Red Church (Vourgareli)

10/12/2015

Panaghia Vella or the Red Church is the region’s only surviving Byzantine monument and a rare piece of evidence of the former’s habitation and its importance during the medieval period. It is the Katholikon of a monastery apart from which absolutely nothing remains either of the monks’ cells or the annexes . It is located in the neighbourhood of Palaiochori, 3 klms south of Voulgareli and right next to the road artery which in the time of the “Despotate of Epirus” linked Arta ,Trikala and Epirus with Thessaly. The church is dedicated to the Birth of the Theotokos (Mother of God) . It is, however, better known as the Red Church because of the many bricks that adorn its exterior walls . It is also referred to, mainly by scholars, as Panaghia Vellas , being for some time the dependency of the monastery by the same name. Likewise it is known as the “Vasilomonastiro” (the monastery of Kings) , a title that indicates its original function as the katholikon of the monastery and its importance and connections with the house of the rulers of Epirus.

It is difficult to outline the monastery’s history because of the very few surviving pieces of evidence. Nevertheless, we can quite accurately guess the year in which it was founded and decorated with wall paintings, thanks to the fragmentary inscription of the Katholikon’s founder  above the western entrance to the nave. The inscription is made up of a total of twelve partly surviving lines. The first six are closer together and have smaller letters than the ones that follow. Framing the inscription is a rectangle with a red band, 0,07m wide, on its perimeter. The black capital letters are mounted on white plaster and the usual byzantine abbreviations are to be found. Carved red lines under each row of letters helped with their alignment. The text informs us that the murals in the church were carried out during the 9th Indictio in the reign of Nikephoros the First and his wife Anna Palaiologina.

There is also a surviving mural of the church’s donors on the east side of the narthex. The dominant central composition is of the Virgin and Child enthroned, surrounded by two angels. Heads of saints as well as two pairs of laymen can be distinguished, on a smaller scale, below the Virgin’s stool. The figures can be identified by fragmentary inscriptions with white letters placed in a light blue background above each pair. Theodore the protostrator (high ranking military official) is depicted on the left, accompanied by his wife Maria. In his left hand he holds a model of the church with a high dome and is offering it to the Virgin. Likewise on the Virgin’s right side is his brother John Tsimiskes also accompanied by his wife Anna. The figures are dressed in luxurious, but not royal, garments rendered in a naturalistic manner without stylized severity. More specifically, the male figures wear floor length robes with gold braids while the women wear long red over garments with decorated hems and white scarves on their heads with coloured bands on their foreheads. In addition, the two male figures are bearded with long curling hair. On the other hand, the two female figures are extremely damaged and details of their features are not discernible. By combining elements from the founding inscription with corresponding ones on the donors’ mural it turns out that the katholikon was painted with the support of the protostrator Theodoros Tsimiskes and his brother Ioannis during the 9th Indictio of the reign of the despot Nikephoros and his wife Anna Palaiologina. Therefore, the founding of the katholikon must have taken place a few years earlier.

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