Chios, Nea Monii
|Nea Moni of Chios 821 00, Greece
Nea Moni, the ‘New Monastery’, dedicated to the Mother of God, is on the island of Chios. It is conventionally acknowledged that it was founded by local hermit monks shortly before 1042. Doula Mouriki, who published the mosaics of the church, concluded on the basis of documentary evidence that they were produced for the emperor Constantine IX Monomachos who had a considerable reputation as a patron of churches both in Constantinople and in the provinces of the empire. Mouriki also argued that they were completed between July 1049 and Constantine’s death on 11 January 1055. It is suggested that the image of King David in the Anastasis in the naos is actually a portrait of Emperor Constantine IX. It may be; I’m more inclined to think that Byzantine audiences might have thought that David was intended to hint at the emperor rather than be an actual likeness.
Nea Moni is not a cross-in-square church. It has a rectangular ground plan with a central square nave crowned by an unusual octagonal dome, and two narthexes. The dome may have been designed specifically for a display of mosaics; equally, it may have been an experiment, or even the result of a design change as the church was built. The interior of the naos is breath-taking, being twice as high as it is wide, and lavishly revetted in marble to a height of almost six metres. However, the design is not entirely successful, for the octagonal dome restricts the view of the Sanctuary and apse, which means that there is no clear view within the church of the mosaics of the apse and side chapels. The mosaic zone begins at 5.9 metres above floor level, and the dome rises to a height of 15.62 metres: seeing the mosaics is all a bit neck-straining.
Nea Moni has lost whatever was in the dome. In the apse is a solitary orans Mother of God, without her Child, hands upraised in the traditional position of prayer, flanked by Michael and Gabriel in the apses of the side chapels to left and right. The nave and narthexes have scenes from the life of Christ. In the nave, the Annunciation, Nativity, Presentation, Baptism, Transfiguration, Crucifixion, Descent from Cross and Anastasis. In the narthex, the Raising of Lazarus, Entry into Jerusalem, Washing of Feet, Ascension and Pentecost in the narthex. The narthex dome has a bust of the Mother of God at the centre, defended by military saints and martyrs. Thirty-two in all survive or are known of.
Detail to look for: A cross in a conch, for example, can be horribly distorted because of the problems of showing its straight arms on a curved surface, so it is a bit surprising to find the scene of Christ’s Deposition from the Cross at Nea Moni located in a squinch below the central dome. It has not been successfully laid out: the arms of the cross curve in all the wrong places and appear almost to fold back into the scene.
To get there, get a cab from the town square (maidan) in Chios Town and get the taxi driver to wait or come back for you. Trust me - it is the easiest way and the taxi drivers are accustomed to it.
The mosaics were restored in the early twentieth century, not entirely successfully. The great restorer, Ernest Hawkins, memorably described them as having been ‘hung out in lines like washing’, all modulations, lumps and bumps flattened out. 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.