Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.04.47 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.04.47

Benjamin Fourlas, Die Mosaiken der Acheiropoietos-Basilika in Thessaloniki. Eine vergleichende Analyse dekorativer Mosaiken des 5. und 6. Jahrhunderts (2 vols.). Millennium-Studien 35.   Berlin:  De Gruyter, 2012.  Pp. xii, 434; 199 plates.  ISBN 9783110278385.  $210.00.  

Reviewed by Philipp Niewöhner, University of Oxford (

Benjamin Fourlas’s title may appear as an overstatement to the uninitiated reader, whilst his subtitle understates the contents of his book. What survives today of the mosaics of the Acheiropoietos basilica are mainly the soffits of arcades and windows, and Fourlas’s study is focused on the decoration of such soffits rather than dealing with ornamental mosaics in general. In concentrating on soffits Fourlas does on the other hand include detailed descriptions and color photographs of numerous other mosaics in Thessaloniki, Istanbul, Ravenna, Rome, and Campania. In addition, Fourlas makes various insightful observations on the figural mosaics of St. Demetrius and the rotunda of St. George at Thessaloniki.

The book was originally conceived as a PhD thesis, and this accounts for some initial hedging (p. 1-7) as well as repetitive and sometimes long-winded justifications throughout that would otherwise have been unnecessary. The text focuses on the Acheiropoietos (p. 8-109, 196-209) and on other monuments at Thessaloniki (p. 110-195), with a descriptive catalogue of the soffits inserted into the text. All other soffits outside Thessaloniki are dealt with summarily in a last chapter on general trends and regional particularities (p. 210-222); their comprehensive catalogue and description follow separately in the second half of the volume (p. 230-358). A summary (p. 223-226) is translated into English (p. 226-229). An appendix includes Athanasios Fourlas’s German translation of parts of the homily on the annunciation by archbishop Leo of Thessaloniki (p. 359-363). A “general index” (p. 417-426) is followed by one of historical persons (p. 427-430).

A third index references the mosaics by alphanumeric codes that are used throughout the text, the catalogue and the plates, e. g. Cim1, Dem1, JAN1, and SAN1 (p. 431-434). This index is necessary, because the catalogue and the plates are not arranged in alphanumeric but in topographical order, with Cim1-13 (Cimitile) on p. 337-353, Dem1- 10 (St Demetrius) on p. 119-134, JAN1-4 (Januarius Catacomb) on p. 318-332, and SAN1-11 (Sant’Apollinare Nuovo) on p. 261-269. As the plates are excluded from the index, the reader needs to consult the catalogue in addition to the index in order to find an illustration of Cim1 that is first mentioned on p. 203 in note 39, indexed on p. 432, catalogued on p. 337, and illustrated on pl. 184 in fig. 629. This is a serious impediment and makes reading arduous, in particular for those readers who may want to leave the beaten track and find their own way to and around the monuments.

In keeping with its accumulative character, Fourlas’s study leads to diverse results, some of which relate to the Acheiropoietos, whilst others concern other monuments at Thessaloniki and beyond. Fourlas reconstructs the overall mosaic decoration of the Acheiropoietos with a paradisiacal rather than a Eucharistic iconography. The patterning of the soffits is varied, but not random; Fourlas shows that the soffits are arranged in pairs and threes according to a rhythmical order that reflects and enhances the architecture. This may be compared to the so-called varietas of spolia capitals, for example at St. Demetrius, where the re-used capitals are also arranged in twos and threes and relate to the architecture in a similar way.1

A particular fragment of mosaic on the south wall of the west gallery of the Acheiropoietos leads Fourlas to challenge the authenticity of the architecture and to suggest a different reconstruction of the Early Byzantine basilica. The mosaic in question used to be blocked by the gallery’s east wall and indicates that this wall was added later. Fourlas therefore concludes that the western clerestory above the later east wall should not be original either. Instead, he suggests that the northern and southern clerestories continued uninterrupted across the narthex up to an equally high west wall (pl. 5). The current narthex gallery would originally have been an open balcony inside a continuous high nave not unlike some of the early modern organ galleries that were added after the Reformation. Comparable balconies in other Early Byzantine churches seem to be lacking, though, and without any contemporary parallel Fourlas’s new reconstruction does not appear entirely convincing.

Two ambos that Fourlas mentions in passing, because they were found at the Acheiropoietos (p. 23, note 104 and 105), may both have belonged to the church, as they were of different types. One represents the common type with two flights of stairs, but the other is smaller and had only one access. The latter kind of ambo is less often attested, occurs typically not on its own but in combination with the former, and may have served a different function. Examples from Thessaloniki and Macedonia are relatively numerous and could indicate a regional custom, but individual specimens of small ambos with a single access occur elsewhere, too.2

In his discussion of the mosaics of St Demetrius, Fourlas comes to some of the same conclusions as A. Mentzos in his new book on the seventh-century mosaics of that church.3 Both authors argue independently of each other that the dedicatory mosaics on the piers that flank the bema should date from the later seventh century and do probably not depict the founder of an earlier fifth-century church, but a later seventh-century dignitary. Fourlas dates the soffits to the Justinianic period and compares them with the soffits of the Acheiropoietos. This parallel is supported by, and in return supports, Mentzos’s new reconstruction of the sixth-century church of St Demetrius as a three-aisled basilica without a transept, similar to the Acheiropoietos.

Turning to the rotunda of St George at Thessaloniki, Fourlas argues that the ornamentation of the mosaics indicates a post-Theodosian date in the later fifth or in the sixth century, as befits a radiocarbon date of 497 ± 51 for the plaster beneath the mosaics. This rules out various earlier attributions, among them one to Constantine I recently restated by Ch. Bakirtzis and P. Mastora.4 Fourlas also takes the opportunity to discuss the style of the figural mosaics and observes that the staring frontal posture of some of the saints was not yet customary during the Theodosian period. The contrast to the classicizing angels, who led earlier scholars to suggest a Theodosian date, can be explained iconologically.5 Fourlas identifies a local workshop tradition at Thessaloniki, where the ornamentation was different from Constantinople, Ravenna and Italy.

As to the soffits on the west gallery of St Sophia in Istanbul, Fourlas takes them to date from the original Justinianic building phase, because radiocarbon dating has established a terminus post quem of A. D. 470 ± 70 for the tie beam of the central arch. Fourlas disregards the fact that the early date of the tie beam does not exclude a later date for the mosaics, in particular because the casing of the same tie beam dates from after A. D. 830 ± 70.6 Moreover, a recent study of the ornamental mosaics in the southwest vestibule of St Sophia attributes those on the ceiling to the second half of the sixth century and those on the barrel vault above the north door to the middle Byzantine period. 7 It therefore seems prudent to await a technical analysis before passing judgment on the soffits of the west gallery.

In contrast, Fourlas’s case for a Justinianic date of the ornamental narthex mosaics of St Irene in Istanbul has recently improved thanks to a new study by A. Taddei.8 Taddei has also published numerous articles on the Acheiropoietos and its mosaics, some of which are not yet recorded in Fourlas’ bibliography.9 The learned reader will surely find much else to add, and this cannot be otherwise, considering the wide scope of Fourlas’s book. The author must nevertheless be thanked and congratulated for the courage to accept inevitable gaps for the sake of presenting a great amount of previously unheeded material. All soffits are illustrated in colour on 199 plates with 685 figures that form a separate volume and add greatly to the value of the publication. As the first comprehensive study of the mosaic decoration on soffits the book forms a basic work of reference and should be available in every library.


1.   J.-M. Spieser, Thessalonique et ses monuments du IVe au VIe siècle (Athens 1984) 203-205; B. Brenk, “Spolien und ihre Wirkung auf die Ästhetik der Varietas. Zum Problem alternierender Kapitelltypen”, in Spolien in der Architektur des Mittelalters und der Renaissance, ed. J. Poeschke (Munich 1996) 49-92.
2.   P. Niewöhner, Aizanoi, Dokimion und Anatolien: Stadt und Land, Siedlungs- und Steinmetzwesen vom späteren 4. bis ins 6. Jahrhundert n. Chr. (Wiesbaden 2007) 186 f. 261. 263 cat. 331 fig. 127 pl. 36.
3.   A. Mentzos, Τα ψηφιδωτά της ανοικοδόμησης του ναού του Αγίου Δημητρίου στον 7ο αιώνα μ. Χ. (Thessaloniki 2010).
4.   Ch. Bakirtzis and P. Mastora, “Are the Mosaics in the Rotunda in Thessaloniki Linked to its Conversion to a Christian Church?”, in Ниш и Византија. Зборник радова 9 (Niš 2011) 33-45.
5.   P. Niewöhner, Vom Sinnbild zum Abbild. "Der justinianische Realismus und die Genese der byzantinischen Heiligentypologie", Millennium 5, 2008, 163-190.
6.   C. D. Sheppard, "A Radiocarbon Date for the Wooden Tie Beams in the West Gallery of St. Sophia, Istanbul", Dumbarton Oaks Papers 19, 1965, 237-240.
7.   P. Niewöhner – N. Teteriatnikov, "The South Vestibule of St Sophia at Istanbul: Architecture and Ornamental Mosaics", Dumbarton Oaks Papers, in press.
8.   A. Taddei, "Remarks on the Decorative Wall-Mosaics of Saint Eirene at Constantinople", in: Mosaics of Turkey and Parallel Developments in the Rest of the Ancient and Medieval World: Questions of Iconography, Style and Technique from the Beginnings of Mosaic until the Late Byzantine Era, ed. M. Şahin (Istanbul 2011) 883-896.
9.   A. Taddei, "Eclettismo e sintesi nei mosaici dell’Acheiropoietos di Tessalonica", Rolsa 12, 2009, 33-52; A. Taddei, "The Conversion of Byzantine Buildings in Early Ottoman Thessaloniki: The Prodromos Monastery and the Acheiropoietos Church", in: Ètudes en l’honneur de Jean-Louis Bacqué-Grammont, edd. M. Bernardini - A. Taddei = Eurasien Studies 8, 2010, 201-214.

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