07 July 2017

The old and the new churches
stand side-by-side in Piskopiano

The Church of Aghios Ioannis was built in Piskopianó in the 16th century, (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I received a warm welcome to Piskopianó from the priests of the parish, who gave me time on a sunny afternoon this week to show me around both the old church, which I knew intimately when I spent weeks on end here in the 1990s, and the new church, which was built within the last decade.

It was an interesting afternoon’s introduction to the history of a diocese that once had its centre in Piskopianó.

For historical reasons, Crete, like some other Greek islands, stands outside the Church of Greece and is part of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Archbishop of Crete is based in Iraklion, and Piskopianó is a parish within the Diocese of Petras and Cherronisou. Like all dioceses in Crete, this diocese has had the status of a metropolis since 1962.

For a short time, Piskopianó was the centre of a diocese. When Arab pirates started attacking the island of Crete in the seventh century, many early Christian churches and basilicas were destroyed (for example, see the story of the Basilica of Aghia Sophia in Panormos here). At this time, Hersonissos was abandoned, and the see of the diocese was transferred to Piskopianó, and remained here until the ninth century, when the diocese was relocated to Pedialos.

The reliquary of the head of Saint Titus in the Church of Saint Titus, Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Christianity in Crete traces its origins to the mission of the Apostle Paul and his companion Saint Titus, and the head of Saint Titus is an important relic in one of the oldest churches in Iraklion.

The town of Chersonisos first became the seat of a diocese at the end of the fourth century, or the beginning of the fifth century. The large old basilicas that have been excavated in Chersonisos confirm the early importance of the diocese, which became known as the Diocese of Cherronisou (sic).

The first basilica in Hersonissos was built on top of the rock of Kastri. This was a three-aisled basilica, like its Syrian prototypes, and its size made it one of the largest churches in Crete.

The Bishop of Cherronisou took part in the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus in 431. Over 20 years later, the Bishop of Cherronisou signed the Confession of Orthodox Faith in 457 at the beginning of the reign of the Emperor Leo I (457-474).

In the sixth century, a larger basilica, Saint Nicholas, was built in Hersonissos. This was 50 metres long and 19 metres wide, and the floor of the narthex and of the middle aisle of the nave were covered in mosaics. The ruins of the baptistery survive beside the church. The remains of a building at the north wall of the narthex are thought to be part of either a Syrian-style tower or a minaret built after the Arabs began using the church as a mosque.

The Saracen raids in the seventh century forced the bishops to abandon their vulnerable coastal centre at Hersonissos, and the diocese was relocated to the safer environment of Piskopianó in the hills above the coast.

The name of Piskopianó may hint at this historical, early episcopal importance, or it may describe the village’s location looking out as a balcony over this stretch of the north coast of Crete.

The old basilica in Piskopianó was a three-aisled basilica built in the sixth century. It was 45 metres long and 20 metres wide, it had an interior arch that was 9.4 metres in diameter, and its floor was covered with marble.

While the Bishops of Cherronisou were seated in Piskopianó, they are mentioned in official documents from the eighth to the tenth centuries, and the Bishop of Cherronisou took part in the Seventh Ecumenical Council in Nicea in 787 AD.

In the tenth century, the diocese was relocated to Pediados, and in the 19th century it was seated in the Monastery of Agatathos.

Meanwhile, the Church of Aghios Ioannis (Saint John) was built in the 16th century, and has been renovated a few times since then. The present large parish church, built in 2009, stands above the village with the mountains as a stunning backdrop.

The new church rises high above Piskopianó (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Diocese of Cherronisou was abolished in 1900, but its name was revived in 2001 with the redrawing of diocesan boundaries in Crete and the formation of the Holy Metropolis of Petras and of Cherronisou. Today, the diocese is headed by Metropolitan Nektarios of Petras and Herronios.

The cathedral of the diocese is in Neapolis, the historical capital of the Lasithi province, and home of the only Cretan to ever have become Pope.

The Monastery of Anthony Fraro was a Franciscan house in Neapolis dedicated to Saint Anthony, and its name derives from the Latin Frari or Fratres Petros Philagros, who was a member of this community, was elected Pope Alexander V. He reigned from 26 June 1409 for ten months until his death on 3 May 1410. However, he was one of three rival popes at the time, and today he is officially regarded by the Roman Catholic Church as an antipope.

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