The Byzantine Church of Panagia Drosiani on Naxos

Right next to the road between the villages of Moni and Khalki on the island of Naxos and in among the olive groves stands this little church, said to be one of the oldest in the Balkans and one of the most revered churches in Greece. It seems incredible, but the oldest part of the church dates back probably to the 6th century, though the little guide to the church claims it dates from the 4th century. Dedicated to the Panagia (Our Lady) Drosiani (the one who cools), it is the only remnant of an old monastery, perhaps giving the village of Moni its name (Moni in Greek means monastery).

Architecturally, the church was built and added to over the course of about a thousand years. The oldest part is the area consisting of the apse, the sanctuary, the iconostasis and the top part of the nave. On the northern side of the church are what look like three side chapels set at an angle to the nave, probably from the 7th century. The main body of the church, the nave, dates from the 12th-14th century.

Here’s a view of the church looking towards the iconostasis and apse:

Marble iconostases, like the one here, at this early stage in the development of Byzantine church architecture were generally low, as was the original one in Haghia Sofia. It was only later that it was raised in height to obscure the view of the sanctuary from the laity.

The church is famous for a miracle-working icon of the Mother of God which is said to perspire whenever the village is at threat. I have to confess I didn’t pay much attention to it in my eagerness to look at the frescoes.

The area around the apse and sanctuary are the only part that has frescoes. What makes them so special is that they date from the period before Iconoclasm (between the early 8th and mid 9th centuries) when the Byzantium turned against the making of images. Not only that, they destroyed many existing ones; very few frescoes or icons survived. Notable examples can be found at St Catherine’s Monastery on Mt Sinai, one of the oldest monasteries in the world. But it is remarkable that this church on Naxos pre-Iconoclasm frescoes. Perhaps its isolation and distance from Constantinople enabled it to preserve them.

On either side of the top of the nave facing each other are frescoes of the military saints on horseback, St George here:

and St Demetrios:

The tympanum of the apse has a seated Christ surrounded by angels that is really hard to make out and certainly too faint to photograph (even for me).

In the sanctuary there is a beautiful Virgin holding the infant Jesus in a circle in her breast, called the Nikopoios type in Greek (meaning Victory-making):

On either side of the Virgin are roundels of the healing saints, Kosmas and Damian:

In the space beneath the apse depiction of the Virgin, it is customary to depict four saints, usually the Three Hierarchs, the great teachers of the Orthodox Church (Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory the Theologian and St John Chrysostom), plus usually in Greece, St Nicholas. In this case, there is an unusual selection.

In the centre is Christ standing on a footstool:

To the left of Christ are the Virgin also standing on a footstool, with hands held out in supplication:

and next to her is what the guidebook says is Solomon holding a cross, a really strange choice. To me he looks more like a Byzantine Emperor: his imperial purple clothes are studded with pearls and he wears a pearl-encrusted crown. I don’t know how to explain the halo though. To the right of Christ is the figure of St John the Baptist and next to Christ what looks to me like a Byzantine Empress (not a female saint as the guidebook says) with a pearl and jewel-encrusted crown and pearl pendilia (pendants hanging down from the crown). Maybe she is the companion of the Emperor depicted on the left. Could they be Justinian and Theodora or Constantine and Helena?

In the dome are two very badly damaged portraits of Christ, symbolising the human and divine natures of Christ:

On one of the arches are inscriptions referring to the donors who paid for the church to be built:

The arches also have damaged full length depictions of saints, most unidentifiable, such as this female saint with a bag of healing medicines:

and this one:

This is the Holy Martyr Julian in a very badly damaged fresco:

On the north wall are these two striking head fragments:

On the south wall is a very naïve depiction of the Mother of God, looking cross-eyed:

On the north and south walls under the frescoes of SS George and Demetrios are red crosses that looks as though they may date back to the time of Iconoclasm:

Of the three side chapels, one was used as an ossuary and one as a ‘secret’ school, a church school that taught Greek to local children during Ottoman rule. The Ottomans though had a light presence on the island and left the Venetians to administer it, so it may be that this is a piece of myth-making.

I had asked the old lady guardian if I could take photographs inside the church and she quite willingly me agreed to let me do it. However, as I got to the end of shooting the frescoes, I suddenly heard her shout at me ‘Stop!’ in a very angry voice. Of course, I stopped taking photographs, but I couldn’t understand why she had suddenly turned against me.

A very old olive tree near the entrance gate to the church:

Finally, a view of the church of the Panagia Drosiani at the bottom of the valley with Mt Fanari in the background:

Greek poems about homes

Recently I have been reading a few Greek poems about homes and I thought I would post my translations. These poems range over 70 years in terms of their date of publication, but there is a remarkable consistency in attitudes between them.

Homes, like people, are complex things. They can be fortresses and places of refuge. They can also be prisons, places of restriction, museums, places haunted by memories where the past is frozen in time. They generate happy memories and sad memories, joy and resentment, reminders of death and decay. They are ambivalent spaces. There is nothing inherently positive or negative about them: it is our feelings about the past and the experiences we have had in them that colour our perception of them. Their decline and dilapidation reflects our own ageing process. Houses, like us, are temporary structures.

The house by the sea by Giorgos Seferis
(the first poem in a cycle entitled Thrush published in 1947)

Do not talk to me about the nightingale or the skylark
or the little wagtail
that writes figures in the light with its tail;
I do not know much about houses
I know they have their tribe, nothing else.
New in the beginning like babies,
playing in the orchards with the fringes of the sun,
they embroider painted shutters and doors
shining in the daylight;
when the architect finishes, they change,
wrinkling or smiling or even sulking
with those who stayed, with those who left
with others who would come back if they could
or who were lost, now that the world
has become an infinite hotel.

I do not know much about houses.,
I remember their happiness and their sadness.
sometimes when I stop; again
sometimes, by the sea, in bare rooms
with an iron bedstead and nothing else of my own
looking at the evening spider I think about
someone preparing to come back, being dressed
in white and black clothes. in multicoloured jewellery
and around him respectable matrons, with grey hair and dark laces,
speak softly.
I think about him getting ready to come and say goodbye to me;
or, about a woman with curled eyelashes and a slim waist
returning from southern ports,
Smyrna, Rhodes, Syracusa, Alexandria,
from closed cities like warm shutters,
with the scents of golden fruits and herbs,
and she is climbing the steps without seeing
those who have fallen asleep beneath the stairs.

Houses, you know, sulk easily when you lay them bare.

This house by Giannis Ritsos
(extracts from a longer poem called Moonlight Sonata published in 1956)

This house was haunted, it drives me away –
I mean it has aged a lot, nails have pulled up
picture frames launch themselves as if jumping into the void,
plaster is falling silently
like the hat of a dead person falling
from the peg in a dark hallway
like the woollen glove of silence falling from its lap
or like a strip of moonlight falling on the old gutted armchair.

This house no longer agitates me.
I can’t stand it getting me worked up.
You must always be careful, be careful
to prop up the wall with the big sideboard
to prop up the sideboard with the ancient carved table
to prop up the table with chairs
to prop up the chairs with your hands
to put your shoulder under the beam that’s hanging down.
And the piano, like a closed, black coffin. You don’t dare open it.
Be careful of everything. be careful they don’t fall, that you don’t fall. I can’t stand it.
Let me come with you…

This house, in spite of all its dead, doesn’t intend to die.
It insists on living with its dead
on living on its dead
on living with the certainty of its death and on providing still for its dead
with dilapidated beds and shelves.
Let me come with you.

This house is drowning me. The kitchen in particular
is like the seabed. Hanging coffee pots shine
like the big, round eyes of fantastic fish
plates quiver slowly like jellyfish,
seaweed and shells get caught in my hair
I can’t get them out again later
I can’t get back up to the surface again –
the tray falls silently from my hands – I collapse
and I see the bubbles of my breath go up and up
and I try and entertain myself by looking at them
and I wonder what someone looking down from above would say seeing these bubbles,
perhaps someone’s drowning or perhaps a diver is exploring the depths.

‘I don’t even know what I’m searching for’ by Tolis Nikiforou
(from the collection A chalk on the blackboard published in 2012)

sometimes late in the evening
I go back again to our old house
and open the door in anticipation
searching in the darkness
I don’t even know what for

with the key still in my hand
that big, iron one
I pass from room to room
touching, smelling and looking
in each of my intangible steps
in case somewhere here there is
the always-warm hand of my father
and brother or their protective ferociousness
and that of my mother
the ever-present absence
in case there are here
our heavy polished table
ithe photograph smiling on the wall
the carpet with its multicoloured patterns
in case there are here
the floor, the walls, the same house
in case, coming through the balcony door,
is the square opposite that I used to love
and suddenly I realise I’m crying
I’m crying hopelessly in my dream
the tears make everything mist over
everything the light of memory illuminates.