The little treasures of Apeiranthos on Naxos

Apeiranthos is a mountain village on the eastern side of the island of Naxos. We were a bit put off stopping there when we saw tour buses dropping people off and so we took the road down to the tiny village of Moutsouna on the east coast. I may blog about Moutsouna separately as it was such a beautiful and peaceful village. But something that day drew us back to Apeiranthos.

Wondering around the village at lunchtime, the tour buses seemed to have disappeared and there weren’t many people in the single main street, so we drifted in and out of shops, like this one with its strange horse whip:

Of course, as it was lunchtime several museums we wanted to visit were closed, until we came upon the open Archaeological Museum. We didn’t expect much: the man on the door wasn’t bothered whether we went in, it cost 1 Euro each and the museum only consisted of a single room, dusty and in need of a tidy-up. Many of the items were in glass cases with few labels, larger ones were spread around the floor.

There was a fine collections of Roman oil lamps on a table:

Some lovely pottery from 3000BC, very modern-looking, unfortunately too difficult to photograph; weapons including obsidian blades and spearheads; bronze tools; and a huge stone bowl:

It took me a while though to spot some of the museum’s most remarkable objects. Remarkable because so unexpected. They are a series of stick men and animals carved on stone. These petroglyphs were discovered in 1962 by the man who started the museum, Mikhalis Bardanis. He found them on a hill called Koryfi t’Aroniou in the south east of Naxos and they date between 2700-2200BC.

I suppose what makes them so striking is the contrast with my expectations of what Greek art is like: beautiful products of sophisticated craftsmanship. But these items have a directness and energy that comes from their simplicity.

This is one of my favourite carvings, three figures apparently dancing together in a circle, their arms raised and at least one of them holding some sort of stick. I say dancing, but I’m interpreting that from the character on the left with one foot in the air and the position of the central character’s body indicating that he is in motion. I wonder what sounds they were moving to. Were they celebrating something or calling on their gods or spirits to help them?

Here’s one of a figure of what looks like a deer, perhaps being confronted by a hunter:

In the next one the human figure behind the deer looks as if he is putting some sort of instrument to his mouth – perhaps calling for help with stalking the animal :

Three characters look like they are attacking a deer with spears:

Two animals together, possibly deer, though they look a bit sleeker:

Another hunting scene:

One or two animals grazing?

The next one is very unusual. It looks like two men standing on a boat with a mast on the right hand side. Or perhaps they are fighting? Very hard to make it out.

Some of them are difficult to see as they are painted on the rock surface in ochre:

There are also carvings using geometrical and other shapes:

It’s all very intriguing and the museum has no other information to help us make sense of these carvings. I would love to know more about the site they came from and what they signify.

Aperiranthos is a very attractive village and it’s not surprising that it gets so many visitors.

We stop off at a kafeneio for a fresh lemon juice and that’s when I spot these two gentlemen:

Looking back from high up on Mt Zas at the village of Filoti:

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 magic of mist in the woods

Last Sunday was the first really misty day we’ve had round here this year. Feeling the need to get out of Coronavirus confinement we decided to go for a walk to get some fresh air and enjoy the woodlands. I took my camera with me in hope rather than expectation of getting anything particularly interesting, though sometimes you can never tell what the conditions will be like. I remember going up to Beacon Wood on the Mendips on a misty autumn afternoon five years ago, only to find that the sun suddenly broke through and created some wonderful effects with the mist that I captured here.

At first it didn’t look promising. The mist was thick and the trees were the regimented stands of Forestry Commision conifers. As we walked on though, my eye started to get used to the conditions and I found scenes that pulled me in. Often these days, I have to feel some kind of pull from the landscape, something that attracts my attention subconsciously, something that says ‘There’s something here worth paying attention to’. When that happens I then have to work out more consciously what that ‘something’ is. It’s by no means infallible and it’s not a guarantee that it will be worth photographing, but for me it is a different way of connecting with the landscape through my photography.

The effect of the mist is quite strange. It conceals unnecessary detail and renders everything slightly mysterious and eery, like something in a fairy tale set in northern European woods. The atmospheric conditions, perhaps the concentration of water droplets in the mist, saturate the colours a bit more and blur the edges of everything. There is a sense of something just beyond the veil of the mist, nearby but ungraspable, a bit primeval and fantastical, perhaps not altogether welcoming

In some scenes, it feels like a stage set for Siegfried or Parsifal waiting for the hero to emerge from the forests and fulfil his destiny.

In places, almost a bit Impressionistic:

Late on in the walk I discovered these cobwebs: the first a dense web holding water droplets in a complex network of filaments; the second a double web hung with fine pearls.

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:

A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 9 – leaving Dionysiou

Awoke early this morning at about 5.00. Nikolaos said he would wake me up but didn”t say at what time. He knocks on the door about 6.00 and comes in fully dressed, ready to attend the Liturgy. After washing, dressing and packing I set off to join my fellow pilgrims at the Liturgy and, passing the kitchen, I hear a murmurring of voices and pop in to find out what’s going on.

A group of pilgrims are sitting around listening to one of the Elders speaking and answering questions. Nikolaos invites me to join them and have some Khalkidiki olives, brown bread and a very subtle mountain tea., our simple breakfast today. As I dip in and out of the conversation, it seems a bit random. At one point the Elder is asking about hydration and health to which the answer is to drink more water and judge it by the colour of the urine. Someone asks him whether it’s possible for someone who is dying to come and die on the Holy Mountain. I can’t make out the answer, but the Elder then into a story about someone who after a meal dropped down dead after walking about 10 steps from the Refectory.

At some point the conversation turns to Archbishop Kallistos and the Elder asks me if I know him. I say that I knew him slightly at university when he was a parish priest, Father Kallistos. He asks me the correct English translation of the Jesus prayer. He finishes many of  his sentences with the phrase: ‘Glory to God’.

After a while I slip out on to the balcony overlooking the sea and watch the sky lighten, feeling very calm and peaceful, and enjoying the fresh morning air

After more tea, bread and olives I go and sit in the courtyard whose stillness and peace is wonderful to experience. Of course, I am still carrying my camera and am conscious that it must look as if I have no intention of keeping the rule of not taking pictures in the monastery.  The truth is I have nowhere else to keep it and have strict instructions from Nikolaos to keep it on me rather than in my bag.

While waiting for the Abbot to appear so that I can say a personal thank you to him for the gift of the icon, I take another look at the the frescoes depicting the Revelation. To the right of the entrance to the katholikon is a fresco with the Virgin and Child with St John and St Pakhomios (one of the founders of monasticism). According to Argyrios, this is one of the finest sequences of frescoes on Mt Athos. The detail is extraordinary: plagues of locust; the 7 trumpets; a wonderful four horsemen of the apocalypse; the angel who fell from heaven out of pride; the final battle of Armageddon; a scene with stars falling out of the sky looking like a battlefield of the First World War; Christ in judgement; and the Beast of Babylon, with multiple heads like roaring lions on long necks.

Argyrios points out that some of the eyes have been gouged out of the frescoes: the Crusaders and the Turks, thinking that the eyes in frescoes had magic properties, cut them out to make a potion to treat eye problems.

To the right of the entrance to the Refectory sits a superb porphyry throne. The Refectory itself is decorated with frescoes of the saints and has a beautifully wooden pulpit decorated in gold and red stripes. I could easily spend half a day just looking at the frescoes – though doing it without being able to take any pictures would be quite a trial. The pronaos to the church has many depictions of martyrdom, including the decapitation of St George.

Suddenly I am alerted to the imminent arrival of the Abbot, a tallish, thin man with a wispy beard, carrying a leather briefcase. He’s in a hurry to catch the fast water taxi to Karyes. I manage to express my thanks to him and then he’s off down to the arsenas in a pick up truck and offers to take all our bags down with him and leave them on the jetty.

The final visit of our pilgrimage at Dionysiou is to what the monks call the ‘School of Philosophy’, the monastic cemetery which dates back to 1375.

The quote is from the Wisdom of Solomon, Chapter 3, verse 1: ‘But the souls of the just are in the hand of God and no torment of death will touch them.’

The entrance and the pathways round the cemetery have been made by the monks using black and white pebbles stood on end, in simple but patterns. Inside, to the left of the cemetery porch, is a small extension with gold painted doors. This contains the tomb of St Niphon, Patriarch of Constantinople, who retired to the monastery in the mid 15th century to live as a simple monk.The tomb is covered in glass enclosing a full length icon of the saint.

To the right of this extension is a most incredible sight: a grill about 3ft x 21/2ft behind which you can see the skulls of all the monks who have died at the monastery, each with their name written on them. The piled up skulls stretch back into the depths of the building. The rest of the bones are contained in an open stone building half way along the cemetery on the left hand side, looking as if they have just been tossed in there at random. The bones are a reminder to the monks of death – hence the reference to the cemetery as the school of philosophy. At the far end of the cemetery are the graves of four monks who died within the past 3 years or so, all of good ages (the oldest was 94 and the youngest 76). The 94 year old was a celebrated writer on spiritual matters.

On the way back down to the arsenas, Argyrios points out a medieval loo and its shoot on the side of the cliff face. The old pathway up to the monastery with its lethal deep steps is still visible.This is the path that Argyrios and Nikos used to take when they started coming to Athos: it must have been very tough and dangerous to climb up it even without hand luggage or backpacks.

After a 15 minute wait our ferry arrives to take us to the port of Dafni where we will catch another ferry to take us back to Ouranoupoli.

Autumn colours at Stourhead

I’ve just got round to reviewing and processing photographs I took at Stourhead Gardens in October. The gardens were planned and built over a 40 year period in the mid-late 18th century by the Hoare family and are arranged around an artificial lake. Neoclassical buildings a grotto and follies are carefully located in this fascinating landscape. As you walk around the lake the vista is constantly changing, as you see the landscape from new angles, and of course so is the light. For photographers, it is endlessly challenging to try and capture it. But the best time of year to visit is the autumn when the colours of the trees are at their best. My visit didn’t quite coincide with peak autumn, but it wasn’t far off.

I have photographed this stand of trees many times and they always appear different: in some light conditions they just glow.

I really liked the dappled light beneath this old tree, but I couldn’t quite capture that elusive soft quality of the light filtering through the leaves:

I liked the circular pattern in this bush, implied by its reflection in the water.

Temple of Apollo in the background next to some of the most stunning tree colours and framed by the dark trunks in the foreground.


The tree on the left in the picture is a Tulip tree that was planted in 1791 and is probably my favourite tree in the gardens. I am always amazed that the people who were responsible  for planting the tree never saw it in its full glory, but they did it anyway, almost as a gift for future generations to enjoy. What beautiful legacies are we leaving for future generations?

Close up of the trunk of the above Tulip tree:

Looking across towards the Pantheon through the branches of the Tulip tree:

And finally a semi-abstract shot looking through the branches at the lake:

Valley of the Temples, Agrigento

The Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi) near Agrigento is a stunning series of monuments built by the Ancient Greek colony in Sicily. ‘Valley’ is a bit of a misnomer though as the temple complex is spread along a ridge and connected by a sacred way.

The first temple you come across was thought at one time to be dedicated to Hera (Giunone), but that’s probably not the case. It is a massive temple, with an enormous 10 step altar in front of it. It was built like most of the temples on the site in the 5th century BC from the loot taken from the Carthaginians following their defeat in 480 BC.

Along the sacred way are the remains of the settlement’s protective walls. At some point in the Christian era rock tombs were hollowed out of these walls.

The next major site along the sacred way is one of the most complete Greek temples in the world, the so-called Temple of Concordia. An inscription was found nearby with the word Concordia and this was taken to be the name of the Temple. Judging by its size it looks more like a Temple of Zeus (although there is another huge temple to Zeus at the end of the sacred way). It is in incredible condition and gives a real sense of what the temples would have looked like to their original builders.

In the 4th-5th century AD, the temple was turned into a Christian basilica by a local bishop, a common practice to Christianise pagan sites in places where the newly converted were used to gathering when they practised their old religion. Another very good example of this practice is the church dedicated to St George that was built in the Temple of Ifaistos in the Ancient Agora in Athens which is similarly extremely very well-preserved (see my earlier blog post on the Agora here).

The stone looks very crumbly and in places you can still see some of the original stucco that has helped to preserve it over the centuries.

The third temple on the site, the oldest, is dedicated to Ercole (Hercules) and dates back to the 6th century BC. Apart from a few remaining columns however, the site is just a jumble of massive stones.

The final temple we visited is dedicated to Zeus It’s on a massive scale, but  again it’s very hard to get a sense of what it looked like originally as it is totally in ruins.

The temperature on site on the day we visited was 30 C and there is virtually no shade. In addition, the sacred way is about 3-4 kms long, so we were very glad to hop on a shuttle bus to get back to the entrance to the site at the end of our visit.

Later that evening we dined at the nearby Re di Grigenti restaurant, the terrace of which has a spectacular view out over the Valley of the Temples.