Friday, December 30, 2011

Liquid Altar

The Drinker block discussed earlier was discovered at the ancient Asclepeion on the South slopes of the Acropolis in Athens. Excavated by the Greek Archaeological Society in 1877, the few surviving Byzantine walls were removed soon after excavation ("ταύτην μελετώμεν να διαλύσωμεν"). Recognizing the ethics of archaeological documentation, however, the Archaeological Society left a small record of the architecture, hiring M. Mitsakis to produce a site plan ("Η Εταιρία έχει το καθήκον όταν προσεχώς συντελέση την ανασκαφήν, να δημοσιεύση και σχεδιογράφημα του κτίσματος ακριβές."). Above, I have extracted some of the crucial elements to visualize the architectural dialectics of caves and water.

The ancient cave (marked "A") from which water sprang, was converted into a Christian altar. The excavators discovered frescoes along the lining of the cave, but could not make up the subject matter. An upright stone placed on the altar ledge (left) marked the religious character of the cave. The pseudo-Kufic decoration on the upper border helps us date the installation to the Middle-Late Byzantine period. Other sculptural fragments published by Xyngopoulos testify to the occupation of the site. Adjacent to the sacred water cave was an ancient stoa. In the Byzantine period, the ruined foundations of the stoa were used to create a new building (marked in dark lines above) that included a square room ("D") on the east end. Most intriguing in Mitsakis' drawing are the three semi-circular lines signifying the existence of a church with three consecutive phases of alteration.

Completing the water narrative of the site, note the channel ("C") that carried the water from the cave under the church floors into a cistern ("F"). Remembering the drinker graffiti representing the thirst-quenching experience of water, we may extend the vessel cavity into the water cave. The cave-altar becomes a cavity to be inhabited. The water would then exit the cavity through piping (the neck) and be recollected below the body of the church into the cistern.

The sacral metaphors of water are well known in the Byzantine scholarship and found numerous architectural expressions. The waters in the crypt of Saint Demetrius in Thessaloniki or in the crypt of Saint Andrew in Patras are two of the first examples that come to mind. The Byzantine installations on the South Slopes of the Acropolis should be remembered as additional evidence for the spatial articulation of the phenomenology of liquids.

The sketch plan above is based on M. Mitsakis drawing appearing in Praktika (1878). The altar stone is based on a drawing by Josef Strzygowski published by Andreas Xyngopoulos in "Χριστιανικόν Ασκληπείον" Archaiologike Ephemeris (1915), p. 62, fig. 14. It measures 0.95 x 0.34 m.

For those interested in the fine details of the cave, here is the eye-witness report given by Ioannis Phillipos in his Jan. 9, 1877, report: "Ολίγον δε κατωτέρω η πέτρα είναι ορθίως τετμημένη επί μέτρα 25 περίπου προς δυσμάς και υπ'αυτήν κατωτάτω εφανερώθη εν σπήλαιον κωνικού σχήματος τα έσω, με είσοδον κτιστήν, τους τοίχους του δ'εσώθεν έχον επίχριστους και εζωγραφημένους με εικόνας χριστιανικάς, δυσδιαγνώστους διά την εκ του χρόνου φθοράν. Εν αυτώ κατά τον κάτω γύρον αποστάζει εκ της πέτρας και ύδωρ, το οποίον κύκλω περιλαμβάνεται εκ μαρμαρίνω ευρίπω και διοχετεύεται ύστερον έξω διά τας μετ' ολίγον μνημονευθησομένας εκκλησίας μέχρις ου καταπίπτει εις εν φρεατοειδές κτιστόν όρυγμα." Praktika (1877) pp. 17-17.

My rough translation: "A little below, the rock is cut for about 25 meters to the West. Under the rock, we found a cave with a conical interior shape. Its entrance was built with masonry. In the interior, the wall were plastered and were painted with Christian scenes, but it was difficult to discern the subject due to deterioration. Under the lower circle, water drips from the rock. The water is collected by a circular marble feature and is then routed outside of the cave through pipes. The pipes continue under the ancient stoa and under the churches (to be discussed below) depositing the water in a built cistern."

1 comment:

Richard M. Rothaus, PhD said...

Interesting. Not dissimilar from the Fountain of the Lamps/Asklepeion in Corinth.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States