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The Byzantine churches of Naxos

The island of Naxos possesses an extraordinary treasure with over 140 Byzantine churches, the oldest of which date back to the 5th or 6th century, possibly even as early as the 4th century. The churches date from all phases of the Byzantine period (except the end of the 9th and the beginning of the 10th century, when Crete fell into the hands of Arab pirates and Naxos also became subject to tribute for several decades). Numerous churches were also built during the Venetian era in the late Middle Ages, but mainly in remote rural areas. Under Turkish rule (from 1453 = end of the Byzantine Empire, conquest of Constantinople), the construction of new churches was forbidden, so that for about four centuries almost no new church buildings were erected. After the liberation of Greece (1821), the people of Naxos began to build churches again: From the late 18th century onwards, many of the large village churches were built as well as many smaller chapels, which are scattered all over the island.

Naxos has far more Byzantine churches and Byzantine murals than all the other Cyclades together; but also elsewhere in Greece and throughout the Balkans there exists hardly anywhere such a wealth of interesting and important medieval churches.

It is a pity that this cultural treasure attracts relatively little attention from visitors to the island. For decades, Byzantinologists have been busy visiting and documenting every single one of the churches scattered across the island. Fortunately, a number of churches have now been restored. The efforts of the Byzantinologists to protect the churches have understandably (and regrettably) resulted in more and more of the churches now being locked. In summer, some of the churches are open to the public, often only one day a week or only for a few hours a day. It is to be hoped that in the course of time all churches with significant wall paintings, even those in remote regions, will be restored or at least protected from further decay, and hopefully a few more of the churches will be made accessible to interested visitors in the future.

The Byzantine church architecture

After their Christianisation, i.e. from the 3rd century AD, the inhabitants of Naxos converted their sanctuaries, the ancient temples, into churches. Initially, the churches were set up in the temple buildings themselves with only small changes in the architecture, above all the addition of an apse (= semi-circular projecting extension for the altar) in the east and, if necessary, the opening of an entrance in the west-facing side of the temple. The two rows of columns of the temple were retained in the interior, resulting in a three-aisled church (basilica). Later, more far-reaching changes were often made, e.g. in at least two of the temples the floor was excavated to a lower level. The layout was also often significantly altered, i.e. the walls were moved and rebuilt. Windows were opened in the walls and instead of the marble roofs of the temples, the buildings were covered with wooden and tiled roofs.

This archaic temple near Sangrí was dedicated to Demeter. In the 3rd or 4th century AD, it was converted into a church, initially with only minor structural changes such as the addition of a semi-circular apse in the east (right photo). In the 6th century, it was extensively remodelled into a three-aisled basilica with two rows of three columns in the interior and a wooden roof, with only the north wall of the temple remaining intact. This church was dedicated to St John the Theologian. Almost nothing of it remains today.

This small building, used as a church after the introduction of Christianity, was originally a Mycenaean tomb (Panagía Chrysopigí near Apíranthos).

Building types

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 cross-domed buildings; i.e their basic form is a symmetrical, cross-shaped building with a dome in the centre. The cross-domed church is a quite frequent archicectural type on Naxos. There are a number of variations: as a “free” cross, in which the foundations are also cross-shaped, and as an “inscribed” cross, either in a three-aisled or a single-aisled church (in this case often barely recognisable as a cross), or constructed in such a way that the dome rests on 4 columns inside a more or less square building. Small single-nave churches with an inscribed cross are very common on Naxos; they were particularly common in the late 11th and the 12th century. The free and the three-aisled cross-domed churches, on the other hand, date mainly from the 9th and 10th century, while those with a dome resting on 4 columns were again mainly built in the late 11th and the 12th century.

left: free cross (Panagía Rachidiotissa near Chalkí); right: cross “inscribed” into three-aisled church (Panagía Kerá at Lioíri)

left: resting on 4 pillars with porch in the west (Ágios Geórgios Diasorítis); right: “inscribed” cross in single-aisled church (Ágios Pachómios near Apíranthos)

Ágios Mámas near Potamiá is one of the largest and highest cross-domed churches of Naxos (three-aisled type); left: view upwards into the dome, right: view of the east side with the apse

About as common on Naxos as cross-domed churches are single- or double- aisled churches, some with and some without dome. Churches with simple naves without dome date mainly from the 7th to 9th centuries and from the Venetian period; single-nave churches with domes, on the other hand, were common especially from the 9th to the 12th century.

left: simple naves without dome (Ágios Mámas near Apíranthos); right: same, from the Venetian time (Ágios Joánnis at the temple of Demeter)

left: nave with dome (Ágios Nikólaos near Sangrí); right: double-aisled church, one nave with a dome (Ágios Joánnis in Sífones)

Finally, there are also quite a few basilicas on the island. These consist of three naves separated by columns, with the central nave usually being slightly higher than the ones on the sides. Normally they do not have a dome. The oldest Early Christian churches on the island are exclusively basilicas; in these churches, only the central nave has an apse. During the Middle Byzantine period (up to the 9th century AD), several more basilicas were built, now with apses on all three naves; after that, this type of building was no longer used for a long time; only in recent times the larger village churches were again mostly built as three-aisled basilicas.

left: Early Christian basilika from the 6th or 7th cent. (Ágios Isídoros at Monítsia); right: Basilika from the 8th cent. (Joannis Theológos at Afiklí near Apíranthos)

A low dome was later added to the presumably Early Christian basilica of Ágios Joánnis Theológos near Grámmata (Danakós).

The roof

All Byzantine churches on Naxos have barrel roofs, i.e. they are all covered with a semi-circular roof, an old form of roof construction no longer used today, in which the masonry supports itself without any supporting beams. From the outside, the roof is often covered with tiles or stone slabs.

left: barrel roof from the inside (Ágia Kyriakí near Apíranthos); right: from the outside (Ágios Artémios near Kinídaros)

The barrel roofs are usually flat gabled on the outside and covered with stone slabs or, more rarely, tiles (left: chapels at the tower of Chimárrou, right: Ágios Geórgios near Apíranthos).

The dome can be constructed very differently – high or low, about as wide as the nave or much narrower. Two unusual dome designs are the octagonal dome at the cemetery church of Ágios Geórgios in Komiakí and the outside niches on the dome at Ágios Geórgios in Marathó.

left: octagonal dome (Ágios Geórgios at Komiakí); right: dome with outside niches (Ágios Geórgios in Marathós)

Temples and churches

The Byzantine churches have nothing in common with the ancient Greek temples in terms of architecture and construction. The ancient buildings were carefully designed down to the smallest detail; the harmonious design aimed to reach the greatest beauty possible. But the master builders also always sought perfection in the execution of the masonry: columns and stones were carefully cut or polished and the horizontal and vertical lines of the temple were not only aligned exactly straight, but were even deliberately curved or tilted a little (entasis, inclination and curvature) in order to create a more pleasing, lighter and livelier impression for the eye.

In contrast, the builders of the Christian churches attached much less importance to the design of the buildings and their technical execution. Most churches are simple, sometimes downright plain buildings; some churches are barely recognisable as such. In addition, they are often rather carelessly built: In many churches, especially from the late Byzantine period, the walls are crooked and the domes are only approximately round. The masonry usually consists of completely unworked field stones picked up on the site. Many of the churches of Naxos, especially those far from the villages, are small and inconspicuous; sometimes only the west-east orientation and the rounded apse indicate that it is a church.

Many of the Byzantine churches in rural locations are small, modest and inconspicuous buildings. Some could be mistaken for a stable from a distance. Sometimes you can only recognise that it is a church by the apse in the east.

Here you can see how the walls and half-columns are crooked and slanted (left); the domes are also often only approximately round in shape (right).

The masonry of the churches is carelessly put together from unworked stones (left), in great contrast to the meticulous masonry of the ancient temples (right).

Sometimes, however, there are interesting things to discover in the walls of the churches despite the artless masonry. For example, marble stones from ancient temples have been used in many of the island’s churches. By analysing the stones used in the Byzantine churches, it was not only possible to completely reconstruct the temple of Demeter, but one of the island’s temples was also discovered in this way (the temple of Dionysus at Chóra). The ancient stones were used in particular as lintels and thresholds or in places that required greater precision, such as corners and doorways.

Ancient marble stones from nearby temples were used for the construction of many Byzantine churches, especially in places that required greater precision.

You can see the traces of hammer and chisel carving on these ancient stones; the photo on the right shows a cross carved into the old “pagan” stone.

Porous, coloured, often greenish or reddish stones are built into the walls of many churches here and there, being mainly used for the roof vaults (possibly because of their lower weight?). I am not aware of such stone occuring anywhere on Naxos; it is of volcanic origin and could come for example from Santorini.

Volcanic stone, which was probably imported from Santorini, was often used in the walls and especially in the round arches, domes and roofs of Byzantine churches.

Some churches also have marble stones from older predecessors of the church itself. left: marble slab with relief from the Early Christian basilica that previously stood on the same site (Agios Joannis Theologos Kaminiou); right: pieces of marble from an old altar wall around a window (Panagia Damniotissa near Chalki)

The Inner sanctum

Almost all churches face west-east (with the exception of Panagía Drosianí). The Inner sanctum or Holy of Holies, i.e. the altar area, which may only be entered by the priest, is located to the east (tourists should also respect this!). Here the building always has a larger or smaller semi-circular projection, the apse. The entrance is usually located on the west side opposite the altar. In some churches, a transverse porch (narthex) was added to the western part to keep out the evil that was thought to come from the west.

The very old church of Panagía Drosianí is not orientated towards the east, but towards Jerusalem, as sometimes done in Early Christian churches.

Towards the west, where the entrance to the church building is located, transverse porches were added to some churches to ward off evil, which was thought to come from the west.

In Orthodox churches, the Holy of Holies is separated from the rest of the church by a wooden or, more rarely, marble wall.

Left: very elaborate marble altar wall in the post-Byzantine village church of Apíranthos; right: simple marble wall in the church of Ágios Joánnis in Sífones

The altar wall in the Monastery Fotodótis is one of the most remarkable altar walls in Greece. Parts of this altar wall date back to the 9th century, such as the decorative frieze decorated with animals, on which the former painting with paint based on mastic resin has been partially preserved.

In most churches, the altar wall is made of wood (or is missing completely in churches that are no longer in use).

The Naxian architectural style

The construction method and architectural style of the churches in Naxos is mostly similar to those on other islands with a somewhat “rural” style, especially in the later centuries. Semi-circular apses and cylindrical domes are characteristic of Naxiotic churches. However, due to the large number of churches, there is a wide range of different building types. The church architecture on Naxos is rather conservative, i.e. older building types are often used here longer than around the major cultural centres (Constantinople), as is true especially for the Early Christian basilica.

Probably the most unusual church building on Naxos is this two-storey church (Ágioi Apóstoli near Metóchi in Tragaía, 10th-11th century).

small chapels from the Venetian time at Apáno Kástro

Even today, new churches are still being built, such as this church above Filóti, which is only a few decades old.

continue: The Byzantine murals

Churches and monasteries on Naxos:

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