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Panagia Archatou near Agiassos

In the south-west of Naxos, not far from Agiassós, lies the unusual Byzantine church of Panagía Archatoú, which is decorated with remarkable murals. The building was probably erected before the 12th century; however, it was significantly remodelled in the 13th century at the latest. It is a single-nave church with a dome (which is significantly smaller than the width of the nave) with a lateral chapel with a low dome to the south and a transverse chapel to the north, which starts at the height of the dome. From the central dome, barrel vaulted roofs extend not only to the west and east (the normal nave), but also to the north (the northern side chapel) and south: a transverse barrel vaulted roof extends over the entire southern chapel, creating thus the impression of a cruciform church.

The Byzantine church of Panagía Archtoú is located on the slope of a wide, open valley cultivated with grain fields in the south-west of Naxos. It is located right next to a shepherd’s farm and can only be reached via a fairly poor road.

It is a single-nave church with a dome, to which an equally long side chapel, also with a dome, is attached to the south, as well as a small side chapel running transversely from the dome to the north.

The church also resembles a cross-domed church, as transverse barrel vaults extend from the dome to the north (northern chapel) and also to the south (across the southern chapel).

There are large, heavy marble lintels above both entrances. The church is without doors which means that the floor is partially covered with sheep dung. A sad fate for such a beautiful church to serve as a sheepfold!

The church of Panagía Archatoú is decorated with high quality wall paintings, some of which are still quite well preserved, while others so are heavily affected by deposits that they are mostly unrecognisable. The best preserved paintings are situated around the dome and in the apse..

…and in the northern transverse chapel. A scaffold stands in the latter, maybe meant to support the roof, which makes it more difficult to see (and photograph) the murals.

The arches, pillars and walls around the dome are richly decorated with murals.

the arches below the dome

As in most churches, the murals in Panagía Archatoú are heavily affected by deposits of lime and salts. The only concolation is that such deposits can be removed, so it’s a better fate than that of some other churches where the walls have all but collapsed and the plastering with the murals has withered away and fallen off. Still, given the large number of Byzantine churches with murals on Naxos, the byzantinologists will be busy for many years until all the churches have been restored and cleaned, even if they can raise enough funds to pay for it!

The paintings in the semi-dome of the apse are largely unrecognisable due to the deposits. Very unusually the painting in the apse does not show Christ in the centre with Mary and John the Baptist on the sides (Deesis), but Mary in the centre (to whom the church is dedicated), with the archangel Michael and John the Baptist on the sides. This same combination of figures can also be found in the nearby Panagía Jialloús, the only other example on Naxos. In the lower area there are two hierarchs on either side of an altar; these are easier to recognise, but are also not in good condition.

the hierarchs on the right side

To the left of the apse are depicted standing saints. Here you can see some inscriptions in Byzantine script, which almost look like Arabic script, especially the one on the left, which is apparently written from right to left.

Saints are painted also under the arch to the dome; here St Damian, a popular motif in the churches of Naxos.

The arches and pillars are elaborately decorated with red and black lines.

This head of a saint with a crown belongs to an older layer: it can be dated to the 12th century and resembles the paintings in the church of Ágios Geórgios Diasorítis. At the top right you can see the younger layer covering it.

the same

Above the arch between the dome and the sanctuary the Presentation of the Lord is depicted on the left-hand side.

on the right-hand side we find St George: Ágios Geórgios Diasorítis

Joseph (to the left of the scene of the Presentation of the Lord)

Ágios Geórgios Diasorítis. The murals are of remarkable quality. The design of the faces and clothing and the lines are kept simple and clear, but the colouring and shading are very carefully executed so that the faces appear natural. The expression of the faces conveys a deep, holy calm.

Beautiful, relatively well-preserved murals can also be seen in the northern chapel. Here a saint, presumably St Stefanos.

Another saint stands next to him.

This saint is depicted in a niche in the eastern wall.

On the wall above and around the niche are carefully crafted ornaments.

On the left-hand side, a peacock is depicted between the ornaments,…

…on the right side a cat.

In the lower part to the left of the saint stands this writing. It is the complicated script of the late Byzantine period with many fused letters, partly in majuscules, partly in minuscules. The words “του ΖΟΓΡΑΦΟΥ” = “of the painter” are written in one place.

On the right-hand side, the donors of the paintings are mentioned. The saint is holding in his hand a text with the words Heaven, Earth, King and Hymn (I can’t decipher the rest).

At the right end of the same wall, more interesting ornaments on the half-columns next to a niche draw attention, again with a bird…

…and an apotropaic cat face.

Panagía Archatoú belongs to a group of churches that were decorated with murals in the second half of the 13th century. In the first decades after the Venetian conquest of the island in 1207 and the establishment of Catholic feudal rule, the construction and decoration of churches came to a complete standstill and we know of no wall paintings from this period. Around fifty years later, during the reign of Marco Sanudo II, grandson of the first duke, the situation had apparently calmed down enough for the first churches to be rebuilt and, above all, repainted. So many wall paintings date from the second half of the 13th century that one must conclude that the Greek population used the decoration of their churches as a way to express their orthodox faith and thus also their national identity.

The 13th century wall paintings of Naxos are usually rather conservative and somewhat rural in composition and style; but as can be seen in many churches, including the Panagía Archatoú, the quality of the paintings is often astonishingly high with a remarkable variety. In Panagía Archatoú we also find some unusual motifs and choices of figures. Several inscriptions give us information about the founders and painters of the decorations; in particular, a priest named Michael is mentioned. Most of the churches that were built or painted in this period were located in rural areas, not in villages, and according to the inscriptions were usually donated by several local residents, not, as in the previous period, by prominent members of the church. In these centuries under the Catholic rule the church of Naxos had no bishop, and the construction and maintenance of the churches was apparently entirely in the hands of the local priests and population.

In any case, despite its poor condition, the church of Panagía Archatoú is a very important monument of its time that is worth preserving. Let’s hope that it will soon be restored so that its remaining paintings can be fully appreciated again!

continue: Agios Panteleimonas in Lakkomersina

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