Thessaly, Pyli, the church of Porta Panagia

Era 13AD
Location Pili 420 32, Greece

The church of Porta Panagia is just outside the village of Pyli in Thessaly. It’s on a strategic pass in the mountains between Epiros and Thessaly, and is dedicated to the Invincible Mother of God of the Great Gates. It has the form of a cross-vaulted three-aisled basilica with an exonarthex to the west, which is believed to have been added no later than the mid-fourteenth century.

The only mosaics that seem ever to have been in the church take the form of full-length figures of Christ and the Virgin with Christ-child on the two piers flanking the sanctuary screen. The mosaics are both surrounded by elaborate marble frames, turning them into monumental icons. Usually, Christ would be shown on the right and the Virgin on the left of the templon screen but here (the same is true at the Chora Church in Constantinople, dating to 1321), their positions are reversed. What is striking about the mosaics, however, is not their iconography, which is pretty bog standard (Christ standing and blessing; Mary holding her son and looking pained). It is the background to the figures, which is made not from gold glass but from cubes of yellowish sandstone. Why, we don’t know. Whether the patron couldn’t afford gold tesserae or couldn’t get hold of gold tesserae or whether there were once gold tesserae there but they have been subsequently removed, we can’t tell. The fact that there are only these two mosaic panels might suggest that the patron was strapped for cash or for materials. The church also contains wall paintings: whether the same workshop executed both the frescos and the mosaics is possible.

We know that the patron in 1283 was the spectacularly-named John I Angelos Komnenos Doukas (his names reflect three dynasties of Byzantine rulers) who was ruler of Thessaly. He was the illegitimate son of Michael II Komnenos Doukas, who was Despot (ruler) of Epiros between c1230 and1266/68. On Michael’s death, his kingdom was split in two. His legitimate son, Nikephoros Komnenos Doukas (1267/8-96), got Epiros (and built the church of the Panagia Paregoritissa in Arta and put mosaics into it) whilst John just got Thessaly.

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