Six Byzantine Churches: Oxylithos & Avlonari

Six Byzantine Churches: Oxylithos & Avlonari The wide, fertile valley that stretches to the south of Kymi as far as the lake of Dystos, knew considerable prosperity in the 13th and 14th centuries. As a consequence it is dotted with a great number of churches from this period, many of which have wall-paintings executed by a school of artists of widely varying skills. Six of the most important churches are described below. They are grouped around two principal centres: Oxilithos and Avlonari.
   Immediately noticeable from the coast road south beyond Platana is the sharp conical peak of an extinct volcano (now crowned by a modern church of little architectural merit but with wonderful views), around which the village of Oxilithos (10km) is clustered. The road south out of the village makes a sharp bend around a modern church: down the hill which leads out of the curve of the bend is the tiny, 13th century chapel of Aghia Anna (1) decorated with wall-paintings executed in different periods. The fine Pantocrator in the ceiling is by a more sophisticated hand than the scenes on the south wall which are of later date. Close by and of greater architectural interest is the church of the * Theotokos (2) (on the left side of the main road, 300m beyond the modern church). The unusual design is articulated in several successive developments: the nucleus is a small 13th cen tury, vaulted chapel of rectangular plan with a small, faceted apse. This core segment possesses the characteristic Euboean elevated transverse barrel-vault bisecting the space. In the subsequent century a square, cross-vaulted narthex was added to the west. Finally, in the last 50 years, a modern vestibule was added yet further west. The interior has wall-paintings of the 15th century which are interesting both for their quality and subject-matter: in the cross-vaults of the narthex are visible Christ at the well with the Woman of Samaria (north) and a very literal interpretation of the text, ‘Pick up thy bed and walk’ (east). In the same narthex, a Dormition of the Virgin (north) faces St John dictating the Revelation to Prochoros (south), with Abraham and Sarah with the three Angels (west). The floor, with elements in a yellow stone, is also of consider able age.
   The most important and remarkable church in the area, and one of the finest in Euboea, is the large, 13th century basilica of * Aghios Demetrios (3) which lies further south at Hania (19km), just to the west of Avlonari. It is a church with a splendid presence both inside and out: broad, stable, pleasingly articulated in a complex of geometric volumes, and decorated externally with refined brick and stone-work. The building has several unusual elements, such as the pointed arches of its interior, which reveal a marked Western or Frankish influence resulting from the Latin occupation of the island: indeed this feature tends to suggest that the elevated transverse vault with pitched roof in lieu of a dome, which is en countered so frequently in churches on Euboea, may be influenced by the transept-crossing of contemporaneous Western Gothic structures. As a design, it certainly rep resents a significant deviation from the traditional Byzantine circle-on-square design. It must also have reduced the complexity—and therefore the cost—of constructing such buildings.

The dedication to Aghios Demetrios is possibly significant given the church’s rural position at the heart of a low-lying fertile area of cultivation—a configuration typical in ancient times for sanctuaries to Demeter. Aghios Demetrios frequently supersedes Demeter in the ‘christianisation’ of pagan sanctuaries: he was a Roman soldier turned Christian, and is often seen in icons dispatching a fellow heathen Roman soldier, neatly symbolising the victory of Christianity over the pagan. This story was then given further weight by the erection of a church to the saint over any site where Demeter had once been worshipped.
   The overall form of the church is interesting and represents a rapid organic growth stretching over no more than a century and a half. The original 13th century core of the building (to the east) possesses the transverse barrel-vault mentioned above. Of almost contemporary construction is the low aisle or parecclesion to the north side, which may even have been in origin an open ambulatory which was later closed in. The narthex, which in contrast to the core building is surmounted by a dome with an external octagonal drum, dates from probably from the end of the 14th century—the period in which the aisle to the south may also have been added.
   The exterior has beautiful features at both the east and west ends: an apse in fine cloisonne brick and stone work with a tri-lobe window, and an attractive surround to the west door with further brick embellishments, which are echoed in the frame of the niche above and in the brickwork below the eaves of the cupola.
   In the interior, the broad, spacious, domed narthex im mediately surprises with its wide pointed arches. The vestiges of a Pantocrator can be seen in the crown of the dome. The naos is entered through a narrow, steeply arched doorway, with two antique columns and capitals to either side. Not a lot remains of the wall-paintings, except for a fine face of St George (centre north wall) and a graphic Last Supper Table, laid with delicacies, visible above the templon-screen to the south side: their style would date them to the mid-15th cen tury. Two 17th century candlesticks in cipollino marble stand before a masonry templon-screen incorporating carved marble reliefs in the lower area. The whole interior gives a sense of dignified spaciousness.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from this imposing church is the hidden, rural chapel of Aghia Thekla (4), 2.5km to the northwest. (Branch left 1km north of Hania; after a further 1km, take the first left turn to the village of Aghia Thekla. Just before the modern church in the village, a narrow road leads 50m steeply down to the chapel by a stream.) In its delightful setting of plane-trees, running water and chanting nightingales, the 13th century chapel looks more like a cottage from a tale by Hans Christian Andersen than a church. Again the design is a simple apsed rectangle with elevated, transverse barrel-vault. Two artists are at work in the murals: the artist of the Presentation of the Virgin in the northwest corner has a much less sophisticated style than the talented 14th century artist of the figures to the south of the apse, whose hagiographic faces are at times inspiring.
   The principal centre of this area of the island—an open landscape of volcanic hills framed by the mountain massif of Di­rfys to the west and by the sea to the east, and dotted with robust towers on the hill-tops—is the attractive village of Avlonari (20km). Its narrow streets of balconied houses wind up to the summit of a hill, crowned by one of Euboea’s best preserved Frankish towers, erected in 1260 over ancient foundations on the site of what is believed to have been an ancient sanctuary of Apollo. In the vicinity of Avlonari are two further churches with paintings that are worthy of note. First, in the centre of the village of Pyrgi, 2km north of Avlonari, is the 14th century church of the Metamorphosis (5), with the transverse-vault design, and a modern addition to the west. There are small areas of painting in good condition: the Archangel Michael and the Entry into Jerusalem on the north wall, reveal a high quality of workmanship, which must be almost contemporary with the church’s construction. Second, in an isolated site in the area of Achladeri­, east of Daphni, 6.5km southeast of Avlonari, the monastery church of Aghios Ioannis Prodromos of Karies (‘Moni Karion’) (6) stands amid the ruins of its former conventual buildings. There is a spring of excel lent water with a fountain-head of Byzantine design. The plan of the church is more traditionally Byzantine, with the central dome supported on four monolithic columns with antique capitals. Other pieces of re-used ancient marble in the vicinity suggest the preceding presence of a pagan structure. The masonry of the three facetted apses is reminiscent of the church of the Taxiarch at Melida on Andros. The interior, with flagstone floor, is vividly paint ed with 15th century murals of high quality.

Euboea Island, Greece

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