Les Invalides, Paris

Les Invalides

The dome of Les Invalides was built between 1679-1708 for Louis XIV as a royal church and an addition to the existing Hopital des Invalides which housed disabled army veterans. Inside it is an enormous space and feels like a piece of state propaganda, dwarfing the viewer and making you feel insignificant in the face of this massive celebration of royal power.

Here for example is the high altar and in the background you can see part of the Soldiers’ chapel with standards captured in battle and the 17th century organ.

Les Invalides - altar 2Looking up into the dome itself you can see a painting by Charles de la Fosse from 1692 depicting the Glory of Paradise with St Louis offering his sword to Christ:

Les Invalides - inside the dome

Les Invalides - dome painting

Of course the centrepiece of Les Invalides is the porphyry tomb of Napoleon in the crypt. Porphyry is the quintessential expression of imperial power and was the colour and preferred stone of the emperors of Byzantium. Over the entrance to the crypt are recorded Napoleon’s own words about being buried in Paris: “Je désire que mes cendres reposent sur les bords de la Seine, au milieu de ce peuple français que j’ai tant aimé”.

Les Invalides - tomb Napoleon

Also in the crypt is this statue – very much not life-size – of Napoleon in Imperial robes and holding imperial regalia.

Les Invalides - statue Napoleon

Les Invalides also houses the tombs of some of France’s greatest military leaders, including Marechal Foch:Les Invalides - tomb Marechal Foch

On the other side of Les Invalides is the Hopital des Invalides with its vast Cour d’Honneur (parade ground) – used most recently as the site for the event to celebrate the victims of the Bataclan terrorist attack:

Les Invalides - Cour d'honneur

Overlooking the Cour is Seurre’s rather sinister statue of Napoleon (‘Le petit caporal’):

Les Invalides - Napoleon in the Cour d'honneur

Finally here’s the front of the Hopital des Invalides:

Les Invalides - Entrance to the cour d'honneur

Paris in the autumn – Eiffel Tower

Tour Eiffel _

I’m going to do a short series of picture posts on a visit to Paris last October about three weeks before the terrorist attack at the Bataclan. In hindsight that tour bus below the tower with its strange slogan now looks like some sort of  encouragement to face the threat of terrorism.

Looking right up the inside of the tower:

Tour Eiffel - looking up 2

And finally some attempts at pattern shots using the girders:

Tour Eiffel - girders Tour Eiffel - girders 3 Tour Eiffel - girders 2

Ioannis Pagomenos – 14th century Byzantine painter

Founders’ dedication mentioning Pagomenos at the church of St Nikolaos in Maza

So at last I come to the Cretan painter Pagamenos, mentioned fleetingly in my previous posts on Kyriakoselia, Alikampos 1 & Alikampos 2 and Argyroupoli. He is a mysterious figure because nothing is known about his life: not even when he was born and died or where he lived. The only record of his life is through the surviving churches that he decorated, some of which record his name as the painter .

It is from these inscriptions that we get a picture of his artistic activity over a period of 34 years. He is first mentioned in a building inscription at the Church of Aghios Georgios, in the village of Komitades in Sfakia, which refers to him painting the church in 1313/4. The last reference is an inscription of 1347 in the Church of the Dormition at Prodromi (Sfakidia) in the Selino district. If, allowing for a lengthy apprenticeship, Pagomenos was aged 25-30 when he painted his first signed church then he must have been born in the mid to late 1280s. This would have made him 65 by the time he completed his last church.

The name Pagomenos, which means ‘very cold / frozen’, is not found still in south west Crete where most of the churches he decorated are found. However the surname can still be found in Irakleio, so maybe this is where he came from originally.  It is likely that he trained here, as at the time Chania was not well developed. Perhaps he even trained in Byzantium.

There are 845 decorated churches in Crete (as catalogued by Gerola and Lassithiotakis in the 1960s), most of them in the countryside and by far the biggest proportion in the Selino district of south-west Crete, including half of the churches painted by Pagomenos.

Why were so many churches decorated in this part of Crete? Typically the churches are small single aisled, vaulted churches, built in often rather remote spots. It seems to me that the churches had existed for a while (perhaps 100-200 years) before they were decorated. So perhaps it was a combination of changing tastes and increasing affluence caused by the Venetian occupation of Crete that stimulated the demand for decorating churches in this way.

The congregations for them must have been tiny, yet they became aware of the possibilities of church decoration and more importantly they had the money to commission an artist to paint them. It has been argued that the money came from the sales of products that the Venetians valued, such as wine, wheat, cheese or wood (for shipbuilding / repairs). In this part of Crete it is more likely to have been wood that was traded. Probably the traders who took the wood from the south-west ports to Irakleio became aware of the possibilities for adorning their own churches and made contact with artists there that they then commissioned to do the work. The evidence is from church inscriptions that there were multiple sponsors of the work, rather than a small number of wealthy individuals.

There are apparently 8 churches that can be attributed from inscriptions to Pagomenos:

  • Agios Georgios in Komitades, Sfakia (1313/4)
  • Agios Nikolaos at Moni, Selino (1315)
  • Theotokos in Alikampos, Apokoronas (1315/16)
  • Agios Georgios in Anidros, Selino (1323)
  • Agios Nikolaos in Maza, Apokoronas (1325/6)
  • Michael the Archangel in Kandanos, Selino (1327/8)
  • The Panagia in Kakodiki, Selino (1331/2)
  • The Panagia in the village of Prodromi (Skafidia), Selino (1347)

Looking at this list, I am puzzled by some of the gaps, especially the ones between 1316-1323 and 1332-1347. What was Pagomenos doing during these years? Did he paint other churches, which have not been preserved? Did he work on other larger churches in collaboration with other painters? Did he turn to other types of religious painting (eg icons)? If he trained in Irakleio he must have been aware of the trade in icons. Crete had been controlled by Venice since 1211 following the sacking of Byzantium by the Fourth Crusade and there was an increasing demand for icons from Italy.

In addition to the 8 churches mentioned above that can be attributed to Pagomenos there are others which may be by him but which cannot be authenticated, including:

  • Church of Agios Ioannis in Kandanos (1328/9)
  • Agios Panteleimon in Prodromi
  • The Virgin Mother of God in Kadros, Selino, in the community of Kakodikio

Apart from these, there are other churches (eg the Panagia in Anisaraki) which, whilst not Pagomenos’s work, were possibly completed under his influence. And of course, as I found at Argyroupoli other churches beyond this list have also been attributed to him because he is a well-known fresco painter, though there are about 15 other painters whose names are known from inscriptions.

Since most of his work was in the west of Crete, it is possible that he was based somewhere in the Chania area. He couldn’t work in the winter because the weather would have made travelling very difficult. Chania is the closest place from which he would have been able to buy the materials he needed and he must have had to base his family somewhere (there is evidence of a son who worked with him).

Finding and travelling over the mountainous terrain to the remote churches which commissioned him must have been very difficult. It has been estimated that by mule a traveller could cover up to 14km per day; so on that basis it must have taken up to a week to get to some of these churches from Chania. Travel was also very dangerous for someone on their own, so maybe he travelled with an assistant and used pack animals to carry his materials (a special plaster was need to prepare the base for the frescoes). Also on arriving in the area where he was commissioned to work there would have been few houses which would have been big enough to house him in addition to the people who already lived there.

From my experience of trying just to photograph his work, I marvel at how he managed to create his frescoes. How did he light the interiors sufficiently well to paint them? Did he use oil lamps? There seem to be so many obstacles to his creative activity. It was clearly a very difficult and precarious way of life, yet he managed to produce work of the quality of the Alikampos frescoes.

I am very grateful to Dr Angeliki Lymperopoulou, Senior Lecturer in Art History at the Open University and an expert in the decorated churches of Venetian Crete for her help and encouragement in writing this series of blog posts. In particular I have been greatly stimulated by, and taken an enormous amount of information from her article Fourteenth-century Regional Cretan Church Decoration: the Case of of the Painter Pagomenos and his Clientele (Series Byzantina VIII, pp150-175).

In addition I would also like to acknowledge the following article in Greek on Pagomenos by Konstantinos Kalokyris, Ioannis Pagomenos, o Vyzantinos zografos tou ID’ aionas (Kritika Khronika 12 (1958) pp347-367).

The Byzantine frescoes of Aghios Nikolaos in Argyroupoli


I love guidebooks. I can read them for hours especially on holiday. They provide huge amounts of information in digestible form, and they tempt and prompt exploration with their descriptions. Just occasionally though they can be so misleading that you start an angry dialogue with the absent writer.

So it happened in the village of Argyroupoli up in the mountains above the Georgioupoli to Rethymno road in Crete. We had explored the hill-top village, having quickly driven through the lower village famed for its running waters, because it was full of tourists and their coaches. We had walked around the quaint streets, admired the Roman mosaic, (eventually) found the old portal with the Latin inscription Omnia mundi fumus et umbra. But we just couldn’t find the “delightful chapel of Ayios Nikolaos dating from the eleventh century, with fourteenth century frescoes by Ioannis Pagomenos’ (that man again!) The Rough Guide describes it as being a pleasant walk from the northern end of the village beyond the pension Morfeas.

We circled the village several time in the mid-day heat. No signs of the church. At a taverna we got directions to a St Nikolaos in the village itself, but it’s a modern church. On the way out of the village gate I asked the main in the avocado products shop. “Oh, you want the Pagomenos church” he said. Leading me inside his shop, he carefully drew a map explaining the directions as he did so. The ‘delightful walk’ is a 2 kilometre drive. Even then it is very easy to miss the turning off to the right as it’s little more than a track and there’s no sign. We passed it in the car and had to turn back. Once on the track there is a little notice mentioning the church (not visible at all from the road), but no indication as to where the church is.

We parked the car, trying to pull off the track as much as we could in case tractors or other farm vehicles needed to get through. From the avocado man’s hand drawn map I knew we had to go down a track and somewhere off to the left and that the church was in the middle of a field. We walked downhill amidst endless groves of olive trees and tried the first track off to the left. It wound round several corners until it ended in a stock fence, beyond which was a building. This must be it. Opening the stock fence we moved forward until we saw sheep and then noticed washing hanging on a line. It must be a shepherd’s or farmer’s house. So, wary of attracting attention particularly from Cretan guard dogs, we retraced our steps, closed the stock fence and made our way back to the main track.

We carried on walking downhill until we came to another turn off to the left. It was baking hot in the afternoon sun and I determined that this would be out last shot at finding the church, so I went ahead of my wife to see where the track led. After about 200 metres, the track forked: the right hand path started to descend into the valley and the left one went up hill slightly. Still no signs. I took the left hand fork and after another 50 metres I suddenly saw a flash of white building through the trees. This time we were in luck it was the church and then I realised that I had forgotten to ask the avocado man whether it would be open.

Aghios Nikolaos-2

A traditional Cretan single nave church with barrel-vaulted ceiling, it really is in a remote place with wonderful views across the valley towards the mountains on the other side. Why on earth was it built here with no villages or houses nearby?

Fortunately the church was open and I was able to take a quite a lot of photographs. The frescoes are in a poor condition and much has been lost. Once again the lighting conditions were very bad, so I apologise for the quality of the photographs as I was frequently shooting in the near dark and it was hard to focus.

Here is an Archangel:


and the Resurrection:

Liturgical prog 3

with a close up of the figure of Christ:

Christ 2

There’s a very faded Pantokrator in the sanctuary:

Christ 2-2

and the traditional depiction of the four Hierarchs behind the altar:

Hierarch 1

Hierarch 2

Hierarch 3

Hierarch 4

As you can see a lot of the paint has been lost leaving at best the mere outlines of the original paintings and at worst great expanses of bare plaster. It makes it difficult to understand what scenes are being depicted in many cases.

Liturgical prog 1

Liturgical prog 2

This is a particularly intriguing scene. At first I thought it was the raising of Lazarus, but the figure with the raised arm is not Christ, so I’m not sure what it depicts.

Liturgical prog 6

Here is a fine depiction of the Transfiguration:

Liturgical prog 4

I think the following fresco is the Presentation of Christ (or the Mother Of God) in the Temple:

Liturgical prog 7

and this is the Nativity:


with a close up of the infant Christ being washed by handmaidens:

Nativity - detail

Here’s a badly damaged Baptism:

Liturgical prog 9

A dramatic scene showing the Apostles at the Assumption – it was disappointing to see Greek graffiti on this one:

Liturgical prog 14

I originally thought this was a Mother of God with female saints, but I’m not now sure that this is what is shown here:

Liturgical prog 15

A badly damaged head from a depiction of the Mother of God:


Three heads from the same fresco scene:

Saint 1-2

Saint 2-2

Saint 3

Could this be St Nikolaos or a Desert Father?


This looks like one of the warrior saints, St George or St Dimitrios:

St George

It’s amazing that these frescoes have survived for 700 years though of course sad they’re in such a poor state now. After seeing the Pagomenos frescoes at Alikampos which I wrote about here and here, I am not convinced that these frescoes are by the same hand. I’m no art historian, but they look more stylised and formal, as if copied straight out of the iconography style book. They are also not painted with the same skill and flair as the Alikampos frescoes.

In my next post I am going to explore the mysterious figure of Ioannis Pagomenos and his work and how he came to paint such extraordinary works in remote areas of Crete.

Aghios Nikolaos

Finally, the concrete buttresses for the walls are really ugly. This little gem deserves something better.