The Athonite Type of Byzantine Church Nicholas N. Patricios

by Nicholas N. Patricios, appearing in Volume 42

Plan of the katholikón of the Megistis Lavra monastery. Image: Atlas of the Twenty Sovereign Monasteries, K. P. Mylonas, 2000. Adapted by author.

The most familiar image of a Byzantine church is that of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (Istanbul). It is a domed basilica but is in fact only one of seven types of Byzantine churches. The remaining six are the basilican, cruciform, centralized, converted temple, cross-in-square, and Athonite forms. The basilican type,  the first architectural form adopted for the Early Christian church, was dominant from the fourth to the seventh centuries, and still continues to be built in churches around the world through the present. 

After the cross-in-square type became prominent in the Byzantine Empire during the ninth century, it began to be more prevalent than the basilican type. The cross-in-square type then took over as the dominant architectural form of the Byzantine Church across continents and through the centuries. 

Typically, the cross-in-square plan, as in all the types of Byzantine churches, is tripartite—the Holy Bema or sanctuary space facing east, the naos or nave space in the middle, and the narthex or entrance vestibule on the west side. Additions to the basic cross-in-square form are the prothesis on the north side of the Holy Bema and the diaconicon on the south side. These two spaces are known as the pastophoria of Byzantine churches but called typikariá in the Athonite type. 

Internally, in all Byzantine churches, an elaborately decorated screen, a templon or an iconostasis, separates the Bema from the naos with the solea in front of the screen. The Athonite type, created in the tenth century, was based on the cross-in-square form with two major modifications: two side apses and two narthexes. While there has been much scholarly discussion on the origins of the different types of Byzantine church, that of the Athonite type is well established. 

The Athonite Type

The Athonite type of Byzantine church is so-called as it was founded on Mount Athos, also called the Holy Mountain, a peninsula located in northeast Greece and the most important center of Eastern Orthodox monasticism. The origin of the Athonite type can be dated to A.D. 963 when the monk Athanasios, with a donation from Emperor Nikeforos Fokas (ruled 963-969), built the first main church, or katholikón, on Mount Athos for the Megistis Lavra monastery in the form of a cross-in-square, although not perfect geometrically. After about three decades, in 1002, he added two side apses known as choroí to the naos. Sometime later Athanasios converted the narthex into an inner narthex, to be known as a lití, and added adjacent to it an outer narthex to function as an entrance vestibule. The central dome is the largest on Mount Athos with a diameter of twenty feet six inches (six and one quarter meters). It was renovated about the year 1600 and the whole church itself refurbished between 1814 and 1852.

Katholikón of the Vatopedi monastery. Ibid. Adapted by author.

This arrangement of a cross-in-square plan with the add-ons of two side apses and two narthexes became the prototype for the next two katholiká to be built soon after. First was the church for the monastery of Vatopedi built between 972 and 985 by three monks from Adrianopolis, Athanasios, Nikolaos, and Antonios. Slight changes from the Megistis Lavra prototype were, besides a geometrically perfect cross-in-square form, four columns instead of four piers with arches and pendentives to support the central dome, and a smaller lití

An atypical feature of this katholikón is that the lití is not the innermost narthex as in the archetypal Athonite type, but a second inner narthex. The reason is that the innermost narthex is very dark with no natural light, so it was considered unsuitable for a lití. The awkward central columns in the Megistis Lavra inner narthex were avoided by having a completely open space.

Katholikón of the Iveron monastery. Ibid. Adapted by author.

The next katholikón to be built was in 980 at the monastery of Iveron by the monk Ioannis from Iberia (Georgia), a former aristocrat who had become a monk at Megistis Lavra. He had the assistance of his son Efthymios, also a monk, and brother-in-law Ioannis Tornikios. 

In 1030 the church was remodeled, and the central dome erected in 1053-54 with a grant from Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (ruled 1042-1055). Similar to Vatopedi, the church’s central dome is supported on four columns. The lití is roofed by a central dome flanked on the north and south sides by cross vaults while the three spaces of the second inner narthex are also cross-vaulted. In 1513 it was rebuilt after a disastrous fire.

In the Megistis Lavra katholikón the solea overlays the eastern arm of the cross, diffusing the geometric clarity of its form. The modification the founders of Vatopedi and Iveron made to the Megistis Lavra prototype was to add a distinct solea separate from the eastern arm of the cross. This allowed the complete cross to be experienced and viewed internally as a whole and unified form with the solea as a separate and clear-cut space in front of the Holy Bema. 

Externally the cross form is clearly expressed by a tall dome crowning the central crossing point with barrel vaults over each of the four arms. The four corners of the square are roofed by small domes and with the larger central dome convey internally the ideal of the five-domed church, modeled after the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, the second most important church in the capital after Hagia Sophia. 

The distinct solea is roofed by a barrel vault. Common not only to monastic churches, but to all Orthodox parish churches as well, are not only the solea but fixtures such as the Holy Table (altar), synthronon, templon, various icon stands, and a throne, which in parish churches is reserved for the bishop and in monastic churches for the abbot.

This new composition of the two add-ons to the cross-in-square plan, with the distinct solea, a four-column -supported central dome, the Holy Bema oriented to the east, and a five-domed naos interior, became known as the Athonite type and was followed in the building of all the katholiká on Mount Athos in the following centuries. The epitome of the cross-in-square form was so compelling that even the Protaton, built by Emperor Michael III (ruled 842-867) and the oldest surviving church on Mount Athos, which has an outward basilican form, had buttress-like walls erected internally to divide the central space of this church to form a cross. 

Further evidence of the power of the image of the cross shape is in the plan of two churches completed in 2019 on Mount Athos, those dedicated to Saint Nikodemos and Saint Païsios. Even though all the main churches on Mount Athos follow the Athonite type (except the Protaton as noted), no two katholiká are the same as they differ in total size and in the size of the side apses and narthexes.

Exterior of the Vatopedi monastery showing the third narthex of the katholikón, the large dome over the naos, and two of the smaller domes. Photo: Grace Charitable Foundation

Over the centuries the katholiká underwent renovations, some a partial rebuilding, and one or two a complete reconstruction, but always preserving the principles of the Athonite type. In the later centuries accretions were made to the core Athonite type in some but not all the katholiká. First, there was the addition of one or more side chapels, parakklésia, leading off the lití

Second, a third narthex was appended to the outer narthex to form a new entrance to the church in later centuries to the first three katholiká

At Megistis Lavra and Iveron the outer wall is glazed but at Vatopedi the third narthex has an arcaded portico instead. Here superb frescoes organized into four horizontal bands cover the entire wall and are divided into panels depicting scenes from the New Testament. 

Frescoes in the third narthex of Vatopedi. Photo: Alamy Images/Chris Hellier

The katholikón is the heart of each monastery, set in an open courtyard with buildings on all sides forming a secure enclosed space. Monks’ cells and rooms for various monastic functions form the buildings around. Today there are still twenty functioning monasteries on Mount Athos.


The Monastic Liturgy


Appreciation of the architecture of any of the seven types of Byzantine churches is enhanced when the design of the church is understood in relation to the Orthodox liturgy. In the case of the Athonite type of Byzantine church, understanding this relationship is essential. 

The most common daily sequence of the services in Eastern Orthodox monasteries is where the Esperinós (Evening Service or Vespers) is the first office to be celebrated. Following this would be the offices of the Apodeípnon (“After Dinner”), the Mesonýktikon (“Middle of the Night”), the Orthros (“Of the Dawn”), the Divine Liturgy, and the Hours. 

At sunset a monk will walk through the monastery courtyard carrying a special wood plank, a tálanto, which he hits continuously with a small wood hammer. The distinctive sound is a signal that the monks, and pilgrims if any, need to proceed to the katholikón for the Esperinós service. There the priest and monks assemble in the lití while the pilgrims, if any, remain in the outer narthex. A curtain closes the doorway from the lití to the naos during the first part of the service which begins with the reading of a psalm followed by the recital of prayers. 

In the second part the priest opens the curtain and proceeds with the monks from the lití into the naos where small groups of monks will form choirs in each of the choroí to chant specific psalms and hymns while the remaining monks will stand around the edges of the naos. The choirs will chant antiphonally, that is, alternately. 

After reciting the dismissal, the priest leads the monks out in single file followed by any pilgrims. All then proceed to the refectory for dinner which is eaten in silence except for the voice of the monk reading from the scriptures. Following dinner in large monasteries all go back to the lití where the Apodeípnon office is recited. In small monasteries the office is performed by monks in their cells.

At four o’clock in the morning in most monasteries monks will assemble in the naos of their katholikón, and pilgrims in the lití, for the Mesonýktikon service that consists of prayers and the chanting of psalms antiphonally by choirs in the each of the choroí. This office concludes with a litany and rite of mutual forgiveness that is an ancient monastic practice. As the entire service is conducted in darkness except for the light of a few candles and the glint of gold mosaic in the dome, it is an out-of-the-world experience. 

As dawn breaks and light begins to appear in the windows it is time for the office of Orthros followed by the Divine Liturgy. While the choirs remain in the choroí to chant, the priest recites prayers in the Holy Bema and comes out to the solea for the opening blessing, the Small and Great Entrances, to read the Gospel, to offer communion, and at the dismissal of the service to distribute to each monk and pilgrim the antídoron, remains of the liturgical bread used for the Eucharist. 

The final office, the Hours, is celebrated at specific hours in the lití in some monasteries or in others by monks reading psalms in their cells. 


Architecture and Liturgy 

Naos of the Vatopedi katholikón. Photo: The Ascetic Experience

It is clear that the architecture of the Athonite type of Byzantine church is shaped by the form of the monastic liturgy. Two lateral apses, the choroí, were added to the side of the katholikón naos for small choirs of monks to chant antiphonally in the offices of the Esperinós (second part), the Mesonýktikon, Orthros, and Divine Liturgy. (It should be noted that there may also be antiphonal singing in parish churches but by chanters at lecterns.) 

In the Athonite katholikón the lití, the inner narthex, was created to accommodate the first part of the daily Esperinós service. In some monasteries the space is also where the Apodeípnon rite takes place. This inner narthex space also serves for special services such the commemoration of the dead and the tonsuring of monks. 

A feature of the Byzantine Rite is not only a joining together of ritual celebration and architecture, but iconography and symbolism as well. In all Byzantine churches, whether monastic or parish, it is the senses that are overcome during a liturgical service. 

In a Byzantine-styled church during an Eastern Orthodox liturgy, believers’ vision is beset by the curved domes and arches, the vibrant frescoes and mosaics, and the colorful silk vestments of the priests. 

It is not only the sense of sight that is engaged during a service in an Orthodox church, but the other senses as well. Chanting and singing delight the ear, aromatic incense assails the sense of smell, partaking of the communion wine and bread or consuming the antídoron satisfy the taste buds, while touching and kissing icons gratify the sense of touch. The Eastern Orthodox liturgy involves the whole body which adds immeasurably to a believer’s spiritual experience. 

This experience is further enhanced by recognizing the symbolism contained in the fresco paintings or mosaic images and in the architecture of the Byzantine church such as the prevalence of the numeral three in the three major spaces (narthex, naos, Holy Bema), and the three windows in the apse of the Holy Bema. 

In the Athonite Byzantine church, with its extra spaces of the side apses and inner narthex, the experience is heightened considerably as the services occur at dusk, during the night, and at dawn.