The Byzantine murals in the churches of Naxos
In the Byzantine churches of Naxos quite often some medieval wall paintings (murals) have been preserved. Important remains of murals can be found not only in some churches in the central, more populated region and in the large villages, but also in many small “rural” churches located in the countryside far away from any village. Originally, all churches were decorated with murals. Often the first paintings have been covered with new murals over the course of the centuries, so that today in some churches one can see and study the remains of wall paintings from various phases of the Byzantine epoch. Of particular interest, of course, are the churches in which the first, often very old, decoration was never painted over and is therefore still visible today, or in which it was possible to remove the overlying layers.
There are far more Byzantine churches and wall paintings on Naxos than on all the other Cyclades islands put together; but also elsewhere in Greece and in the Balkans, it is hard to find such a wealth of interesting and important medieval churches from all phases of the Byzantine era (here Ágios Joánnis in Sífones)
Of course, in most churches the former decorations have been largely or completely destroyed, withered away or been covered with a layer of whitewash. In many churches only minor and insignificant traces of paintings remain. However, there exists also a relatively large number of churches in which a large part of the decoration is still preserved and recognisable. In over 120 Byzantine churches on Naxos, a total of about 180 layers of wall paintings have been recorded, dating from all the different phases of the Byzantine epoch. Even the mostly or half-destroyed and faded remains preserved today are often very impressive. What an effect the paintings must have had on the viewer when they were still fresh and new!
In many churches, only very few remains of the original murals have survived; left: Ágios Geórgios Komiakí, right: Ágios Dimítrios in Chálandra)
Left: In some churches, the wall paintings are heavily damaged by lime or salt deposits (Panagía Archatoú); right: in others, they have long been whitewashed over and are therefore not visible – but perhaps better protected in this way (Ágios Mámas near Apíranthos)
Some churches contain several layers of wall paintings, sometimes of quite different quality; left: Ágios Panteleímonas in Lakkomérsina, right: Panagía Archatoú
The purpose of the Byzantine ecclesiastical wall paintings
It is interesting to see how the new Christian religion and the needs of the faithful express themselves in the Byzantine wall paintings, especially in contrast to the ancient temples and their furnishings. The contrast between the interior and exterior design of the churches is particularly remarkable: While the buildings themselves were often very modest and sometimes downright carelessly built, many of even the simplest and smallest churches bear beautiful and elaborate paintings on the inside. Why were especially the paintings so important to the people? In ancient times, the perfectly constructed, harmonious temples served as places of worship for the distant, all-powerful gods, who took little interest in individual people and were often ruthless, capricious and terrifying. Visitors to the temples made sacrifices to appease the gods or to achieve their support, or they tried to find out or influence their future fate in the temple. The temples were an expression of the power, beauty and perfection of both the distant gods and the harmonious and ideal universe on the edge of which the human world lay.
In the Christian Byzantine period, the needs of the people who visited the churches were completely different. Churches were of little importance as buildings: they were merely the canvas on which the Holy story was presented. The images that the believer saw when he entered the church showed him the life of Christ, the Virgin and the saints, and the most important contents of the Christian religion in a symbolic or vivid way. They conveyed the Christian faith in a way that was easy to understand and directly appealing to the congregation. In the paintings, believers found a mediator for their prayers and needs, and an expression of their hope as well as consolation.
The Byzantine wall paintings offered a place to the believer where they could make their petitions and prayers and find comfort and hope.
The Byzantine murals on Naxos
Although the wall paintings of Naxos are more or less rural in character, they often display a high level of technique and artistic design. Naxian church painting belongs to the ecclesiastical art of Byzantium, which developed from ancient Greek art and painting: The subject matter, composition and execution generally correspond to contemporaneous paintings in other parts of the Byzantine Empire. However, there are also some examples on Naxos of unusual or unique subject matter and depiction.
The treasure trove of Byzantine paintings that can be found on Naxos is not only remarkable in the sense that all these paintings have been preserved over so many turbulent and difficult centuries. Above all, it is astonishing that there were not only enough people on the small island of Naxos who were materially and financially able to build and decorate all these churches, but also a population for whom the message conveyed was so important that it justified the effort and expense. The large number of newly built or newly decorated churches in the 13th century, when the island of Naxos had come under Venetian, i.e. Catholic, rule, suggests that the Greeks of the island (who had a remarkably poor relationship with the Catholic feudal lords throughout all the many centuries up to modern times) also expressed their national sentiment and identity in the decoration of their churches and in the practice of their Orthodox religion: On the relatively large island of Naxos, which had often been important and powerful throughout its history, this need evidently remained very present even during the difficult years of foreign rule.
Understandably, most of the churches on Naxos are locked nowadays; only in remote, rural areas can you still find some churches decorated with murals that are freely accessible. I have only been able to visit a small number of these and can present here accordingly only a small selection of murals with photos. Nevertheless, I hope that even the few examples I can provide will illustrate the subject sufficiently and, above all, draw attention to the beauty and special nature of this rich Byzantine treasure.
What is depicted in the murals
Certain themes appear particularly frequently in the Naxiotic ecclesiastical wall paintings of the Byzantine epoch. Apart from the time of iconoclasm (9th/10th century), when the churches were only decorated with ornaments or signs of the cross, most frequently depicted are Christ, Mary and St John the Baptist (St John Prodromus). They are joined by the saints and hierarchs, the evangelists and apostles, and angels also make frequent appearances.
Depictions of saints; abovs left: Ágios Joánnis at Keramí, above right: heads of saints in “medallions”, Ágios Geórgios Diasorítis, below left: Panagía Archatoú, below right: Panagía Liouriótissa
In most churches on Naxos, the Deesis is depicted in the semi-dome of the apse with a large image of Christ in the centre with Mary on the left and John the Baptist on the right, both of whom act as intercessors to pass on the prayers of the faithful to Christ. The Pancrator is usually enthroned in the dome of the church, surrounded by angels, apostles and/or saints. The pantocrator often holds a book (as in the Deesis), either the Gospel or the Book of Life (in this case he acts as the judge determining who may enter heaven). Below the Deesis, on the semi-cylindrical wall of the apse, the Eucharist is often depicted, with two or three Hierarchs or saints on the sides and the altar with bread and wine or with Christ as the sacrificial lamb in the centre. The four evangelists are often depicted in the “spandrels” between the arches of the dome. The remaining walls around the apse and the dome are usually decorated with various saints, either as full-body depictions or just the heads in round “medallions”. In the vestibule, under the roof and in the entrance area, scenes from the life of Christ or Mary are often depicted, such as Christ’s baptism, his presentation in the temple 40 days after his birth (Presentation of the Lord = Candlemas, in Greek “Ypapandí tou kyríou”), his crucifixion or his ascension or the Dormition of Mary; also parables or stories from the lives of the saints.
left: Deesis (Ágia Kyriakí near Apiranthos), right: the Pancrator in the church dome, surrounded by four angels
left: Eucharist (Ágios Andréas at Apáno Kástro), right: Christ as the sacrificial lamb (Theológos Kaminíou near Kalandós)
left: the Presentation of the Lord (Ágios Nikólaos near Komiakí), right: the crucifixion of Jesus (Panagía Damniótissa near Chalkí)
left: the entombment of Christ (Panagía Liouriótissa), right: the Dormition of Mary (Panagía Rachidiótissa)
left: unidentified scene; right: Parables with detailed written explanations, in the lower part the damned souls in hell after the “confession of their sins” (both Ágios Geórgios Diasorítis)
The phases of mural painting in the churches of Naxos
First part of the Early Christian era, 5th and 6th century
At least nine churches on Naxos from the Early Christian era; the oldest is probably the cave church of Kalorítissa between Damariónas and Sangrí, which dates back to the 4th century. In the 5th or 6th century, the island’s three large temples were converted into churches. In addition, at least two new, very large church buildings were erected on Naxos during this time (Ágios Stéfanos in Angídia and Ágios Matthaíos near Pláka). Like all early Christian churches on Naxos, these were constructed as three-aisled basilicas, each with two rows of 5 or 6 columns (using ancient columns from one of the island’s temples). Other early Christian basilicas were located next to the Hellenistic tower of Chimárrou (not preserved), at Monítsia (Ágios Isídoros, moderate state of preservation, without preserved wall paintings) and at Trípodes (Ágios Akepsimás, rebuilt and renovated). Only sparse remains of most of these churches exist today; even the better preserved ones – with the exception of the very interesting cave church of Kalorítissa – no longer have any wall paintings.
The cave church Kalorítissa from the 4th century is the oldest church on the island. It contains important wall paintings from various eras, some from the time before the iconoclasm; the wall paintings in the picture date from the 10th century. Photos by Dieter Depnering
Later part of the Early Christian era, 7th and 8th century
Significant Early Christian wall paintings from the 7th and 8th centuries have been preserved in the churches of Panagía Drosianí near Moní and Panagía Protóthroni in Chalkí, in addition to Kalorítissa. In both churches, among these oldest paintings, there are unusual depictions or arrangements of the figures, according to the Christian approach of that time, in particular a unique double depiction of Christ in the dome of Panagía Drosianí as young and elderly man (reflecting the double nature of Christ as human and divine). Some characteristics of the execution of the Early Christian murals of Naxos show a similarity to contemporaneous Byzantine churches in Rome, which may be 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 on Naxos with important murals, the earliest of which date back to the 7th century and are among the oldest Byzantine murals in Greece. On the right is an image of Maria Nikopoios (above) and Deesis (below), both with unusual and “primeval” aspects.
The Iconoclasm (9th and beginning of the 10th century)
With a total of 14 churches, Naxos has by far the largest collection of churches with murals from the period of iconoclasm in the whole of Greece. The subject matter of the paintings is very diverse and includes both geometric ornamental patterns and depictions of crosses as well as of animals. Some of the motifs originate from early Byzantine depictions, while others are clearly influenced by Islamic art. Only a few smaller images resemble the few iconoclastic examples we know from neighbouring regions of Greece (Crete, Peloponnese, Evritania).
It is somewhat astonishing that the iconoclastic movement, which started in the Byzantine imperial capital of Constantinople, spread so quickly to such a remote, rural island as Naxos. Possibly the depiction of non-figurative motifs is less a result of the iconoclasmic movement and more due to the fact that during this period (from 824 to 961 AD) the Arabs had conquered Crete and were also very present in the rest of the Aegean; Naxos was at times subject to tribute to the Arabs.
It is also astonishing that in some Naxiotic churches (especially Ágia Kyriakí near Apíranthos, Ágios Artémios near Sangrí and Theológos Adisárou near the Kástro Apalírou) these non-figurative paintings were not painted over after the end of the iconoclasm, or only in parts, so that they remain visible to this day (almost the only examples of this kind in the whole of Greece).
The church of Ágia Kyriakí near Apíranthos has unique ornamental wall paintings from the time of iconoclasm; on the right are the famous cockerels and a sign of the cross.
Another church with amazing murals from the time of iconoclasm is Joánnis Theológos in Danakós.
No wall paintings are known on Naxos from the first half of the 10th century. This pause in both the construction and decoration of the Naxian churches is probably due to raids or a capture of the island by Arab pirates during this period.
Middle Byzantine era, 10th – 12th century
Few examples of wall paintings have survived on Naxos from the late 10th to the 12th century, but some of them are among the most important and best preserved on the island, such as parts of the decoration of Panagía Protóthroni in Chalkí and the churches of Ágios Geórgios Diasorítis and Panagía Damniótissa near Chalkí and Monítsia respectively, i.e. larger churches in the densely populated central area of the island (Tragaía and Sangrí). The paintings of this period are of high quality and have a wide-ranging, sometimes unusual repertoire. Important ecclesiastical and secular leaders of the island are cited as donors, which explains the high quality.
In the church of Panagía Protóthroni, the dome was repainted twice during the Middle Byzantine period, only four years apart, the second time apparently by a different patron, with some figures being replaced by others. It is noticeable that the newer layer not only shows a somewhat simpler, coarser execution, but also a more traditional selection of figures, which indicates a rather conservative theological view. Other wall paintings from this era are also more “backward-oriented” in terms of subject matter and are evidently deliberately executed in a traditional manner.
A unique and most amazing example of wall painting from this period is the church of Ágios Geórgios Diasorítis near Chalkí, a cross-domed church with a somewhat younger, transverse porch and a simple bell gable in the west. The almost completely preserved paintings from the early 11th century are not only of excellent quality and beauty, but also very remarkable in the choice of depictions and the arrangement of the figures. In order to find similar depictions, one often has to search in churches far away, for example in Crete, Thessaloniki, Corfu, but also in Cappadocia and Kiev. What is particularly remarkable about the wall paintings of Ágios Geórgios Diasorítis is the balanced, theologically well thought-out, harmonious composition of the saints and biblical scenes depicted, both as a whole and in detail, as well as the execution of the figures with pleasant, strong colours and decisive but careful lines. The depicted saints are very impressive with their serious and prudent, but also powerful expression, which at the same time reflects a deep holy calm as well as profound human kindness. Each saint is painted with individual characteristics, despite the overall similarity of the posture. How moving the church must have been when all the paintings were still fresh and undamaged!
(The photos from the church of Agios Georgios Diasoritis are photographed paper images from 1993: since then I have not managed to visit the church at a time when it is open to visitors – hence the poor quality).
The wall paintings in the important church of Ágios Geórgios Diasorítis near Chalkí are unique in the entire Aegean region. They date from the 11th century.
left: the dome with the Pantocrator and four angels; right: four saints, including the patron saint of the church, St George, with his parents on either side
left: Sts Aníkitos and Fótios; right: St Geórgios Diasorítis, a popular motif in other churches of the time as well
left: Sts Grigórios Theológos and Basílios, right: St Joánnis Eleïmon
These heads of Saints (Panagía Archatoú) also date from the same period, more precisely from the 12th century.
Late Byzantine era, 13th and 14th century
Most of the Byzantine churches on Naxos date from the second half of the 13th century and the first decades of the 14th century. In the first half of the 13th century, no new churches were built or decorated: apparently a consequence of the conquest of the island by the Venetians. In the second half of the 13th century, however, after the Constantinople was reconquered by the Byzantines in 1261, and at the beginning of the 14th century, the construction and decoration of churches on Naxos reached an impressive peak. There are only a few churches on Naxos in which there is no evidence at all of paintings from this period, i.e. practically all churches were redecorated or the paintings were extended during these years. The new churches built during this period (also a large number) are mostly smaller buildings, mainly located in the more remote, rural areas of the island.
Where inscriptions have been preserved, local priests and simple villagers are given as the donors of the paintings; sometimes the paintings were made by the donors themselves. Accordingly, the execution is often, but not always, of a somewhat simpler quality than the paintings of the previous phase, but in view of these circumstances they are still for the most part very remarkable; only a few paintings have a truly “rustic” style. The subject matter, on the other hand, is usually rather conservative and quite free as far as the choice of figures depicted is concerned: this was obviously based on the personal taste of the donor.
Here a few examples of saints’ heads from several churches to document the variety in style, colouring and technique; further photos can be viewed on the pages of the individual churches (to be found under “Churches and Monasteries” at the bottom of the page):
links: Ágios Geórgios in Apíranthos; rechts: Ágios Geórgios in Sífones
links: Ágios Geórgios in Marathós; rechts: Ágios Panteleimon in Lakkomérsina
links: Ágios Joánnis in Sífones; rechts: Ágios Andréas at Apáno Kástro
links: Theológos Kaminioú near Kalandós; rechts: Ágios Joánnis in Keramí
From the beginning of the 13th century (1207), Naxos was under Venetian, i.e. Catholic, rule. It is astonishing that Byzantine church building and mural painting on Naxos flourished to such an extent during this period. It proves that during the first two centuries of Venetian feudal rule, the Greek population of the island still enjoyed a comparative religious freedom and economic independence and obviously also wanted to express their awareness of their national identity and Orthodox religion in ecclesiastical art. This is particularly evident in the fact that there is almost no evidence of Western influence in the wall paintings – at that time, as well as later, the Venetians and Greeks kept themselves strictly separate and there was hardly any mutual cultural influence.
Here are two of the very few examples of a Catholic or Western influence in Naxiotic wall paintings: left: the straight lower edges of the eyes of the saints (Ágios Nikólaos at Troúllo near Komiakí); right: the halos with stamps (Panagía Liouriótissa in Marathós)
Under Ottoman rule
In the first half of the 14th century, mural painting on Naxos continued to flourish and churches continued to be built and decorated. After this, however, both came to an abrupt end, apparently in connection with Turkish pirate raids. At the same time, the oppression and exploitation of the Greek population by the Catholic feudal lords reached a hardly bearable level, a situation that continued under Turkish rule from 1537 and even survived into the modern era. Only after the Venetians were subjugated by the Turks (in the late 15th century and in the 17th and 18th centuries) some murals were being painted on Naxos: Although the Orthodox Greeks were forbidden to build churches under Turkish rule, over time they sought and found a certain support from the High Porte against the Catholic feudal lords and the situation of the Greek population began slowly to improve.
And lastly, to conclude the matter, here two pictures of modern wall paintings from the village church of Keramotí: Although the style and execution are very different from the medieval paintings, these pictures can perhaps still give us an idea of what the medieval wall paintings must have looked like when they were fresh and new, and perhaps also let us feel something of the need of the faithful, out of which all the wonderful, touching and impressive wall paintings have been created in the decades and centuries since the adoption of the Christian religion in Greece.
modern murals in the village church of Keramotí
It is truly to be hoped that this Naxiotic treasure will receive similar attention in the future as the island’s ancient antiquities!
continue: Naxos under the Venetians
Churches with wall paintings on Naxos:
- Panagia Drosiani near Moni
- Panagia Protothronos in Chalki
- Agia Kyriaki near Apiranthos
- Joannis Theologos in Danakos
- The monastery Fotodotis at Danakos
- Agios Mamas near Potamia
- Agios Georgios and Agios Pachomios at Apiranthos
- Agios Joannis in Kerami
- Agios Georgios in Marathos
- Panagia Archatou near Agiassos
- Agios Panteleimonas in Lakkomersina
- Joannis Theologos Kaminiou near Kalandos
- Agios Joannis and Agios Georgios in Sifones
- Agios Andreas at Apano Kastro
- Panagia Liouriotissa in Marathos
- Agios Nikolaos near Komiaki
- Βυζαντινή Ναοδομία στη Νάξο, Η Μετέληξη από την Παλαιοχριστιανική στην Μεσοβυζαντινή Εποχή, Διδακτορική Διατριβή, Κλήμης Ασλάνιδης, Πανεπιστήμιο Πατρών, Τμήμα Αρχιτεκτονικής, 2014
- Βυζαντινό Πάρκο Τραγαίας Νάξου, Ένας νησιώτικος θρησκευτικός “Μυστράς” στην Κεντρική Νάξο, Γιώργος Ανομερίτης, Εκδόσεις Μίλητος, Αθήνα 2009
- Νάξος, Βυζαντινή τέχνη στην Ελλάδα, Μανώλης Χατζηδάκης, Εκδόσεις Μέλισσα, Αθήνα 1989
- Οι παλαιοχριστιανικές Τοιχογραφίες στη Δροσιανή της Νάξου, Νικόλαος Β. Δρανδάκης, Έκδοση του Ταμείου Αρχαιολογικών Πόρων και Απαλλοτριώσεων, Αθήνα 1988
- Νάξος, Το άλλο κάλλος, Γεώργιος Μαστορόπουλος, Ελληνικές Ομοιογραφικές Εκδόσεις, Αθήνα