This is the third in my short series of posts on Byzantine churches in Crete which started with a visit to the stunning Church of Aghios Nikolaos in Kyriakoselia (where I was unable to take any photographs of the interior) and then covered the Church of the Dormition in Vamos (which was locked). This time we visited the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God in the village of Alikampos in the Apokoronas district of Crete to see the fourteenth century Byzantine frescoes. The good news is that not only was it open, but I also had a guide and was able to take lots of photographs. So I have split the post into two: this one on the figures of saints and a second one on scenes from the Orthodox liturgical year.
Alikampos is a village about 6km south of Vrysses off the main road to Hora Sfakion. Enquiring about the key to the church in the village square kafeneio we are led to the house of Giorgos who jumps in our car and leads us down to it. The church is outside the village on the side of a valley and is very well hidden. Built in the typical Cretan style, it’s a single-aisled church with a barrel vault and, as you can see from the above picture, from the outside it’s not much to look at. It certainly doesn’t look old enough to date from the early fourteenth century.
Inside though it’s a completely different story. The whole of the interior is richly decorated with frescoes painted by the Byzantine artist, Ioannis Pagomenos in 1316 and his name and this date appear in the paintings behind the altar. I will come back to the painter Pagomenos in a later posting. Compared to other churches we visit, the frescos at Alikampos are in still in very good condition.
The lowest tier of frescoes on the left and right hand sides of the nave in the main depict individual saints. The first figure to the left of the door is St Mamas:
The obliteration of the face as here, or the eyes, is something you frequently see in Orthodox churches in Greece and is often explained as something that was done during the period of Ottoman rule. This ‘defacing’ was done for religious reasons as Islam forbids the depiction of the human form in art. If this was the case, then it seems to have been implemented in a haphazard fashion as we will see from other paintings in the same church.
The next figure, St Kyriaki, is a case in point as her eyes are wonderfully intact:
The warrior saints George and Dimitrios on horseback follow. I like the way the horses are depicted and how they are differentiated, not just by colour but also by the details in their bridles, saddles, position of their heads and even the binding round the tail of St George’s horse. St George’s cloak billows behind him as often in his dragon slaying icons.
Then on the right hand aside closest to the iconostasis is a beautiful Pantokrator:
followed by an Archangel (Gabriel?) holding the staff of an Imperial messenger:
Finally on the lower right hand tier are Constantine and Helena with the True Cross (fragments of which Helena brought back from her pilgrimage to the Holy Land):
On the left in the sanctuary is another depiction of the Mother of God:
and behind the icon screen on the right are two bishops (left and centre) that I don’t recognise with Aghios Titos (follower of St Paul and patron saint of Crete):
Behind the altar are the traditional depictions of the hierarchs (Aghios Vasilios, Aghios Ioannis Chrysostomos, Aghios Grigorios the Theologian and Aghios Nikolaos):
On the lower tier to the left hand side of the altar is an unidentified saint:
Above that is an Archangel (Michael?):
On the right hand side of the altar is another unidentified saint holding in his left hand what looks like a helmet (or perhaps a building?) on a purple cloth as an offering, and in his right hand an object that looks like an inverted whip with 3 tails (perhaps an instrument of his martyrdom). Giorgos, our guide, thinks this is evidence that the painter, Pagomenos, was trained in Byzantium as this saint is particularly associated with Byzantium and had a church dedicated to him there. Perhaps this church is the object the saint is offering in his left hand.
In a tympanum above the altar is a fresco of the Mother of God “More Spacious than the Heavens” (Theotokos-Platytera) with a small figure of Christ in her chest entitled ‘Loving Kindness’:
And above that are two depictions of Christ (the top one being a superbly painted mandelion, the image of Christ imprinted on a cloth as he wiped his face on the way to crucifixion). On either side of these two are Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Mother of God.
Finally on the vaulted ceiling over the altar is a beautiful, dynamic and flowing depiction of Christ in glory:
In my next post I’ll cover the programme of New Testament scenes at Alikampos that feature in the Orthodox Church’s liturgical year.
I apologise for the quality of some of these photos. The lighting conditions inside the church were poor and some of the shots were taken in near darkness.