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Agia Kyriaki near Apiranthos

A particularly interesting Byzantine monument is the small church of Ágia Kyriakí north of Apiranthos. It dates from the 9th century AD, the time of the iconoclasm. Fortunately, in recent years the building has been restored (from the outside and the inside) at the initiative of the Cultural Association of Apiranthos as a collaboration of Swiss Byzantinologists and the Greek Byzantine Association. Since then it is – regrettably but understandably – locked, so that one can’t see the inside any more.

Fortunately, the church of Ágia Kyriakí has been carefully restored in recent years by Swiss Byzantinologists in collaboration with the Greek Byzantine Ephorate, both from the outside and the inside. Since then the church is locked (understandably), but in summer it can be visited on certain days.

A beautiful hiking trail leads from Apiranthos to the church of Ágia Kyriakí and further to the emery mines.

The small church is located north of Apiranthos on the hill, which can be seen approximately in the middle of the picture.

It lies above an old, picturesque olive grove.

The small building with two naves and dome dates from the 8th or 9th century.

View from the south; On the left you can see the transverse porch (narthex) lying on the west side of the building, which was supposed to protect the entrance facing the west from the evil powers coming from there.

The narthex from the inside; to the right the original entrance to the church is visible.

The original entrance is built of very large stone blocks.

To the left of the main entrance you can see the entrance into the smaller south nave.

Note the illumination of the interior of the church through a few, small window gaps: It seems as if the domes were illuminated from below. The inside of the church is decorated with remarkable murals from the time of the iconoclasm.

As you can see looking from below, the dome is more angular than round and the brickwork is rather carelessly executed.

A sound vase in the south-west “spandrel” below the dome. These clay vessels set into the wall were intended to improve the acoustics.

The floor is covered with stone slabs. Here the view back to the entrance to the nave.

The southern nave is slightly narrower than the main nave. It does not contain any aniconic wall paintings from the time of iconoclasm, but it does contain somewhat more recent ones with figures of saints and Christ (Deesis) in the apse.

Before restauration

Here you see the morals before the restauration

You can see how urgently the paintings need cleaning and conservation!

After restauration

During the iconoclasm of the 8th and 9th centuries, images of saints were banned from the churches and the walls were decorated with geometric ornaments, crosses or sometimes animals instead.

The decoration of the church of Ágia Kyriakí is unique: very few comparable murals are known. In contrast to churches of the same period in large cities such as Thessaloniki and Constantinople, the murals of Ágia Kyriakí show a Persian (Sassanid) or Islamic influence.

A cross is depicted on the northern wall of the sanctuary. At the very bottom you can see a wave-like painting that is intended to imitate marble. Like some of the ornamental motifs, this decoration is reminiscent of Islamic art from the 9th century.

The inscription probably mentions a deacon as the founder of the church and the murals.

The sanctuary is decorated with depictions of cockerels. No other church with (preserved) wall paintings of this kind is known. Comparable depictions can only be found on a few Sassanid (= Persian) textiles or metal objects from the 6th to 9th centuries.

The cockerels are wearing strange neckerchiefs, a motif that is not uncommon in Byzantine and Roman art of the time and probably also dates back to Sassanid art.

Here you can see the cockerels on the left-hand side of the apse; these are somewhat less carefully executed. Next to the cockerels stands a small palm tree in a pot and then a jewelled cross, a typical Byzantine motif from the period of iconoclasm.

Above the cockerels, a piece of a more recent wall painting has been preserved as a second layer on the ornaments: It is a book, the Gospel, presumably held in the hand of Christ Pantocrator, who is usually depicted in the apse.

The arch towards the south aisle is also carefully painted, here a cross.

The ornaments are very varied and imaginative.

Another cross is depicted on the north wall below the dome.

Here you see an inscription with the name “Kyriakí”; apparently a reference to St Kyriakí, to whom the church is dedicated.

On the wall next to it, which separates this area below the dome from the chancel, more recent wall paintings with figures of saints have been preserved: Here, a figure of a saint or angel appears to be holding a small icon.

The south aisle was not decorated at the time of the iconoclasm and contains no aniconic wall paintings. In the apse there is a somewhat more recent depiction of the “Deesis”: Christ in the centre with the Gospel in his hand, John the Baptist on the right and Mary on the left, pleading with Christ and assuming the role of intercessors for the faithful. The Deesis is a very common motif in Byzantine churches in Greece and is usually located in the semi-dome of the apse.

View of the church from the north across some old fields; the area is called “Kalloní” (= the Beauty).

A careful examination of the murals of Ágia Kyriakí and comparisons with Byzantine and Islamic art of the corresponding period make it probable that the paintings date to the time of the ruler Theophilos (829 – 842 AD). There are very few churches in Greece and the entire eastern Mediterranean with noteworthy 9th century paintings. Images of cockerels are not known from any other church, although depictions of animals during the period of iconoclasm are mentioned in a historical work from the 11th century (by Theophanes Continuatus). We therefore have here a unique testimony from a time long past, which gives us an important insight into this rather unknown period.

The outstanding restoration of the church was honoured with the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage in 2018.

continue: Joannis Theologos in Danakos

further reading:

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Web site content

used literature: “Hagia Kyriake – Hagios Artemios” von Agapi Vasilaki-Karakatsani
in: “Byzantine Art in Greece – Naxos”, editor Manolis Chatzidakis; G. Rayas & Co. G.P. – Melissa Publishing House, 1989, Athens

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