A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 6 – end of my stay at Iviron

I took this shot of the daily monastic service programme displayed on the notice board of the Guest House at Iviron. Here’s my translation:

Programme of services
Monday-Saturday                              Time      Sundays / feast days                    Time
(excluding feast days)

a. Midnight service (main church)           3.30    a. Midnight service (main church)         3.30
b. Matins (main church)                          4.00    b. Matins (main church)                       4.00
c. Divine Liturgy (Chapel)                        5.30    c. Hours (main church)                        6.00
d. Tea (in the refectory after the Divine Liturgy)   d. Divine Liturgy (main church)            6.30  e. Meal (refectory)                                 10.30    e. Meal (in the refectory after the                                                                                             Divine Liturgy)
f. Vespers (main church)                         5.00     f. Vespers (main church)                     5.00
Prayers (Virgin Portaitissa)                  6.00     g. Prayers (Virgin Portaitissa)              5.45
h. Dinner (refectory)                                6.30     h. Dinner (refectory)                            6.15
i. Compline (Virgin Portaitissa)                7.00     i. Compline (Virgin Portaitissa)             6.45
On Saturdays dinner and Compline take place immediately after Great Vespers.

It is amazing to think that this daily programme of worship has been followed for hundreds of years, perhaps since Byzantine times. In fact Athos feels like a Byzantine time capsule: not just in terms of the liturgical progamme, but the buildings, the unspoilt landscape unmarked for the most part by signs of modernity, and the fact that Athos still follows the Byzantine Calendar and measurement of time. It also makes you aware of how much you are intruding on their daily programme and in some ways how much of a burden it is for the monasteries to have to provide accommodation and food to a constant flow of pilgrims.

It’s Sunday today and I wake at about 5.20am and can’t get back to sleep. I hear people getting up in the other dorms between 5.30-600 to prepare for the Liturgy at 6.30. I eventually manage to get up at about 6.00 and by the time I’m back from my ablutions my room mates are up and dressed with their bags packed. As I’m in the loo I hear the bells ringing to mark the imminent start of the service: once again I’m too late to record them.

Much of the service is conducted in the dark with minimal candles for the choirs, of which there are two singing antiphonally on either side of the nave, one often acting as the drone while the other chants the words. The choir leader cross and recrosses the nave as he moves from one choir to the other to conduct them. Nikolaos points out that the arrangement is cross shaped:


Choir 1                                             Choir 2


I manage to record most of the service though I keep thinking that at any moment I will be stopped. At one point a twinkly-eyed monk stands next to me looking at my recorder and pulls out a small torch to examine it. I wait anxiously for his reaction, but he just smiles and nods once he understands what it is.

Photography is forbidden in the church, but there is one shot I wish I could have taken. It is of a seated monk with a white flowing beard chanting, seen in three quarter profile and beautifully lit by a candle that is hidden by the music stand.

There is much censing of the icons and the faithful and there’s a lot of coming and going all the time. After a while it has a very hypnotic quality to it. Argyrios tells me that he had a remarkable experience once during the morning Liturgy at Dionysiou (the next monastery we are due to visit) and he promises to tell me what happened when we’re there.

I find one of the most moving moments of the service occurs when the monks take it in turns to stand in the middle of the church, crossing themselves and bowing to the altar and then continuing to make the sign of the cross and bow as they turn clockwise in all directions and then back round to the altar again. As they do so they ask all present to forgive them. Those in the congregation who are so moved go up and do the same thing.

Sunday is joyful, like a feast day. In the refectory I have managed to get a seat at the top of one of the long tables. With my back to the wall I have an excellent view of the whole refectory and the senior monks’ top table. As we pilgrims stand waiting for prayers a group of 6-8 monks process in to a joyful chant. Breakfast is a bowl of thin noodles topped with small pieces of flaked tuna in a tomato sauce, with feta, boiled egg, bread, an apple and a glass of red wine.

Today I can see the reader very clearly, as he seems to hang half way up the wall like a static talking icon. I watch the Abbot who seems to be taking in everything that’s going on in the Refectory. At the end of the meal a monk comes round to all the tables putting into our outstretched palms a small teaspoon of ‘kolyva’ ( a mixture of wheat grains pine nuts and sultanas).Traditionally this is something that is eaten at funerals. I am intrigued by the monk doing this as he is quite young and active (he’s been around shusshing us at various points during the meal when the volume of noise rose too much) and even more by the fact that he is Japanese. I wonder what journey he has been on to fetch up on the Holy Mountain. At the end of the meal, the monks process out again chanting. The Abbot to our right blesses us we emerge, while the cooks to our left bow deeply, and the remaining monks form a short tunnel to greet us.

Time for us to collect our things from the guest house and make our way down to the arsenas for the next stage of our trip. I feel quite sad to be leaving Iviron this morning.



A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 5 – the museum at Iviron

The museum at Iviron is the pride and joy of Fr Prodromos and his pet project. He has been collecting material for it from all over the monastery and the surrounding area for years and now he has been able to house it all in a large, brightly lit basement area within the precincts. There’s no labelling of the items on display, but they are grouped by topic (eg kitchenware, wine and oil containers, keys, tools, etc.).

For example here’s part of the section devoted to baking, with wooden dough moulds and peels for putting loaves into a wood fired oven:

The cylindrical containers on rods in the picture below are for roasting coffee beans:

I was amazed to find a whole section devoted to rifles, guns and knives. This is an interesting reminder of the fact that Athos has frequently been attacked in the past by marauding pirates seeking to loot the monastery treasures. That’s why so many of the monasteries are built like fortresses with high walls, no easily accessible windows and heavily re-inforced doors. For example, the main door of the monastery of Dionysou (next on my little pilgrimage) is one of the thickest doors I have ever seen.

Here is a picture of monastery guards on Athos (not Iviron) taken as recently as 1913. They’re almost certainly not monks, but in earlier centuries they probably would have been.

Image result for armed guards of Athos

This window sill contains a whole pharmacy of medicine bottles. At first I thought the bell shaped glasses at the front were leech glasses, but now I think they are ventouse glasses which were used as a vacuum device for delivering babies or more likely for ‘cupping’. This technique was a folk remedy for dealing with chest colds and fevers.

The technique is well captured by Sydney Marangou-White (who was born in the village of Ouranoupoli on the border with the Holy Mountain) in this description of her mother, the village healer in the 1930s:

“Mamma stood on the left by a shelf. On it was her equipment, comprising a fork, cotton wool, a reel with sewing thread, a small glass, a box of matches and a bottle of blue liquid. She picked up the fork, wound the wad of cotton wool round the prongs, securing it with a piece of thread. She opened the bottle containing the blue liquid – methylated spirit. she poured some into the small glass and plunged the fork in it, head first…

Mamma removed the intoxicated fork from its alcoholic soak, struck a match and set the wad alight, making it look like a flaming torch. With her right hand she picked up a cup (ventouse), inserted the flaming torch into it to create a vacuum, and placed it adroitly on the patient’s back. Three more are applied to make a square…

The patient whimpers, begging Mamma to remove them. They are left in place only for a few minutes, but to the patient it seems a very long time.” 

(from Bones Washed in Water and Wine, 2012)

Bells of all shapes and sizes;

Chains and hooks:

Water carrying vessels:

Pulleys:And a huge variety of locks and keys:

Coming more up to date there were even some old radio sets, phones and mechanical typewriters. The final part of the museum features a small collection of agricultural equipment, including ploughs, harrows, rakes and carts:

and some threshing boards:

In the book quoted above, Sydney Marangou-White includes a description of how these items were used on the threshing floor:

 “…a circle was marked out on the hard ground with a stone. It was swept and received about four rows of sheaves. These were placed in a concentric manner, starting from the central point with heads down, and placed in an ever-increasing circle, until the marked area was reached…

The thresher…was a rectangular wooden platform, measuring about a metre by three metres, the front bent at an angle. It had big metal rings for attaching the donkey’s harness. The under surface of the platform was punctuated in horizontal lines with shards of flint. The thresher would be turned over on the sheaves at the edge of the circle; the donkey, head in the nosebag munching happily, was led to its post and firmly attached to the waiting platform. The threshing began with an oath from the driver to get the beast moving. To us, it was the only merry-go-round we knew, and we were given the opportunity to sit behind the driver in turn.”


I will write a bit more about Sydney Marangou-White when I come to Ouranoupoli at the end of this pilgrimage.

After our tour of the museum I sit in the evening cool of the monastery courtyard, relaxing in the deep silence of this space before retiring for the night at about 9.30.

A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 3 – the monastery of Xenofontos

“So, is there anything I should or shouldn’t do when I’m on Athos?”, I ask Nikolaos, our group leader (o kyrios Nikolaos – Mr Nikolaos – as my fellow pilgrims and I call him) at my pre-pilgrimage briefing. We (Nikolaos, Sofia, my Greek tutor and Nikolaos’s daughter, my wife and I) are sitting in the park near the Archaeological Museum in Thessaloniki on a beautiful warm summer evening enjoying soft drinks. I’m concerned that, not being Orthodox, I might embarrass my fellow pilgrims.

“Well, there are some things. Don’t run, sing or whistle. No loud laughter. And don’t put your hands in your pockets .”  OK, that doesn’t seem to be too bad. I think I can just about hold myself back from the urge to run around, laughing my head off, whistling and singing with my hands in my pockets.

“One other thing”, I ask him. ‘How do you address a monk?”, thinking that the Greeks use the similar word, Patir, that they use for talking to a priest.

” We say ‘eulogeite’ [bless]. To which the monk replies ‘o Kyrios’ [the Lord, ie ‘may the Lord bless you, often with the right index finger raised, pointing to heaven].” I wasn’t expecting that.

O kyrios Nikolaos also gives me a bit of a potted history of the Holy Mountain and shows me our intended route on a map. There have been isolated groups of monks on Mt Athos since at least the ninth century, but it was St Athanasius the Athonite who started to bring them together into monasteries, founding the very first, the Great Lavra in 963. This was followed by Vatopaidi in 974 and Iviron in 982.

So here I am now, at the monastery of Xenofontos, setting foot on the Holy Mountain for the first time, excited and just a bit anxious about how it’s going to go. Disembarking from our little ferry, we leave our bags on the jetty beneath a wooden verandah and head on up the slope that leads to the monastery gate. I’m a bit dubious about leaving my things there but am re-assured that they will be looked after.

In the main courtyard, there’s a stunning Byzantine katholikon (main church) in white and pink brick glowing in the sun. It looks old, but in fact it was only built a couple of hundred years ago.

The monastery itself as an institution dates back to the 10th-11th century, but generally from the outside the buildings look well maintained and not as old as I was expecting. This is something I notice throughout our pilgrimage. Although the foundations may date back over 1000 years, many have suffered fires and attack by pirates which means that they have been re-built, often several times. Fortunately, Athos has been successful in attracting money (including from the EU) to renovate its monastic buildings because, although many of the monasteries are asset rich, they are also cash poor.

Here are some of the other building surrounding the central courtyard.

As we arrive the celebration of the liturgy is nearing its end in a much smaller church which we can’t get into because it’s already crowded with pilgrims. So we have to stay outside in the narthex listening to the end of the service.

The walls of the narthex are covered with remarkable frescoes of the Revelation of St John – a theme which I come across in the other two monasteries we visit at Iviron and Dionysiou. The picture below shows (from left to right) St John the Theologian being inspired by Christ to write the Revelation, Lucifer’s fall and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Here the multi-headed Antichrist is confronted by the Lamb:

Not sure how the next one fits in as it seems to show the donors who provided the money for the katholikon:

At the end of the liturgy we are taken into a side dining room for breakfast so we don’t get a chance to eat with the monks and see the main refectory. The meal consists of two dishes, a bowl of peas and boiled potatoes in a tasty sauce with bread, followed by a creamy custard pudding with a sprinkle of cinnamon on the top with plain water to drink. It’s much nicer than it sounds. In the monasteries on Athos monks eat two meals a day, lunch after the liturgy and then dinner after Vespers. I am struck by how much of an overhead it is for the monasteries to feed and accommodate a constant stream of pilgrims and how disruptive it must be, in some ways, to their way of life.

After breakfast our group is invited into the katholikon to venerate the icons and for an inspiring talk by one of the monks. The church was built in the early nineteenth century and the frescoes are not particularly interesting though the gold decorations are very impressive:  

Argyrios points out the ostrich eggs hanging from the rich chandelier. There are two explanations for them: they are either there to keep the spiders away or they are exotic decorations.

While my fellow pilgrims lean in for their pep talk, I wonder round looking at the frescoes and in particular a fine Pantokrator in the dome:

On the way out, in the narthex is a fine fresco of Saints Demetrios and George:

There’s a bit of a pause now as we wait in the guest house for our mini-buses to take us on to the monastery where we will be staying the night. From here we are splitting into three groups each visiting different monasteries. The monks bring in very cold water for us to drink and likhoum to eat. I have a chat to an elderly man (not in our group) who’s been coming to Athos 3-4 times a year since 1958 and he tells me every time it’s different. I start to wonder what it is that brings him and so many others (including o kyrios Nikolaos and Arguris) back so often. But before long, the lack of sleep catches up with me and I start to doze off. While we’re all still together in the main courtyard, I take a shot of the whole group for the Association’s newsletter:

I think it’s the only large group shot I have ever taken where everyone is looking at the camera. Probably because to get their attention I say: “As we say in England, say -“, but before I can finish the sentence they all chime in with ‘Cheese!’ (in English). Our leader, o kyrios Nikolaos is at the extreme right of the front row, and my ‘minder’, Argyris, is in the middle of the back row.

A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 2 – journey to Xenofontos

After leaving Ouranoupoli harbour the boat follows the coast down the western side of the Athos peninsula. Soon we pass the border between Greece and the autonomous region of Athos marked, symbolically rather than practically, by the wall shown in the middle of the picture above and by the Custom’s House on the shore. There is no direct road linking Athos to the rest of Greece, though in the event of an emergency (a fire or natural disaster) I was told that a road of some sort could be put in place.

The first monastery we encounter is called Monoxilites, though my companions call it ‘gourounomoni’ (pig monastery) because it used to be dilapidated and pigs were kept there.

Now it’s being renovated by Russian monks and there seems to be a lot of building work going on. The first main monastery that we come to is Zografou with its own little church and mill and its imposing ‘arsenas’ (jetty) for the ferry to pull in, .

As we make our way down the coast, I am struck by the wild beauty of Athos. It’s much greener and more forested than I had expected and totally unspoilt: except for the area immediately round the monasteries, nature has just been left to itself. There’s no pollution: the air is clear, the waters deep and crystal clear. Strangely shaped rocks rise up out of the sea and on the cliffs. Apparently there are still the remains of Ancient Greek temples on the peninsula, though unfortunately we don’t have time to go off searching for them.

Every kilometre or so along the shore there’s a yellow sign (in the right foreground in the shot below) that indicates to boats that this is the territory of Mt Athos).

Fishing boats and other craft are not supposed to come within 500m of the shore, but we pass several fishing boats that are well within that limit.

Our next stop is the monastery of Dokheiariou which has a very impressive entrance with statues of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel set on columns on either side.

A lot of building work is still going on here too. My companions tell me that the Abbot was a civil engineer before he became a monk and personally supervises all the building work. As the picture below shows, the monasteries need supplies just like any other community.

Our first real stop is the monastery of Xenofontos, the first of three that we will visit on this trip.

Ioannis Pagomenos – 14th century Byzantine painter

Possible Pagomenos signature (top left) at the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God at Alikampos

Possible Pagomenos signature (top left) at the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God at Alikampos

So at last I come to the Cretan painter Pagamenos, mentioned fleetingly in my previous posts on Kyriakoselia, Alikampos 1 & Alikampos 2 and Argyroupoli. He is a mysterious figure because nothing is known about his life: not even when he was born and died or where he lived. The only record of his life is through the surviving churches that he decorated, some of which record his name as the painter .

It is from these inscriptions that we get a picture of his artistic activity over a period of 34 years. He is first mentioned in a building inscription at the Church of Aghios Georgios, in the village of Komitades in Sfakia, which refers to him painting the church in 1313/4. The last reference is an inscription of 1347 in the Church of the Dormition at Prodromi (Sfakidia) in the Selino district. If, allowing for a lengthy apprenticeship, Pagomenos was aged 25-30 when he painted his first signed church then he must have been born in the mid to late 1280s. This would have made him 65 by the time he completed his last church.

The name Pagomenos, which means ‘very cold / frozen’, is not found still in south west Crete where most of the churches he decorated are found. However the surname can still be found in Irakleio, so maybe this is where he came from originally.  It is likely that he trained here, as at the time Chania was not well developed. Perhaps he even trained in Byzantium.

There are 845 decorated churches in Crete (as catalogued by Gerola and Lassithiotakis in the 1960s), most of them in the countryside and by far the biggest proportion in the Selino district of south-west Crete, including half of the churches painted by Pagomenos.

Why were so many churches decorated in this part of Crete? Typically the churches are small single aisled, vaulted churches, built in often rather remote spots. It seems to me that the churches had existed for a while (perhaps 100-200 years) before they were decorated. So perhaps it was a combination of changing tastes and increasing affluence caused by the Venetian occupation of Crete that stimulated the demand for decorating churches in this way.

The congregations for them must have been tiny, yet they became aware of the possibilities of church decoration and more importantly they had the money to commission an artist to paint them. It has been argued that the money came from the sales of products that the Venetians valued, such as wine, wheat, cheese or wood (for shipbuilding / repairs). In this part of Crete it is more likely to have been wood that was traded. Probably the traders who took the wood from the south-west ports to Irakleio became aware of the possibilities for adorning their own churches and made contact with artists there that they then commissioned to do the work. The evidence is from church inscriptions that there were multiple sponsors of the work, rather than a small number of wealthy individuals.

There are apparently 8 churches that can be attributed from inscriptions to Pagomenos:

  • Agios Georgios in Komitades, Sfakia (1313/4)
  • Agios Nikolaos at Moni, Selino (1315)
  • Theotokos in Alikampos, Apokoronas (1315/16)
  • Agios Georgios in Anidros, Selino (1323)
  • Agios Nikolaos in Maza, Apokoronas (1325/6)
  • Michael the Archangel in Kandanos, Selino (1327/8)
  • The Panagia in Kakodiki, Selino (1331/2)
  • The Panagia in the village of Prodromi (Skafidia), Selino (1347)

Looking at this list, I am puzzled by some of the gaps, especially the ones between 1316-1323 and 1332-1347. What was Pagomenos doing during these years? Did he paint other churches, which have not been preserved? Did he work on other larger churches in collaboration with other painters? Did he turn to other types of religious painting (eg icons)? If he trained in Irakleio he must have been aware of the trade in icons. Crete had been controlled by Venice since 1211 following the sacking of Byzantium by the Fourth Crusade and there was an increasing demand for icons from Italy.

In addition to the 8 churches mentioned above that can be attributed to Pagomenos there are others which may be by him but which cannot be authenticated, including:

  • Church of Agios Ioannis in Kandanos (1328/9)
  • Agios Panteleimon in Prodromi
  • The Virgin Mother of God in Kadros, Selino, in the community of Kakodikio

Apart from these, there are other churches (eg the Panagia in Anisaraki) which, whilst not Pagomenos’s work, were possibly completed under his influence. And of course, as I found at Argyroupoli other churches beyond this list have also been attributed to him because he is a well-known fresco painter, though there are about 15 other painters whose names are known from inscriptions.

Since most of his work was in the west of Crete, it is possible that he was based somewhere in the Chania area. He couldn’t work in the winter because the weather would have made travelling very difficult. Chania is the closest place from which he would have been able to buy the materials he needed and he must have had to base his family somewhere (there is evidence of a son who worked with him).

Finding and travelling over the mountainous terrain to the remote churches which commissioned him must have been very difficult. It has been estimated that by mule a traveller could cover up to 14km per day; so on that basis it must have taken up to a week to get to some of these churches from Chania. Travel was also very dangerous for someone on their own, so maybe he travelled with an assistant and used pack animals to carry his materials (a special plaster was need to prepare the base for the frescoes). Also on arriving in the area where he was commissioned to work there would have been few houses which would have been big enough to house him in addition to the people who already lived there.

From my experience of trying just to photograph his work, I marvel at how he managed to create his frescoes. How did he light the interiors sufficiently well to paint them? Did he use oil lamps? There seem to be so many obstacles to his creative activity. It was clearly a very difficult and precarious way of life, yet he managed to produce work of the quality of the Alikampos frescoes.

I am very grateful to Dr Angeliki Lymperopoulou, Senior Lecturer in Art History at the Open University and an expert in the decorated churches of Venetian Crete for her help and encouragement in writing this series of blog posts. In particular I have been greatly stimulated by, and taken an enormous amount of information from her article Fourteenth-century Regional Cretan Church Decoration: the Case of of the Painter Pagomenos and his Clientele (Series Byzantina VIII, pp150-175).

In addition I would also like to acknowledge the following article in Greek on Pagomenos by Konstantinos Kalokyris, Ioannis Pagomenos, o Vyzantinos zografos tou ID’ aionas (Kritika Khronika 12 (1958) pp347-367).

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.



The Byzantine frescoes of Alikampos – programme of scenes from the liturgical year

This is second of my posts about the wonderful frescoes at the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God in Alikampos and will cover scenes from the Orthodox Church’s 12 festivals of the liturgical year. You can read my first post here about frescoes of individual saints at Alikampos.

The first scene on the upper tier on the left hand side of the church is the Crucifixion:


Next to that is what I think is the Presentation of the Mother of God in the Temple:

Presentation of MoG in the Temple

and then finally on this side of the church the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan:


On the right hand side nearest the iconostasis is the Nativity. In this fresco, I love the expression that the painter has given to Mary lying in the cave; the washing of the full-grown Christ by handmaidens in the lower right hand corner; and the devil trying to sow doubt about the birth in Joseph’s mind at bottom left.


The middle scene on the right hand side shows the Resurrection:

Descent into Hell

The final panel is a very dramatic presentation of the Betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane.


In the centre Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss, whilst the soldiers have their swords raised ready to strike. One of the soldiers points accusingly at Christ while to lower right St Peter tends Malchus, the servant of the High Priest, whose ear he has cut off. I am intrigued by the hats in this fresco: there are the conical-shaped hats of the two soldiers above Christ and the one on the right behind the soldier’s raised sword. The two figures on the left hand side have two different types of hats, one round (a bit like a Byzantine Emperor’s) and the other more like a turban. Two other soldiers stand on the right wearing different types of hat again. The clothes the protagonists are wearing are also an interesting mix of re-imagined robes from the time of Christ, Roman soldier’s uniforms and Byzantine court costume. I wonder why the painter Pagomenos used such a variety of types of clothing and hats.

I was intrigued by the next scene which I couldn’t fit into any of the liturgical festivals. However, I have subsequently discovered that it forms part of the fresco of the Ascension (where Christ is depicted in a mandorla in the middle of the vaulted ceiling). It clearly shows Mary in the centre and possibly St John on the right with St Paul possibly to his left. Traditionally St Peter is depicted to the left of the Mary. I can’t work out who the other figures are. I particularly like the way Pagomenos depicts the Mother of God, both here and in other scenes. He uses a very simple, almost folk art representation.

MoG in sanctuary

The next scene is a bit of a mystery as I can’t work out what it depicts. Who is the angel greeting? Is it St Paul?

Assumption detail

Assumption detail 3

Our guide tells us that local people think the figure on the right is wearing glasses:

Assumption detail 2

I think this next scene shows the Presentation of Christ in the Temple of Jerusalem. I understand that the figures depicted are (from left to right): St Joseph, Mary, Simeon holding the the baby Jesus (who is looking back towards his mother) and Anna.


The final scene is the one that gives the church its name, the Dormition of the Mother of God, and it is painted over the entrance door:

Dormition of the Mother of God

At the bottom of my picture, beneath the bare plaster you can just see the original fourteenth century lintel above the entrance door, though originally there would not have been a door fitted.

To the right of the entrance, Pagomenos depicted two of the donors of the church holding what must be a representation of the Alikampos church itself:

Fresco of the donors of the church

Above the fresco is a list of all the donors, but it has suffered major damage and is now very hard to read:

Names of the Donors of the church_

Dr Eleftheria Lehmann has kindly provided me with some information about this founding inscription which was reconstructed and translated by A Sucrow in a doctoral dissertation in 1994: “| has been painted…[ the Church…] of the most holy Mother of God of…| by the | Money and support of Mikhailos [As]…| and his wife | and his | children | and of Theo…ni and his | wife | and his children…|of | …Asproto | and his wife | and his children and D[…] [T…] Ma […] and through…| by the hand of Ioannis |Pago|menos | in the Year 6824, Index 14

Finally I would like to draw attention to some of the detail in the sanctuary of the church. To start with here is a general view of the altar:


The altar table is a rectangular block of stone. The floor is the original flagstone one and the front of the altar has a simple decorative design also on stone:


Finally, to the left of the altar is what I took to be a basic seat for use by the priest during long services. However, I subsequently found out that it is actually a Prosthesis or Table of Oblation, used for the preparation of the bread and wine during the liturgy. It’s not particularly well painted, but I found its folksy design somehow very touching.

Sanctuary - priest seat

On the outside of the church seashells are visible in the rock, showing the origins of the rock and connecting the church with even more remote ages:

Exterior view-2

I tell Giorgos, our local guide, that the village must be very proud to have to have such a beautiful and historic church in its midst. Unfortunately, he tells us that most people aren’t interested in it and don’t help to keep it clean and tidy.

I am very grateful to Dr Eleftheria Lehmann for taking the time and trouble to comment on and correct some errors in this and and my other post on the frescoes of Alikampos.