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The Monastery of Fotodotis

Near Danakós, not far from the pass to Apíranthos, lies a Byzantine fortified monastery dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ (“Metamorphosis tou Sotiros Christou”) and called Fotodótis (“Giver of Light”). Local tradition explains the name “Fotodótis” as follows: A Byzantine queen (perhaps Irini Komninou) was caught in a storm with her ship east of Naxos. In her distress, she called on Christ for help and vowed that if she was saved, she would build a monastery wherever she saw the first light. After her rescue, the queen arranged for the monastery to be built here at Danakós, where she had seen a light shining from the coast.

According to another interpretation, the name “Fotodótis” refers to the evangelist John, who lived in exile on the nearby island of Patmos, visible from here on a clear day, where, according to tradition, he wrote the last chapter of his gospel, the Apocalypse. In the late Middle Ages, the monastery of Fotodótis belonged to the monastery of Patmos, which justifies this interpretation, although the more correct and older interpretation is probably that the name refers to Christ.

the fortified monastery of Fotodótis with the Mákares Islands, Donoússa and Patmos in the background; photo by Dieter Linde

The walls of the monastery are reinforced by mighty stone walls.

The entrance gate to the monastery courtyard is shaded by a huge plane tree.

bell hanging from a branch of the plane tree

the entrance door of the monastery

decoration on the marble doorposts

The inner courtyard is perfect for a picnic.

The monastery from the outside. The building was renovated a few years ago.

The building

The church building of Fotodótis is very old in its layout, but it was fundamentally remodelled several times. Today it is no longer possible to reconstruct or date the various stages precisely. The first church on the site was built probably in the 6th century AD (Early Christian era), thus being one of the oldest churches on the island. The floor of this first building was almost 2 metres higher than the current floor. Structural elements of the first church, such as the former entrance, can be seen on the north wall of the interior. Probably built in the 9th century the building was changed into a three-aisled basilica with the current floor level. Non-figurative wall paintings in the sanctuary and parts of the marble altar wall uncovered during the renovation date from this period. The marble floor visible today was probably laid in the 12th century. It is one of the best-preserved Byzantine marble floors of its kind in the whole of Greece. Initially, the building remained a three-nave basilica, with the naves probably separated by three marble columns each, as can be seen from the old column bases that match the floor pattern. Later, the central columns were moved slightly and instead of the three naves, the current round dome was erected in the centre of the interior, which rests on four arches supported by marble columns and a narthex was added towards the west.

the interior with the altar wall, the old marble floor and the arches supporting the dome resting on marble columns

On the northern wall of the interior, you can see the original floor level, which was almost 2 metres above the current level. Above the doorway on the right of the picture, which leads into a room formerly used as a cistern, you can see the original entrance to the church (next to the white marble slab). The former wall of the first church building with large, upright stones can be seen in the upper section of the north wall.

the upper part of the north wall with one of the arches supporting the dome

the dome supported by the four marble columns in the centre of the interior

View of the interior looking south; the altar wall is on the far left; a small passageway into the southern nave can be seen in the background approximately in the centre. You can see that the column was moved slightly to the right from its original position, which was matched by the floor pattern, when the dome was erected.

The marble floor of the church is one of the few surviving floors of its kind. A former column base can be seen; when the dome was built, the columns were moved slightly to one side. It can be assumed that ancient columns from a nearby temple were used in the original construction of the church. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any information on whether the current columns are more recent.

Here the southern nave, dedicated to St Nicholas. Marble stones found during the excavation are lined up on the right side.

Parts of the remarkable altar wall date back to the 9th century. The ornate wooden icons are also of great value; however, the icons on display here are replicas, as there have been several attempts to steal the icons.

The decorative frieze on the marble altar wall ornated with animals dates back to the 9th century, the time of iconoclasm.

Above: Quails and rams in the “animal frieze”, below: the carefully decorated “capitals” of the altar wall with intertwined herons or storks (left)

The most remarkable feature of the altar wall is the colouring with an unusual kind of varnish made with mastic resin, still preserved in parts, nearly unique in Greece. All the parts of the altar wall pictured above date from the 9th century.

The carefully decorated marble slabs in the lower part of the altar wall date from the 12th century.

The last parts of the altar wall were added in 1776, such as the part with the date (bottom centre) and the top of the altar wall.

In the left third, the former “animal frieze” has been replaced by more recent marble plates decorated with vine leaves.

A remnant of non-figurative, ornamental wall paintings from the 9th century has been preserved on one wall in the sanctuary.

In the narthex of the church, there are high windows with marble centre pillars on the side walls, which may date back even to the 4th century AD. When the defence wall was built, these windows were bricked up and are no longer functional.

The marble pillars in the centre probably originally belonged to another church – they may have come from an ancient temple building that was converted into a church, similar to the Temple of Demeter.

The conversion into a monastery and the building of the defensive walls

It is not known exactly when the church was converted into a monastery. The monastery cells were unusually built on a second floor above the church, with rooms with cells to the north, west and south of the church dome, while the actual church area with the dome and the eastern area above the sanctuary were left free. The dome of the church lies openly visible in the inner courtyard of the upper storey, which is surrounded by the high defence walls. The southern cells are located above the southern nave dedicated to St Nicholas, while the western cells are located above the narthex in the west, which is more recent than the church itself. The northern cells are located above a small extension in which there was a cistern fed by the roof of the monastery (formerly known by the villagers as the “bath of the princess”). One of the northern lower rooms has been made accessible since the renovation of the monastery in 2009. The monastery cells on the upper floor were originally accessible via a staircase inside the building; today a steep stone staircase leads up outside.

Next to the monastery, in the walled courtyard, lie the ruins of two small buildings, one of which apparently housed an oil press. To the north-east of the defence tower was a kiln used by the monks to fire pottery – the monastery seems to have been equipped with everything needed for village life in past centuries.

Two smaller buildings in the inner courtyard were once used as agricultural workrooms; in the north-east corner of the building there used to be a pottery kiln for the production of earthenware.

millstone from an oil mill belonging to the monastery

The tables in the court stand on stone cylinders that used to be the grinding stones of olive mills.

A steep stone staircase leads up to the entrance to the upper floor.

Firstly, you enter a small vestibule with the entrance to the southern rooms above the south aisle.

the passageway to the inner courtyard with the church dome

The church dome is openly accessible in the inner courtyard of the upper storey, which is surrounded by the high defence wall.

Here you can see the western and northern monastery cells; they can be reached via a wooden porch.

The fortified monastery from the east side; the three round apses of the former three-aisled basilica are visible. To the left of the apses of the main room is the south aisle dedicated to St Nicholas (the round apses are hidden behind the protruding defence wall).

The history of the Monastery

As far as the history of the monastery is concerned, there is little direct written evidence. In 1678, a traveller named Hofmann wrote that the monastery of Fotodótis was founded in 1182 by one Herakleio, son of Emperor Alexios II of Constantinople, but this is probably not correct. According to tradition, the first monks came to Fotodótis in the 12th century, which means that cells were already being built at that time, although it is not known whether the same ones still exist today. An unpreserved inscription and other reports mention the year 1497 as the year the monastery was founded, but this does not seem very likely either, as Byzantium was conquered by the Turks in 1453 and since then belonged to the Ottoman Empire, meaning that the founding of monasteries and the construction of churches were no longer possible. It seems more likely that the construction of the fortified monastery dates back to the time when the Venetians conquered the island (13th century). Until the end of Turkish rule, the monastery of Fotodótis was the most important and richest monastery on Naxos; it owned a lot of land in all regions of the island and it is listed in the books as the largest taxpayer on the island.

Old reports and papers (e.g. from 1780 and 1830) attest that the monastery of Fotodótis belonged to the monastery of the “Holy Island” of Patmos to the east of Naxos at that time, while its lands were at least temporarily leased by some person from Naxos, who tried to terminate the long-term lease several times in the 19th century due to low yields. During the same period, the land was apparently partly farmed by the church of Apíranthos, which used the income to pay the village’s teachers, among other things. The last monk to live in the monastery died in 1903 and since then the monastery’s rooms gradually fell into disrepair until the fortified monastery was restored around 2009, with archaeological excavations and investigations being carried out as well as repairs and work to stabilise the building. Today, the monastery belongs to the metropolis of Naxos and no longer owns any land. A liturgy is held once a month in the monastery; on its name’s day, the day of the Transfiguration of Christ, on 6 August, a large church festival is still held.

I would like to sincerely thank the friendly woman who opens the monastery every day in summer and at other times of the year on request, and who gave us a detailed account of the history of the monastery. In summer, the monastery is open from about 11am to 2pm. We ask visitors to show the appropriate respect and to make a small donation to help cover the costs and pay the warden.

From the monastery, a beautiful, well-preserved path paved with stone leads down to the village of Danakós.

This beautiful path leads down to the village of Danakós.

looking back towards the monastery

continue: Agios Mamas near Potamia

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used literature:

  • Το Μοναστήρι του Φωτοδότη στο Δανακό Νάξου, Νίκου Κεφαλληνιάδη, Αθήνα 1968
  • Βυζαντινή Ναοδομία στη Νάξο, Η Μετέληξη από την Παλαιοχριστιανική στην Μεσοβυζαντινή Εποχή, Διδακτορική Διατριβή, Κλήμης Ασλάνιδης; Πανεπιστήμιο Πατρών, Τμήμα Αρχιτεκτονικής, 2014