06 September 2013

‘I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free’:
visiting the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis

The grave of Nikos Kazantzakis on the walls of Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

Δεν ελπίζω τίποτα.
Δε φοβούμαι τίποτα.
Είμαι λέφτερος.

– Νίκος Καζαντζάκης

We climbed up through the narrow streets of Iraklion in the warm afternoon sun yesterday [Thursday 5 September 2013] to visit the grave Crete’s most famous writer, Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957).

Earlier we had lunch in a side street near Aghios Minas Cathedral with Manolis Xrysakis, a long-standing friend since the mid-1990s.

Manolis and his family in Iraklion and Piskopiano are proud of their kinship with Nikos Kazantzakis: they are descended from the sister-in-law of ‘Kapetan Mihailis,’ the eponymous hero of the Kazantzakis novel based on his father’s adventures and published in English as Freedom and Death.

One balmy summer’s evening with the Chrysakis family in Piskopiano, Manolis’ uncle, the late Kostas Chrysakis, pored over old family photographs, postcards and letters, sharing childhood memories of his famous “Uncle Nikos.”

Kostas Chrysakis treasured his photographs of his uncle’s funeral. They show men in traditional island costumes, like Dirk Bogarde in Ill Met by Moonlight, in a procession led by robed Orthodox priests through the very streets we traipsed up yesterday afternoon.

Although Kazantzakis was denied church ceremonies in Athens, when his body was flown to Crete by Aristotle Onassis he lay in state in Aghias Minas Cathedral in Iraklion, and a priest officiated at the burial, giving lie to the popular claim that Kazantzakis had died an excommunicate.

Kostas claimed that when the Vatican and the Archbishop of Athens demanded the excommunication of Kazantzakis following the publication of The Last Temptation of Christ, the Patriarch of Constantinople insisted that the Church of Crete was independent.

The author’s grave on the bastion above Iraklion is marked by a simple cross and an epitaph carved in his own handwriting, with his own words:

Δεν ελπίζω τίποτα.
Δε φοβάμαι τίποτα.
Είμαι λέφτερος

(Den elpizo tipota. Den fovamai tipota. Eimai leftheros, “I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free”).

The writer’s grave is on top of the great walls and bastions were part of the Venetian defences of the city they called Candia. Two of the great city gates have survived to this day: the Pantocrator or Panigra Gate, also known now as the Chania Gate (1570), at the western edge; and the Jesus Gate or Kainouryia Gate (about 1587), at the southern edge. At the south-west corner of these great walls, the grave of the author of such great works as Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ is on the Martinengo Bastion.

Below the bastion is a monument to Iraklion’s partisans who resisted the Nazi invasion of Crete during World War II. From the top of the bastion we had splendid views.

To the south is Mount Iouktas – it looks like the head of a man in profile and so is said to have given rise to the Cretan legend that this was the head of the dead and buried god Zeus.

Looking across the city and out to the Mediterranean from the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis on the Martinengo Bastion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

To the north, the roofs of the city lay below us, pierced by the dome and the baroque towers and turrets of Aghios Minas. Beyond, the blue of the Mediterranean stretched out to meet the blue of the sky on the horizon.

The simplicity and the quiet spirituality expressed in the setting and epitaph on the tomb of Kazantzakis reflects his personality and style and his life and work.

Some years ago, I wrote about Kazantzakis and his brief love affair with the daughter of an Irish rector, which he recalls in his autobiographical novel Report to Greco. At his grave yesterday, I recalled how he prefaced this novel with a prayer: “Three kinds of souls, three kinds of prayers: 1, I am a bow in your hands, Lord, draw me lest I rot. 2, Do not overdraw me, Lord, I shall break. 3, Overdraw me, Lord, and who cares if I break!”

It was late afternoon when we walked back down through the streets of Iraklion, stopping to admire the Church of Saint Matthew, which was once attached to Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, and the small church of Aghia Paraskevi.

The monks at prayer … an image from the exhibition of paintings of Mount Athos by Efthymios Warlamis in Saint Mark’s Basilica, Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

After coffee in Lion Square beside the Morosini Fountain, three of us visited an exhibition of paintings by Efthymios Warlamis in Saint Mark’s Basilica, “The Holy Mount of Athos.”

This is a unique exhibition dedicated to the Holy Mountain of Athos, including the monasteries, the chapels, the sketes or small monastic dependencies, the landscape, the Orthodox monks and their ritual life.

The exhibition includes 72 original paintings by Efthymios Warlamis, a wooden simantron which is used to call the monks to prayer, and a sound room which recreates the effect the monks singing their daily prayers.

Greek-born Professor Efthymios Warlamis is now based in Austria, where he is the Director of the International Centre for Art and Design in Schrems, and Director of the Waldviertel Art Museum.

I have also visited his ‘Alexander 2000’ exhibition in Thessaloniki in 1997 and the exhibition he brought to Dublin Castle some years ago. It would be wonderful to see this exhibition in Ireland too.

An early dinner with our friend Despina was cut short by the need to catch the bus back to Rethymnon. It seems this holiday is coming to an end too soon.

● The exhibition in Saint Mark’s continues until Sunday 15 September, and is open 09:00-13:30 and 18:00-21:00 (Saturdays, 09:00-13:30).

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