The Byzantine churches of Naxos

The island of Naxos houses an extraordinary wealth of about 140 Byzantine churches, the oldest of which date back to the 4th century. In many of the churches significant remains of byzantine wall paintings exist; some are well preserved, but most are badly damaged both by the long years of foreign rule and by the ravages of time and weather. In the churches of Naxos, 180 different layers of wall paintings have been recorded, dating from all phases of the Byzantine period, which covers a good thousand years (4th to 15th century, the last centuries under Venetian rule), with a peak in the 13th and 14th centuries. On Naxos, all phases of the development of the murals over the centuries are represented by many examples.

Many more Byzantine churches and murals can be found on Naxos than on all the other Cyclades together; but even in Greece and in the whole of the Balkans hardly anywhere exists such a collection of interesting and important medieval churches.

It is remarkable and regrettable that this cultural treasure has attracted so little attention so far. Over the years the Byzantinologists in charge have endeavoured to visit and document every single one of the churches scattered throughout the island. The most important Byzantine churches in the Tragaía have been restored, in others the wall paintings have been restored, at least in some places. Some of the churches are open for visitors, but most of them are not accessible. Hopefully at least the churches with the most noteworthy murals, also those in remote areas, will be restored or at least protected from further decay over the years; also it would be great if in the future a few more of the churches could be made accessible to interested tourists.

Byzantine church architecture

After their Christianization the inhabitants of Naxos transformed their sanctuaries, the ancient temples, into churches. In most cases the temple building itself was converted into a church, e.g. by adding an apse (= semicircular protrusion for the altar). Later the former temple was usually replaced by a new church building erected nearby, often using stones from the temple.

The temple of Demeter was converted into a church around the 4th century AD.

In the 6th century AD the building was extensively redesigned and an apse was added to the east.

This tiny ancient building was also used as a church (Panagía Chrysopigí near Apíranthos); probably it was originally a Mycenaean tomb.


Most of the churches of Naxos are small, simply constructed buildings. In contrast to the catholic churches of Western and Central Europe, which mostly consist of one or more naves, the typical orthodox churches are designed as cruciform buildings; their basic form is cross-shaped with a dome in the middle. However, this is only partially true for the churches of Naxos; there are a number of cruciform churches with domes, but most churches consist of one or two naves, some with, some without a dome. All churches have barrel-shaped roofs, which means that they have a continuously semicircular roof, an old form of roof which is unusual today, with the masonry supporting itself without any supporting beams. The roof is covered with tiles or stone slabs (today often replaced by concrete). There are also a number of basilicas (churches with three longitudinal naves separated by columns, the central nave being higher than the lateral ones); interestingly, these are (apart from several large post-Byzantine village churches) some of the earliest Byzantine church buildings on the island.

Nearly all churches are west-east oriented. Towards the east lies the altar in the Sanctum, the holiest part, which may only be entered by the priest. Here the building always has a larger or smaller semicircular protrusion, the apse. The entrance lies usually on the west side opposite the altar. In some churches, a transverse porch was later added in the western part, which was intended to keep away the evil thought to come from the west. Many of the churches of Naxos, especially those located far from the villages, are small and inconspicuous; sometimes only the west-east orientation and the round apse indicate that it is a church at all.

Panagía Rachidiótissa near Monítsia: a small cruciform church with a dome

Panagía Kerá near Kóronos: also a cruciform domed church

Ágios Mámas near Potamiá is one of the biggest churches of Naxos with a high, large dome; here the view up into the dome.

From the outside on sees the two transverse porches that were later added to the cruciform church in the west. These were supposed to ward off the evil that was thought come from the west.

Ágios Nikólaos near Sangrí with one nave and a dome

Ágios Joánnis Theológos: also a one-naved church with a dome which is very low in this case

church with one nave without dome at Apáno Kástro

two small single-naved churches without a dome, at the Tower of Chimárrou

Ágios Mámas near Apíranthos: a church with two naves without dome

This younger church (Ágios Artémios near Kinídaros from the 17th century) has a barrel-shaped roof and is a three-naved basilica.

The same church from the inside: The naves are separated by 5 low bows.

Ágios Isídoros near Monítsia belongs to the early Christian basilicas (from the 6th/7th century)

Probably the most unusual church building on Naxos is the two-storey church Ágioi Apóstoloi near Metóchi in the Tragaía, from the 10th to 11th century.

Temples and Churches

The Byzantine churches are very different from the ancient Greek temples in their architecture and also in the execution of the construction. The ancient buildings were designed with perfection down to the smallest details; the harmonious design aspired the greatest beauty. But also the execution always sought perfection: columns and stones were carefully hewn, cut and smoothed.

In contrast, the builders of the churches attached much less importance both to the layout of the building and to the technical execution. Most of the churches are very simple buildings; in some cases they are hardly recognizable as churches. Moreover, most churches are built very carelessly: The walls are often tilted or crooked and the domes only approximately round. The masonry is made of small, completely unworked field stones that have been picked up in the surroundings and are rather carelessly piled up on top of each other.

The Byzantine churches of Naxos are mostly very carelessly built with raw stones collected from the surrounding area.

Here you can see the careless masonry, which mostly uses small, unprocessed stones.

This stands in great contrast to the precise execution of the ancient temples.

Here you can see that the walls and half-columns are crooked and tilted and the dome is only approximately round.

Details of church buildings: antique stones and altar walls

While the masonry of the Byzantine churches is generally badly executed, there are always interesting things to discover in the walls. For example, in many churches on the island marble stones from ancient temples have been used. By examining the stones used in Byzantine churches, it has not only been possible to completely reconstruct the temple of Demeter, but one of the ancient temples of the island has been discovered because its lintel had been located in a nearby church (the temple of Dionysus near Chóra). The antique stones were used especially as lintels and thresholds or were installed in places requiring greater precision such as corners and door jambs.

In many church buildings some unusual porous, coloured, often greenish stones were used, mainly for the vaults (possibly because of a lower weight?). These stones probably don’t originate from Naxos; they look like they are of volcanic origin and might come from Santorini, for example.

In many Byzantine churches ancient marble stones from nearby temples were used.

These were installed especially in those places that require higher precision, such as the door frames here.

In this antique stone you can see the traces of the processing with a toothed chisel.

Two more antique stones with this characteristic treatment.

Here at the church of Ágios Mámas near Potamiá, you can see the strange volcanic(?) stones that were often used in the construction of the Byzantine churches.

These porous stones sometimes are greenish…

…or pink.
In the Orthodox churches, the easternmost part (the Sanctum) may only be entered by the priest. It is separated from the rest of the church by a wooden or marble “wall”, the iconostasis. Only few Naxiotic churches have a marble iconostasis, although marble is such a common material on the island; an elaborate decoration of the churches in this respect was obviously not important to the faithful of that time. Even a wooden iconostasis is only preserved in a few churches: Most of the Byzantine churches, especially the ones in remote areas, are hardly used anymore.

post-Byzantine church in Apíranthos with marble iconostasis

detail of the iconostasis

This church has a typical wooden iconostasis (Ágios Pachómios in Apíranthos).

Ágios Joánnis in Sífones

Zoodóchos Pigí at the tower of Chimárrou

The Byzantine murals

The Byzantine churches of Naxos, as simply as they are built in many cases, are often decorated with elaborate murals, not only those located in the villages but also the small “field churches” which are located far away from the settlements in the countryside. All churches originally had wall paintings, mostly with figures of saints and scenes from the Bible, but also with non-figurative, ornamental motifs. Many churches have obtained several layers of paintings over the centuries.

Sadly in most chuches little has remained of the original murals. Still even the few, half-destroyed and faded remains of the wall paintings visible today are still impressive. How must the paintings have affected the visitor of the church when they were still fresh and new! Especially remarkable is the contrast between the interior and the exterior of the churches: Even many of the simplest and smallest churches have beautiful and elaborate paintings inside. Why were these paintings so important to the people that they would invest such work (and money) in them? The paintings were intended to show in a symbolic, vivid way the life of Christ and the saints as well as the most important contents of the Christian religion. The Christian faith was conveyed through them in a way that was easy for the congregation to understand and that was appealing in a direct way. Again it is quite remarkable that on the small island of Naxos there were not only enough sufficiently wealthy people able to build and decorate all these churches, but also a population receptive to the message thus conveyed, justifying the effort.

Although the murals of Naxos in general have a rather rural character, they are of a comparatively high standard in terms of technique and artistic design. The Naxian murals belong to the religious art of Byzantium, which developed from ancient Greek art and painting. The content, composition and execution usually correspond to contemporary paintings in other parts of the Byzantine Empire. However, there are also some examples of unusual or unique themes and representations.

On Naxos, all phases of the Byzantine mural painting, covering almost a thousand years,  are represented with a remarkable, almost unique variety: Hardly anywhere else in Greece or the Balkans can one find such a wealth of Byzantine murals in such a small area.

Many churches show several layers of wall paintings; here you can see three layers, the youngest of which is of much higher quality than the oldest (Ágios Panteleímonas in Lakkomérsina).

It is understandable that most of the churches on Naxos are nowadays locked; only in rather remote, rural regions you can still find Byzantine churches that are open. Accordingly, I can only provide photos of a few examples here: The most important churches are not accessible or it is not allowed to take pictures. Nevertheless, I hope that even the few examples here will sufficiently illustrate the topic and perhaps animate the readers to visit some churches themselves.

The Early Christian era (7th and 8th century)

There are at least nine churches on Naxos who were first built during the early Christian era; the earliest is probably the cave church Kalorítsa between Damariónas and Sangrí which dates back to the 4th century. In most of these churches only small remains of wall paintings have been preserved. Important early Christian murals from the time before the iconoclasm (7th and 8th century) can be found, apart from Kalorítsa, in the churches of Panagía Drosianí near Moní and Panagía Protóthroni in Chalkí. These show some unusual representations or arrangements of figures that illustrate the style of that time, especially a unique double version of Christ in the dome of Panagía Drosianí as a young man and as an older man. Some of the characteristics of the early Christian murals on Naxos show a connection to Byzantine churches in Rome from the same time, possibly due to the fact that the Roman Pope Martin I was in exile on Naxos around 653.

The church of Panagía Drosianí near Moní is one of the oldest churches of Naxos with important wall paintings, the earliest of which date back to the 7th century.

The time of the Iconoclasm (9th and 10th century)

With a total of 14 churches Naxos provides by far the largest collection of churches in the whole Greek area which show wall paintings from the time of the iconoclasm. The paintings are very diverse and include both geometric ornamental patterns and animal depictions. Some of them resemble other early Byzantine representations, but some of the motifs are obviously influenced by Islamic paintings. Only a few smaller illustrations resemble the few iconoclastic examples known from neighbouring regions of Greece (Crete, Peloponnese, Evritania).

It is somewhat surprising that the iconoclastic movement emanating from the Byzantine capital Constantinople actually spread quickly to such distant rural islands as Naxos. Also it is remarkable that in some churches (e.g. Ágia Kyriakí near Apíranthos, Ágios Artémios near Sangrí and Ágios Joánnis Theológos near the Kástro Apalírou) the non-figurative paintings of the iconoclasm were not or only partly painted over after the end of the iconoclasm around 843 BC, so that they have remained visible till today.

Ágia Kyriakí is one of the most important churches of Naxos with murals from the time of the iconoclasm. The small double-naved church with a transversal western porch dates back to the 9th century.

Here you can see an example of the ornamental, non-figurative murals in this church.

Especially remarkable are these representations of cocks wearing strange scarves.

Another (locked) church with wall paintings from the time of the iconoclasm is Ágios Joánnis Theológos Adisárou south of Sangrí.

Remains of non-figurative murals from the 10th century are also preserved in the church of Ágios Geórgios near Apíranthos.

The Middle Byzantine era (11th and 12th century)

From the 11th and 12th centuries only rather few examples of murals have survived until now, but some of them are among the most important and best preserved on the island, such as parts of the decoration of Panagía Protóchroni in Chalkí and the church Ágios Geórgios Diasorítis between Chalkí and Monítsia. The paintings of this period are of high quality and have a wide and sometimes unusual repertoire. Important ecclesiastical and secular leaders of the island are mentioned as donors, which explains the high quality.

In the church of Panagía Protóchroni, the dome was painted over twice during the Middle Byzantine period, only four years apart, the second time obviously by another patron, with some figures being replaced by others. It is striking that the newer layer not only has a somewhat simpler, coarser execution, but also a more traditional selection of figures, which proves a rather conservative theological view. Also other wall paintings of this time are thematically rather old-fashioned and obviously deliberately executed in a traditional manner.

Unique and especially well preserved are the murals of the church of Ágios Geórgios Diasorítis (the name probably refers to “óros Días”, Mount Zeus) near Chalkí. It is a cruciform domed church with a slightly younger, transversal porch and a simple bell gable in the west. The almost completely preserved paintings from the 11th century are not only of excellent quality and beauty, but also very remarkable in the choice of depictions and arrangement of figures. Similar representations exist mostly only in churches located far away, such as in Crete, Thessaloniki, Corfu, but also in Cappadocia and Kiev. What is particularly remarkable about the murals of Ágios Geórgios Diasorítis is not only the balanced, theologically sophisticated composition of the depicted saints and biblical scenes, harmonious as a whole and in the details, but also the execution of the figures with pleasant, strong colours and determined lines. Very impressive are the saints with their serious and prudent, but also powerful expression, which at the same time reflects deep peace and humanness. Each saint has his or her own characteristics although the overall attitude is always similar. How moving it must have been to stand in the church when all the paintings were still fresh and undamaged!

the Byzantine church Ágios Geórgios Diasorítis
The important Byzantine church Ágios Geórgios Diasorítis near Chalkí has unique wall paintings that are nearly completely intact.

The interior of the church is decorated with almost completely preserved wall paintings. In the sanctum, in the dome of the apsis, are depicted the Holy Mother with Jesus and below them four standing saints, here Grigórios Theológos and Basílios.

the saints Aníkitos and Fótios

The figures of the saints, here Joánnis Eleímon, are especially expressive.

St. Geórgios is depicted in the middle of the apsis with his parents to his right and left.

The 13th and 14th century

The majority of the Byzantine churches of Naxos originate from the 13th century and the first decades of the 14th century. Most of them are small churches which are not located in the Tragaía or elsewhere in the centre of the island, but in the more remote rural areas. Where inscriptions are preserved, local priests and simple villagers are mentioned as donors of the paintings; sometimes the paintings were made by the donors themselves. Accordingly, the execution is generally of a somewhat simpler quality than with the paintings of the previous phase, but especially in view of these circumstances they are for the most part very remarkable; only a few paintings show a more ordinary “village” style. The topics, on the other hand, are usually rather conservative, but also quite free as far as the choice of figures is concerned: This was obviously based on the personal taste of the donor.

In the 13th and 14th century Naxos was under Venetian i.e. Catholic sovereignty. It is astonishing that so many Byzantine churches were built and elaborately decorated during this period. This also proves that the Greek inhabitants of the island still enjoyed a comparative religious freedom and economical independence in this first century of Venetian feudal rule. Equally surprising is the fact that almost nowhere in the wall paintings can any evidence of Latin influence be detected – at all times the Venetians kept strictly separate from the Greeks and there was hardly any mutual cultural influence.

A good example of churches with murals from the 13th century are the churches of Ágios Geórgios and Ágios Pachómios near Apíranthos.

The apse of the south nave of Ágios Geórgios is decorated with wall paintings some of which are quite well preserved.

figure of a saint in the lower part of the apse

Here Virgin Mary to the left of the Godfather, depicted in the dome of the apse.

Some particularly fragile areas of the wall paintings have been covered with special cloth to protect them.

another figure of a saint

In the neighbouring, somewhat younger church of Ágios Pachómios the wall paintings in the corners of the columns below the small dome of the church are best preserved.

An angel is depicted on the southern wall of this church.

Also from the 13th century date the murals in the peculiar church of Ágios Panteleímonas in Lakkomérsina near Apíranthos.

The southern nave is decorated with rather extensive wall paintings.

a saint

Between the figures of saints you can see ornaments.

These figures are quite well preserved. Note the robes decorated with many carefully executed details.

One of the typical churches with murals of the 14th century is that of Ágios Geórgios in Sífones.

The colourful wall painting is partly in good condition.

This is probably a representation of St. Georgios.

The statues of the saints are carefully painted.

fish at the feet of one of the saints

Another depiction of a saint lies on the side wall.

What a pity that the beautiful paintings, so many centuries old, are so damaged!

The small Byzantine church Ágios Nikólaos near Komiakí (at the Troúllo) is also decorated with paintings from the 14th century.

the interior of the church with the murals under the vault

The apse is decorated with the heads of Christ in the middle with Mother Mary and John Prodromus on the sides.

In the front of the church on the left side is a representation of Candlemas, the “presentation” of Christ forty days after his birth in the Temple of Jerusalem to the two elders Simeon and Hanna.

representation of Johannes Prodromus; note the unusual design of the eyes with straight lower rim: one of the few examples on Naxos that shows a Latin influence.

It ist to be hoped that the Byzantine churches of Naxos will receive a similar attention in the future as its antique monuments!

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