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:

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