Home Murals of Molyvos

New thoughts from Molyvos from SFU PhD student, Ethan Schmidt, reflecting on Molyvos' painted houses. His mind turns to Byzantium, the Roman Empire of the Middle Ages.

In the past week, we visited a pair of lovely old houses in Molyvos that feature painted interiors; the Komninakis-Krallis Mansion (c. 1833), now in the possession of the Athens School of Fine Arts, and the Giannakos House (c. 1790), reputedly the one-time living space and government office of a local Ottoman official and now the home of a well-known dollmaker and folk artist Dora Giannakou Parisi.

The murals which are visible in the Giannakos House are much less extensive than those in the Krallis mansion, but still tantalizing; a painted view of Constantinople and its environs set amid banded decoration and decorated wooden ceilings which seem to writhe with foliate designs and are edged, as in the Komninakis-Krallis Mansion, with idyllic scenes of palaces, ships, and towns. The Komninakis-Krallis Mansion preserves an even more extensive decorative cycle. In a riot of saturated color and intricate pattern it displays townscapes of Constantinople, Smyrna, and Molyvos, an image of a building which may be the mansion itself, seascapes crowded with vessels, panels painted to imitate marble revetments, images of houses and fountains and arcaded porticoes, scrollwork, garlands and vases of flowers, fruit darkening in its ripeness, bright-feathered birds, confronting animals, nereids, seraphim, musicians and dancing maidens, courting couples dressed both in traditional Ottoman clothing and in the occidental fashions of the time, and figures which might be angels or erotes depending upon interpretation. Though demonstrably a part of a wider Ottoman era tradition of painted interiors (a tradition which continued to be demonstrated on Lesvos into the twentieth century through the work of Theophilos Chatzimichail (as seen in the reconstructed room of the Zolkou house in the Museum of Modern Greek Culture in Athens), the Giannakos House and the Komninakis-Krallis Mansion resonated with me in other ways.

Given my upbringing as a New Yorker, the aforementioned images are suggestive of the painted mantles and walls which graced the houses of the eighteenth and nineteenth century descendants of the Dutch settlers of Nieuw Nederland up and down the Hudson Valley, and likewise of the decorative motifs of the Pennsylvania Dutch of Lancaster County, as well as other traditions of early-American folk art. Yet perhaps even more than this, in my Byzantinist’s mind, the murals raised questions regarding the decoration of medieval Roman houses, and medieval Roman secular art more generally. In the first place, not only the house itself, but the buildings and gardens depicted in the paintings themselves, recall a famous ekphrastic passage from the twelfth-century epic Digenis Akritas, in which the eponymous hero builds himself a palace on the banks of the upper Euphrates.

Not only do the epic's verses, bring to mind the paintings and buildings under discussion (though admittedly the paintings in the grand houses of Molyvos are far more irenic in their subject matter), but they serve as a reminder that both the Byzantine and late Ottoman era home were places full of riotous color and depictions of nature and secular life. A similar image emerges from Nicholas Mesarites description of a pavilion built by Manuel I Komnenos and decorated with Persianate motifs. Niketas Choniates, on his part, describes the decoration of imperial residences, and laments the destruction of a townhouse adorned with murals and polychrome mosaics in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade. Most strikingly, the historian Ioannes Kinnamos, writing in the 1180’s, records the following regarding the politically damning tastes in interior design of the rebellious nobleman, Alexios Axouchos:

"when he wished to adorn one of his suburban dwellings with murals, he did not emblazon on them ancient Greek feats, nor did he set forth the emperor’s deeds, things which he has achieved in wars and beast hunts, such as is more often customary for those who hold governmental offices…Neglecting these [subjects], Alexios (for I return to where I made the excursus from my narrative) commemorated the sultan’s martial deeds, foolishly making public in painting in his residence what should have been concealed in darkness."

One of the most striking things about this passage is the degree to which it assumes that paintings with secular themes drawn from ancient mythology, or current events were typical, or even expected, subjects for the embellishment of the interior of a government functionary’s house. Such passages offer tantalizing glimpses into the material realities of a lost world. It is not inconceivable to my mind, however, that the decorative tradition evinced by both the Giannakos House and the Komninakis-Krallis Mansion had its roots and precedents firmly in the world of Medieval Rome. All things considered, might such artistic folkways be part of the vast cultural inheritance bequeathed by Byzantium to its Ottoman conquerors and the multi-religious, multi-ethnic imperial state which they forged?

References to the Epic of Digenis Akritis, Mesarites, Choniates and Kinnamos may be found here:
  • Jeffreys, Elizabeth. 2004. Digenis Akritis: The Grottaferrata and Escorial Versions / Edited and Translated by Elizabeth Jeffreys. 1st paperback version. Cambridge University Press, 203-209.
  • Angold, Michael. Nicholas Mesarites: His Life and Works. Vol. 4. Translated Texts for Byzantinists. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017. 69
  • Choniates, Nicetas, and Harry J. Magoulias. 1984. O City of Byzantium : Annals of Niketas Choniatēs / Translated by Harry J. Magoulias. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, xiv, 117, 183-184, 373.
  • Kinnamos, Iōannēs, and American Council of Learned Societies. 1976. Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus by John Kinnamos; Translated by Charles M. Brand. New York: Columbia University Press, 199-200.