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:

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 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.

A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 8 – Dionysiou

Leaving Karyes we pick up the rough road to the port of Dafni and after a brief wait climb aboard the boat to travel on to the monastery of Dionysiou. On the way we pass the monastery of Kheiropotamou; Simonopetra perched on the side of a mountain overlooking the sea; and several cells scattered along the cliffs.

 

Dionysiou is close to the Holy Mountain

and has a very dramatic setting, hanging off the cliff  high above the sea.

Once on land again I realise just high up it is as the road zigzags steeply up to the main gate. It’s a tough climb in this heat, but inside it’s a Byzantine jewel. The outer walls and the main gates are very solid: I don’t think I have ever seen such thick ones.

We are welcomed with a shot of 44% pure ouzo, lokhoumi and ice cold water – a perfect combination. Then we are shown into the very modern guest house that has a fine wooden interior.

This time I am allocated to a room of my own that I later find out is normally used by senior visiting clergy.

I collapse on the bed and, after a refershing cold shower, fall into a deep sleep for a couple of hours before venturing out to explore, camera and voice recorder in hand.

Signs forbid the taking of photographs inside the monastery and the inner area is actually quite small. So here is my problem. Nikolaos and Argyrios have warned me to keep my camera on me at all times in case it gets stolen. I don’t have a small backpack to put it in, so the only way to keep it with me is to carry it around with me. It is not however a small camera. Far from it. It’s a great chunk of Nikon DSLR and there’s no way to disguise the fact that I have a camera in my hand. The main courtyard is very beautiful . I sit in its calm atmosphere on the low wall of a portico taking it all in. In front of me is the mid 16th century katholikon. To my left under the portico hangs a large metal semantron. To my left at the end of the courtyard is a beautifully decorated three storey building. At ground level it has 2 Byzantine arches. Levels 2 and 3 have balconies with semantra and talanta hanging on them. At the top of the building is a bell and a clock surrounded by a colourful fresco which strangely doesn’t seem to be of a religious nature..

The temptation is too strong and I take a few shots.

About 5 minutes later a monk approaches me and asks if I speak Greek. He then tells me not to take photographs. A few minutes later I hear a monk striking a wooden talanton somewhere in the depths of the monastery, so I grab my recorder and press record.

Nikolaos shows me the series of frescoes depicting the Revelation of St John under the portico leading from the refectory to the katholikon. He points out how modern-looking some of the frescoes are: one shows what appears to be a bombardment, another a mushroom cloud, and yet another flying machines. As we admire them, one of our fellow pilgrims approaches and tell Nikolaos that a monk has informed him that we must not take photographs or make recordings. I was hoping to be able to record the Liturgy and, sensing my disappointment, Nikolaos promises to have a word with the Igoumenos (Abbot) before tomorrow.

Vespers seemed shorter this evening, either that or I am getting more used to Orthodox services. I notice that the clock in the church seems to be 4 hours ahead, so perhaps here is tangible evidence that we are on Byzantine time.

Dinner at Dionysiou is not as formal as at Iviron and is good: gigantes, rice, bread, red wine and water. After dinner the monastery sets out its main relics in the katholikon for us pilgrims to venerate. I tag along at the end, bowing out of respect at each relic as I pass along the line of them.

Out on a balcony overlooking the sea, an Elder is giving a teaching to any pilgrims who wish to listen. He’s talking about St Stephen, the first saint and martyr. Argyrios points out to me that as the Elder is speaking he continues to pray, moving the prayer rope (komposkoini) in his left hand. The continual telling of the prayer rope wears the nail on the thumb down. Unceasing prayer whatever you’re doing, specifically the constant repetition of petition ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ is the Heychast practice of Athos.

Time for a walk, so I leave the monastery to follow a cliff path and watch the sun go down over the Aegean (or is it the Thracian Sea?) this beautiful evening. It is so peaceful, calm and still.

On my way back into the monastery I meet Nikolaos who tells me that he has spoken to the Igoumenos who confirms that he doesn’t want me to take photographs or make recordings in the monastery. By way of an apology, the Igoumenos has given me a personal gift of an icon of the Mother of God. Feeling lost for words, as I should be the one to apologise for breaking the monastery’s rules.

In my room it’s still very warm as I look out through the mosquito screen on my window, listening to the waves lapping at the beach below.

Later I find it hard to sleep as my head buzzes with everything I have seen and heard over the past couple of days.

 

 

 

Anyone seen a Minoan tomb round here?

Exploring Naxos by car, we come across the village of Koronida, the highest on the island, the place where kitron liqueur came from and an old emery mining village. Strung along the main road, it looks quite unremarkable, but we stop anyway to take a look round. We are intrigued by a sign to a Minoan tomb pointing up a path and decide to follow it.

Off the main road, it reveals itself to be a pretty little village.

But as we climb higher, the houses become more ramshackle and eventually ruined shells.

The going gets tougher as the steps get steeper. After climbing some particularly narrow steps with a rickety handrail, my wife gives up and leaves me to carry on looking for the tomb. The signs of course gave out long ago. It’s mid afternoon and there’s no one around to ask the way. Now and again we hear the clip-clop of hooves but we can’t see the animal that’s making this sound. I keep on climbing until I come to the edge of the village: there are no more houses and the main path runs out. Suddenly there’s the sign again pointing up a short dirt path to the tomb itself cut into the side of the mountain.

Crawling in on my hands and knees, at last I am in this beautiful little tomb, built (and probably re-built over the years) without mortar, the stones held together by their own weight like a dry stone wall. The roof is circular and high enough to stand up straight.

 

Emerging from the tomb into the blinding light and walking back down the dirt path I hear a bit of a commotion in the bushes and then the mystery animal I’d heard earlier emerges with its owner.

I stop to have a chat and he tells me that they are taking grapes from the vineyard to the village wine press and he hands me a bunch of them from one of the boxes on the side. They’re small, sweet and gritty from their coating of dusty soil. 

Now I have a guide out of the village labyrinth. As they descend the steps, the path is so narrow in places that the donkey’s heavy load barely squeaks past, but his owner is expert in guiding it with his stick and keeping it moving forward.