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The oldest surviving church in Bourgo—the lower part of Chora—was built probably in the late 13th century, if the distinctive armorial bearings with the four Bs of the Palaiologos family, placed over the door, can be taken as relating to its founding and early patronage: formerly known as the Panaghia Vlacherniotissa, it is now the church of Prophitis Elias, one block in from the waterfront at the level of the Emporiki Bank. Inside the church are two particularly beautiful, 15th century icons by Angelos of Crete—a painter of great refinement and elegance who may have influenced the early Venetian painters, such as Pietro Veneziano, and in whose tradition El Greco was trained a century later.
At the northern extremity of the waterfront, before the causeway to the ‘Portara’, is the 15th century church of St Antony the Hermit, built by Duchess Francesca Crispo and gifted to the Knights Hospitaller of St John in 1452. It must have been an isolated church outside the habitation at first, because the heart of the Bourgo clung closely to the north and western slopes of the Kastro.
The principal thoroughfare—at times scarcely wide enough for two people to pass—which runs east from the waterfront, often under the projecting upper floors of buildings, is Nikodimos Street, named after the island’s patron saint, Aghios Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain (1749–1809), whose house can still be seen (third door way on the left after the ‘Taverna Vassilis’) beyond the sharp turn east in the street.
Nikodimos was born on Naxos , studied in Smyrna and spent much of his adult life on Mount Athos, where he became one of the most influential teachers and writers of Greek Orthodoxy during the years of the Ottoman occupation. He was much influenced by the Hesychast tradition of contemplative mysticism, and was the person who first compiled and published the teachings of the early ascetics in a highly important five-volume work known as the Philokalia. He wrote widely on spiritual practice and prayer, and translated some important Italian Jesuit writings into Greek. He was canonised in the Orthodox Church in 1955: his feast on 14 July is the island’s principal celebration.
Nikodimos Street eventually debouches into Mitropoleos Square, an open, low-lying area dotted with churches which surround the Orthodox Cathedral of the Zoodochos Pigi, built in 1786 on the site of an earlier church. The interior is dominated by an impressive marble iconostasis, contemporary with the church’s construction: the grand icon of the Virgin, as Fount of Life, with its carved unified frame is also of the same date. The dome is supported on antique columns. The arresting, but rather crudely carved funerary slab of the Venetian nobleman, Niccoli² dalle Carceri, is set into the floor of the entrance portico.
Because of the dominant position of the Roman Catholic Venetian community in Naxos , the early Orthodox churches in the town tended to be simple and unadorned: the wealth of Byzantine pictorial and architectural display, on the other hand, was concentrated almost exclusively in the Orthodox heartland of rural Naxos . After the Venetians lost their control of the island to the Turks, many of the earlier churches in this area were pulled down and re built. The square is surrounded by churches and chapels but none has any special decoration and all date from the 18th century: to the west is the Panaghia Chrysopoliissa, with three contiguous chapels dedicated to the Apostles, and SS. Spyridon and Charalambos; to the south is the Panagia Eleousa; and to the north Aghios Nikolaos, which lies at a lower level because it is built on the base of a previous church of clearly considerable antiquity. To the east of this area of town lived the Jewish community but the whereabouts of the Synagogue is not known. At the opposite western end of the square is the monument and (rapidly eroding) marble bust of Michalis Damiralis (1857–1917), a Naxiot scholar, philologist and translator of Shakespeare whose face is depicted below on the monument. Close by it are stones and architectural fragments from the Hellenistic and Roman agora of Naxos , which lay under the eastern end of this area, stretching as far as the Bay of Grotta.
Naxos Island is part of the Cyclades Island Group, Greece.