The little treasures of Apeiranthos on Naxos

Apeiranthos is a mountain village on the eastern side of the island of Naxos. We were a bit put off stopping there when we saw tour buses dropping people off and so we took the road down to the tiny village of Moutsouna on the east coast. I may blog about Moutsouna separately as it was such a beautiful and peaceful village. But something that day drew us back to Apeiranthos.

Wondering around the village at lunchtime, the tour buses seemed to have disappeared and there weren’t many people in the single main street, so we drifted in and out of shops, like this one with its strange horse whip:

Of course, as it was lunchtime several museums we wanted to visit were closed, until we came upon the open Archaeological Museum. We didn’t expect much: the man on the door wasn’t bothered whether we went in, it cost 1 Euro each and the museum only consisted of a single room, dusty and in need of a tidy-up. Many of the items were in glass cases with few labels, larger ones were spread around the floor.

There was a fine collections of Roman oil lamps on a table:

Some lovely pottery from 3000BC, very modern-looking, unfortunately too difficult to photograph; weapons including obsidian blades and spearheads; bronze tools; and a huge stone bowl:

It took me a while though to spot some of the museum’s most remarkable objects. Remarkable because so unexpected. They are a series of stick men and animals carved on stone. These petroglyphs were discovered in 1962 by the man who started the museum, Mikhalis Bardanis. He found them on a hill called Koryfi t’Aroniou in the south east of Naxos and they date between 2700-2200BC.

I suppose what makes them so striking is the contrast with my expectations of what Greek art is like: beautiful products of sophisticated craftsmanship. But these items have a directness and energy that comes from their simplicity.

This is one of my favourite carvings, three figures apparently dancing together in a circle, their arms raised and at least one of them holding some sort of stick. I say dancing, but I’m interpreting that from the character on the left with one foot in the air and the position of the central character’s body indicating that he is in motion. I wonder what sounds they were moving to. Were they celebrating something or calling on their gods or spirits to help them?

Here’s one of a figure of what looks like a deer, perhaps being confronted by a hunter:

In the next one the human figure behind the deer looks as if he is putting some sort of instrument to his mouth – perhaps calling for help with stalking the animal :

Three characters look like they are attacking a deer with spears:

Two animals together, possibly deer, though they look a bit sleeker:

Another hunting scene:

One or two animals grazing?

The next one is very unusual. It looks like two men standing on a boat with a mast on the right hand side. Or perhaps they are fighting? Very hard to make it out.

Some of them are difficult to see as they are painted on the rock surface in ochre:

There are also carvings using geometrical and other shapes:

It’s all very intriguing and the museum has no other information to help us make sense of these carvings. I would love to know more about the site they came from and what they signify.

Aperiranthos is a very attractive village and it’s not surprising that it gets so many visitors.

We stop off at a kafeneio for a fresh lemon juice and that’s when I spot these two gentlemen:

Looking back from high up on Mt Zas at the village of Filoti:

Between the devil and the deep blue sea – nationalism and Orthodoxy

Relations between church and state can sometimes be fraught, but sometimes they can also be unhealthily close. I was reminded of this when I read this article on the site of Proekt.media entitled The Kremlin’s Elder – how the Russian government fell in love with mysticism. Proekt.media is an initiative of independent investigative journalists in Russian that has been publishing some remarkable stories about corruption and cronyism, particularly involving the circle around Putin. This month the Russian government has declared it a banned organisation, confiscated all its financial assets and declared all its journalists to be foreign agents.

I was drawn into reading the article because I recognised the photograph of the Elder referred to in the article’s title: I had seen him during my visit to the Orthodox monastery of Optina Pustyn back in 2002.

His name is Starets Iliy (Elder Elijah) and he struck me then as being a remarkable man. According to my friend Dima who took me to the monastery on pilgrimage, Elder Iliy, like many Elders at Optina and at other monasteries in Russia, has the spiritual gifts of insight and foresight. I have written about my visit to Optina Pustyna at length in the following older posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

The article depicts him as a spiritual adviser to government officials who consult him for spiritual healing and advice about their futures. Since 2009 he has also been the spiritual adviser to Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. He is very anti-Communist and brands non-believers as Satanists.

I recall from my visit to Optina Pustyn that the monastery shop sold leaflets about the dangers of non-belief, including one called Meditation – the route to hell. However possibly a more serious reason for this is the terrible event at Easter 1993 when three monks were killed by a “satanist” who broke into the grounds. He attacked and killed one monk outright with a large knife and then attacked a second who managed to give the alarm by ringing the bells. A third monk, alerted by the bells, came out to see what was happening and was also attacked and killed. All three monks are now buried next to each other in the monastery’s grounds and celebrated as ‘new martyrs of the faith’. So, you can see that for the monks who experienced this attack, unbelief can literally be a matter of life or death.

The article points out that Putin has met the Elder on several occasions and that the Elder is a big supporter, attacking opponents of the regime and asking people who visit him whether they pray for the President. It points out that this closeness to Putin is probably why other government officials frequent the Elder, as it provides another means of accessing ultimate power.

The original Russian article gives some interesting biographical information about Elder Iliy that is not translated into the English version. Born Aleksey Nozdrin, on his mother’s side of the family they were not poor, but under Stalin they were branded as kulaks and driven out of their home. His grandfather later died of hunger.

In 1941, at the start of the Second World War in Russia, his family was living in a tent. He came to Christianity through hearing a Tatar praying. There are various ‘miracles associated with his younger years. For example, in 1943 returning home from staying with his godmother, he was passed by a German vehicle that went over a bump causing a door to open and a map case to fall out. The occupants of the vehicle were so drunk they didn’t notice. The future Elder took the map case home and showed them to a Russian prisoner who looked after the Germans’ horses. This prisoner somehow passed the maps to the Russian army where they ended up in the hands of the Russian Commander, General Rokossovsky, and helped him take out Germain fortified areas during the Battle of Kursk.

Another miracle dates back to the late 1940s when he and his brother worked as hired workers and were paid in bread. At the station on the way back home the bread was stolen from them, so they returned home empty-handed. Aleksey cried and prayed for a long time in front of the Kazan icon of the Mother of God. He then went out into the street and saw on a white cloth a piping hot loaf of white bread.

After leaving school he served in the army before going to a technical college and then on to the seminary at the Church Academy in Leningrad. It was here that he got to know the future Patriarch Kirill. In the picture below, taken with fellow students at his technical college, the future Elder Iliy is standing in the back row on the right hand side:

Алексей (Илий) Ноздрин в техникуме (первый справа в верхнем ряду).

On becoming a monk he took the name Iliyan and claimed to see devils flying through the air. In the mid 1970s he was sent to the monastery of St Pantaleimon (then a run down monastery with a few Russian monks) on Mt Athos, where he served as a confessor until the late 1980s. On his return to Russian he ‘took the great schema’, in other words he took a vow to observe the most extreme ascetic practices (the highest level of monkhood), assumed the name Iliy and became a confessor at Optina Pustyn. Many ordinary people started going to him then to ask for help and also a lot of politicians and people from the underworld. I remember seeing him at Optina Pustyn in 2002 being asailed by people seeking advice wherever he went. I thought he looked ill and very tired.

In 2009 he moved to Peredelkino to become Patriarch Kirill’s confessor / spiritual advisor. That’s when he started to attract visits from government officials. The Elder can apparently take a lighter view of his reputation as a miracle worker. One evening, popping into the church he saw several people standing around and announced in a loud voice ‘Let there be light!” To the astonishment of those standing around suddenly there was light. The Elder was standing next to the light switch.

What is it that brings together church and state in these rather unhealthy relationships? I think this is particularly the case in Orthodox countries where often religion and nationalism go hand in hand. I am sure there are many reasons for this, but two stand out for me. The first goes back to Byzantine times when the Emperor was identified as God’s representative on earth and worked in close cooperation with the head of the church, the Patriarch. The interests of church and state largely coincided. That relationship was also transmitted to Russia and lasted really up to the eve of the Revolution, though probably during the last 20 years or so of that period the Church was showing signs of wanting to reform and modernise.

In the Soviet period, the Church survived on the ground partly ‘thanks to the babushkas’ as Solzhenitsyn said, but as an institution largely through endless tortuous accommodations, and at great cost to lives and faith. In the post Soviet area, there was a thaw: churches opened up, it was no longer a stigma to go to church. The state became a great patron to the Church, giving it back some of its old privileges, building new churches, increasing the number of seminaries and monasteries. In gratitude, the Church reverted to type and supported the state, encouraging people to vote for the government.

In Greece and other Balkan countries the church is associated with national identity. All through the long years of the Ottoman occupation, it was the church in Greece that kept alive the language and culture, becoming a focus for the development of a national identity when the new Greek state emerged after the 1821 Revolution.

Although we have a Church of England, established as a deliberate act of separation by a sulking monarch, it has never become the standard bearer for English identity. Perhaps because the monarch made themselves Supreme Governor (a heavily qualified form of Head of the Church), the national identification is with the monarchy, not with the established church. Not better, just different.

Greek poems about Spring – Nikiforos Vrettakos

Here’s my translation of a poem by Nikiforos Vrettakos (1912-91):

I love you, Spring
I love you, Spring
You look like peace. You look like mothers
breastfeeding their babies
in the paintings of Raphael.

You look like the smile
in music.
You remind me of God
writing about love
on great reams
of pages with stars
bends in rivers
and poems.

Greek poems about spring – Manolis Anagnostakis

A Spring
When a spring smiles
you will put on a new suit of clothes
and come and shake my hand
my old friend.

And although perhaps no one expects you to come back
I feel the beating of your heart
and a budding flower in your ripe
bitter memory.

Some train, sounding its whistle at night,
or a ship, far away and unforeseen
will bring you back with our youth
and our dreams.

And although perhaps you have not really forgotten anything
coming back is always worth more
than any love of mine or yours
my old friend.

Greek poems about Spring – Giannis Ritsos

Here are my translation of two short extracts about spring from longer poems by Giannis Ritsos:

VII, 3-7
“Every flower has its place in the sun,
everyone has a dream.
Everyone has a sky above their wound
and a little illegal note about spring in their pocket.”

Offering
With our laughter
we brought the Spring back again
and from its golden hair
we weave rings
for our slender fingers.

Greek poems about spring – Kiki Dimoula

Here are my translations of a couple of poems by the modern Greek poet, Kiki Dimoula (1931-2020). She had a desk job at the Bank of Greece in Athens for many years before giving it up to become a poet full time.

Utopias
On my way
to work at 7.30 in the morning
I meet March
in a good mood
full of intimations
of spring and so on.

I put my existence on hold,
I break my contract
with winter,
and am scattered on the ground.
I turn into a little natural Earth,
laying down, spread out
face to face
with the universe that is in harmony with everything.
I grow flowers,
emotions bloom in me,
and I feel very good
on this endless journey,
being here.

“Spring’s forbidden!”
suddenly a cloud-sign
warns. Straightaway
it started raining and spoke out
against spring,
and against me,
a sad wind
blows away my flowers
scatters my emotions
and drives me to the Office.

So, a serious offence then,
particularly on my way to work,
by a lady of a certain age,
with family responsibilities,
and with many years’ service
in a government job
and winters.

Uncompromisingly
All my poems about spring
remain unfinished.

That’s because spring is always in a hurry
and my mood is always lagging behind.

So, I force myself
to finish
every unfinished poem of mine about spring
in autumn time.

A pilgrimage to the Byzantine monastery of Osios Loukas – part 3: the Church of the Panagia and a look around the grounds

This is the third and final post in my series on this monastery. You can find the first post here and the second one here.

The Panagia is the oldest of the two main churches, built in the second half of the 10th century. It was probably decorated with frescoes, but hardly anything remains and with its plain stone walls it feels a bit of an anticlimax after the magnificence of the katholikon.

In the exhibition room next to the Panagia Church in addition to Osios Loukas’s cell there is a space between the floors that was used either as a ‘hidden school’ to teach children to read and write Greek or to hide them from the Paidomazoma (Tur: Devshirme) during Ottoman rule in Greece. Paidomazoma was the Ottoman practice of kidnapping Christian boys to recruit soldiers and bureaucrats to the Sultan’s service.

Here are some more views of the monastery’s buildings:

These wonderful arches form a series of flying buttresses between the katholikon and the old refectory:

Here’s the rear of the katholikon (on the left) and the rear of the Church of the Panagia (right):

The dome of the katholikon behind the drum of the Panagia:

Drum of the Panagia:

The original monastery entrance gate:

Exterior of the Panagia church:

An old outbuilding:

The monastery’s ancient cistern:

A quite corner in the grounds:

Cannot resist a good door:

Finally on the terrace in front of the monastery there is a monument to Archbishop Isaïas Salomon who with his brother Gaga-Giannis died fighting the Turks at Khalomata on 23 April 1821 (ie at the start of the Greek Revolution against Ottoman rule). In this monastery, which the monument refers to as the base of the Revolution, he also blessed the weapons of the revolutionary fighters.

Osios Loukas is a beautiful place: it has an aura of calm and peace from the concentrated prayers and meditation of all the monks who have lived and worshipped here over the past 1,000 years.

A pilgrimage to the Byzantine monastery of Osios Loukas: part 2 – the Crypt and main church

This is the second of my posts on this monastery – you can find the first part here.

On his death, Osios Loukas was buried in his stone cell which is visible today as part of an exhibition room next to the Church of the Panagia.

At some point in the 11th century though his remains were transferred to the Crypt in what is now St Barbara’s church.

Later still his remains were transferred to a glass case in the connecting space between the katholikon and the Church of the Panagia:

The Crypt is decorated with frescoes, some restored. but others in a poor state of repair, including some with gouged out eyes and bullet holes in them. They feature a mix of scenes from Christ’s life and roundels of saints.

The Descent from the Cross:

The Deposition in the Tomb and the two Marys:

The Last Supper:

St Filotheos, a companion of Osios Loukas:

Another companion of Osios Loukas, St Theodoros:

St Andreas (Andrew):

Unidentified saint (possibly St Pantaleimon?):

St Peter:

St Paul:

St Vartholomeos (Batholomew):

The oldest of the two churches, is the Panagia, built in the second half of the 10th century. The largest of the two churches is the katholikon built in the early 11th century.

In the narthex over the main entrance is a fine mosaic of the Pantokrator:

Also in the narthex is this Crucifixion:

and Christ washing the disciples’ feet:

Inside, the katholikon is overwhelming. It was clearly built and decorated by craftsmen and artists from Constantinople. You can see and feel the influence of Aghia Sofia: in the quality of the mosaics and frescoes as well as in the grey, green and red marble revetments and floors.

Perhaps the most striking of all is this depiction in the semi-dome of the apse of the enthroned Mother of God with Christ which reminds me of the one in the Great Church in Constantinople:

In the dome above the apse a fresco shows the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles:

In the main dome is a fresco of Christ Pantokrator (Almighty) surrounded by the Virgin Mary and Archangels, and by Apostles on the side of the drum. Originally this must have been done in mosaic, but the dome was damaged in an earthquake and replaced by a fresco rather than the much more expensive mosaic.

A beautiful mosaic Pantokrator in a squinch (sorry about the focus)

An Archangel (Rafael?):

A superb mosaic of St Pantaleimon (one of my favourite saints):

Baptism of Christ in the Jordan, with a superb stylised depiction of the water:

St Theodoros ?

St Demetrios:

Alongside these excellent works are frescoes of a completely different quality, executed in a more naïf style, eg St Nestor:

St Demetrios:

As at Aghia Sofia in Constantinople, the upper gallery of the church is very richly decorated:

A pilgrimage to the Byzantine monastery of Osios Loukas: part 1

I have written a little about this monastery before when I translated a poem by Sikelianos set there during the Easter Vigil service. I visited it about three years ago and though I took a lot of pictures I was disappointed by the quality of some of them, especially the ones of mosaics and frescoes inside the churches. So I put them on one side until just recently, when looking through them again, I thought there was something I could do to rescue some of them. Perhaps my processing skills have improved a bit in the meantime.

We stopped off at Osios Loukas on our way from Delphoi to Nauplio, a long day’s drive of about 300km. I wrote about my trip to Delphoi and its museum in previous posts. Osios Loukas is an 8km detour off the main road between Delphoi and Livadia through the villages of Distomo and Steiri (which gets a mention in the Sikelianos poem). Distomo though is famous for a more tragic reason, a terrible atrocity it suffered in the Second World War. On 10 June 1944 the Nazis shot 232 inhabitants and burned the village down as a reprisal for an attack on a German convoy. Today a modernist monument in the village commemorates the dead and the Greece is still trying to get reparations for this war crime from the German government.

This walled monastery is in a beautiful setting on the side of Mount Helikon overlooking an uninhabited valley. The road from Distomo and Steiri just runs out at this point in the large car park, but on the day we were there there were few visitors. The monastery is dedicated to Venerable Luke (Osios is a monk who has been made a saint; and Loukas is a 10th century Greek saint, not the Evangelist). The terrace in front of what is the modern entrance to the monastery is planted with tall pine trees offering some very welcome shade, and set with tables and benches for visitors. All very tastefully done. There is still a small monastic community here, but in the course of our visit we only come across one monk in the katholikon (central church).

The old refectory in the foreground and behind it the katholikon dedicated to Osios Loukas
The old refectory and below, the entrance to the crypt beneath the katholikon dedicated to St Barbara where Osios Loukas’s tomb is located
Old monastic buildings and the continuation of the monastery’s defensive walls

A low arch surmounted by a depiction of the saint leads into the main courtyard.

The monks’ cells are in the building facing you as you enter the main courtyard. The old refectory – off to the right in this picture and the location of the ticket office – has been beautifully renovated in a modern, but sympathetic style and turned into a museum. Well laid out displays recount the monastery’s restoration and display some fine examples of old stonework from different periods of its history.

Who was Osios Loukas and why is there a monastery here? He was born in the early 10th century in Kastorion near the Bay of Corinth, about 80 miles west of Athens and became a monk at a monastery in Athens. In 946 he moved out to this area of Greece, living as a hermit in a small stone cell that still exits as part of the monastery complex. This period seems to have seen a renewal of monasticism in Byzantium, as a contemporary of Osios Loukas, St Athanasios, initiated the formation of the first monasteries on Mt Athos. Attracting others monks to the area and gaining the support of the local people, Osios Loukas started the building of a church dedicated to St Barbara before his death in 953. There are now two churches on the site the katholikon, dedicated to Osios Loukas, and a smaller and older church dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Panagia).

The fame of the monastery grew as miracles were associated with its founder. It is claimed that he had the gift of foresight, predicting various historical events, including the liberation of Crete from Arab control in 96. The monastery became a site of pilgrimage and attracted donations from Byzantine emperors and local wealthy families. Over the centuries it also acquired more land locally from gifts and bequests, helping it to become more self-sufficient and enabling it to earn money from land rented out to tenant farmers.

Looking out over the valley from the monastery

It is a strange coincidence that the saint was credited with the gift of prophecy within such a short distance (30km at most) of Delphoi, the most famous prophetic centre in the ancient world. I wonder whether this was a deliberate attempt by the Church to counterbalance pagan beliefs associated with Delphoi which may have lingered in folklore in the area long after the Delphic Oracle fell silent.

Another curious pagan parallel concerns the method by which pilgrims sought healing from the saint. They would sleep next to the tomb of Osios Loukas for days at a time in the hope of having a dream of the saint curing them. This practice recalls what happened at cult centres of the Ancient Greek god of healing, Askleipios. After purification practices and sacrifices, people seeking a cure would spend the night sleeping in the abaton (a sanctuary within the temple) hoping for dreams, inspired by Askleipios that would then be interpreted by priests to prescribe a cure. It seems that these ancient pagan practices had a very long after-life by being absorbed into Christianity!

Ravenna miscellany

I will end this series of posts on Ravenna with a selection of pictures of things that grabbed my attention during our visit.

I really liked the city and was pleasantly surprised by its human scale, its quiet central area and by the relatively few tourist we encountered (we were there in June 2019), most of whom were Italian. I suppose It’s a bit of a stretch for tourists to Venice or on cruise ships to make the detour to Ravenna. Perhaps it only attracts people who are keen to see the mosaics and/ or have an interest in things Byzantine.

All of the main churches, apart from Sant’ Apollinare in Classe are within easy reach of each other. Walking is a pleasure here as the central part of the city is car free, making the air cleaner. It was a pleasure to sit out in the courtyard of our hotel in the stillness and quiet of the evening, without a constant hum of traffic in the background. Bicycles are a popular way of getting around for the local people. Even the streets are discreetly marked into lanes for pedestrians and bikes.

The Piazza del Popolo, the 13th century square and heart of the city:

Ravenna is the final resting place of Dante who died here in 1321 from malaria. It just so happens that 2021 is the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. Much to the annoyance of the Florentines, Ravenna refused to part with his remains, though Florence continues to provide an annual supply of oil for the lamp over his tomb. It’s quite easy to miss the late 18th century tomb tucked in the angle of a street and a park.

During the last war Dante’s remain were moved to a tumulus in the nearly park for safe keeping and the spot is still marked:

Nearby is the Basilica of San Francesco, originally built by Bishop Neon in 450, but later demolished and rebuilt, then remodelled several times subsequently. Before Dante’s tomb was built he was buried in this church and in fact his funeral service was held here. A curious feature of the basilica is that the crypt constantly fills with water: putting a coin into a machine illuminates the area and you can see the mosaic floor, complete with goldfish motifs. Once a year (in January I think) the local fire service pumps the water out of the crypt. Bishop Neon’s tomb is here too and looking at the watermark on his sarcophagus, it’s clear that the water level must sometimes rise higher than the crypt.

Several items drew my attention in the National Museum. For example these 12th century Byzantine ivory carvings from Constantinople:

Nativity
Deposition from the Cross
Dormition of the Mother of God (left) and Christ in Glory (right)

And this ivory from Egypt, capturing the moment when pursued by Apollo, Daphne is rescued by her father Peneus by being turned into a laurel tree:

Apollo and Daphne

I loved this Russian icon showing St Vladimir flagged by SS Boris and Gleb:

These two striking marble reliefs display great skill:

Entered via the 18th century church of Sant’ Eufemia, is a museum called the Domus dei Tappeti di Pietra which preserves the mosaics of a lost Byzantine palace. It has two particularly interesting mosaics. The first shows a group, led by a dancer dressed in a costume that may indicate ‘spring,’ dancing to a pipe player:

The second depicts the Good Shepherd:

On the outskirts of Ravenna are the remains of a Venetian fort, the Rocca Brancaleone, built in the mid 15th century:

A bicycle advertising a local restaurant:

And finally, I can’t resist including this one again: