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"Emmanuel Panselinos - The Great iconographer"

From a recorded tour of Yiannis Tsarouhis in Mt Athos.

He half closed his eyes (he was blocked by the light).

Asked: "What is this;" "But the wood, piled up to burn in the winter in the stove."

"...It looks like a strange painting and the colors are interesting."

We had reached the Temple of the "Protato", he advanced with a slow step, he worshiped the images with the reverence that distinguishes people with awareness. An old wish to come back to the Orchard of Panagia. He sat on a bench in a contemplative posture, his entourage silent.

Mr Yannis Tsarouchis (renowned contemporary Greek painter) began to speak. "...I had many years to come, everything has now changed".

He began to describe to us the Temple of "Protato" as it was before the Archaeological Department intervened, with blessed Orlando directing the work. They removed the wood-carved iconostasis and revealed the marble one with the chests decorated with rosettes. They removed the ceiling and brought down from the crypts the old royal doors with inlaid ivory icons and images of the 14th century.

"...This is Manuel Panselinos". As a priest of the church I wanted to be the guide and interpreter, but Tsarouhis himself was a great explainer of paintings. With knowledge, he guides us through the large painting surfaces, leads us to a world that is old and yet so modern. I quote here the text of the tour, as I later recorded and published it, and dedicate it to his memory.

In Karyes of Mount Athos, there is the temple of "Protaton", a building that was built at the end of the 7th and beginning of the 8th century. In the 10th century the church is a three-aisled basilica and it is then that Saint Athanasios the Athonite, with the financial cooperation of Nikephoros Phokas, transforms the church into a cruciform. And because the foundations of the church could not bear the weight of a dome, a cruciform basilica without a dome was left, unique on Mount Athos.

In the first half of the 14th century, Manuel Panselinos was invited and painted the church according to the "fresco" technique. It is so called because, before the plaster on which the icon painting will be done dries, the artist must have finished his work. Thanks to this technique, almost completely forgotten today, works of past times made with it retain all their freshness. This particular technique has been preserved since classical times. Even at Vergina, the paintings above the entrance to the tombs are of this technique.

The name Emmanuel Panselinos is found in the interpretation of painters or the painting art of the hieromonk Dionysios of Fournas, a text of exceptional vitality, with a wealth of information about the art of painting and the materials of the time.

Previously we did not know if the name Panselinos is authentic or if it was given to him later by Dionysus, but now we know that in 14th century Thessaloniki there is a painter named Emmanuel Panselinos who accepts commissions to paint various subjects.

Panselinos is not only an intellectual of his time, but also a pioneering craftsman. Because he has done away with dark and black colors and replaced them with light pinks, yellows and greens.

By putting a round and almond-shaped eye on the bright faces he paints, he gives them the contemplative style that we see, removing from the physiognomy the severity and sullenness they have in the 10th and 11th centuries, as we see in Daphni and elsewhere.

In some places, e.g. in the azures, Panselinos appears to have tried the Renaissance technique of "seco". After all, he did not paint the temple alone, but with the help of three other painters, having of course the supervision of the entire work.

Some edges appear to have been painted by apprentices, because the forms lack plasticity, in contrast to the central waist and lower bodice. However, the "fresh" technique dominates and has the advantage that the images do not wear out easily.

The 14th century is characterized by a weakening of faith and this is one of the reasons we have the "quiet quarrels" then. They see things more realistically, they are grounded, the eschatological interest has begun to disappear, there is a shift towards the human, a beautification of man, something more malleable and more understandable. All this affects the painting spirit of Panselinos and all Paleologian painting.

Of course, Panselinos, using abstraction in the design, gives us painterly completeness, without ceasing to be a Byzantine painter faithful to flat surfaces. They said that the Byzantines did not know about perspective in design, but we know that the Byzantines knew very well that where God is willing, nature is defeated and he made them give us a reverse perspective.

For example, in the Last Supper depicted on a semi-circular table, Christ is usually placed in the background and is the center of the table. So from us, as we see him, he should appear the smallest in painting, while he is the face of we are mainly interested. So he makes him big physically and as the apostles approach our side we get smaller. The same is done with the tables he makes, whose legs, the farther they are from us, the bigger they are painted and the closer they are to us, the smaller they are. He wants to show Christ big and in the center, but he also wants to play according to the saying of Christ, who said to become like little children and play with their simplicity. So the painter also becomes a child and playfully paints whatever he wants.

Panselinos knows that hunger in the common life and the vigil of prayer strengthen the spirit, and he wants these elements to strengthen the body as well. That is why he gives us his saints who are strong, with physical filthiness, without of course the saints ceasing to maintain all the spiritual condition they experience every day.

And although he paints in a monastic environment, he does not hesitate to make the women very beautiful, with short sleeves, as we see in the Nativity of the Virgin, and indeed of a certain servant, the wind lifts her gown.

Closer by we see the Virgin Mary, a small baby, resting on a trokna (wooden cradle), a Macedonian trokna similar to the ones we find today in the villages of Macedonia. Inside the church, the painter has strictly painted only three holy women: the Virgin Mary, Saint Anna the matron, and Saint Anna the prophetess, the one who prophesied in the temple, to the image of "Ypapanti" (Christ brought to the Temple): "This child ascended to heaven and was established." While Saint Constantine, who is usually depicted with Saint Helen, stands alone. And only female therapists, where needed, paints freely.

As our iconographer finds large surfaces, he sets his designs on an evolutionary path. In the image of the Entrances, we see the forefathers, Joachim and Anna, bringing the Virgin Mary into the temple to dedicate her, as they had promised when they had no child and begged God to give them one to end their dishonor. And we see Joachim and Anna followed by female servants holding lighted lamps, the female servants leading and again following, until the Virgin, a little girl, reaches Zacharias who welcomes her at the entrance of the Saints and (we still see) on the upper part of the image of the Virgin Mary sitting on a throne receiving bread from an angel, because as the tradition of the Church wants, an angel of the Lord gives her bread as long as she is dedicated to the temple. In other words, we have three in one image, and not only are there no vertical dividing lines to separate the different moments, but on the contrary, the female servants, painted in groups that look like they are commenting on something, unite these moments.

The same progressive development in the scenes is seen in the Baptism. The Lord in the midst of a gathering of people listens to the words of the Forerunner, who stands on the opposite bank of the Jordan.

Next on a larger scale is the subject we are interested in, Baptism. The icon shows two phases of the Lord's baptism, first when he listens to the Forerunner and then when he is baptized. We see the Lord standing in the water, which, however, comes up to his shoulders, as he leaves to pour into the sea. Always at Baptism the Lord stands in water that reaches up to his shoulders. We still see two fish in the river, one hand on the back of an old man and the other a female figure in a waving red gown.

This is how the saying of Scripture is illustrated: the sea went away and the Jordan turned back. So Jordan the old man, on top of the fish, turns towards the rivers. This kind of personifications are from the Hellenistic times. And the sea, in the form of a woman, also perishes. These two moments of the Baptism not only do not have a vertical line that separates one from the other subject, one moment from the other, but instead the three children, holding hands and crossing the bridge dancing, unite these two moments . Above the Lord stands the dove, the Holy Spirit. And above a hand blesses this moment of the Lord. Instead of the painter writing the words: so be my beloved son while I wept, he makes this little hand that blesses, to symbolize exactly this word.

Opposite the image of Baptism we have the Resurrection. The Byzantines, in order to indicate the Resurrection of the Lord and of man in general, do not show a ragged little man who is riding over holding the flag. But a man strong, violent, and above all victorious, treads upon the broken doors of Hades, which His violent presence has broken down, and this violence is indicated by the way in which the keys, bolts, and mandalas which held and assembled are scattered the doors.

Popular knowledge wants Hades double locked. That is why we see two keys, the sight of which is still horrible, and the rosette of the lock has two slots.

So the Lord descending on Hades did not knock at the door to be opened to him, but his presence scattered them all and violently knocked them down. The winner steps on the broken doors, as we see today (when a cat catches a mouse, it steps on it first). This shows its superiority. And then we see the Lord has grabbed Adam by the wrist and is pulling him. In the person of Adam, the Fathers of the Church interpret that the entire human race is symbolized dead by sin, without the power to raise a hand to be saved, but God, having mercy on it, brings it out of death.

Behind Adam stands Eve with a happy expression on her face. Joyful because she awaits her resurrection and sad because she has fallen into disobedience which is death. Behind Eva stands Prodromos with the halo. The Precursor, who is the Lord's forerunner on earth and a witness after he was beheaded, is also a forerunner down in Hades, to prepare souls for repentance by preaching. Behind the Forerunner stands Abel, son of Adam and brother of Cain, with his walking stick. His walking stick means peacefulness. And then we see the Lord preaching to the dead surrounded by some stone masses. Regarding the Crucifixion, where the Gospel says that a soldier pierced the Lord's side with his lance and blood and water gushed out, the apocryphal Gospels write that some chosen among the people saw with their eyes the angels collecting this blood and the water inside in the Holy Chalice. It is the blood and water that we share today in the Divine Liturgy. Among them is a centurion - a military rank called a centurion in Latin - who also sees them and believes. Our Church today honors this faithful and martyr as St. Longinos. Usually, at the base of the cross, a skull is depicted in something like a hole or cave, because Saint Athanasios of Alexandria and other Fathers of the early Christian years write that the Jews had an old tradition that Adam's skull had been found there. This, even if it is not true, does not matter so much. The symbolism is important, that is, upon the fall of man we enter the cross from which our salvation springs.

Above the western entrance of the church is told the Assumption of the Virgin, a picture of large dimensions, but our painter, by correctly harmonizing the design with the color, makes it appear to our eyes as a miniature. We could call it a frieze, where countless people gather to worship the image of the Virgin.

Saint John of Damascus and Cosmas the poet are depicted on her right and left. These two saints were not only friends, but had grown up as brothers, for Saint Cosmas was adopted by Damascene's father. The painter, because these two saints praised the Virgin Mary excellently, in order to honor them, he placed them here and there in the image. Below Saint Cosmas is depicted the great martyr Procopius, a young man who, with his long curly hair and turtleneck shirt, imitates the youth of our time. Saint Athanasios of Athos, a saint of the 10th century, a contemporary of Saint Paul of Xiropotaminos, is depicted side by side with him. Saint Athanasios is the founder of the Monastery of the Great Lavra, a childhood friend of Nikiforos Phokas. They met in a monastery on the mountain of Kyminas, where the abbot of Nikiforos Phokas, Michael Maleinos, was the abbot, and they made a promise when they grow up to be monks together.

Saint Athanasios leaves, comes to Mount Oros, and when once Phokas, a general of the Byzantine army, looks for him, he finds him in Athos and takes him with him to the Crete campaign against the Berber Arabs. They liberate Crete and take from there various building materials, doors, capitals and others, in order to build the Lavra and with the promise that Nikephoros would come there. When they saw these magnificent buildings, the ascetics protested, led by Paul of Xeropotaminos. The differences were settled in favor of Athanasius, after they went to Constantinople to the Patriarch and the Emperor. Thus the icon tells the story of Athanasius with the eagle's eye and with his strong hand holding a cross. He is the man whose word will not fall, it will become a work.

Paul the ascetic, the aristocrat in origin and spirit, came from the Ragave family, a political family. He has the intellectual's eye and his hand is fine and refined upon the scroll. As then they had their differences, so in the picture the painter puts them side by side, but they are separated by the gap created by an arch between the images.

Face to face we have two parallel lives. Saint Onufrios, who practices asceticism in the desert of Thebes, and Saint Peter, the first settler of Mt. St. Peter is taken prisoner in some battle. He begs the Virgin Mary. And at the first opportunity he leaves with a boat which brings him down to Athos. He lives there as an ascetic until the end of his life without being seen by man. And only some breeders find him and take care of him shortly before he falls asleep. Below the Baptism we see Saint John the Evangelist dictating to his disciple Prochorus.

The great martyrs George and Dimitrios, because they were soldiers, he has put a diadem on them. And just as Makrygiannis tells us that, when he was old enough to order his chariots, he ordered that his name be written on them, so the painter has put the name George on the pommel of the sword in small Byzantine writing, while on the saint Demetrius wrote the name on the quiver in capital letters. Above the two saints are depicted two other soldiers, Saint Bacchus and Saint Sergius. Inside the clam above the Intent, Christ is depicted. The "in another form". In the passage referring to the road to Emmaus, an unknown person accompanies the disciples. When he begins to interpret the scriptures to them and blesses the dinner on the table, then their eyes are opened and they recognize the Lord in the face of their fellow traveler. As long as they did not know him, the Lord was "in another form", and from the passage it seems that the Full Moon was inspired. In this image, the artist, without breaking away from tradition, has put all his dynamism and his personal inner freedom, painting the Lord with strength and roughness and not capturing him in the form of a thinker. His love for the human body is characteristic.

The 14th century, as we said at the beginning, is characterized by a weakening of faith. This makes people poorer spiritually and at the same time forces them to be more verbal in their means of expression. So the images are filled with various little trees, with very nice folds, and all this to cover the inner void that has been created in man. Like when you go to a dressmaker's house and see a thousand and two little things on top of each other, trying to decorate and fill the room. The opposite happens in an ascetic's hut. A bed board, a pitcher and the decoration is complete. You are filled with the grace of the man who dwells there, and that is enough. If we now wanted to make a brief comparison between the Full Moon and Theophanes, we must say that the latter has a completely different illustration. It seems to return to the stylized forms of Constantinople and under the pressure of all the intervening years since the fall and then brings us back to other designs.

Panselinos is a stranger to any limitation in terms of his painting composition. His composition is free and his line I would say dynamic, violent. Panselinos is a child of his time. When I see a young man coming today to Mount Athos and I look at the saint represented by the Panselinos, I see an amazing similarity. All the saints who are in "Protato" give you the feeling that in the afternoon you will see them with their donkey bringing wood to their village. It's as if they are real people, who have posed for him to paint. It may seem strange how, since they are saints, they are so closely related to "ordinary" people in painting. This is achieved thanks to the holiness that Panselinos experienced every day. He was aware of his work and his life was proportional to the people he painted. He lived among the "ordinary" people and at the same time he transformed them by painting. He knew how to connect the life of man with the life of the saint, to preserve reality, without losing holiness. To create by painting relationships and differences, to separate with bows the hesychast from the commoner. There is a saint in the north aisle of the church without an inscription. The painter himself seems to be hiding in the form of this saint. It is an old man in a very expressive gesture. He has his hand outstretched, a very fine hand, a hand made for painting. I would even say how he does not paint or paint, but erases people's souls. Because Panselinos is not interested in giving you the outward appearance. It gives you the inner world of the soul, the different inner world of each saint. Our time is very close to the time of Panselinos. It's a similar way of looking at things.

Ierotheos Monk, Mount Athos Kariai, August 1997.

Translated from Source:

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