The Church of St Nikolaos at Maza in Crete – part 3: life of St Nikolaos and litugical frescoes

This is the third in a series of blog post about this Pagomenos church in the village of Maza in Crete. You can find the first two here and here.

First of all, two of the most stunning frescoes in the church, first the depiction of Christ the Giver of Light in the apse and then the head of Christ on the Mandelion:

I am now going to look at some of the frescoes depicting scenes from the life of St Nikolaos, to whom the church is dedicated, and key liturgical scenes.The first one shows the birth of St Nikolaos and the bathing of the new born.

In the next one he is entrusted to the care of his teacher:

Then St Nikolaos giving the dowries for the three sisters:

St Nikolaos tonsured as a deacon:

In a badly damaged fresco, St Nikolaos is made a bishop:

The next fresco depicts St Nikolaos appearing to Emperor Constantine in a dream. This is one of a series of 3 frescoes in this church chosen to illustrate an episode in St Nikolaos’s life.The Consul, Ablabius, accepted a bribe to put three innocent generals in prison in Myra. They had been sent by the Emperor Constantine to put down a revolt in Phrygia, but ended up being imprisoned instead. St Nikolaos appeared to Constantine and Ablabius in dreams informing Constantine of the truth and frightening Ablabius into releasing the generals.

The next fresco in this series depicts the three generals in prison:

In the final icon in this programmatic series, St Nikolaos saves an innocent man from being beheaded:

On its own, outside the usual liturgical programme is this depiction of the Hospitality of Abraham, on of my favourite iconographic subjects, traditionally interpreted as the Trinity:

The next series depicts scenes from the life of Christ, starting with the Nativity, again badly damaged unfortunately:

This is followed by the Presentation of Christ in the Temple:

I love the simplicity in the depiction of the Virgin’s face. This is followed by Christ’s Baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist:

I like the detail of the two boys or young men in the water with Christ and the fish looking up at him. The boy on the left is a personification of the River Jordan., while the figure on the right riding a sea monster is a personification of the sea:

Next is the very badly damaged Metamorphosis:

This is a very badly damaged fresco of the Raising of Lazarus:

followed by another very bady damaged fresco of the Three Marys (the ‘Myrrh-bearers’ as they are referred to in Orthodoxy) at the Tomb of Christ. It shows the angel in white garments sitting on the gravestone

Nice detail in the bottom right of the sleeping soldiers supposed to be keeeping watch over Christ’s tomb:

The next one is Christ’s entry into Jerusalem (on Palm Sunday), with the lovely detail right at the bottom of the little boy feeding the donkey:

Following on from this is the Betrayal, another badly damaged fresco, with inset at bottom right St Peter cutting off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the High Priest Caiaphas:

Christ in Chains (ie on the Road to Calvary):

The Crucifixion is on the west wall above the entrance. Clearly the resrticted space available in that position gave Pagomenos a challenge which I think he more than meets in the drama of the fresco:

Finally in this series, the Resurrection:

I am intrigued by this bowl embedded into the wall over the entrance. It looks Byzantine in style, but I can’t believe it’s that old:

Rear view of the church:

My thanks to Eleftheria Lehmann for her gentle encouragement in getting me to post this series of photo essays on this wonderful little church, for providing me with a plan of the frescoes that she found; and for her very helpful comments on the identity and details of some of the frescoes.
A word of apology to the good people of Maza for moving the church furniture round a bit to be able to take uncluttered shots: I did this respectfully and moved it back afterwards. I hope you think it was worth it.
Finally, I am enormously grateful to my wife for all her love and support; specifically also for waiting so patiently while I took all these photographs and for encouraging me to publish them four years later.

The Church of St Nikolaos at Maza in Crete – part 2: frescoes of the saints

This is a continuation of my series of post on this Pagomenos church in Crete, started here.

Now we move on to the frescoes in the apse. Traditionally this space is used to depict the 3 hierarchs (St Basil the Great, St John Chrysostom and St Gregory the Theologian). We find these three here, though the fresco of St Basil is badly damaged, together with some more unexpected saints. First there is St Nikolaos again:

followed by St Athanasios:

and a little window gap:

and then St John Chrysostomos:

Finally in the apse, an unusual saint, St John the Merciful, a 7th century Patriarch of Alexandria:

On the arch is St Romanos the Melodist or Hymnographer, a 6th century composer of some of the Orthodox Church’s finest kontakia (chanted hymns with a teaching objective) who served in the Great Church in Constantinople during Justinian’s reign. He is depicted tonsured as a deacon, wearing the red robe of a singer, holding a censer in his right hand and, in his left hand a box in the shape of a church for storing incense.

Two roundels showing St Panteleimon, the healer saint, with St Daiman. A third roundel apparently showing St Cosmas is lost completely.

Next is St Mamas:

On the south wall is a badly damaged fresco of two unidentified bishops:

This is followed by an icon of the enthroned Mother of Godholding the Infant Christ:

Next to this is an icon of St Irene, the face badly damaged. There are several saints with the name Irene, but this is likely to be Empress Irene of Athens (752-803), wife of the Emperor Leo IV. As you can see in the picture, she is wearing an imperial crown and pendilia. Her most notable act was to restore the veneration of icons in the late 8th century after a period of Iconoclasm and for this reason she was revered as a saint, even though she was never canonised. I cannot work out the significance of the object she is holding in her left hand that looks like a Catherine wheel.

The following icon depicts the Archangel Gabriel:

Next is St Constantine and his mother St Helena:

and next to St Helena stands St Kyriaki

Finally, to the left of the entrance are St Foteini and St Paraskevi:

The Church of St Nikolaos at Maza in Crete – part 1: frescoes of the saints

At long last I get round to writing about this wonderful church in the Apokoronas area of western Crete. It is the last (for the time being at least) in a series of posts that I have written on some of the decorated Cretan churches. I started with Kyriakoselia; then went on to a couple of posts about the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God at Alikampos here and here; covered the frescoes at Argyroupoli; and then wrote a long post about the 13th / 14th century painter, Ioannis Pagomenos, who became a bit of an obsession.

First of all, though you have to find the tiny village of Maza. On a large scale map it is next to the village of Alikampos. So we drive through Alikampos and stop as the road climbs up again. Behind me two cars pull up at the start of a track, their drivers giving directions to another foreigner. I ask them for directions to Maza which they proceed to give me in very fast Greek (is there any other?). We manage to find the road they describe, but soon come to a fork in the road and still no sign. More directions from a man appraoching the fork on foot: take the right fork, then turn left. He laughs when I ask if it is signed. Eventually we find it and the only sign we see telling us we are in the right village is the one by the church and the name of the taverna opposite in the little square ‘I Maza’ (The Maza).

A few cars are parked behind the church as we pull up. I get a sense that the people in the tavernna are eyeing us a little warily, protective of this little jewel in their community. But the door is open, so at least we won’t have to go on a hunt for the key.

According to the epigraph at the back of the church to the right of the entrance door, Pagomenos painted the church in 1325/6:

Epigraph at the rear of the church with Pagomenos’s name underlined in blue.

The epigraph states that the church was painted with the contributions and efforts of Dimitrios Sarakinopoulos and Konstattis Raptis who funded half of the costs, while the remaining sum was covered by Konstattinos Dimitrios Sarakinopoulos, Georgios Mauromatis, the priest Michael, and the inhabitants of the village of Maza, whose name the Lord knows, by the hand of the sinner Ioannis Pagomenos in the year 6834 (1325-26). (Quoted in ‘Salvaging Crete’ a project by a team from Washington University in St Louis, USA).

It is interesting that this dedication refers to the painting rather than the building. I wonder how long the church existed before it was painted or whether building and painting happened within a short space of time. Apparently, there was a strong earthquake in west Crete at the beginning of the14th century that destroyed many churches. So it may be that this church had to be rebuilt and was then painted shortly afterwards.

In this post I will cover the frescoes of the saints at ground level, generally moving round the church in an anticlockwise direction. Starting with the two female saints on the back wall of the church to the right of the door, St Barbara and St Anastasia the Pharmakolytria (a 4th century saint’ – ‘Deliverer from potions’ – a reference to her ability to protect against poisons and to heal with suitable medicines).

Next are two male saints, St Theodoros (left) and St Prokopios:

followed by this lovely fresco of the warrior saints, St Dimitrios and St Giorgios, on horseback.

St Sofia:

Then comes an icon of St Nikolaos, to whom the church is dedicated, unfortunately showing some major damage:

He is shown being handed the Gospels by Christ and an omophorion (band of brocade with croosses on it that symbolises the authority of a bishop) by the Mother of God:

The ‘Salvaging Crete’ project quoted above has an interesting theory as to why there are so many churches dedicated to St Nikolaos in Crete:

The selection of St. Nicholas as patron saint is in itself intriguing, as none of the named donors was named in honor of this particular saint. Alongside warrior saints such as St. George and St. Demetrius—also represented at Maza, on horseback and in full Crusader armor—St. Nicholas received increased attention during the late Byzantine period, particularly in contested areas with shifting rulership and under military threat (e.g., the Crusader States, Frankish Cyprus, Venetian Crete). He was known as a staunch defender of the Christian faith, particularly for his defense of Orthodoxy against the Arian Controversy at the first meeting of the Ecumenical Council in 325, in the city of Nicaea. It might be that the citizens of Maza invoked St. Nicholas in response to Catholic pressure and increased Venetian presence on the island during the early fourteenth century.

I particulalrly like this little detail at the bottom left of the fresco. I am not sure to what it refers, perhaps the serpent from the Garden of Eden or a sea monster recoiling from the saint – St Nikolaos is patron saint of sailors amongst many other things.

Next are two bishops, St Vlasios (left) and St Eleutherios:

Finally, on the arch on the north side of the east wall is this depiction of St Stephen the First Martyr, tonsured as a deacon and swinging a censer: