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THE SOUTHWEST OF THE ISL AND
Heading out on the main road north from Chora, the sea soon disappears from sight and the road enters the fertile and protected valley of Manitochori which lies just be hind the town. This must always have been Chora’s ‘back garden’, providing much of the produce which the town lived off. It is still productive to this day, though it is now dotted with more churches and houses. To the west, the hill of Lionis rises steeply; here, Valerios Stai―s—the 19th century archaeologist who had been given the difficult task of officially supervising Heinrich Schliemann’s activities while he was digging at Palaiokastro (see p. 36)— uncovered a Minoan tomb and its artefacts from the 16th century bc, giving substance for the first time to historical knowledge of prehistoric Kythera.
At 3.5km from Chora is Livadi the functional and commercial centre for the south of the island. (A right turn from the middle of the main street, leads directly (1km) to the Byzantine Church/Museum of the Analipsis— see above. Just beyond this turn on the right hand (east) side of the main street is the office of the Byzantine Antiquities Department which holds the keys for many of the Byzantine churches under their protection on the island.) In both Kato (lower) and Ano (upper) Livadi, and on the road which joins them, are a number of fine mansions of the 18th and 19th centuries. Of entirely non-indigenous style, by contrast, is a curious rectangular building (now abandoned) with large gothic windows and half-crenellations, which is visible on the top of a hill to the west, less than 1km north of the town on the main road towards Potamos. This is one of the several school-buildings on the island, constructed as part of the plan to improve the island’s civic infrastructure during the British Administration, between 1809 and 1864. The architect was clearly in Tennysonian mood at the time.
In close proximity to Livadi are two of the island’s most interesting Byzantine churches. A signposted road to the west from the middle of the main street of the vil lage leads to the church of Aghios Andreas, which sits on a rise about 150m from the main road. The church has a pleasing profile, broad and low, with a belfry that has been added in the last 100 years. It dates from the second half of the 10th century, originally square in plan with three apses, but shortly afterwards extended slightly towards the west. The paintings inside are fragmentary and concentrated around the sanctuary, but they are of high quality and belong to different campaigns of work by clearly different hands. A number of the paintings from later (17th century) layers have been detached and transferred to the Byzantine Museum of the Analipsis in Kato Livadi. Where this has happened, the pitted layer of the earlier wall-painting beneath is visible in situ; the regular chips and holes made with a sharp instrument in the surface of the older plaster facilitated the integration or ‘keying-in’ of the new plaster which was to be super imposed. This can be seen in the central apse and on the front of the templon screen. Two different artists, indeed two different ages, can be seen in the area of the sanctu ary beyond the screen. The pale colours, exiguous brush strokes and more simple but vital facial descriptions of the paintings above the central apse, and in the fragments of the north-side of the northern apse (prothesis) are of a painting campaign contemporary with the construction of the church (10th century). By contrast, the figures on the opposite south wall of the northern apse (Aghios Minas, for example) and the altogether graver faces, darker colours and higher contrast of the figures in and around the north and south side walls of the sanctuary and in the barrel vault overhead, belong to a campaign of the 13th century. The contrast of simplicity and freshness, with gravity and ornamentation, is immediately visible.
An altogether more complicated picture is presented by the extraordinary church of *Aghios Demetrios at Pourko—Kythera’s most interesting Byzantine monument. This is one of the most unusual churches in the Aegean, in some ways comparable with the (much earlier) church of the Drosiani on Naxos . (In Livadi take the left fork, signed for Aghia Elessa and Moni Myrtidion, at the point where the main road turns towards the right and to the north. Keeping left at the junction after 1km, you come to the locality of Pourko after a further 1.8km. The church of Aghios Demetrios is in the valley below and to the left, 250m down an un-surfaced track.) The setting of the church can best be seen by carrying on up the road to the monastery of Aghia Elessa, a large modern monastery on the peak with very fine views, which remains uninhabited for most of the year. From here the church of Aghios Demetrios is visible in the fold of the fertile valley below: its site suggests something that is often the case with dedications to St Demetrius—that the church may originally have been built over a pagan sanctuary of Demeter, whose places of cult often lay well outside habitation and in fertile valleys where the cereals which the goddess protected were cultivated. From closer to, the church seems like an enormous piece of sculpture; its organic growth and undulating volumes possess a plasticity of great appeal. All this is due to the fact that the church is not one, but four churches in one building—all of different sizes, different forms, with different orientations, and yet contiguous, intercommunicating and possessing only one entrance between them all. The reason for this bizarre arrangement and seemingly unplanned propagation of buildings is unclear, but it raises interesting questions about the ‘logic’ of church building in the Middle Ages in Greece. The most probable explanation for the organic ‘agglutination’ of chapels in the case of the Drosiani on Naxos , mentioned above, is that the main, pre-existing church there was the funerary chapel of some important holy individual, around which the others all clustered. But this seems a less likely explanation here: the earliest church of the four that comprise Aghios Demetrios (the south church) shows no funerary characteristics. There is nothing comparable to the highly unusual arrangement here, and little clue to explain its development.
The entrance is in the west wall of the last of the four church es to be built. You first enter (1) the northwest church—oriented due north; dedicated either to St Basil or the Arch angel Michael; dated to the late 13th century; with small dome and two apses, (later) segmental templon screen in masonry, and paintings of figures of saints, principally to the right in the sanctuary. From here you pass into (2) the north church—oriented a little to east of due north; dedicated to St Nicholas; dated to the mid-13th century; with one apse, and extensive fine painting remains in the apse and sanctuary in particular. Passing directly on from here, you enter (3) the tiny (2 x 3.7m) northeast church—oriented a little north of due east; dedicated possibly to the Virgin; dated to the mid-13th century; with one apse and only fragmentary and poorly preserved paintings. Returning to the north church, you pass (left) into (4) the south church—oriented almost due east; dedicated to St Demetrius; dated to the early 13th century; with dome and two apses, and extensive and fine wall-paintings in most areas.
A start at unravelling the dates and campaigns involved in the painting can be made in the north church of St Nicholas, where, on the pilaster in the middle of its left-hand (west, in this case) wall, is a partially legible dedicatory inscription which cites the names of a founder (Nikolaos Kontodonatos) and—unusually—a painter (Archdeacon Demetrios of Monemvasia). Scholars have tried to read a lost date at the foot of the inscription which has led to an erroneous dating of the paintings (and therefore of the whole complex) to the late 12th century: in fact the inscription is referring to an ecclesiastical indiction of 100 years later. All this need not dis tract the visitor from the enjoyment of the vibrant paintings of finely-robed saints on the same wall of the church, and of the arresting design of the figure of St Nicholas in the apse, all of which is the work of Demetrios of Monemvasia. In the south church there are probably three layers of paintings, which in places (e.g. the north apse) can be seen one below the other: but these layers are separated by a matter of decades only. Unusually, there are a number of larger narrative scenes in the church: a Crucifixion on the west wall, a Presentation of the Virgin, an Annunciation (below the dome), a Nativity, etc. The richer pigments in these scenes and in the figures in the apses, combined with the artists’ delight in costume and architectural detail, suggest that Kythera had begun to have closer artistic ties with the imperial capital, Byzantium, than it had ever had before in its history.
Two kilometres north of Pourko is the village of Drymonas. From here it is possible to visit two monasteries, both with 19th century buildings and fine views of the western coast of the island. Immediately to the west, over the hill, is the monastery of the Aghii Anargyri (1.7km), built with forbidding defences against coastal piracy. Beyond it, a track winds down (3.5km) to the minuscule cove and secluded beach at Melidoni. The road north of Drymonas leads to a junction (after 1.2km) beside a dense stand of pine trees, in which a fine neoclassical mansion operates as an oinopoieion, or winery. Turning left (west) here, you pass through the whitewashed village of Kalokerines, descend a succession of plateaux, pass through an improbably precarious rock arch over the road, and continue down (5.5km) to the monastery of the Myrtidion, amongst dense green maquis on a slope above the wild western coast of the island. It is unclear at what date a monastery was first established here to celebrate the finding of a miraculous icon in a myrtle bush (hence the name ‘Myrtidion’); the present buildings and the interesting carved limestone bell-tower all date from the late 19th century. The monastery is still busy and well cared for, and its courtyard bursts with plants, trees and flowers. The catholicon is remarkable mostly for its marble elements: a capsule-shaped pulpit, an orientalising stand for the sacred icon, and eight polished plaques in the lower part of the templon screen, all of an unusual, alabastrine grey stone.
Nearly two kilometres further north, the asphalt road ends at the beach of Limnaria. A separate track to the south from the monastery leads (2km) to the remote chapel of Aghios Nikolaos Krasas, built by a grateful shipper of wine (krasi) after successfully supplicating St Nicholas to save him when he and his entire shipment of wine seemed in danger of foundering on the cliffs below during a storm.
Either by returning all the way to the winery and turning north, or by taking the left fork in Kalokerines, you join a small road that heads north, for just over 5km, through a cultivated valley to *Mylopotamos—to many, the most beautiful village on the island. Once home to over 1,000 inhabitants, and now a village of about 100 souls, Mylopotamos (which means ‘mill river’) is characterised by its abundance of water—running through the village, feeding the vast plane trees in its square, falling in a beautiful 20m waterfall, and once servicing nearly two dozen mills along the length of the gorge below. This water seeps in springs from the poros limestone mountain of Mermingaris (506m) to the south of the village. The mountain, and consequently the water source, is currently threatened by a proposal for industrial quarrying on its slopes. The village has a pleasing combination of handsome neoclassical mansions and more traditional stone houses, haphazardly grouped around the ravine: at its centre is a peaceful shaded plateia with a delightful kafeneion.
For the mills and the waterfall of Fonissa it is necessary to take the street which leaves due north from the plateia; after 150m a wooden sign to the ‘Katarraktis’ points down some steps to the right. This leads down into an enchanting densely-shaded gorge with a number of ruined buildings, emerald pools and gigantic trees. The impressive—because unexpected—waterfall is to the right. Further downstream are the water mills, of which there are over 20 (in varying states of disrepair) in the valley, all once working from the same re-used water. One of them (about 400m downstream) is currently being restored: it has a narrow stone-built fall-chamber with a horizontal turbine at the base, which turns one millstone against another fixed stone above it. Outside the building the stone rings may be seen to which the mules and don keys would be tied.
Eight hundred metres to the west of the village is Mylopotamos’s mediaeval centre and kastro at Kato Chora. The first building you come to, as the road makes an abrupt about-turn to the left, is a decently proportioned spacious hall with gothic ogival windows—seemingly mediaeval but in fact another British school-building, constructed by John MacPhail in 1826. Directly behind it, however, is the finely rusticated entrance gate into the Venetian kastro, with the emblem of St Mark in marble and coats of arms bearing the date 1545 above. This is a castle where the emphasis is far more on habitation than on defence. On entering, you find yourself in a narrow street, amidst intimate spaces and mediaeval buildings which have been enlarged and adapted in later centuries; they still preserve their work areas (e.g. masonry tanks for wine-ferment, baking ovens and animal stalls) below, and the living quarters above. Most have pleasing window and door frames; some have balconies. Almost half of the habit able area of the kastro is occupied by churches, however, which squeeze into the space available, as if manoeuvring to elbow one another over the precipice. These are generally kept locked, but only two of them have substantial decoration inside and are worthy of the trouble involved in having them opened (keys with the Byzantine Antiquities Department in Livadi). Going clockwise around the inside perimeter of the enceinte, you pass: the church of Aghios Athanasios; Aghios Ioannis Prodromos, leaning like a sinking ship, and with paintings inside; Aghios Vasilios; the church of the Transfiguration (Metamorphosis Soteras), with its acutely rhomboid plan; (from here the chapel of Aghia Marina is visible opposite, across the valley); Aghios Ioannis Chrysostomos on the edge of the precipice, and Aghii Kosmas and Damianos, set down below it, against the walls. In the centre are two further churches of the Panaghia Mesosporiissa, and of Prophitis Elias. All date from the period between 1450 and 1550. Aghios Ioannis Prodromos can probably be dated more accurately to 1518 on the basis of a partially legible inscription in the fragments of paintings on the south wall. The church’s elongated form is due to a considerable enlargement to the west. Particularly noteworthy is the mural of the two mounted, soldier saints (SS Theodore and Stratelates) at the western end of the south wall, with sensitively modelled faces and considerable chromatic intensity. The church of the Transfiguration, or Metamorphosis Soteras, is somewhat earlier—late 15th century. Its south wall and vault have extensive wall-painting remains in poor condition: an exception is the very fine figure of St John the Theologian, towards the western end of the south wall.
As you continue further down the asphalt road below Kato Chora and the Venetian Kastro, east of the small bridge is the minute 14th century church of the Archis trategos (St Michael), in the midst of an olive grove. After 1km, a track to the right leads down a further 1km to the *cave church of Aghia Sophia. (Key is kept at the Demarcheion/Town Hall: T. 27360 31213 in Chora, except in July and Aug, when the church is open Tues, Thur, Sat & Sun 11–3; Wed & Fri 4–8; closed Mon.) This is an exceptional site and the most interesting of the many cave-churches on the island. The magnificent position of the cave, in a wide cliff-bound bay directly above the sea, suggests that it could well once have been an early hermitage. The cave, which is entered from a flight of steps, is about 100m deep with stalactites and stalagmites in the interior. But nothing quite prepares the visitor for what is to be found immediately inside—an irregular templon screen (about 1.9m high), constructed in rough masonry and rendered in plaster, which runs from side to side of the cave, and whose beauty is in the exquisite paintings which cover it. These have been remarkably well preserved by the constant humidity and temperature within the cave; they possess a freshness of colour and finish which is rare to find in painting of this antiquity. To the left is a small St Panteleimon (bust only); then St Sophia (Holy Wisdom) herself, and her three daughters Agape (Charity), Elpis (Hope) and Pistis (Faith); to the right is a Deesis (Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist), flanked by St Theodore of Kythera to the left and St Theodosius to the extreme right. On the perpendicular sides of the door through to the cave are: St Nicholas to the left, and the Archangel Michael to the right. A little further in the cave and down to the left is the sanctuary, in which there is a poorly preserved fragment of a painting of the Virgin Mary. The patterns and tones and colours of the native rock at times make the whole cave seem as though it were painted.
The setting itself is unusual, but the quality of these 12th century paintings is even more unusual, and it is worth looking at them closely. The painter has a clear style and very confident hand, but he also possesses a humanity which reveals itself exclusively in the figure of the local saint, *Theodore of Kythera. This is a fine face, imbued with wisdom and suffering, and realised in paint with the most economical means. It makes the other faces, which are technically good, seem lifeless by comparison. Fortunately, a tiny inscription, between the figures of Christ and his mother, tells us about the painter, and informs us that his name—significantly—was also Theodore. In the inscription he asks for help from God—for himself, his wife and child.
On Kythera alone there are no fewer than three cave churches dedicated to Aghia Sophia or Holy Wisdom (at Mylopotamos, Spilies and Aghia Pelaghia); two others on the island are dedicated to St John the Divine, Aghios Ioannis Theologos; and there are many more, both here and on other islands. Caves were always significant places of cult in pagan antiquity and earlier, and mystic rites were often conducted in them; they were seen as places of cosmic energy and of metempsychosis—symbolic passages for souls leaving the earth. They were sacred to many divinities. Christianity, as was its wont, appropriated pagan cult in caves to its own ends, but transformed its meaning. It was able to draw upon a rich philosophical tradition going back to Plato, in which the cave symbolised the ignorance and darkness of the lower world in which our souls are trapped. Our lives can be given sense, Plato suggested, by an ascent out of that darkness and by a purification of the mind and soul by adherence to divine wisdom. Divine wisdom—or Aghia Sophia—was therefore the only salvation which pierced the gloom of the primaeval cave where our souls were mired, and the path out was led by observance of Faith, Hope and Charity— Sophia’s ‘daughters’, who appear here in the paintings in the cave at Mylopotamos. St John the Divine, author of the Revelation, is also associated with and venerated in caves because he received his revelation of divine wisdom in a cave on Patmos. In icons, St John is always pictured in the centre, as the conduit of illumination between the invisible Almighty above the top of the icon and his faithful scribe, Prochoros, hunched, writing in a cave in the lower part of the icon. Caves, in Christian iconography, are symbols of the state of our unillumined souls, and we go into them to seek wisdom and illumination for when we leave.
Beyond the cave, the road winds on down to the tiny port of Limnionas. Returning to Mylopotamos, and taking the eastern route (left) out of the village, after 1km you come to Arei, where at a junction beside an Italianate chapel a track leads right (south) down a pine avenue to the isolated church of Aghios Petros. This is possibly an 11th or 12th century church, in un-dressed stone, with a pleasing profile and roughly square plan. It has three apses; its octagonal cupola was probably added later. In the paintings inside we encounter a new artistic personality—a painter who has particular difficulty with arms and hands. There are several layers and periods of painting in different areas of the church, but the work in the sanctuary is mostly of the mid-13th century and the work of one artist. His memorable style is characterised by a number of distortions of proportion in the neck and limbs. Below the central apse figure of St Peter is a founder’s inscription. The church is of pleasing architectural form both inside and out.
A kilometre and a half further east you rejoin the is land’s main highway, at which point Chora lies 11km due south.
Kythera Island, Greece