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Agios Georgios in Marathos

In south-west Naxos, in the area south of Agiassós, lies several churches scattered in the empty landscape, that are decorated with important Byzantine wall paintings well worth seeing, even if they are not cleaned and restored. One of these churches is dedicated to St George: Ágios Geórgios Marathoú. It is named after the region it is situated in, the large valley south of Kastro Apalírou called Marathós (from the wild fennel, Greek máratho). Ágios Geórgios Marathoú lies at the very end of the valley, below the road from Filóti towards Kalandós, not far from the southern end of Mount Zeus.

Ágios Geórgios Marathoú lies high up in the large valley of Marathós south of Kastro Apalírou. The valley is relatively flat and is still farmed today, although the fields are only used to grow grain for sheep fodder. In summer, the landscape here is very dry and barren. In the upper part of the valley, however, there are olive groves intermixed with forests of kermes oaks and wild olives.

view over the whole valley from Kastro Apalírou. The church lies in the upper left part of the picture.

Ágios Geórgios Marathoú is situated on a small hill at the upper end of the valley.

The single-nave building with a dome and a domed porch in the west probably dates from the 11th or 12th century.

It is a single-nave church with a dome, with another chapel attached to the south (unknown name) and a roughly square domed porch to the west; its western wall has half collapsed and is now replaced by the western wall of the dome.

An unusual aspect of the building, unique to Naxos, are the four outer niches on the dome, which alternate with narrow windows.

The western porch actually only consists of a dome supported by large arches; there are large door openings in all four walls under the arches.

As with so many churches, the arches are made of volcanic tuff stones, which were apparently imported from Santorini or another volcanic island.

here the entrance to the church

The entire church is decorated with wall paintings, but most of them are covered by deposits of lime or other salts.

Very few remains of paintings have been preserved in the dome. Unusual are the X-shaped thickenings, which correspond to the areas where the niches are located on the outside.

The semi-dome of the apse is presumably decorated as usual with the Deesis; however, almost nothing can be recognised here as the entire wall is covered with lime deposits or other crystals. Note also the faces painted on the underside of the arch above the apse.

These wall paintings in the eastern “arm” between the dome and apse (here those on the south side) are better preserved. They are standing figures of saints.

In the lower part of the apse (here the northern part), two rows of three figures of saints are depicted (only the upper bodies). To the left you can see one of the saints in the eastern “arm”.

the southern part of the apse

The heads of the saints in these murals have been partially cleaned.

Only half of this saint’s face has been uncovered. How nice it would be if everything was cleaned! The faces of the saints are unusually carefully and beautifully painted.

Between the saints, under the small window in the centre, runs an inscription.

Here its right-hand part. The inscription names the donors of the throne and the furnishings of the sanctuary; they are members of a family called Galatas. The date of the church’s decoration is also given here: 1285.

Figures of saints are also depicted under the arches of the dome, here Joseph.

The murals in the upper part of the northern wall under the dome are so poorly preserved that it is difficult to recognise what is depicted here.

Further below stands a large angel.

A large saint is depicted on the southern wall opposite; it could be St George, the saint of the church.

Here one can see his shield.

According to the inscription the murals were painted in 1285/6, eighty years after the island was conquered by the Venetians. While no wall paintings at all were made in the first fifty years after the conquest, a particularly large number of churches were (re)decorated in the second half of the century – a sign that the Greeks under Catholic rule felt the need to express their identity and religion by means of the decoration of their churches.

An older layer of murals can be seen on the lower part of the same wall, depicting two founders of the church.

The lower layer is also exposed on a small section of the left part of the same wall.

The church of Ágios Geórgios Marathoú is a particularly impressively decorated church; the paintings are of remarkable quality, carefully executed, with beautiful lines as well as exquisite shading and colouring. One can only hope that the church will be restored soon and the marvellous paintings uncovered!

In the narrow southern chapel, only a few remains of wall paintings have been preserved.

This depiction of Mary with Jesus is the best preserved.

It never ceases to amaze that such remarkable churches, carefully and richly decorated, can be found in what are now very isolated and remote areas of Naxos. One must not forget, however, that at the time when this particular church was built, the largest settlement of the island lay quite closeby, below the castle of Apalírou. The entire area was certainly used for the cultivation of grain and other crops during the whole medieval (and of course also in more recent years) so that this valley was probably quite densely populated at the time the church was built.

view from the church over the valley of Marathós with its grain fields and olive trees to the coast north of Agiassós; in the background on the right Mount Apalírou where the main Byzantine fortress of Naxos is located

continue: Panagia Archatou near Agiassos

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