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Byzantine churches of Naxos
Naxos has a greater concentration and chronological spread of mediaeval and Byzantine churches than any other Greek island, including Crete and Kythera. Amongst them are some of the oldest rural churches in the Aegean. There are more than 130 important examples—many of them paint ed; some with rare decorations from the Iconoclastic period of the 8th and 9th centuries; all of architectural interest. It is an extraordinary patrimony, as well as a boon to the visitor because so many of them are set in rural landscapes of great magnificence. The walks and climbs involved to seek them out are one of the joys which Naxos offers.
Naxos was large enough to possess a safe and fertile interior which was sufficiently far inland to avoid the destructive attentions of pirates and raiders: it is in this central zone of the island that most of these early churches are located. Nothing can fully account for the remarkable flourishing of ecclesiastical art in the early 13th century on Naxos . The stability brought by the establishment of a ruling Venetian dynasty partly explains the phenomenon; commercial links with Crete are also important; but the ferment of building and decorating which happened in this period goes beyond these explanations.
In the face of such a historic wealth of monuments we have divided the churches and monasteries of the island into three categories:
* the five most important—‘essential’—churches on the island, whose significance or beauty is such that they should at all costs be seen while on Naxos ;
* a second group of 10 important churches, which are of interest for a variety of different reasons. The churches in both these groups are described in detail in the text;
* a further 26 worthwhile churches of interest (most with paintings) are listed at the end, together with their whereabouts. They are organised according to area, so that they can be easily located when you are in a given part of the island.
The list is far from exhaustive.
Access. Opening arrangements can be a very real problem for the visitor because many churches are kept locked now adays. A good proportion of our 15 important churches have access that is relatively easy, even if their posted opening times are not adhered to outside of the high summer months. Some are always open; some have particular hours; some may require tracking down the local priest, or pappas, in the nearest village to obtain the key. But for some of the most important, opening needs to be arranged through the Byzantine Antiquities Department (or Ephorate) in Chora, which is located in the Sanudo/Crispi Tower in Kastro (T. 22850 22225). Only by people continually asking to visit the churches will it become clear that there is a public interested in looking at the island’s treasures. Perhaps this will lead to their greater availability. Otherwise, if an ancient church on Naxos is open, do not fail to go inside. They are always of interest and the opportunity of an open door is golden.
For the best and most detailed study of these churches, see Giorgios Mastoropoulos, Νάξος, το ὰλλο κάλλος/Naxos : Byzantine Monuments, Athens, 1996.
GAZETTEER OF CHURCHES
Group I (All in Central Naxos ): ‘Essential’.
1 *Monastery of the Panaghia Drosiani—6th century and later. (3.5km north of Chalki on the road to Kinidaros. Generally kept open throughout the year from 8–1, 4–8. Offering to custodian.)
2 *Church of the Protothronos (Panaghia)—6th century and later. (On the main street of Chalki. Generally closed except for lit urgies in the early morning and on Sundays: the pappas, however, is frequently to be seen in the village and will open the church.)
3 *Aghios Giorgios Diasoriis, mid-11th century. (1km northwest of Chalki: signed, 10-minute walk from the main street in Chalki along footpath. Generally open 10–2 with custodian in summer. Otherwise key with Ephorate)
4 *Monastery of the Nativity, Kaloriissa—7th–14th centuries. (Partially hidden, but visible, half-way up the west slope of hill of Prophitis Elias above Bazaios Tower; 30-minute climb. Outer area unlocked.)
5 *Aghios Ioannis Theologos Adisarou—9th century. (In the area of Lathrina, c. 1km east of the Temple of Demeter archaeological site, in a field to the east of the Chalki/Aghiasos road, 2km south of the Bazaios Tower. Generally closed: key with Ephorate.)
Group II: ‘Important’
Near Potamia (9km southeast of Chora)
6*Church of Aghios Mamas (or of the ‘Panaghia Theoskepasti’), 10th century. (25min walk from main road: take two right forks from Kato Potamia—2km; unlocked.)
Near Chalki and Kerami (16km east-southeast of Chora)
7 *Church of the Panaghia Damiotissa (800m northeast of Chal ki: at the first curve after the end of the straight stretch of road lead to the Drosiani, the church lies 80m across olive grove to the left. Open 10–2.30.)
8 *Basilica of Aghios Isidoros (1.5km north of Chalki, by track to north from point 600m west of the main junction in the village centre. Unlocked.)
9 *Church of Aghios Ioannis Theologos Keramiou(150m east of the main road passing through Kerami, to the north of the village centre. Track leads left from the main road-sign with the name of the village, through an olive grove to the church. Open 10–2.30.)
10 *Church of the Aghii Apostoli (250 m to the south of the main road passing through Kerami, to the west of the village centre. Path leads in the opposite direction from the same point as the path to Aghios Ioannis Theologos Keramiou(above). Locked, but exterior of greatest interest.)
Near Sangri (13km southeast of Chora)
11 *Church of Aghios Artemios (1.5km east of Kato Sangri; visible in the valley from the Chalki/Sangri road, c 1.5km north of the Bazaios Tower and 3km south of Chalki. Key with Ephorate.)
12 *Church of Aghios Nikolaos (signed, south of Ano Sangri. Open Mon–Fri, 10–2.30 in summer.)
Near Aghiasos (24km south of Chora)
13 *Church of the Panaghia Giallous (4.5km south east of Aghiasos in the foothills to the east of the shore. Unlocked.)
Near Apeiranthos (26km east of Chora)
14 *Church of Aghia Kyriaki (at K aloni) (4.5km northeast of Apeiranthos by footpath only; allow three hours to go and return. Unlocked.)
15 *Monastery of Christos Fotodoti, or of the Transfiguration(6.5km south of Apeiranthos, turning signed 4km before arriving in Apeiranthos. Currently open and being restored.)
Group III: ‘Of interest’
Central and western Naxos
(Itinerary (i) Chora—Melanes—Kinidaros—Moni)
A. Aghios Isidoros. Beside road junction on the of main Potamia road, 3.8km east of Chora waterfront. Always open.
B. Aghios Giorgios Melanon. At the foot of the village of Melanes, beside the stream-bed. Key with pappas.
(Itinerary (ii) Chora—Potamia—Chalki—Kerami)
C. Aghios Giorgios. North side of the road at Kato Potamia, 7.5km from Chora.
D. Aghios Stephanos at Tsikalario. Village of Tsikalario.
E. Panaghia Theoskepasti and Aghios Spyridon, double church. By the high school in Chalki.
F. Aghios Konstantinos at Vourvouria. 400m outside, and due south, of village of Vouvouria, 1km southwest of Chalki.
G. Aghios Panteleimon. 500m due south of Chalki.
H. Aghios Giorgios Paratrechou. South of Chora–Vivlos road, 4keast of Chora waterfront.
I. Aghios Nikolaos Paratrechou. Footpath north from sharp right bend before Galanado.
J. Aghios Ioannis Theologos Avlonisas. In open country southwest of the Bazaios Tower and east of Aghios Nikolaos.
K. Panaghia Arkouliotissa. West of Chalki–Aghiasos road, 1km south of Bazaios Tower.
L. Aghii Giorgios and Nikolaos Lathrinou. West of Chalki-Aghiasos road, 3km south of Bazaios Tower.
M. Aghios Giorgios at Upper Marathos. 3.5km south of Bazaios Tower, a track leads east towards Apaliros Castle, ending after 2km below the southwestern ascent to castle; a path for a further 3km skirts south, round the hill and climbs the valley eastwards up to Aghios Giorgios. Allow 3+ hours (return).
N. Panaghia at Archato. Southeast of settlement of Archato, 4km northeast of Aghiasos.
(Itinerary (iv) Chora—Yria—Vivlos—Pyrgaki)
O. Aghios Ioannis Theologos Kaknadou. 1km down track southeast off main road, 2km south of Vivlos.
P. Aghios Giorgios and Aghios Ioannis at i“skelos. Just above the unmistakable Oskelos Tower, 2.5km east of Kastraki.
Q. Koimisis tis Theotokou Attaleiotissa. West side of Engares valley, north of Chora.
R. Aghios Giorgios of Skeponi. Village of Skeponi.
S.Aghios Theodoros. Behind beach of Aghios Theodoros at the northwest tip of island.
T.Monastery of Aghia. In the valley below the Aghias Tower, at northern tip of island. Apeiranthos and eastern Naxos
U.Aghios Pachomios and Aghios Giorgios. Adjacent to one another to east, below road before entering Apeiranthos: take concrete road to right, immediately on entering habitation. Aghios Ermo laos lies further to east.
V Aghios Ioannis and Aghios Giorgios of Siphones. From junction 5.5km north of Apeiranthos, road leads south to Siphones; church visible to west, below road.
W.Prophitis Elias Vlachaki. 2km south of Moutsouna, track leads west inland for 1.5km: church visible above, is reached only by footpath.
X.Aghios Ioannis Theologos. Village cemetery of Danakos.
Y.Panaghia Arion. To east of the Filoti/Heimaros Tower road, 1.7km after initial junction at Filoti; path doubles back to church in middle of field. Churches of Ag. Anastasia (2.2km) and Aghios Eustathios (3km) further south.
Z.Aghios Ioannis Theologos Kaminos. To west of road on hill at ‘Pirnia tis Farlas’, before steep descent of road; access difficult.
BYZANTINE ARCHITECTURE AND WALL-PAINTING ON NAXOS
At first sight, Byzantine painting can seem much of a muchness. To eyes trained in the tradition of the Western Renaissance, with its emphasis on individuality and naturalism, it can appear fossilised and repetitive. It does repeat, and was meant to repeat. It is visual, liturgical ‘chanting’. But it is not without character, modulation and considerable range of quality. Just as with coming from daylight into a dark interior, it does take time for the eyes to adjust to its subtle inflections. First, there are chronological variations: the earliest paintings on Naxos , of the 6th and 7th centuries, (Drosiani, Protothronos, and Kaloriissa) show the characteristics of late Roman painting— ‘sculpted’ robes (i.e. painted with a fine sense of depth and texture), arresting gazes, a sense of vigour and urgency. In the next period of the 8th and 9th centuries, the Byzantine world was riven by the debate about whether images were a good or bad influence in sacred places: in 730, Emperor Leo III decreed the destruction of all sacred images in human form throughout the Empire. Earlier paintings were plastered over with abstract decorative works, which sometimes recall the faux marbres of Pompeian painting; from this period, we find only symmetric designs, as if for tiles (Aghios Ioannis Adisarou, and Aghios Artemios), and very occasionally symbolic animals (Aghia Kyriaki). Once the Iconoclastic debate was over (843), and concluded in favour of the reinstating of images, there was some sober reflection followed by a renewed flourishing of religious art—which emerges as graceful, vigorous, colourful and with a just balance of space and figure. This is exemplified especially in the 13th century paintings of Aghios Giorgios Diasoriis and in Aghios Nikolaos.
With the passing of this renewed energy, Byzantine painting starts to become more formal and stylised from the 15th century on: a flatness of drawing, re places the ‘sculptural feel’ of earlier robes, and the faces of saints and protagonists become more elegiac; then distant; and finally vacant. The 16th and 17th centuries in Byzantine art are characterised by an emphasis on narrative content above all else; a horror vacui sets in and every space is filled with detail which disperses the concentration of the image.
As well as these broad historical developments there are distinct personalities at work in the churches of Naxos . Take three cycles of paintings for example, all painted in the 12th or 13th centuries. The artist at the church of Panaghia Giallous has a thoughtfulness and softness of style which is quite his own. He is a naturally contemplative artist, and the tonal harmony of yellows and reds which he uses reinforces the gentleness of his big-eyed figures. This contrasts markedly with the painter in the church of the Panaghia Damiotissa, whose faces are unique in the horizontal elongation of their eyes, the narrow foreheads and chiselled features: in their sharply glyptic manner, his figures are not without pathos, but they belong to a quite different artistic personality. In the church of the Protothronos, the painter of the Annunciation on the sanctuary walls (south side) reveals his sophisticated, metropolitan training in his graceful sweeping curves and ox-eyed figures with gracious brows and gestures of the hand—quite different from the highly stylised angular ‘button-holing’ directness of the earlier painter working on the figures in the dome of the same church. Again, in the magnificent church of Aghios Giorgios Diasoriis, we can distinguish two artists, in this case working at the same time (see below). In short, there is a considerable variety of sounds coming from this orchestra of painters, even though in the end they are all—importantly—playing the same piece of music.
What was the ‘music’? The ‘ideal’ Byzantine church is a circle on a square: the circle, which has no be ginning or end and therefore symbolises the eternal Heavenly cosmos, sits on top of the square, whose four sides symbolise the earthly world with its four elements, four seasons, four cardinal points, and so forth. This gives you a dome, over a square or rectangular floor-plan; heaven over earth. The decoration of the interior was subsequently designed to reflect this symbolic equilibrium: in the dome is depicted the heavenly panoply, while the lower walls figure the earthly life of Christ and of the saints who dwelt in the world. In the pendentives between these two areas were to be shown the ‘communicators’ who bridged the gap between the two—namely the Evangelists. The earthly scenes, furthermore, were not to be seen against a bright background, but the figures instead were to glow against the darkness of our world of benighted ignorance. Hence the predominantly dark blue colour which customarily fills the space around the figures in Byzantine wall-paintings. Byzantine painters used a simple range of natu rally occurring earth pigments. There was a spiritual symbolism to this, too: God created Man out of the ‘dusts of the earth’, and they—in worldly imitation of that—would create their images of man from those precious dusts of the earth which we call pigments. Commonly occurring ferric oxides provided yellows, reds and browns; though for a stronger red, Spanish cinnabar might be used. The blue was provided by azurite (naturally occurring copper carbonate) from Hungary (and not, in a remote island such as Naxos , by very expensive ultramarine or lapis lazuli from Afghanistan). Even azurite was expensive, and the simplest painting cycles use a black instead, made from charred vine-twigs, which has a bluish tinge to it. Azurite blue was generally mixed and modified with other colours because if used alone in high concentrations it tended to turn green in the wet caustic lime-plaster. For this reason, blue was also frequently added afterwards in tempera onto the surface of the plaster once it had dried. Another colour added ‘a sec co’ in tempera onto the dry surface was a pasty enamel-like lead white, used to create broken highlights on faces and the folds of garments. It is because of this mixed dry and wet technique, that we cannot truly call Byzantine wall-paintings ‘frescoes’—in the sense that works by Masaccio or Michelangelo which were painted entirely into freshly-laid wet plaster are ‘true fresco’. Their techniques were different, just as what they were doing in painting was also quite different.
Naxos Island is part of the Cyclades Island Group, Greece.