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Byzantine frescoes at Saint Panteleimon, Nerezi

by Dr. Evan Freeman
Church of Saint Panteleimon, 1164, Nerezi, North Macedonia (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Church of Saint Panteleimon, 1164, Nerezi, North Macedonia (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The Eastern Roman “Byzantine” Empire is well known for its glittering, gold mosaics. But the medieval artists of Byzantium were also adept at a wall painting technique known as fresco: a less expensive medium than mosaics in which artists applied pigments to wet plaster so that the painting became chemically bonded to the wall itself. A small church located in the village of Gorno Nerezi (commonly just “Nerezi”) on the outskirts of Skopje, North Macedonia, preserves some of the finest examples of fresco from the Byzantine period.
Byzantium Empire with location of Saint Panteleimon, Nerezi, c. 1173 (Map © Google)
Byzantium Empire with location of Saint Panteleimon, Nerezi, c. 1173 (Map © Google)

Imperial patronage

According to a painted inscription in the church, the Middle Byzantine church of Saint Panteleimon (pronounced pan-tah-LAY-mon) was built as a monastery church in 1164 by Alexios Komnenos, a nephew of Byzantine emperor
John II
. Alexios may have owned land in this region. Nerezi’s five-domed architecture and high-quality frescoes reflect its imperial patronage.
Church of Saint Panteleimon, 1164, Nerezi, North Macedonia (photo: Evan Freeman, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) (view annotated image)
Church of Saint Panteleimon, 1164, Nerezi, North Macedonia (photo: Evan Freeman, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) (view annotated image)

Architecture

Saint Panteleimon is a modest,
cross-domed
structure with four smaller domed chapels, making it a five-domed church (read more about cross-domed churches). Its five-domed design echoes the form of the
church of the Holy Apostles
in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople (destroyed following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453)—which contained
relics
of the Apostles and the tombs of Byzantine emperors—reflecting Nerezi’s connections with the capital and imperial family.
Plan of Saint Panteleimon, Nerezi (adapted from plan © Robert Ousterhout)
Plan of Saint Panteleimon, Nerezi (adapted from plan © Robert Ousterhout)
Like most Byzantine churches, Saint Panteleimon is divided into three main parts, which were adorned with frescoes:
  1. the
    narthex
    at the western end of the church, which functioned as an entrance vestibule;
  2. the
    naos
    —the main part of the church—where most of the worshippers attended church services; and
  3. the
    bema
    , or sanctuary, where the altar was located and where the
    clergy
    led the celebration of the
    Eucharist
    .
The two eastern chapels connect to the bema, enabling them to function as a
prothesis
and
diakonikon
. The two western chapels connect with the narthex and may have been used for services that took place in the narthex.

Frecoes

While the frescoes in the narthex have been badly damaged and the upper portions of the naos and bema were replaced with
post-Byzantine
paintings, the naos and bema preserve much of the original, twelfth-century frescoes on the lower levels.
Frescoes in the northern crossarm of the naos, 1164, Saint Panteleimon, Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Frescoes in the northern crossarm of the naos, 1164, Saint Panteleimon, Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
A stunning, blue background unifies the original, twelfth-century frescoes, which have been executed with a range of vivid colors. The figures at Nerezi are slender and often elongated. Nerezi’s painters have made extensive use of lines to define the boundaries of shapes, model forms, and portray emotions in the individualized faces of many of Nerezi’s figures. This elongation of the figures and repetition of lines create a sense of visual rhythms and movement within the church, and were a hallmark of Byzantine painting during the
Komnenian period
.
Portrait of monastic Saint Arsenios in the southern crossarm of the naos, 1164, Saint Panteleimon, Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Portrait of monastic Saint Arsenios in the southern crossarm of the naos, 1164, Saint Panteleimon, Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The high quality of Nerezi’s frescoes and similarities with other artworks have led many scholars to conclude that the church’s painters hailed from the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, a major center of artistic patronage and production. Nerezi’s frescoes are particularly valuable since no painted church programs from Constantinople survive from this period (much of Constantinople’s church art was destroyed following the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453).

The Naos

As was common in
post-Iconoclastic
churches, Nerezi features full-length, nearly life-size portraits of saints at the floor level, with narrative scenes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary above.
The Meeting of the Lord in the Temple
The Meeting of the Lord in the Temple fresco in the southern crossarm of the naos, 1164, Saint Panteleimon, Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The Meeting of the Lord in the Temple fresco in the southern crossarm of the naos, 1164, Saint Panteleimon, Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
This narrative cycle begins on the southern crossarm of the naos, which is dominated by a large image of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple. Here, Mary and Joseph bring the newborn Jesus into the Jewish temple and the prophets Simeon and Anna identify him as the Messiah (view annotated image).
Detail of Meeting of the Lord with painted imitation of bookmatched marble revetment at Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Detail of Meeting of the Lord with painted imitation of bookmatched marble revetment at Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The artists have imagined the interior of the temple as a Christian church with an altar,
ciborium
, and marble revetment (including
bookmatched
marble slabs like those found in
Justinian
’s sixth-century Hagia Sophia and other Byzantine churches).
Bookmatched marble revetment, Hagia Sophia, 532–37, Constantinople (Istanbul) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Bookmatched marble revetment, Hagia Sophia, 532–37, Constantinople (Istanbul) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The Deposition
Christ’s followers mourn his death on the north side of the naos, a common theme of hymns and sermons during the
post-Iconoclastic era
.
Deposition fresco in the northern crossarm of the naos, 1164, Saint Panteleimon, Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Deposition fresco in the northern crossarm of the naos, 1164, Saint Panteleimon, Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
In the Deposition, Christ’s followers remove his body from the cross. Joseph of Arimathea looks out at the viewer with a piercing gaze from the center of the scene.
The Lamentation
Lamentation fresco in northern crossarm of the naos, 1164, Saint Panteleimon, Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Lamentation fresco in northern crossarm of the naos, 1164, Saint Panteleimon, Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The narrative continues with the Threnos, or Lamentation, located next to the Deposition. The dead Christ now lies on the ground but has not yet been placed in the tomb (which appears on the left side of the image).
North crossarm of the naos at Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA)
North crossarm of the naos at Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA)
Christ’s followers mourn his death. Lines of grief crease their faces, creating emotional expressions often absent from Byzantine art. The Virgin cradles her dead son in her lap, recalling how she carried him into the temple in the Meeting of the Lord on the opposite wall. (view annotated image)
Detail of the Lamentation with Christ and the Virgin at Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Detail of the Lamentation with Christ and the Virgin at Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
John the Evangelist clings to Christ’s hand at the center of the scene. His hunched body creates sweeping contours that move the viewer’s eyes toward the dead Christ and his mother. Additional mourners gather at Christ’s feet and angels appear in the sky above, echoing the grief of Christ’s followers below. These human and angelic figures display a range of emotions and gestures of bereavement, which must have invited Byzantine viewers to engage emotionally with this image.
Detail of the Lamentation at Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Detail of the Lamentation at Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
In Byzantine mosaics and panel paintings, such scenes often appeared against a solid gold background. Yet here, the artist has effectively employed fresco to create a naturalistic environment: an undulating green ground, tan hills with rhythmic curves, and a deep blue sky. This landscape also serves the larger composition; the silhouettes of the hills sink toward the center of the scene, moving the viewer’s eyes to the figures, and heightening the overall drama of the image.
Left: Lamentation at Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0); right: Giotto, Lamentation fresco, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel, 1305–06, Padua (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Left: Lamentation at Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0); right: Giotto, Lamentation fresco, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel, 1305–06, Padua (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
This scene, its naturalistic setting, and its emphasis on emotion all anticipate developments associated with Renaissance Italy. Scholars have noted the striking similarities between Nerezi and Giotto’s fourteenth-century frescoes at the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy, particularly in Giotto’s own rendition of this same scene: The Lamentation. Although Giotto’s figures are more naturalistic than those at Nerezi, both frescoes emphasize the mourners’ grief within a landscape that amplifies the drama of the scene.

From Templon to Iconostasis

Annotated templon and proskynetaria icons at Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Annotated templon and proskynetaria icons at Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
A templon separates the naos (where most worshippers stood) from the bema (where the clergy stood around the altar), reconstructed from twelfth-century fragments (view location in plan). This form of sanctuary barrier, consisting of chancel slabs
chancel slabs
,
colonnettes
, and an epistyle or
templon beam
, was widespread in Byzantium during this time, and enabled laypeople to see into the bema. Later, Byzantine templons incorporated
intercolumnar icons
(as seen at the fourteenth-century church of Saint George of Staro Nagoričino) creating what is known as an “iconostasis,” which can still be found in Orthodox churches today.
Templon with intercolumnar icons at the church of Saint George, Staro Nagoričino, 1313-1318, North Macedonia (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Templon with intercolumnar icons at the church of Saint George, Staro Nagoričino, 1313-1318, North Macedonia (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Proskynetaria icons

Detail of Saint Panteleimon proskynetarion icon at Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Detail of Saint Panteleimon proskynetarion icon at Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
As was common in Middle Byzantine churches, the church of Saint Panteleimon features two large proskynetaria icons on either side of the templon. The damaged icon to the north once depicted the Virgin and child, resonating with the narrative depictions of these figures in such scenes as the Meeting of the Lord and the Lamentation. The icon to the south represents
Saint Panteleimon
, a healer who was the church’s patron saint. Panteleimon retains his original
stucco
frame, which features delicately carved birds and vegetal motifs. The large scale, prominent position, and elaborate frames of these proskynetaria icons must have made them a focus of prayer and veneration for Byzantine worshippers.
Google Street View of the church of Saint Panteleimon interior
Google Street View of the church of Saint Panteleimon interior

Bishops in the bema

The bema, where the clergy celebrated the Eucharist, displays images that reflect the ritual function of this particular space. Eight
bishop
saints decorate the bema walls at ground level, two of whom appear to emerge from the side chapels. Images of bishops were a common feature in Byzantine bemas for centuries, where they were usually depicted frontally and holding books, as at the sixth-century church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, near Ravenna, Italy.
Apse mosaic of bishop Saint Severus, Sant’Apollinare in Classe, c. 533–49, Ravenna, Italy (photo: Evan Freeman, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Apse mosaic of bishop Saint Severus, Sant’Apollinare in Classe, c. 533–49, Ravenna, Italy (photo: Evan Freeman, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
But the bishops at Nerezi appear in a three-quarter view and strike a more dynamic pose, an innovative approach at this time. Instead of closed books, the bishops at Nerezi hold unfurled scrolls (or “rolls”) that display prayers spoken by the clergy in the
Divine Liturgy
. Such scrolls were actually used by clergy during this period, as seen in a roughly contemporary, twelfth-century example preserved at the British Library.
Left: bishop saints on the south side of the bema at Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0); right: Liturgical roll with Divine Liturgy St. Basil (Add MS 22749), 12th century, Byzantine (British Library, CC0)
Left: bishop saints on the south side of the bema at Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0); right: Liturgical roll with Divine Liturgy St. Basil (Add MS 22749), 12th century, Byzantine (British Library, CC0)
This new way of depicting bishops in a three-quarter pose and accompanied by contemporary liturgical objects made these saints appear as active participants in the church services celebrated in this space.
Hetoimasia fresco at floor level in the apse behind the altar in the bema, 1164, Saint Panteleimon, Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Hetoimasia fresco at floor level in the apse behind the altar in the bema, 1164, Saint Panteleimon, Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
In the apse behind the altar, two angels vested as
deacons
hold
liturgical fans
(another contemporary liturgical object) on either side of the
Hetoimasia
, or “prepared throne,” a symbolic image that evoked Christ’s Passion and anticipated second coming.
Liturgical fan, 565–578 C.E., Byzantine (© Dumbarton Oaks)
Liturgical fan, 565–578 C.E., Byzantine (© Dumbarton Oaks)
Additional angel deacons appear above, where Christ is shown giving Eucharistic bread and wine to his Apostles like a priest, mirroring the Divine Liturgy as it unfolded below. (view annotated image)
Scholars refer to this tendency of church art to illustrate contemporary ritual and material culture during this period as “liturgical realism.”
Frescoes in the apse behind the altar in the bema, 1164, Saint Panteleimon, Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Frescoes in the apse behind the altar in the bema, 1164, Saint Panteleimon, Nerezi (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Nerezi in art history

Byzantine art may be known for its golden mosaics, but the five-domed church of Saint Panteleimon at Nerezi challenges modern viewers not to forget Byzantium’s equally beautiful frescoes. With vivid colors and graceful lines, Nerezi’s frescoes depict elongated figures that exhibit a range of emotions and sometimes occupy naturalistic landscapes, anticipating the Italian Renaissance and demonstrating Byzantium’s importance in the history of art.

Additional resources

Sharon E. J. Gerstel, Beholding the Sacred Mysteries: Programs of the Byzantine Sanctuary (Seattle and London: College Art Association and University of Washington Press, 1999).
Sophia Kalopissi-Verti, “The Proskynetaria of the Templon and Narthex: Form, Imagery, Spatial Connections, and Reception,” in Sharon E. J. Gerstel, ed., Thresholds of the Sacred: Architectural, Art Historical, Liturgical, and Theological Perspectives on Religious Screens, East and West (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2006), 197–132.
Robert G. Ousterhout, Eastern Medieval Architecture: The Building Traditions of Byzantium and Neighboring Lands (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).
Ida Sinkević, The Church of St. Panteleimon at Nerezi: Architecture, Programme, Patron (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2000).

By Dr. Evan Freeman

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