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:

Between the devil and the deep blue sea – nationalism and Orthodoxy

Relations between church and state can sometimes be fraught, but sometimes they can also be unhealthily close. I was reminded of this when I read this article on the site of entitled The Kremlin’s Elder – how the Russian government fell in love with mysticism. is an initiative of independent investigative journalists in Russian that has been publishing some remarkable stories about corruption and cronyism, particularly involving the circle around Putin. This month the Russian government has declared it a banned organisation, confiscated all its financial assets and declared all its journalists to be foreign agents.

I was drawn into reading the article because I recognised the photograph of the Elder referred to in the article’s title: I had seen him during my visit to the Orthodox monastery of Optina Pustyn back in 2002.

His name is Starets Iliy (Elder Elijah) and he struck me then as being a remarkable man. According to my friend Dima who took me to the monastery on pilgrimage, Elder Iliy, like many Elders at Optina and at other monasteries in Russia, has the spiritual gifts of insight and foresight. I have written about my visit to Optina Pustyna at length in the following older posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

The article depicts him as a spiritual adviser to government officials who consult him for spiritual healing and advice about their futures. Since 2009 he has also been the spiritual adviser to Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. He is very anti-Communist and brands non-believers as Satanists.

I recall from my visit to Optina Pustyn that the monastery shop sold leaflets about the dangers of non-belief, including one called Meditation – the route to hell. However possibly a more serious reason for this is the terrible event at Easter 1993 when three monks were killed by a “satanist” who broke into the grounds. He attacked and killed one monk outright with a large knife and then attacked a second who managed to give the alarm by ringing the bells. A third monk, alerted by the bells, came out to see what was happening and was also attacked and killed. All three monks are now buried next to each other in the monastery’s grounds and celebrated as ‘new martyrs of the faith’. So, you can see that for the monks who experienced this attack, unbelief can literally be a matter of life or death.

The article points out that Putin has met the Elder on several occasions and that the Elder is a big supporter, attacking opponents of the regime and asking people who visit him whether they pray for the President. It points out that this closeness to Putin is probably why other government officials frequent the Elder, as it provides another means of accessing ultimate power.

The original Russian article gives some interesting biographical information about Elder Iliy that is not translated into the English version. Born Aleksey Nozdrin, on his mother’s side of the family they were not poor, but under Stalin they were branded as kulaks and driven out of their home. His grandfather later died of hunger.

In 1941, at the start of the Second World War in Russia, his family was living in a tent. He came to Christianity through hearing a Tatar praying. There are various ‘miracles associated with his younger years. For example, in 1943 returning home from staying with his godmother, he was passed by a German vehicle that went over a bump causing a door to open and a map case to fall out. The occupants of the vehicle were so drunk they didn’t notice. The future Elder took the map case home and showed them to a Russian prisoner who looked after the Germans’ horses. This prisoner somehow passed the maps to the Russian army where they ended up in the hands of the Russian Commander, General Rokossovsky, and helped him take out Germain fortified areas during the Battle of Kursk.

Another miracle dates back to the late 1940s when he and his brother worked as hired workers and were paid in bread. At the station on the way back home the bread was stolen from them, so they returned home empty-handed. Aleksey cried and prayed for a long time in front of the Kazan icon of the Mother of God. He then went out into the street and saw on a white cloth a piping hot loaf of white bread.

After leaving school he served in the army before going to a technical college and then on to the seminary at the Church Academy in Leningrad. It was here that he got to know the future Patriarch Kirill. In the picture below, taken with fellow students at his technical college, the future Elder Iliy is standing in the back row on the right hand side:

Алексей (Илий) Ноздрин в техникуме (первый справа в верхнем ряду).

On becoming a monk he took the name Iliyan and claimed to see devils flying through the air. In the mid 1970s he was sent to the monastery of St Pantaleimon (then a run down monastery with a few Russian monks) on Mt Athos, where he served as a confessor until the late 1980s. On his return to Russian he ‘took the great schema’, in other words he took a vow to observe the most extreme ascetic practices (the highest level of monkhood), assumed the name Iliy and became a confessor at Optina Pustyn. Many ordinary people started going to him then to ask for help and also a lot of politicians and people from the underworld. I remember seeing him at Optina Pustyn in 2002 being asailed by people seeking advice wherever he went. I thought he looked ill and very tired.

In 2009 he moved to Peredelkino to become Patriarch Kirill’s confessor / spiritual advisor. That’s when he started to attract visits from government officials. The Elder can apparently take a lighter view of his reputation as a miracle worker. One evening, popping into the church he saw several people standing around and announced in a loud voice ‘Let there be light!” To the astonishment of those standing around suddenly there was light. The Elder was standing next to the light switch.

What is it that brings together church and state in these rather unhealthy relationships? I think this is particularly the case in Orthodox countries where often religion and nationalism go hand in hand. I am sure there are many reasons for this, but two stand out for me. The first goes back to Byzantine times when the Emperor was identified as God’s representative on earth and worked in close cooperation with the head of the church, the Patriarch. The interests of church and state largely coincided. That relationship was also transmitted to Russia and lasted really up to the eve of the Revolution, though probably during the last 20 years or so of that period the Church was showing signs of wanting to reform and modernise.

In the Soviet period, the Church survived on the ground partly ‘thanks to the babushkas’ as Solzhenitsyn said, but as an institution largely through endless tortuous accommodations, and at great cost to lives and faith. In the post Soviet area, there was a thaw: churches opened up, it was no longer a stigma to go to church. The state became a great patron to the Church, giving it back some of its old privileges, building new churches, increasing the number of seminaries and monasteries. In gratitude, the Church reverted to type and supported the state, encouraging people to vote for the government.

In Greece and other Balkan countries the church is associated with national identity. All through the long years of the Ottoman occupation, it was the church in Greece that kept alive the language and culture, becoming a focus for the development of a national identity when the new Greek state emerged after the 1821 Revolution.

Although we have a Church of England, established as a deliberate act of separation by a sulking monarch, it has never become the standard bearer for English identity. Perhaps because the monarch made themselves Supreme Governor (a heavily qualified form of Head of the Church), the national identification is with the monarchy, not with the established church. Not better, just different.

A pilgrimage to the Byzantine monastery of Osios Loukas – part 3: the Church of the Panagia and a look around the grounds

This is the third and final post in my series on this monastery. You can find the first post here and the second one here.

The Panagia is the oldest of the two main churches, built in the second half of the 10th century. It was probably decorated with frescoes, but hardly anything remains and with its plain stone walls it feels a bit of an anticlimax after the magnificence of the katholikon.

In the exhibition room next to the Panagia Church in addition to Osios Loukas’s cell there is a space between the floors that was used either as a ‘hidden school’ to teach children to read and write Greek or to hide them from the Paidomazoma (Tur: Devshirme) during Ottoman rule in Greece. Paidomazoma was the Ottoman practice of kidnapping Christian boys to recruit soldiers and bureaucrats to the Sultan’s service.

Here are some more views of the monastery’s buildings:

These wonderful arches form a series of flying buttresses between the katholikon and the old refectory:

Here’s the rear of the katholikon (on the left) and the rear of the Church of the Panagia (right):

The dome of the katholikon behind the drum of the Panagia:

Drum of the Panagia:

The original monastery entrance gate:

Exterior of the Panagia church:

An old outbuilding:

The monastery’s ancient cistern:

A quite corner in the grounds:

Cannot resist a good door:

Finally on the terrace in front of the monastery there is a monument to Archbishop Isaïas Salomon who with his brother Gaga-Giannis died fighting the Turks at Khalomata on 23 April 1821 (ie at the start of the Greek Revolution against Ottoman rule). In this monastery, which the monument refers to as the base of the Revolution, he also blessed the weapons of the revolutionary fighters.

Osios Loukas is a beautiful place: it has an aura of calm and peace from the concentrated prayers and meditation of all the monks who have lived and worshipped here over the past 1,000 years.

A pilgrimage to the Byzantine monastery of Osios Loukas: part 2 – the Crypt and main church

This is the second of my posts on this monastery – you can find the first part here.

On his death, Osios Loukas was buried in his stone cell which is visible today as part of an exhibition room next to the Church of the Panagia.

At some point in the 11th century though his remains were transferred to the Crypt in what is now St Barbara’s church.

Later still his remains were transferred to a glass case in the connecting space between the katholikon and the Church of the Panagia:

The Crypt is decorated with frescoes, some restored. but others in a poor state of repair, including some with gouged out eyes and bullet holes in them. They feature a mix of scenes from Christ’s life and roundels of saints.

The Descent from the Cross:

The Deposition in the Tomb and the two Marys:

The Last Supper:

St Filotheos, a companion of Osios Loukas:

Another companion of Osios Loukas, St Theodoros:

St Andreas (Andrew):

Unidentified saint (possibly St Pantaleimon?):

St Peter:

St Paul:

St Vartholomeos (Batholomew):

The oldest of the two churches, is the Panagia, built in the second half of the 10th century. The largest of the two churches is the katholikon built in the early 11th century.

In the narthex over the main entrance is a fine mosaic of the Pantokrator:

Also in the narthex is this Crucifixion:

and Christ washing the disciples’ feet:

Inside, the katholikon is overwhelming. It was clearly built and decorated by craftsmen and artists from Constantinople. You can see and feel the influence of Aghia Sofia: in the quality of the mosaics and frescoes as well as in the grey, green and red marble revetments and floors.

Perhaps the most striking of all is this depiction in the semi-dome of the apse of the enthroned Mother of God with Christ which reminds me of the one in the Great Church in Constantinople:

In the dome above the apse a fresco shows the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles:

In the main dome is a fresco of Christ Pantokrator (Almighty) surrounded by the Virgin Mary and Archangels, and by Apostles on the side of the drum. Originally this must have been done in mosaic, but the dome was damaged in an earthquake and replaced by a fresco rather than the much more expensive mosaic.

A beautiful mosaic Pantokrator in a squinch (sorry about the focus)

An Archangel (Rafael?):

A superb mosaic of St Pantaleimon (one of my favourite saints):

Baptism of Christ in the Jordan, with a superb stylised depiction of the water:

St Theodoros ?

St Demetrios:

Alongside these excellent works are frescoes of a completely different quality, executed in a more naïf style, eg St Nestor:

St Demetrios:

As at Aghia Sofia in Constantinople, the upper gallery of the church is very richly decorated:

A pilgrimage to the Byzantine monastery of Osios Loukas: part 1

I have written a little about this monastery before when I translated a poem by Sikelianos set there during the Easter Vigil service. I visited it about three years ago and though I took a lot of pictures I was disappointed by the quality of some of them, especially the ones of mosaics and frescoes inside the churches. So I put them on one side until just recently, when looking through them again, I thought there was something I could do to rescue some of them. Perhaps my processing skills have improved a bit in the meantime.

We stopped off at Osios Loukas on our way from Delphoi to Nauplio, a long day’s drive of about 300km. I wrote about my trip to Delphoi and its museum in previous posts. Osios Loukas is an 8km detour off the main road between Delphoi and Livadia through the villages of Distomo and Steiri (which gets a mention in the Sikelianos poem). Distomo though is famous for a more tragic reason, a terrible atrocity it suffered in the Second World War. On 10 June 1944 the Nazis shot 232 inhabitants and burned the village down as a reprisal for an attack on a German convoy. Today a modernist monument in the village commemorates the dead and the Greece is still trying to get reparations for this war crime from the German government.

This walled monastery is in a beautiful setting on the side of Mount Helikon overlooking an uninhabited valley. The road from Distomo and Steiri just runs out at this point in the large car park, but on the day we were there there were few visitors. The monastery is dedicated to Venerable Luke (Osios is a monk who has been made a saint; and Loukas is a 10th century Greek saint, not the Evangelist). The terrace in front of what is the modern entrance to the monastery is planted with tall pine trees offering some very welcome shade, and set with tables and benches for visitors. All very tastefully done. There is still a small monastic community here, but in the course of our visit we only come across one monk in the katholikon (central church).

The old refectory in the foreground and behind it the katholikon dedicated to Osios Loukas
The old refectory and below, the entrance to the crypt beneath the katholikon dedicated to St Barbara where Osios Loukas’s tomb is located
Old monastic buildings and the continuation of the monastery’s defensive walls

A low arch surmounted by a depiction of the saint leads into the main courtyard.

The monks’ cells are in the building facing you as you enter the main courtyard. The old refectory – off to the right in this picture and the location of the ticket office – has been beautifully renovated in a modern, but sympathetic style and turned into a museum. Well laid out displays recount the monastery’s restoration and display some fine examples of old stonework from different periods of its history.

Who was Osios Loukas and why is there a monastery here? He was born in the early 10th century in Kastorion near the Bay of Corinth, about 80 miles west of Athens and became a monk at a monastery in Athens. In 946 he moved out to this area of Greece, living as a hermit in a small stone cell that still exits as part of the monastery complex. This period seems to have seen a renewal of monasticism in Byzantium, as a contemporary of Osios Loukas, St Athanasios, initiated the formation of the first monasteries on Mt Athos. Attracting others monks to the area and gaining the support of the local people, Osios Loukas started the building of a church dedicated to St Barbara before his death in 953. There are now two churches on the site the katholikon, dedicated to Osios Loukas, and a smaller and older church dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Panagia).

The fame of the monastery grew as miracles were associated with its founder. It is claimed that he had the gift of foresight, predicting various historical events, including the liberation of Crete from Arab control in 96. The monastery became a site of pilgrimage and attracted donations from Byzantine emperors and local wealthy families. Over the centuries it also acquired more land locally from gifts and bequests, helping it to become more self-sufficient and enabling it to earn money from land rented out to tenant farmers.

Looking out over the valley from the monastery

It is a strange coincidence that the saint was credited with the gift of prophecy within such a short distance (30km at most) of Delphoi, the most famous prophetic centre in the ancient world. I wonder whether this was a deliberate attempt by the Church to counterbalance pagan beliefs associated with Delphoi which may have lingered in folklore in the area long after the Delphic Oracle fell silent.

Another curious pagan parallel concerns the method by which pilgrims sought healing from the saint. They would sleep next to the tomb of Osios Loukas for days at a time in the hope of having a dream of the saint curing them. This practice recalls what happened at cult centres of the Ancient Greek god of healing, Askleipios. After purification practices and sacrifices, people seeking a cure would spend the night sleeping in the abaton (a sanctuary within the temple) hoping for dreams, inspired by Askleipios that would then be interpreted by priests to prescribe a cure. It seems that these ancient pagan practices had a very long after-life by being absorbed into Christianity!

The Baptistry of Neon in Ravenna

Dating from the late 4th to early 5th century, the Baptistry of Neon is claimed to be one of the oldest monuments in Ravenna. One again from the outside this small octagonal structure, built in the familiar red brick common to all of the Ravenna churches, is underwhelming. But inside the variety and richness of the mosaics is stunning.

The centre piece is the dome, very similar to that of the Arian Baptistry, which depicts Christ’s baptism in the Jordan.

On this occasion the figure of Christ is closer to the standard iconographic portrayal, with long hair, beard and moustache. To Christ’s left stands the pagan symbol of the River Jordan, an old man holding a cloth for Christ to dry himself on and a reed. Around this central scene is a procession of Apostles carrying martyrs’ crowns:

On the next level down are a series of almost tromp l’oeil structures featuring altars:

There is an incredibly rich variety of vegetal motifs throughout the mosaics:

I was fascinated to see the use of marble revetments, similar to those found in San Vitale:

In the squinches are simple depictions of saints on richly gilded backgrounds:

At ground level are a series of alcoves with richly decorated arches:

At the level of the windows are another series of depictions of saints and prophets, executed in a limited range of styles in marble relief:

The floor of the Baptistry is occupied by a large but simple marble font:

The Arian Baptistry in Ravenna

The Arian Baptistry is a small building in a courtyard near the Church of the Holy Spirit in Ravenna. It was built in the early 6th century by Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths who made Ravenna his capital after conquering much of Italy.

At one time the the whole of the interior must have been decorated with mosaics and frescoes. Many tons of tesserae were found underneath the baptistry after damage to the building during the last war. Today though the only part of the interior that is decorated is the dome and it is truly magnificent.

The central roundel of the dome mosaic depicts a beardless Christ standing naked in the River Jordan. On the right, standing on a rock is John the Baptist, holding a shepherd’s crook in his left hand and touching Christ’s head in blessing with his right hand. Over Christ’s head is a dove releasing a spray of water or pouring out the Holy Spirit on him.

Seated on the left of Christ is an old man, holding a reed (?) in his right hand, personifying the River Jordan. Next to him is an upturned water vessel and a pair of red crab claws pop out rather incongruously from behind the top of his head. He is a very pagan looking figure in an otherwise Christian iconographic setting.

Surrounding the roundel of Christ’s baptism is a procession of the Apostles, six moving clockwise and six anticlockwise. Both sets of Apostles are processing towards the throne of God, not occupied by a figure, but draped with a white garment (possibly a symbol of Christ’s suffering). On the throne lies a purple cushion surmounted by a cross also hung with a purple cloth.

All but two of the Apostles carry a crown of martyrdom in their cloth-covered hands, a sign of reverence.It is also a reference to the Byzantine court when servants used cloths to cover their hands as a sign of respect to the Emperors when presenting them with things.

The Apostles are separated by date palms, each slightly different from each other in design.

At the head of the two processions are St Paul on the left (not one of the original Apostles, but considered by the Church to be an equal of the Apostles) holding not a crown but two scrolls representing his epistles. On the right stands St Peter holding the keys of the Kingdom.

As I looked at the dome, I wondered how this mosaic expressed an Arian view of Christianity. Before the elaboration of the theology of the Trinity, Arius a 3rd -4th century priest in Alexandria developed the idea that Christ had been created by the Father and was therefore not co-eternal with him. Although it was condemned as heresy by the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, Arianism had a strong hold over the church and it was this sect of the church into which Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths was baptised.

I still cannot see how this belief is translated into the iconography.

To illustrate the lengths to which I go to get the right shots for this blog, I had to lay down on the floor of the baptistry to try and get the dome into my camera’s frame. This caused much amusement to some Italian visitors who passed me their cameras to take photos for them while I was down there. Jumping up unaided, I made a little bow of appreciation when they cheered me spontaneously.

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:

Ravenna – the Church of San Vitale

The Church of San Vitale, right next to the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia that I blogged about in my last post, has some of the most famous mosaics in Ravenna, its depictions of Justinian and Theodora frequently featuring in books about Byzantium.

The church is dedicated to a local saint, St Vitalis, allegedly martyred on this very spot by being thrown into a well. Building started in 525 AD under Bishop Ecclesius and it was consecrated in 546/7 by Bishop Maximianus. Both bishops feature prominently in its mosaics. The work was part funded by a Ravenna goldsmith called Julianus: judging by the size of the church and craftsmanship of the mosaics he must have been fabulously wealthy. It was also a project with Byzantine Imperial support designed to make a political and religious statement. It emphasised the restoration of Imperial control over Italy, finally secured by Justinian in 553, and the triumph of Orthodoxy over the Arianism of the Goths, whom Justinian defeated.

On entering this octagonal-shaped church, the first big surprise is that only the apse and the part of the nave nearest the altar are decorated with mosaics. The rest of the church is either plain or decorated with eighteenth century frescoes totally outclassed by the original mosaics. It gives the church an unfinished look as if the sponsors ran out of money part way through the building work. As I approached the altar, I was overwhelmed by the rich colours of the stunning mosaics: golds, reds, greens and blues.

In the tympanum of the apse is a wonderful mosaic of Christ Pantokrator. Above it are two angels holding what looks like a Chi Rho, symbolising both Christ’s resurrection and Byzantine Imperial power. On either side of the angels are walled cities, Jerusalem on the left and Bethlehem on the right.

A clean shaven Christ in Imperial purple robes is seated on a throne with the earth as his footstool, holding the gospels. Two archangels stand on either side of him and in his right hand he holds out a martyr’s crown to St Vitalis whose outstretched hands are covered as a sign of respect to receive it:

I love the little detail of the coloured feathery clouds over their heads.  To Christ’s left stands Bishops Eclesius of Ravenna, the initiator of the building, offering a model of this church to him:

In the dome above the apse is the lamb (looking a bit like a horse) of God in a roundel supported by four archangels standing on globes against a background of animal and vegetal motifs.

On either side of the apse are scenes from the Old Testament and depictions of the Prophets:

The detail and richness of the decoration is stunning, as in this shot of the upper ambulatory, the gallery where women were allowed to worship. This also features the shell motif that occurs throughout the church notably, as I will describe later, in the depiction of the Empress Theodora.

Here is the simple marble altar table, with rather horse-like sheep again on either side of the cross.

Behind the altar and set into the wall of the apse is a marble seat meant presumably for the bishop.

Lining the walls of the apse behind the altar are these wonderful marble and porphyry revetments that remind me of Haghia Sophia that was being built at around the same time. Perhaps they shared the same craftsmen.

There are many similar marble revetments around the church’s walls, some looking like stone Rorschach tests:

So to the Imperial mosaic panels themselves, quite difficult to see and photograph straight on owing to their position and the fact that entrance to the apse is roped off. First, here’s the Justinian panel:

Justinian is flanked on either side by the two great powers and supports of his reign, the church and the army. On his left are representatives of the Church, including in the most prominent position, Maximianus, Bishop of Ravenna, holding a jewelled cross. Next to him are two priests, one carrying a gold and jewel-encrusted gospel book and the other a censer:

Justinian’s body seems to hover in the air (more evident when you are actually looking at the mosaics rather than at these photographs), indicating his status as Emperor and also as God’s representative on earth. To his right are two high ranking courtiers and a group of soldiers carrying spears and shields:

The Emperor is wearing Imperial purple robes, crown, pearl pendilia, an elaborate tunic fastening on his right shoulder and he is carrying an offertory basket. His realistically depicted face is solemn and his eyes, like that of all the figures in the mosaic, stare out like those in icons, as if fixed on eternity.

On the opposite wall is the mosaic of Justinian’s wife, the Empress Theodora:

She too is flanked by two groups of attendants, on her left a group of noble female courtiers distinguished by the rich variety of the designs of their dresses:

On her right are two courtiers, one of whom is mysteriously pushing back a curtain onto a pitch black scene. In front of the curtain is a fountain, symbolising eternal life:

The Empress wears a lavish Imperial crown with pendilia and a pearl necklace. Above her is that shell motif again. Often the shell symbolises death, a motif that figures on grave steles for example, and some have seen a hint in it of Theodora’s death. She died, however in 548, a year after the consecration of San Vitale, so that does not quite fit. As with the figure of Justinian, the Empress seems to float slightly above her followers, but noticeably not as much as her husband. The hem of her purple cloak carries a depiction of the Three Kings, picked out in white and gold, bearing their gifts to offer to the infant Christ.

It is interesting that Justinian and Theodora are both depicted with haloes, though they were not made Orthodox saints until much later.

The floor has some interesting Roman mosaics:

And in front of the altar area is a very interesting marble labyrinth floor, complete with directional arrows that must surely be medieval.Another marble design on the floor reminds me a bit of one in Haghia Sophia which indicated the position of the Emperor’s throne:

Finally on matters flooring related, here are some repetitions of the shell motif:

One oddity of this church is this huge baptismal pool on the side opposite the apse:

Under the central octagonal dome is this monstrous eighteenth century Baroque painting, looking completely out of place:

and here are some of the arches of the ambulatory beneath the octagonal dome:

Finally there are several stone sarcophagi inside the church with interesting iconography:

A side panel of the sarcophagus above shows Christ raising Lazarus:

This one shows the Three Kings again offering their gifts to Mary and the infant Jesus.

I am not sure what this end panel depicts: Daniel in the lions’ den?

This was undoubtedly the highlight of my trip to Ravenna and one of the most interesting Byzantine sites I have visited. It is a remarkable church containing some of the highest quality mosaics I have ever seen. I can see why they are endlessly reproduced.