Return to Kyriakoselia, Crete

Kyriakoselia 1

It’s been a little while since I posted anything substantial on this blog, so I want to get back into blogging again with a little series of post on churches I visited in Crete, ending with one on the mysterious 14th century Cretan painter, Ioannis Pagomenos.

I have blogged before about the church of Aghios Nikolaos in Crete, but from the perspective of the difficulty of accurately capturing with a camera what I see . On that last visit we had not been able to get into the church to see the 13th century frescoes as it was locked and we couldn’t find the key. This time I was determined to get into the church to see them. So through the Tourist Office in Vamos we made an appointment to go and visit it.

The key to the church is held by the lady who runs the Taverna Lemonia in the tiny village of Khiliomoudou. The taverna itself is huge and clearly used to hosting large groups. As we arrive a large coach is disgorging its load of Dutch tourists who are stopping there for lunch. The owner’s heavily pregnant daughter takes us down to the church. It turns out that she lives in Athens and is on holiday and staying with her mother.

The church is now only open on the feast day of Aghios Nikolaos on 5 December, for funerals and for the 3, 6 and 12 month anniversaries of deaths.

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Inside, leaning against the left hand wall is a beautifully carved  iconostasis of relatively recent date compared with the rest of the church.

It takes a little while for my eyes to get used to the dark interior and then I start to pick out the frescoes which have a rich, dark blue background. It soon becomes clear that there is much mutilation of the saints’ faces from the time of the Turkish occupation and a lot of names carved into the frescoes at ground level. In places where the walls are badly warped the frescoes are in a poor state of repair. From floor level up to a height of 18 inches -2 feet many of the frescoes have been damaged and there is only plaster left on the walls. Although hard to imagine at this, the hottest time of year, the damage must be due to water or damp, as the church is in the bottom of a valley.

The names of the saints on the frescoes are very difficult to decipher, as is the detail of the programme of paintings. I can make out Aghios Nikolaos and on either side of the nave are six Apostles which seem to be replicated on either side of the altar. I can also see that there are key scenes from the liturgical year, eg the Baptism in the Jordan, the Transfiguration, the miracles. Behind the altar are the hierarchs: Aghios Vasilios, Aghios Grigorios the Theologian, Aghios Ioannis Chrysostomos and Aghios Nikolaos.

In the tympanum above the altar is what looks like a city scene  – perhaps the new Jerusalem? On the ceiling is what probably was a depiction of the Theotokos (Mother of God) in a mandorla (pointed oval shape) which has either been defaced or has deteriorated. There is another depiction of the Theotokos at ground level in the nave. Some of the frescoes are separated by borders painted with geometric shapes which have a folk art look to them.

The quality of the painting is excellent and there’s something very moving about the frescoes. In many places the colours (mainly reds and golds) are still very vibrant against the dark blue background. As usual I want to be able to capture the frescoes with my camera so that I can study them in greater detail when I get home. However, to my great sadness, our guide has already told me that it will not be possible to take photographs inside the church.

And then I see it. Looking up into the drum there’s a wonderful, powerful  Pantocrator painted, in contrast to the tonal range of the frescoes in the nave, in gold, cream and shades of brown. The light from the windows in the drum illuminate the fresco in such a way that it seems to be glowing and in a different dimension from the characters in the nave. It has not been defaced, but has clearly suffered from the ravages of time. By now our guide has left the church and I am left standing beneath the drum, camera in hand, struggling with my conscience as to whether to take a picture. I decide on this occasion to walk away with the memories of the experience.

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On one of the external walls is an arch. Evidently at one time it has a cruciform shape.

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High above the church on the side of the valley is the Monastery of the Prodromos (John the Baptist).

Kyriakoselia 2



The tomb of Philip II at Vergina

Caption: Hades abducting Persephone, fresco in the small royal tomb at Vergina (with acknowledgement to Le Musée absolu, Phaidon, 10-2012)

This fresco is from the small temple to Philip II at Vergina and is very similar to the one found recently at Amphipolis.

Vergina, about 50 miles west of Thessaloniki, is a small, unremarkable, modern village. As Aigai however it was a leading city of the Macedonian kingdom, the location of royal palaces and royal burials. Little about the place prepares you for the stunning treasures contained within its Great Tumulus.

The tumulus had been known since the early nineteenth century and there had been various small archaeological excavations. But it was not until 1977 that the Greek archaeologist, Manolis Andronnikos, began excavating here, convinced that the tumulus was the site of the Macedonian royal tombs.

Mound at Vergina

The museum is built into the Great Tumulus and doesn’t detract from the quite beauty and peace of the setting.

Mound entrance at Vergina

Inside the museum has a dimly lit, temperature controlled environment and is built around the tombs. Like many Greek museums I have visited, It is very well laid out and labelled in Greek and excellent English. The displays start with a series of grave stele of ordinary people which were used as infill for the mound. I say ordinary people but I suspect that those who could afford to have such stele erected in their memory must have been of a certain social status.

The heart of the museum is the tomb of Philip II and the artefacts found in and around it. The tomb is not open to the public but by descending a wooden staircase you can get down to see the entrance to it in the rock face. The front of the tomb is sealed with a white stone outer door with a column on either side.

Entrance to Philip II's tomb at Vergina 2

The style of the entrance to the tomb strikes me as vaguely Egyptian, though I find it hard to identify why. It is actually quite small-scale though and not a tomb designed to impress by its size. The most striking aspect of the entrance is the wall painting that runs across the width of the facade.

Entrance to Philip II's tomb at Vergina 3

The painting depicts a hunting scene with an older and a younger man on horseback, possibly Philip II with his son Alexander the Great (on the right in my picture below).

Hunting painting with Philip & Alexander

It is in poor condition now, but the amazing thing is that it still exists as very few paintings have survived from Ancient Greece.

Phillip II was assassinated in 336 BCE as he entered the theatre at Aigai during the celebrations of his daughter Cleopatra’s marriage. The funeral arrangements were made by his son, Alexander the Great and were very impressive. Philip’s body was cremated on a huge funeral pyre wearing a gold oak leaf crown with acorns. Precious oils and fruit were thrown onto the pyre, and horses and many other types of animals were sacrificed and their bodies also thrown into the flames. One huge display shows examples of all of the different types of things found amongst the ashes of the pyre. His bones were then washed in red wine, wrapped in a purple cloth, covered with the oak leaf crown and then placed in a gold casket called a larnax.

The casket was laid on a wooden couch decorated with gold and ivory figures and scenes  and placed in the inner part of the tomb. The wood of the couch for the most part rotted away long ago, leaving the decorative figures. Philip was buried with his weapons, a range of swords and spears, a huge shield, his suit of armour, and a large quantity of silver and gold jugs, dishes and plate. The quality of the workmanship in the silver and gold metal working is just stunning and they look as if they have just been made, not been lying in the ground for over 2,500 years. Most breathtaking of all is the work of the goldsmiths who made the royal crown: the work is so delicate and intricate.

In the outer chamber of Philip’s tomb, was found a larnax containing the remains of a woman, possibly his wife, who sacrificed herself on his pyre. The larnax also had in it a remarkable gold crown of what looks like myrtles. In addition there is a further tomb that has been identified as that of the Prince (Alexander IV), son of Alexander the Great, who was assassinated after his father’s death in 323 BCE.

The entrance to the tomb is similar to that of Philip’s but smaller and with no painting over the facade. The Prince’s remains were placed in a large silver jug and a large, gold, oak leaf crown placed over its neck.

The display ends with more grave stele found in the infill.

Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki

This modern museum, built probably in the past 10 years, contains some interesting artefacts from the Byzantine era. Like many Greek museums it is very well laid out and excellently labelled in Greek and English.

It covers the history of the eastern empire as it affected Thessaloniki through early Christian tombs through it icons, old printed books and every day items, such as this tableware:

Byzantine tableware


One of the most interesting aspects are the early Christian tombs. Initially the tombs are internally decorated with scenes from nature, depicting animals, fish and plants. Unfortunately, the lighting in the museum is too dark for me to get any acceptable pictures of them. But as time goes on they become simpler and then suddenly they start to depict the Cross.

Stele with cross

There are some interesting medieval icons:

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Byzantine icon-2

Byzantine icon

But after the 15th century there is a definite fall off in quality with a heavy Italian influence that just does not look right.

One display focuses on the mission of Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs which set off from this city and was the focus of one of my earlier blogs entries in the Fire and Ice series.

From Georgian drinking song to ‘Long live the Emperor!’


Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos - last Emperor of Byzantium

Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos – last Emperor of Byzantium

The leader of our local community choir is very keen on Georgian music and we have over the years performed some astonishing songs from that part of the world. The soundscape of this music is initially a bit alien to western ears: the bass part is often just a drone, the individual parts on their own sound a bit odd and the harmonies frequently clash in a completely unexpected way.

Also it often calls for singing in a calling voice, imagining that you are trying to make yourself heard across fields or on the other side of a valley. That takes a bit of practice as, at least to begin with, it feels like being asked to shout. But there is an energy and vitality to it that completely carries you away.

This week we really enjoyed a piece called Mravaljamieri which we thought was a Georgian drinking song. It was such an exciting and uplifting piece that I started to look for more information about it – and it turns out to have an interesting origin.

Mravaljamieri ‘ means ‘many years’ and is the Georgian version of the Greek Orthodox Polychronion. This is a chant sometimes performed at the end of the Divine Liturgy in honour of a bishop, priest or a member of the laity or just as a celebration of an event.

It reminded me of the time when I used to sing in a Russian Orthodox Church choir and we would sometimes break into this at the end of the service. In Russian it is called the Mnogaya leta.

In the Greek Orthodox Church it is used in a similar way, with the cantor or priest saying the name of the person to be commemorated and then the choir responding by chanting 3 times. It originated in Byzantium when the Polychronion was used as a chant to greet the Byzantine Emperor when he entered Haghia Sofia through the Imperial Doors and at the end of the Divine Liturgy.

In fact it is an adaptation of the Latin acclamation Ad multos annos (Many Years) used by the people to acclaim the Roman Emperor. It is remarkable that through singing and celebration we have this living link with such a remote past.

Arch of Galerius and Rotunda in Thessaloniki

Arch of Galerius

The Arch of Galerius was built in 298-299 AD to commemorate Galerius’s victory over the Persians and is in remarkable condition. The pillars are decorated with friezes celebrating the victory.

Arch of Galerius-2
Arch of Galerius-4The central arch spanned the old Via Egnatia, the road built by the Romans in 2nd century BC to connect Dyrrachium (now the city of Durres in modern Albania) on the Adriatic coast to Byzantium. Dyrrachium was a Roman colony and opposite the Roman ports of Bari and Brindisi on the other side of the Adriatic.

The Arch formed part of the road that connected the Palace of Galerius and the Rotunda. The Rotunda itself is a very impressive circular red brick structure built by Galerius in 306 AD. It’s not clear whether it was intended to be a mausoleum for Galerius himself or as a Temple to Zeus.

Rotounda-10It is one of the few intact Roman buildings in Greece. In the Christian area it was turned into a church (Agios Georgios) and later still a mosque after the city fell to the Turks in 1427 – a single minaret is still standing.

Arch of Galerius-5

Inside it is vast, with 6m thick walls and domed roof (originally with an opening or oculus in the centre) which is an impressive engineering achievement.. In the Christian era the dome would probably have depicted Christ Pantocrator, but this is no longer visible – possibly removed when it was turned into a mosque.One of the few figures that can be made out is the head and tops of the wings of an archangel.


In the dome there are some wonderful scenes of buildings and peacocks.




I managed to take the shot below of Christ appearing to the disciples, but most of the faces have been obliterated. This was a frequent occurrence when churches were turned into mosques, in accordance with the Islamic injunction against depicting the human form.


The inside of the building was undergoing a lot of restoration work, so it is hard to convey the interior through photographs (apart from the fact that it is also very dark).

Interestingly I saw this cross on one of the entrance arches into the Rotunda. During the period of Iconoclasm in Byzantium  (8th century) there was a major theological dispute in the eastern church over whether it was acceptable to depict Christ and the saints. Opponents of images (the Iconoclasts) quoted the 2nd commandment to support their case and pointed to Muslim successes in battle against them as evidence that the prohibition of images would enable them to stem the Muslim advance. Wall mosaics and frescoes depicting figures were replaced by this simple form of cross.


Finally as I left the building I noticed a feature which seems to sum up the history of this ancient city. Over one of the entrance doors, carved into the stone lintel, was Arabic calligraphy (presumably a quotation from the Quran) – and above that an icon of St George and the date 1912, the year when Thessaloniki became part of Greece again.

Rotunda with Arabic calligraphy and icon