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.
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.
On one of the external walls is an arch. Evidently at one time it has a cruciform shape.
High above the church on the side of the valley is the Monastery of the Prodromos (John the Baptist).