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:

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:

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:

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.