagia Sofia and the undoubted joys of the Chora church in Istanbul. This is understandable but a pity. What you will see in local rural churches is a religious form of folk or even 'naïve' art. The artists were often local and seem generally to have worked in pairs, or at least small teams, painting churches in the summer months and producing icons in the winter. There is a line of thought which identifies a local Maniate school of painters.

This, so called "School of Koutiphari" flourished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries based in the villages around Thalames. It is a dubious term to use as there is little which marks them out from other contemporaneous Greek wall painters, many didn't actually come from Koutiphari (contiguous with present day Thalames), and there is, to my eye, no central aesthetic impetus which marks them out as worthy of the appellation 'School' though their style of painting faces, for example, is one that you can soon spot time and time again. More likely is the fact that during the 18th century the Exo Mani was relatively prosperous and independent and there were plenty of patrons and sponsors eager to have their churches decorated, therefore there was a boom in demand. It may therefore have become a good 'marketing' ploy to describe oneself as "from Koutiphari" but quite a few painters included by some commentators on this subject are from other villages in the Exo Mani some distance from Koutiphari. For example the Klirodeti family seem to have had something of a church painting monopoly of the north eastern or Kato Mani in the 18th century. However I think I may have spotted one piece of iconography which is specific to the Outer and Kato Mani areas during the 18th century and is described in more detail in the page on the Ainoi frescoes.

Whether they deserve the term 'School' or not, their paintings, often completed in a matter of weeks during the summer, before moving on to the next job, can claim little artistic sophistication or in some cases skill. The occasional post Byzantine site has art worth admiring for its conception and inception but most are not high art (whatever that may mean in today's postmodern world). This, in my opinion, generally only adds to their charm. Some have a visceral or mystical power which one can only wonder at. Even in the most ineptly painted sites one can only be impressed by the overall impression of so much colour, detail and movement.

What am I looking at?

To an atheistic, northern European such as myself much of the iconography of Greek Orthodox churches is initially baffling. I have found that friends brought up in the Catholic church are much more able to 'read' the paintings than I. One suspects that even the locals would have problems identifying some of the images and although names of saints etc. are more often than not written into the frescoes they are in old forms of the Greek alphabet (S for example looks more like a C) and there are some curious abbreviations, so that trying to read the captions can sometimes confuse more than it elucidates. Most Post-Byzantine painters knew that they should, given a large enough church, include the 12 major festivals. viz:- The Annunciation, Nativity, Presentation, Baptism, Transfiguration, Raising of Lazarus, Entry into Jerusalem, Crucifixion, Anastasis, Ascension, Penetcost and the Dormition of the Virgin Mary.

Visitation, Nativity Ag. Triada Ano Doli and Baptism Nikovo, Exohori - all 18th century

A good knowledge of the Bible is useful but many of the more obscure saints, founders of the (eastern) church and martyrs will need further research. It is often useful to know the name of the church, ask a local, if one is wandering nearby, "Pos legete ekklisia?" and point, will probably do the trick, as there may well be scenes from the life of that individual - this is especially true of the relatively common Ag. Nikolaos (of Myra or "Father Christmas"). Another way of working out the name of a church is to look at the niche above the west (or main) door. Sometimes the painting will have succumbed to weather but when extant it will invariably give you an image matching the name of the church.

A number of common sights (by no means exhaustive) are as follows.

The Pantocrator

Left, Pantocrator - dome, Ag.Iannis Prodromos, Milia. Middle, Centre of Ainoi scheme, Ag. Nikolaos Proastio. Right, Pantocrator dome of Ag. Theodoroi, Proastio.

The "All Powerful" or "Ruler of all things". In any domed church this will be in the top centre of the cupola. If there is no dome then the Pantocrator will be in the barrel vault in the centre of the church. Christ, head and shoulders only, is usually portrayed as stern and serious to a degree which in some examples suggests anger, in others sadness and compassion. Surrounding the image of Christ will be the angels and assorted seraphim and cherubim. There will also be a similar Christ in Glory, only full length, if the Ainoi Paintings are in a church. This scheme of paintings is described in more detail below and in the linked page but is a depiction of Psalms 147-150. If this is so there will be another Christ figure similar to the Pantocrator, but in 'full length' in the roof of the naos. Many Pantocrators' are missing or fragmentary - presumably as the top of the cupola, often with glassless windows allowing ingress of damp, is the first place for frescoes and plaster to crumble.

The Iconostasis

This divide between the naos and the bema (nave and sanctuary) is the excuse for all sorts of decoration but in general should include an icon of the saint or holy person after which the church is dedicated. In a classic church there are, on the upper level of the iconostasis, depictions of the apostles and in the centre Christ, The Virgin and others such as St. John the Baptist - the Prodromos - 'the one who came before' carrying his own head on a plate. In the 18th and 19th centuries baroque and rococo influenced wooden, extravagantly carved and painted iconostases were commonplace.

The Panagia

Panagia and Child - from Ag. Petros Kastania and Ag. Triada, Ano Doli (the latter in the 'Orans' position)

The depiction of the Mother of Christ (Panagia = lit. "…the all holy") with the infant Christ which is placed in the centre of the apse of the bema. In the western tradition, The Virgin Mary. Much of post Byzantine iconography has to do with the life of the Panagia and a constant theme is the Akathistos hymn which is sung, standing up, in her praise. The Panagia is also known by a variety of names - the Theotokos or Mother of Christ or literally 'Maker of God' - (the "Koimisis tis Theotokou' for example means literally 'The Going to Sleep of the Maker of God' or as westerners will know it 'The Dormition of the Virgin') being just one common variation and the various attitudes she takes, the positioning of her hands and arms and her trappings lend her different appellations.

The Archangels (Taxiarches)

A medieval Taxiarch (left - from Ag. Petros, Kastania 13th c.) wearing studded leather armour and the more fanciful Post Byzantine Archangels. From left to right - from the Moni Philiatrou, Langada, Ag. Nikolaos, Kastania (prob. both 18th c.)and Phaneromeni, Lagia, 1856.

These are sometimes in close proximity to the Panagia in the bema but can be found elsewhere on the walls- often on the north wall of the naos and facing any southern doorway. The Archangel Michael, holding a spear or sword and sometimes a tiny infant Christ in swaddling clothes in his left hand, usually sports a breastplate and greaves of bronze or gold onto which are painted lurid faces, presumably to frighten his foes. Additional 'clues' are the giveaway large wings these figures sprout. The armour changes with the date. Later post Byzantine Taxiarches have armour which looks much like the flamboyant if impractical designs of the Italian high renaissance and it's interpretation of Roman armour. Indeed much later Orthodox painting of Roman soldiery looks to have been copied from prints of 16th and 17th century western art. Earlier Byzantine versions of the Taxiarches are studies of contemporary warriors with studded, leather work and lamellar, a system of overlapping rectangles of iron held together by leather thongs. Shields in later depictions are circular or rounded whereas medieval shields were generally either long kite shaped affairs or triangular tapering to a point, although, just to confuse, circular shields are depicted in Byzantine period paintings. There are a number of churches dedicated to the Taxiarches or in some cases this is known as Strategos or 'General'.

The founders of the church

A set of serious looking and usually, though not necessarily, old men, often with long flowing beards and canonical robes. These are usually below the Panagia in the Bema. Other depictions of a bloke atop a column usually means you are looking at St. Simon Stylites - a particularly unpleasant Syrian saint who lived for years on top of a column yelling imprecations at the faithful who indulgently fed him and presumably cleared up his ordures. There were other Stylites, in fact sitting on top of pillars seems to have been a vogue amongst holy men in the earlier part of the Byzantine period. Another more commonly observed character is The Righteous or Just Melchizedek - who features in the early books of the Old Testament- easily spotted by his forked grey beard, disapproving stare and holding a plate with loaves on it - there should be just three but there are often more . He is usually found in the right hand niche of the apse or bema (sanctuary).

Elders of the Church (medieval, Ag. Petros, Gardenitsa) and The Righteous Melchizedek (18th century, Ag. Nikolaos, Proastio)

Also often found in the northern wall of the bema is a depiction of Ag. Petros (St. Peter) of Alexandria who is addressing a juvenile Christ who is standing on a holy table (it looks like a canopy) and is only partially clothed. The words which accompany this have St. Peter of Alexandria (martyred 311 AD) asking who has rent Christ's clothes. Christ replies that it was the 'foolish and abominable Arius' (a schismatic priest, 'Arios' is the Greek spelling). Sometimes, in Mani, this can, tendentiously refer to the nearby depiction of Jonah and the Whale, who was also thought to be foolish and is sometimes missing a halo (see more below).

St Peter of Alexandria and Christ, Ag Nikolaos, Kato Doli and an interesting, if not that uncommon, variation from the apse of Ag. Georgios nr. Proastio, where two Christs' are shown dispensing the bread and wine

The military saints

There are quite a panoply of military saints who sometimes are based on actual persons, early Christian martyrs and the like and sometimes are characters whose actual origins are diverse and, by and large, mythical or at the very least symbolic. There are plenty of 'eye witness' accounts of the military saints weighing in on the Byzantine side in battles and they seem to have lost little of their popularity in post-Byzantine times and were undoubtedly symbolic rallying points in the period of Ottoman domination. The list is quite long; Saints - George, Demetrius, the Theodores, Procopius, Sergius & Bacchus, Mercurius and many more though the most common sights in Mani churches are the first three.

St. George (white horse) and St. Demetrius (on a red or brown horse) are often found on either side of the naos though sometimes they are together on one wall (usually the north). As with the Taxiarches, a close study of armour can aid in dating these figures, as can the ways in which they saddle and ride their horses. It has been recently pointed out in a Dumbarton Oaks paper by Sharon Gerstel (see bibliography page for full reference) that before the Crusade of 1204 most military saints were depicted (at least in wall paintings) on foot, standing facing the viewer. After the Frankish seizure of Constantinople in 1204 and the subsequent seizing of large tracts of the Morea (Peloponnese)by French knights - the iconography changes to mounted saints - often with saddelry and riding styles which closely matched those of the conquering French are marked, especially in the southern Morea which, it is surmised, was dominated by the French, and more particularly by their omnipotent cavalry, until 1265.

St. George is especially prevalent and many churches are named after him although the various sources for his life, death and martyrdom are extremely tangled webs to unwind. Rather like Robin Hood St. George's sources are an admixture of the mythical and elemental and direct historical reactions to the prevailing ethno-political situation. He is invariably on a white horse and is spearing a dragon or infernal worm (whose appearance is not laid down by iconographic manuals, therefore a chance for the painters to let their imaginations rip) - though interestingly the Princess he was supposedly saving never actually appears in frescos. Other saints have their dragons too and sometimes - though I've yet to identify an example in Mani - Theodoros joins in or is seen despatching one.

St. George often has a tiny water bearer, or, as Osbert Lancaster has it in his entertaining and informative "Sailing to Byzantium: An Architectural Companion" (1969), a "coffee boy" riding pillion. There is no clear explanation for this common addition to St. George. David Talbot Rice, one of the great writers on Byzantine painting, noted that this figure only begins to appear from the 14th century and related an ingenious Cypriot story to explain the coffee boy.

In this St. George is resting in a Kafeneion imbibing a metrio when the call comes to save the princess from the dragon. George leaps to his horse but the cafe owner worried that George will need refreshment fighting a dragon on such a hot day sends his boy along with a flask of coffee. There are strong arguments that the pillion rider has more ancient antecedents and is a relation of the story of how St. George saved some young men or boys from Mitilene. Indeed there is an icon in the British Museum dated roughly to 1250 which shows a youth riding pillion to St. George and offering him a glass of wine.

St Demetrius on his chestnut horse - left -18th c. version from church of Ag. Charalambos, Stavropigi and right - 19th century version from Ag. Konstantinos, Lagia, with the priest riding pillion

In the small church of Ag. Konstantinos in Lagia in SE Mani there is the intriguing sight of Ag. Demetrios with a pillion rider, the only one I've seen, and in this mid 19th century instance a Papas is stealing a lift (see above right).

Saint Demetrius (Dimitris) is a bit of a puzzle as he doesn't really start to appear as a military saint until some many centuries into his 'existence' and doesn't really capture the imagination of church painters outside of Thessaloniki, his base, until the late centuries of Byzantium.For a long time his chief claim to fame was the 'miraculous' ability of his tomb, in that northern Greek city, to pour forth myron - a sort of oil which could be used as a charm when smeared upon oneself. This 'ability' soon stopped once the Ottomans had taken Thessaloniki and converted the church into a mosque - odd that…

Demetrius only really took on a military nature in the latter part of the medieval period and his metamorphosis from martyred official to all powerful cavalyrman. This is partly due to the campaigns and sieges which beset Thessaloniki - and whereby it was preferable that the local saint became a soldier and fighter rather than an civil servant whose bones leached holy oil. There are stories of St. Demetrius defeating and slaying Slav leaders, which though baseless led to his adoption by the Greek (and eventually Orthodox) world as one of the 'état-major' of warrior saints.

There are other warrior saints - the Saints Theodore, for example, are common sights and some churches (such as Agioi. Theodoroi at Kambos) are named after them. In fact only one of them is believed to have actually existed -Agios Theodoros the Tiron (the recruit) whose sources are located in the Pontus, but later on another - Agios Theodoros Stratelates (a military rank closer to 'General' than recruit) joined the pantheon. They are, in late Byzantine and certainly in post-Byzantine wall paintings, often shown riding together or more intimately they (and their horses) appear to be embracing in a fond, though doubtless merely comradely, clinch, their halos interlocked. Strictly speaking Theodoros Tiron has a goatee or single beard, Stratelates a forked beard.

If you want to delve deeper into the background of the military saints may I (reservedly) recommend the tome by Christopher Walter. 'The Warrior Saints in Byzantine Art and Tradition'. Ashgate Publishing. Aldershot. 2003. ISBN 184014694X. Reservedly, as it is a highly academic treatise and by no means an 'easy read'.

The Last Judgement

Often to be found on the rear wall of a church this is dominated by a portrait of Christ in a similar pose to the Pantocrator but in full length. The themes of the Last Judgement took on a more formalised format during the post-Byzantine era. At the top is the Christ in Majesty and from his feet runs a huge river of fire (I must admit at first I took this to be a large red rope) dividing the blessed and saved from the damned who are shown suffering the varied and imaginative trials of hell.

Hades and vats of nasty things -Last Judgement from Monastery of Lykaki, Viros Gorge, Exo Mani

The damned can often be just ordinary folk but in some depictions certain specific groups and individuals can be identified. At the foot of the river of fire the Great Beast or Hades is seen - its huge maw open. A common scene in Mani churches is just above the gaping mouth of Hades where a woman (Thalassas or the sea) bestrides a fish around her wrecked ships and the limbs of the shipwrecked.

In some Mani churches there is a frieze of figures - usually in outline only, around the floor level of the church. These show the damned, usually ordinary people, being put to some rather unpleasant tortures.

The damned from a small 18th century church in Platsa - the tortures having been excised by the prurient

It is speculated that these were put there so that they were at eye level whilst the congregation were deep in prayer. For an expert overview of the Last Judgement in Post Byzantine painting see Miltos Garidis' masterly book 'Etudes Sur Le Jugement Dernier Post-Byzantin', Thessaloniki. 1985.

The Crucifixion

This is often found on the west wall above the main door and sometimes above the Last Judgment, though other locations such as the western end of the north wall of the nave are possible.

A Byzantine version of the Crucifixion - Ag. Nikolaos (or 'Nikolakis'), Kastania

In the conventional post-Byzantine depictions Christ is shown flanked by two mounted Roman soldiers, one spearing him the other offering him the wine soaked sponge. The centurion who exclaimed that "this was surely the Son of God" is shown to the right - usually with a faintly arabic looking headscarf.

Mid 18th century Crucifixion - above The Last Judgement - Dekoulou Monastery, Itilo

Other soldiers divide his clothing (their costume sometimes giving a clue to the age of the painting). Underneath the cross is a small mound with a skull and crossbones - they are those of Adam. In many of these depictions there is a naked figure rising out of, what looks suspiciously like a bath. I can only surmise that this refers to the Saints rising from their graves.

The Zodiac & Psalms

A fair sign that one is looking at post-Byzantine painting; this is usually found on the ceiling of the west end of the naos. It will have a Christ Pantocrator in the centre surrounded by a depiction of the signs of the Zodiac. Often on either side is a depiction of a feast (musicians and dancing girls) on the north ceiling - this is an interpretation of the Psalms - especially Psalms 147- 150. On the south ceiling below the zodiac there is often a display of exotic and sometimes fantastical beasts and even cyclopean humans.

Ainoi paintings, "All God's Creatures" - Ag. Nikolaos, Kastania

Many of these will have been copied from western paintings - most local Greek painters would never have seen a leopard (a commonly depicted beast) let alone sketched one. You should also be able to spot the depiction of the lines "Let the saints be joyful in glory; let them sing aloud upon their beds, Let the high praises of God be in their mouth and a two-edged sword in their hand; to execute vengeance upon the heathen and punishments upon the people; to bind their kings with chains and their nobles with fetters of iron…" (Psalm 149. 5-8). For a fuller analysis of these paintings and some local variations exclusive to Mani, generally called 'The Ainoi' or 'Praises' click here or there is a link at the bottom of this page.

Jonah and the Whale

Variations on the theme of Jonah

Another relatively common piece of local iconography is to be found below the Prothesis (northern niche in the Bema) of post-Byzantine churches. This is of the prophet Jonah and the Whale, but Miltos Garidis (Etudes sur le Jugement Dernier Post-Byzantin du XVe a la fin du XIXe siecle: Iconographie-Esthétique. Thessaloniki. 1985) thought that the beast was Hades, a figure from the Last Judgement and points out that in the church of the Zoodokos Pigi the poor individual who is about to be a 'fish supper' is depicted not, as is usual as a Saint, but as a be-turbanned Muslim. "…la gueule de l'Enfer est représentée dans une composition indépendante, sous la niche de l'Abside latérale Nord de la Prothésis juste au-dessus du niveau du sol et au-dessous d'un Chist de l'Humiliation. Dans le gueule du dragon, plutot monstre marin, un musulman enturbanné." (Garidis p. 77). If this is so, and the figure is missing the distinct halo of most other examples, then this Mussulman is the only such version I have come across, although the same painters seem to have had a penchant for 'fiddling' with this theme and in Ag.Nikolaos in Kato Doli and Ag. Stratigos just to the north of Ano Doli the figure being swallowed by a vast sea beast licked by the flames of hell, is an Orthodox priest or monk and is clearly named as 'O Arios'. This refers to the priest Arius who fomented the Arian heresy of the early 4th century AD and was in conflict with St. Peter of Alexandria whose depiction is mentioned above. This heresy, in simplistic terms, was a denial of the divinity of Jesus and was quickly repudiated by the Church elders. Why a certain group of late 18th century Mani painters decided to re-interpret what is usually Jonah and his whale as Arius is one of the little mysteries of Mani church painting.

Two more Jonahs. Left, the Prothesis of the Katholikon of Moni Panagia - Gaitses villages, Right Another variation from Ag. Charalambos, Zarnata.

For a good guide to what is what in a post Byzantine church I recommend "The Painters Manual of Dionysius of Fourna". This was written in the early 18th century by the eponymous monk and painter from Northern Greece and sets out the format for the depiction of most of the pictures you will see on the walls. An excellent English translation by Paul Hetherington (1974) is unfortunately out of print but available in some academic libraries and sometimes from second hand booksellers. That said there is a desperate need for a proper illustrated guide to post-Byzantine iconography which can be extremely obscure even to experts let alone the casual enthusiast. One can, if one can find one, ask the local Papas what the paintings are about, but most orthodox priests are not renowned for their education and therefore rarely speak a foreign language.

On to the Ainoi Paintings of the last Psalms