Daphni, Greece

Also known as Dafne Monastery
Era 11AD
Location Athinon avenue, Athene 124 61, Greece

We do not know to whom the church was dedicated; we do not know its function; and we have no idea of its patron. Virtually no historical documentation has been preserved about the date of the church or the mosaics and the circumstances of their manufacture. They are dated by analogies with the mosaics of Hosios Loukas and Nea Moni on Chios, both also in Greece. There is an academic consensus that the church and the mosaics date to somewhere in the period between 1050 and 1150, and that the architects and mosaicists knew and were profoundly influenced by the (slightly less inconclusively dated) structure and decoration of Hosios Loukas.

Daphni is a cross in square church. Its best-known mosaic is probably that in the dome, an awesome Pantokrator (‘Ruler of All’), the half-length image of a sombre and majestic Christ, right hand blessing, left hand holding a book, looking down in the worshippers in the church. People always look at it and take pictures from immediately underneath but actually it was designed to be seen best from under the centre of the arch from the inner narthex, the point when the worshipper steps out into the nave

There is a Mother of God and Child in the apse, flanked in the bema by the archangels Michael and Gabriel. Scenes from the life of Christ are in the naos. The Annunciation, Nativity, Baptism and Transfiguration are in the squinches of the dome; the Birth of Mary, Crucifixion, Entry into Jerusalem and Raising of Lazarus are in the north cross arm; and the Coming of the Magi, the Anastasis, Doubting of Thomas and Presentation in the Temple are all in the south cross arm. The Death of the Virgin (the Koimesis or Dormition) is on the east wall of the inner narthex and in the outer narthex are three scenes from Christ’s Passion (Washing of Feet, Last Supper, and Betrayal) and three from the life of the Virgin (the Prayer of Joachim and Anna, the Blessing of the Virgin, and her Dedication in the Temple). Thirty-two saints survive. It is almost certain that gaps represent losses rather than that there were no mosaics. Because of the scenes about Mary, it has been suggested that the church was originally dedicated to her. Perfectly possible, but we simply don’t know.


The church at Daphni is a short trip out from Athens and was well-established on the tourist trail. But a devastating earthquake in the 1990s meant a long period of closure for restoration. I believe (writing in 2018) that it has re-opened but it's always worth checking.

Because of all the earthquake damage over many centuries, there is a lot of debate about which mosaics are original and which are restorations and how much and where the restoration is.

The cross in square, by which I mean, very crudely, a square or rectangular church with a central dome over the nave and four short cross arms radiating out from the centre, is a form typical of what are labelled Middle Byzantine churches. It represents a major shift from the Early Christian basilica, the rectangular box which was still the dominant church form used in the West. Most cross-in-square churches are smaller than basilicas, but the plan creates, in its spatial effects, an interplay of high and low, central and side spaces, dim and well-lit areas, and the presence of a dome and squinches introduce several curved walls. In many ways, it is a far better architectural shell for mosaic than the basilica.

The Pantokrator in the dome: Art historians have sought to assign workshops (and/or artists) to the mosaics. Thus, for Hugh Buchthal, Daphni was the work of three separate artists or workshops, of whom the Dome master was the most accomplished. The mosaics of the prophets, the scenes in the squinches, the angels in the bema, and some of the scenes on the walls (Crucifixion, Anastasis, and Koimesis) belonged to the second group. The third group consisted of the other Christological scenes in the naos and all the narthex panels. There is, of course, no way of confirming or denying these subjective interpretations of the style of the mosaics of the two churches and of the solitary ‘genius’ of the ‘Dome Christ Master’. But once the mosaics are divided into three groups, what does that mean? Were they the work of different artists within the same workshop? Or of different groups of artists from distinct workshops all operating at the same time? Or active at other times – are the perceived stylistic changes also a sign of chronological differences? Buchthal speculated that the Pantokrator genius was commissioned to produce the whole programme, but accidently fell off the scaffolding and died from his injuries, and the work had to be continued either by his assistants or by new artists. This explains why there are no further ‘works of genius’. I hope you can see that this is a great story but has no basis.

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