17 July 2016

Sunday afternoon in the pretty
coastal village of Panormos

The harbour and beach at Panormos, east of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

The beach and sandy coastline east of Rethymnon stretches for at least 10 km as far as Skalata. A local bus links the hotels and the resorts, which become more low-key the further east you go.

This afternoon [17 July 2016], two of us travelled a little further east along the old coast road as far as Panormos, once a small fishing village and now a beach resort 22 km east of Rethymnon.

Panormos is believed to be on the site of the ancient port of Panormus. In Roman times, it was a port known as Axos. This ancient city continued to grow on this site in the Byzantine period, and this was confirmed with the discovery of the sixth century basilica of Aghia Sophia, 500 metres south-west of the present village.

The basilica was one of the great churches in Greece and may have been the largest in Crete. It once had three aisles, each aisle separated from the other by four columns, and fragments of the capitals have been found too.

The basilica was destroyed in the ninth century during the Saracen invasion of Crete. Later, Panormos was knows as the Kastelli of Milopotamos, or the Castle of Milopotamos, after it was fortified by the Genoese when they conquered it in 1206. The fort fell a few years later to the Venetians, and traces of the fort are still visible next to the harbour.

In the more recent times, Panormos was a centre for exporting locally-produced olives and carobs. Panormos was bombed during the German occupation in the 1940s.

In the narrow streets of Panormos, east of Rethymnon, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The new E75 national road was built next to the village and the building of a marina in 1980 contributed to the development of Panormos, and the small fishing village and port have been transformed in recent years into a tourist resort.

But because Panormos is set a little off the main road, there is no through traffic and few cars in the village and it retains much of its traditional, old village charm. In the streets and along the beaches there is a good choice of tavernas and small cafés.

Two of us wandered for a while through the small, quiet cobbled streets, where the old houses blend in with the new, many decorated with flower pots and hanging baskets or draped in hibiscus and bougainvillea.

The name Panormos implies a natural harbour. We then spent some time at the small sandy beach at the harbour, Limanaki, below steep rocks and over-hanging tavernas. This afternoon it was popular with Greek families, and its shallow waters were safe for the children, protected from winds with the two harbour piers where the boats tie up.

We had lunch on the balcony of Angyra (‘Anchor’), a pretty taverna. Below us, to the east, was a second, smaller beach with a mixture of sand and pebbles.

We missed the third bigger and sandy beach to the west of Panormos. Instead, we visited the Parish Church of Saint George, with its dome decorated with an imposing fresco of Christ the Pantocrator.

It was just half an hour back to Platanes on the ‘Hotels’ bus that continues on into Rethymnon.

The Pantocrator in the dome of Saint George’s Church in Panormos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Hidden village church in Crete has
frescoes by 14th century icon writer

The richly decorated apse at the east end of the Church of Saint John the Theologian in Élos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

On the way to Elafonísi in south-west Crete last week, we stopped briefly in the village of Élos, one of the nine villages known collectively as the Enneachora, to have breakfast at Kostanofolia, a village taverna that takes its name from the local chestnut forests.

Behind the taverna, an old arch is said to have been part of an ancient Roman aqueduct, although it may have been built by the Turks. But my real find that morning was the Byzantine Church of Saint John the Theologian (Agios Ioannis Theologos).

This tiny church is almost dwarfed by the neighbouring modern parish church of Saint Nikolas of Élos, and is hidden in a shaded corner among trees behind the taverna. But the church is decorated with important early 14th century frescoes attributed to Ioannis Pagomenos, a well-known icon writer and painter from western Crete.

Outline of the Church of Saint John the Theologian in Élos

The Church of Saint John the Theologian is a single-nave building, covered with a barrel vault, and measuring 11.2 metres in length and 4.46 metres in width.

The exact date when the church was first built has not been ascertained, but an analysis of the wall paintings dates them back to the first half of the 14th century.

The shape of the church was altered in the early 20th century, when the original west wall of the church was demolished, and the church was extended at the back. At the same time, a new window was created in the western wall and the stone iconostasis or icon screen was replaced with a wooden one.

Recent restoration work has revealed the interesting frescoes in the church and they have been dated to the first half of the 14th century, so we can guess that the church may have been built earlier, perhaps in the early 13th century or even the late 12th century.

The church may have been built in the early 13th century or even the late 12th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The frescoes have recently been attributed to Ioannes Pagomenos, a famous Byzantine artist who worked western Crete at that time, although he remains a mysterious figure and little is known about his life. The only record of his life is through the surviving churches that he decorated, and we do not even know the date of his birth or death, or where he lived.

The name Pagomenos means ‘frozen’, but it is such a rare family name in this part of Crete that it has allowed some historians to suggest that he came from Iraklion or Chania. They also suggest that he may have trained in Byzantium, and we know that he worked over a period of 34 years in south-west Crete from about 1313 or 1314.

Pagomenos may have been commissioned to decorate this church as changing tastes and increasing affluence brought by the Venetian occupation of Crete stimulated the demand for decorating church interiors.

Inside the Church of Saint John the Theologian in Élos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The frescoes include scenes from the story of Christ’s life, the liturgical cycle of the Church year, and the lives of the saints.

In the semi-vault in the apse at the east end of the church, Christ is in the centre of the composition, with the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist on either side in the form of a Deësis or Deisis (Δέησις, ‘prayer’ or ‘supplication’).

This is a traditional iconic representation of Christ in Majesty or Christ Pantocrator, in which he is shown enthroned, holding a Bible, and flanked by the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist, and sometimes by other saints and angels too. The surrounding figures are shown facing towards Christ with their hands raised in supplication on behalf of humanity.

Above the Deisis in the apse in this church is a depiction of the Hospitality of Abraham, also known as the Old Testament Trinity, below are two important patristic figures, Saint Basil and Saint John Chrysostom, and on either side are the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, so that the Deisis is enclosed within the scene of the Annunciation.

Other saints seen in the apse are the deacons Saint Stephen, Saint Romanus and Saint Euplos.

The barrel vault of the church is decorated with scenes from Christ’s life, including the Ascension, the Nativity, the Visitation, the Epiphany, the Baptism of Christ, the Transfiguration, the Raising of Lazarus, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Betrayal by Judas, Christ carrying the Cross, the Lamentation, and the Resurrection.

Saint Constantine with his mother Saint Helen holding the True Cross (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The saints depicted on the south wall include Saint Gregory, Saint Athanasius, Saint Cyril of Alexandria, Saint Michael, Saint Constantine with his mother Saint Helen holding the True Cross, and a local saint, Saint John the Hermit.

The saints depicted on the north wall include Saint Nicholas and Saint Eleutherios. Other images are in a bad state of preservation, but it is possible to see that these depict Saint Mamas, Saint Dimitrios, Saint George and Saint Irene.

These frescoes make this small church an important monument. It is a significant example of Byzantine art as it developed in Crete in the 14th century, and the recent attribution of its decoration to Ioannes Pagomenos help to build up the story of this important figure in the cultural and church history of Crete whose life-story still awaits reconstruction.

Saint John the Hermit as depicted by Ioannes Pagomenos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)