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The Deesis Fresco Scene in the Basilica of Saint Nicholas at Demre (Myra) in Antalya Province
Nilay Çorağan KARAKAYA*

The Basilica of St. Nicholas at Demre (Myra) in Antalya province is as important for its frescoes as it is for its architecture. Particularly the Deesis scene, depicted on the northern wall of the sarcophagus niche in the western narthex of the nave, to be seen in the third southwestern chapel of the basilica, occupies a special position with regard to its style, its iconographic characteristics and its place within the pictorial scheme of the Basilica and of the Byzantine art of fresco painting.

Jesus is depicted frontally, standing in the center of the scene and making a blessing gesture with his right hand at breast level. He holds a yellow book in his left hand at waist level. To his left side and turned slightly towards him, Mary stands in a posture of prayer, with her right hand above and her left hand below, pointing to the founder. To the right of Jesus stands John the Baptist, slightly turned towards Jesus. John the Baptist is depicted with dark, long hair and beard, praying with his left hand above, and like Mary, his right hand pointing to the founder. In the lower part of the scene, at left, the figure of a Byzantine Bishop is shown in a proskenesis posture, which attracts our attention.

As it is known, the location for a Deesis scene, within the distribution of the pictorial scenes within a church, is usually to be found in the apse. Such scenes were depicted in the apse vaults in the period from the 11th to the 13th centuries. From the 11th century onwards, they started to be painted on the surface of the apsidal arch and the portal, eventually becoming the most frequently depicted scenes in burial chapels towards the end of the 13th century. In Myra, the Deesis scene is to be found depicted on the wall of the sarcophagus niche related to such a burial spot, making it probable that the founder Bishop, whose identity is as yet unknown, might have his grave there.

A Deesis scene expresses the mediation of Mary and John the Baptist between the devout and Jesus. Besides this, the figures of Mary and John the Baptist take their places in the scene as companions of Jesus and as witnesses to his divinity. Mary usually stands on the right side of Jesus, and John the Baptist on the left. However, at Myra, Mary appears to the left of Jesus, and John the Baptist to his right. This rare feature originates from what is unique to Constantinople, the capital. On the other hand, the representation of Jesus in either a sitting or in a standing position is not a feature that changes with the passage of time. In determining the identity of the founder Bishop in the scene, who is depicted in a proskenesis stance but is without an epitaph, one has to research the names of the Bishops of the 11th -13th century in Myra. Although the earliest examples of this iconographical scene, where the founder figures in proskenesis stance are represented in Deesis scenes date back to the 9th century, they appear far more frequently in the 12th century.

The gestures made by the hands of both Mary and John the Baptist in the scene are also of importance. Mary and, or John the Baptist, with their hands positioned in such a manner, are in the scenes where generally the founders are portrayed, and this gesture indicates a state of mediation between the founder and Jesus, intended to convey the prayers and petitions of the former to the latter. As we observe in Myra, the hands which gesture-point towards the founder can be observed mainly from the 11th century onwards, and especially in fresco scenes of pious dedication.

Particularly the style of this scene, which exhibits features otherwise unique to the Byzantine capital, enables us to date this depiction to a specific period. The Deesis scene in the Basilica at Myra possesses similar stylistic characteristics to those examples of the Byzantine art of painting belonging to the 12th century. Especially, the linear application of long, thin and hooked noses and the small mouths on the faces are clear indicators of this period. The realistically plastic appearance, achieved by light shadings of red over the forehead, the cheeks and lips, is encountered mainly in the style of works coming from the Byzantine capital. The quality of expression within this style has also great importance during the same period. Together with Constantinople, all these characteristics of style are to be discerned in examples of the 12th century art of monumental painting from Cyprus and Sicily. In conclusion, since the Deesis scene in Myra, the capital of Lycia, exhibits 11th century aspects from the viewpoint of the pictorial scheme and its iconographic characteristics, it becomes possible to date this scene, on stylistic grounds, to the 12th century.

*Yrd. Doç. Dr. Nilay Çorağan Karakaya, Erciyes Üniversitesi, Sanat Tarihi Bölümü, Kayseri.

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