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.




One thought on “The Byzantine frescoes of Aghios Nikolaos in Argyroupoli

  1. Pingback: Ioannis Pagomenos – 14th century Byzantine painter | wordscene

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