Phokis, Hosios Loukas

Also known as Monastery of Hosios Loukas
Era 11AD
Location Distomo 320 05, Greece

The monastery and pilgrimage site of Hosios Loukas (Holy Luke), in Phocis in Central Greece (near to Delphi), is dedicated to a local holy man, Loukas of Stiris (St Luke the Younger), who was born in 896 and moved to the present location of the monastic settlement in 946/7, where he remained till his death in 953. There are two churches on the site. The smaller (and built with more bricks), a cross in square church, is the older. This church is now dedicated to the Mother of God and has no interior decoration surviving – but still stick your nose inside. At some point in the eleventh century, the area to the south of that church was developed, and the present church (more stone than the earlier church) and the mortuary crypt below it were built and decorated with a combination of mosaics and wall paintings. This larger church also has a cross in square plan with an octagonal dome.

Hosios Loukas is widely accepted as eleventh century, either constructed between 1011-1022 or in the 1040s and 50s, whilst the mosaics and the wall paintings in the church and crypt are generally believed to date to this later period. The problem with the earlier date is that it then means a long process of completion and decoration of the church, one of some forty years, which is less necessary if the later date for building and mosaics is accepted. It’s possible. Certainly a church – any building – could only be built at the speed at which the money and the logistics allowed, and it is plausible that the mechanics of church building in a rather remote part of Greece were more complex and thus more time-consuming than those in a city such as Thessaloniki or Constantinople. Nevertheless, whether in the wilds of Greece or not, forty years is still a very long time to build and decorate a single church.

At Hosios Loukas, mosaic survives throughout the katholikon church. The original decoration of the dome has been lost: the painted image now there of Christ in Majesty or Christ Pantokrator, ruler of all, as he is usually identified, may have copied it, but is much later. In the apse is a seated Mother of God with her Child, flanked by angels, and there is a scene of Pentecost in the dome of the bema. In the nave, the spandrels and arches of the dome are occupied by scenes from the life of Christ (the Nativity, Presentation in the Temple and Baptism survive), whilst the Crucifixion and Anastasis are on the east wall of the narthex. Throughout the church above the marble revetments are mosaic images of over 140 saints. Look for the image of Hosios Loukas himself. There are contemporary frescoes in the three side chapels to the north and south of the central nave, and in the narthex gallery and the crypt.

At Hosios Loukas, the relationship between light and the form of the building is remarkable. Although much of the light comes through the windows, the gallery also has spaces that open onto the outside world. These windows are not visible from within the church and so the gallery spaces appear to glow from within. Even the semi-translucent marble panels at the bottom of window openings inside the church are carved out to such an extent that they too admit light.

It is plausible that the mosaics were funded by the abbot Theodore Leobachos (d.1048), who was from a local family that had provided a succession of abbots to the monastery in the eleventh century and that had, as wealthy local nobility, provided much of the finance for the foundation. It has further been suggested that Theodore had the support of the emperor Constantine IX Monomachos in the 1040s, though there is no actual evidence for this, rather it’s a supposition based on the presence of the medium of mosaic and the scale of the church. The marble decoration of the katholikon is recorded in an inscription as the contribution of Abbot Gregory, perhaps the next abbot after Theodore, and the man who completed the decoration of the katholikon.


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.

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