29 April 2020

A lockdown ‘virtual
tour’ of a dozen
churches in Corfu

Welcome to the churches of Corfu … the bells in the Church of the Panagia Kassopitra in Kassiopi, 38 km north of Corfu town (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I had planned to be in Greece last week for the celebrations of Orthodox Easter in Crete. Instead, the restrictions introduced by the Covid-19 pandemic means most of my flights and travel plans have been cancelled for the foreseeable future, and this may yet be the first year in a very long time that I have not been in Greece.

So, this evening I am offering another ‘virtual tour’ – a ‘virtual tour’ of more than a dozen churches in Corfu. This follows in the spirit my ‘virtual tour’ in recent weeks of churches, chapels, monasteries, historic sites, restaurants and pubs in some of my favourite places, including Lichfield, Cambridge, Rethymnon, Athens, Thessaloniki and Mount Athos.

1, The Cathedral of the Virgin Spiliotissas and Saint Vlassis and Saint Theodora:

The Cathedral of the Virgin Spiliotissas and Saint Vlassis and Saint Theodora stands on a small square at the top of marble steps near the harbour of Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The cathedral in Corfu stands on a small square facing out onto the harbour of Corfu and the Ionian Sea. It was built in 1577 and has served the Diocese of Corfu, Paxos and the Diapontian Islands since 1841.

The cathedral is often difficult for visitors to find in the labyrinth of narrow streets and side alleys. The marble stairway and the purple façade with a decorative sunburst surrounding the rose window are only appreciated by stepping out of the cathedral and down into Mitropolis Square.

The Diocese of Corfu traces its history to two disciples of Saint Paul, Jason of Tarsus and Sosipatrus of Achaea (see (see Acts 17: 5-9 and Romans 16: 21). The Bishops of Corfu took part in ecumenical councils from 325 to 787, originally as suffragans of Nicopolis and later of Kephalonia.

Inside Corfu’s cathedral, with the shrine of Saint Theodora to the right, behind the iconostasis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The cathedral was built as a church in 1577 on the site of an older church dedicated to Agios Vlassis or Saint Blaise, an Armenian miracle worker and martyr whose feast is celebrated on 11 February. The new church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary Spiliotissas after the destruction of an older church with the same name. The name Spiliotissa is derived from spilia (cave), referring to an older church in a cave at the foot of the New Fortress.

The cathedral is a three-aisled church built in a Baroque style, with many Renaissance details and features.

The cathedral is filled with icons, treasures and large chandeliers, there is a carved wooden iconostasis or icon screen, paintings from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, Byzantine icons like the Panagia Dimossiana, painted in the 15th century on both sides, icons by Mikhailis Damaskinos from Crete, Emmanouil Tzanes and Panayiotis Paramythiotis, and three remarkable but dark paintings of Old Testament scenes.

The most celebrated relic is the shroud-wrapped body of the Empress Theodora, in a lined silver sarcophagus in a shrine on the right-hand side of the iconostasis.

Saint Theodora (815-867) was the wife of the Byzantine Emperor Theophilos. She lived during the conflicts and divisions of the iconoclastic heresy, and brought the conflict to an end in the Great Church of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople on 11 March 843, celebrated in the Orthodox Church as ‘the Triumph of Orthodoxy.’

Her body and the body of Corfu’s patron saint, Saint Spyridon, were moved to Corfu after the Fall of Constantinople. Her feast day is 11 February – the same day as feast of Saint Vlassis, and they both share the dedication of the cathedral. Her relics are carried in procession through the streets of Corfu on the first Sunday of Great Lent, the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

The bust at the foot of the cathedral steps depicts the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I. While still a deacon, he was elected the Metropolitan of Corfu in 1922. He was elected Patriarch of Constantinople in 1960. The meeting between Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem in 1964 led to rescinding the excommunications of 1054. He died in 1972.

2, The Church of Saint Spyridon:

Inside the Church of Spyridon, the most prominent church in the heart of the old town of Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The most prominent church in the heart of the old town of Corfu is the Church of Saint Spyridon. The church was built in the 1580s to house the relics of Saint Spyridon, who, according to legends, has saved the island four times from Ottoman invasions.

Saint Spyridon was born in 270 AD in Assia, a village in Cyprus. He took part in the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325), countering the theological arguments of Arius and his followers. He was the Bishop of Trimythous, near Larnaca in Cyprus, until he died in 348 AD. When the Arabs conquered Cyprus, his body was moved to Constantinople. After Constantinople fell in 1453, the relics of Saint Spyridon and Saint Theodora were brought to Corfu.

The tower of Saint Spyridon is the tallest on the Ionian islands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The relics of Saint Spyridon were later housed in a private chapel owned by the Voulgaris family. This church was demolished in 1537, and the saint’s remains were moved to a new church built in the 1580s.

The church, just behind the Liston, is a single-nave basilica and the bell tower, the highest in the Ionian Islands, is similar in design to the contemporary Greek Orthodox church of San Giorgio dei Greci in Venice. Inside the church, in a small chapel to the right of the iconostasis, the remains of Saint Spyridon are kept in a double sarcophagus.

The ceiling was originally painted by Panagiotis Doxaras in 1727. But his work decayed over time and was replaced by later copies. Above the west door of the narthex, the imperial coat of arms of the House of Romanov stands as a reminder that the church was under the nominal protection of Russia from 1807 until 1917.

Spyridon, or Spyros, is a popular name throughout Corfu. Saint Spyridon’s body is carried around the town of Corfu four times a year to celebrate his miracles. His feast day is on 12 December.

3, The Church of Saint Eleftherios and Saint Anna:

Inside the Church of Saint Eleftherios and Saint Anna … a quiet and prayerful church on a busy shopping street in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Church of Saint Eleftherios and Saint Anna is an unusual single-nave church on Saint Spyridon Street, built in 1700 and restored in 1765. It is smaller and less known that its immediate neighbour, but this makes its more peaceful and prayerful, and Olga who showed us around was eager to point out the treasures of the church, including its relics and icons.

The church was consecrated in 1700, after a private house was transformed into a religious building. A plaque in Greek above the entrance recalls that the church was built by Theodora Vervitzioti, daughter of Nikolaos Vervitziotis, in memory of her parents and opened in June 1700. She later donated the church to the town’s guild of grocers and cheese sellers in 1714.

A plaque above the door recalls the Church of Saint Eleftherios and Saint Anna was built in 1700 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The church was renovated several times in 1765, as recalled in a second plaque, and in 1850 and in 1915. The church was damaged extensively during the German bombings of Corfu on 14 September 1943 and was rebuilt in 1960.

Three plaques in Greek on the church façade commemorate its consecration in 1700 and, on each side on the façade, its renovation in 1765 and its rebuilding in 1960. The oldest plaque, above the main door, includes the coat of arms of the Vervitzioti family above the Greek text.

Inside, the treasures of the church include an iconostasis or icon screen topped with 12 icons of the apostles, a collection of relics gathered in one glass case that include relics of Saint James the Apostle and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, and a much-revered icon of Saint Anne holding her daughter, the Virgin Mary, who in turn is holding her son, the Christ Child.

4, The Church of Panagia Mandrakina:

The Church of Panagia Mandrakina, below street level and by the harbour at the fortress (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Church of the Panagia Mandrakina is close to the palace of Saint Michael and Saint George, between Boschetto Garden and the Garden of the People in Spianada.

The official dedication of the church is to Agios Panteleimonas, and historical records mote that it was built in the 18th century, although some accounts say it dates from the mid-16th century.

The church is popularly known as the Panagia Mandrakina, referring to the Virgin Mary as the protector of fishermen. It is said to have acquired its name from an icon of the Virgin Mary that was found by fishermen at the small port of Mandraki, the harbour of the Old Fortress of Corfu that stands above it.

The Church of Panagia Mandrakina is a small, orange and crimson church with an impressive and elaborate bell-tower that stands out amid the trees of the two gardens.

Like the Church of Saint Eleftherios and Saint Anna, it was heavily damaged during the German bombardment of Corfu in World War II. Its present form dates from its restoration in the early 1950s.

Outside, the church is symmetrical with a pediment. The impressive bell tower beside the church is quadrangular and castellated. The church and its small courtyard stand below street level. Today, the Church is popular for baptisms and weddings.

5, The bell tower of the Church of the Annunziata:

The lonely and abandoned bell tower of the Church of the Annunziata (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A tall bell tower is all that survives from the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunziata, known locally as the Church of Lontsiada. This church, on the corner of Evgeniou Voulgareos and Vrahlioti streets, is dedicated to the Annunciation and Santa Luccia (Saint Lucy).

The church was built in 1394 by the Neapolitan captain Petró Capece, and dedicated on the Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March, a day also celebrating the founding of the Venetian Republic. The church was then handed over to the Augustinians.

The church is also associated with one of the great naval battles in the Mediterranean. The battle of Nafpaktos in 1571, the allied fleets of Venice, Spain, Naples, Sicily, Genoa and Malta fought the Ottoman fleet, which had been undefeated until then.

The Turkish fleet was completely destroyed in the battle in the Bay of Patras opposite Nafpaktos: its 251 ships were sunk or captured, and 20,000 of the 50,000 Turkish soldiers and sailors were killed. Many of the leading figures in the allied fleet who were killed in the battled, including prominent Corfiots, were buried in the Church of the Annunziata.

During World War II, the roof of the Church of the Annunziata was damaged by German bombs on 14 September 1943. The church could have been repaired, and the Italian government offered to help financially.

However, the church was torn down in 1953, along with the old municipal theatre, Porta Reale, the main gate of the old city, and other parts of the island’s history, by the Mayor of Corfu, Stamatios Dessylas. After the demolition of the church, the bodies of the heroes of the Battle of Nafpaktos were transferred to the Roman Catholic cemetery.

On some summer days concerts are often staged in the small square in front of the ruins, and occasionally banners are hung from the tower, demanding, ‘Save Annunziata.’

6, Vlacherna convent and church:

Everyone wants the picture postcard photograph of Vlacherna, with its convent and church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The tiny convent of Vlachеrnа has become the poster, calendar and postcard image of Corfu. It decorates the covers of guidebooks and is used in advertising campaigns to promote Corfu as the idyllic Greek island.

Day after day, tourists cluster in large numbers on the balconies above on the Kanoni Peninsula, from early in the morning until late in the evening, to take photographs of Vlacherna and the neighbouring island of Pontikonissi, known popularly as ‘Mouse Island.’

The two islets and their monastic foundations often become confused, and merge into one. If you are fortunate enough to arrive or leave Corfu by daylight, then you flight passes immediately above both, and the fishermen peacefully working away in calm waters of the neighbouring lagoon of Halkiopoulos, separated from the bay by a long causeway.

The Monastery of Vlacherna stands on a small islet just south of Kanoni Peninsula and Corfu’s internationаl airpоrt, and about 3 km from Corfu city. The islet is connected tо Corfu by a 300-metre stone pier, making it easy to reach on foot.

Vlachеrnа Monastery is a convent and church dating from the 17th cеntury (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Vlachеrnа Monastery, the оnlу building οn thе tiny islet, dаtes from the 17th cеntury. The name Vlaherena or Vlacherna comes from a famous district of Constantinople. A Byzantine monastery of the same name there is an important place of Orthodox pilgrimage.

The church is a small white church with a red-tiled roof and a typical Greek Orthodox belfry with a three-storey bell tower that serves as the main entrance to the courtyard of the church. Inside, the chapel has a carved iconostasis and beautiful frescoes.

Vlacherna is still cаlled a mоnasterу, although it ceased to funсtiοn as a women’s convent by 1980. However, the small Church of Panagia Vlacherna (the Virgin of Vlacherna) on the islet is still used fοr liturgical celеbrations, including the monastery’s feast day on 2 July, and it remains оpen to visitors and tourists.

Vlachеrnа Monastery with the Church of the Transfiguration on the neighbouring island of Pontikonisi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Pontikоnissi island, just behind Vlаchеrna, сan only be reаchеd bу boat. Five-minute bоat trips аre normally available many times a dаy in the summеr season, but visitors are not allowed onto the island.

The church in the centre of the island is dedicated to the Metamorphosis of Sotiros or Transfiguration of the Saviour. The 13th century Byzantine church celebrates its feastday on 6 August with a large liturgical celebration.

7, Saint George, Aghios Georgios:

The Church of Saint George, above the long sandy beach of Agios Georgios in south-west Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Almost every town in Greece has a church named after Saint George, and almost every village – even the newest of resources – has a small church. There is a symbiotic relationship between the names of small villages and their small churches: did the church give the village its name, or did the church take its name from the village?

There are two resorts in Corfu named after Agios Georgios or Saint St George, one in the north, and one in the south-west. I stayed last year in Agios Georgios South, near the town small town of Argirades, and about 35 km from Corfu town.

The village, with its long sandy beach, lies to the south of the Lake Korission and is surrounded by olive groves, and boasting an amazing sandy beach. Even at the end of summer last year, this was a quiet, welcoming, family-friendly resort, suitable for a laid-back relaxing holiday, long days on the beach, walks by the saltwater lake, and evenings in the coastal tavernas for you to enjoy.

Inside the church in Agios Georgios … on a mid-week day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

But Agios Georgios is a long way from most of Corfu’s other villages, towns and places of interest, although an irregular bus service connects the village to Corfu Town and beyond.

An indication of the resort’s isolation dawned on my first Sunday morning when I waited and waited for the small Church of Agios Georgios … and waited. I managed to visit the church when it was being cleaned on a weekday, but I spent the following Sunday visiting the monasteries of Meteora.

8, Church of Saint Spyridon, Palaiokastritsa:

The Church of Saint Spyridon is squeezed in between the coffee bars and a souvenir shop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Paleokastritsa is a popular family resort on the north-west coast of Corfu, about 25 km from Corfu Town. There are three main coves – Agia Triada, Platakia and Alipa – and many other tiny, secluded beaches around it, separated by the round-shaped capes.

My visit to Paleokastritsa last year was short, however, and I never got to visit Angelokastro or the monasteries of Palaiokastritsa and the Theotokos. But close to the main beach, jutting awkwardly between the coffee bars and a souvenir shop opposite the chaotic car park is the tiny, pink Church of Saint Spyridon, with a bell tower built in 2002.

Inside the Church of Saint Spyridon in Palaiokastritsa (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The church is so small it is hard to imagine it holding a congregation of more than 10. But the door is open, candles are lit, and tourists are made to feel welcome to pop in and look at the icons or find time to pray.

The icons are all modern, with two archangels flanking the iconostasis or icon screen, which includes an interesting icon of the Samaritan woman at the well, and topped with a row of 12 icons of the apostles.

Keeping a traditional yet modern church like this open for the curious and for tourists in the middle of a busy resort beside a popular beach strikes me as a fine example of what mission should be today.

9, Church of the Panagia Kassopitra, Kassiopi:

The Church of the Panagia Kassopitra or the Virgin of Kassopitra stands on the site of the Temple of Zeus Kassios, which gives the its name to Kassiopi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Church of the Panagia Kassopitra or the Virgin of Kassopitra, in the coastal town of Kassiopi, dates from the fifth century, when the ruined Temple of Kassios Zeus was converted into a church by Saint Iasonas and Saint Sosipatros.

This beautiful church is near the main street of Kassiopi, the harbour and the castle. The church is mentioned by Latin travellers in the Middle Ages, indicating it was known beyond Corfu as a place of pilgrimage.

The Church of the Panagia Kassopitra in Kassiopi dates from the fifth century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The church once held the relics of Saint Donatos the Wonderworker, the Patron of Paramythia. These relics were later moved to Venice, although a small part of them were returned to Paramythia. The church has had a chequered past, and it was burned badly by the Ottoman Turks during the siege of Corfu in 1537.

The church was restored and rebuilt by the Venetians between 1590 and 1591 with the unusual provision of two altars to accommodate the liturgical needs of the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic people of the town. The church has inscriptions dated 1590, 1670 and 1832.

The church made Kassiopi a centre of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Much of the church was believed to have been destroyed, but during restoration work in the 1990s parts of Byzantine frescoes dating from the 11th or 12th century were rediscovered on the walls of the church. The most important treasure in the church is the Icon of the Panagia Kassopitra or the Virgin of Kassopitra, said to be miraculous and revered as the protector of mariners.

Each year on 8 May the church commemorates a miracle said to have taken place in 1530 when the Panagia healed a blind man. Special liturgical commemorations also take place on 15 August, the Feast of the Dormition.

10, The chapel in the Achilleion Palace:

The large painting in the apse of the chapel in the Achilleion Palace depicts the trial of Christ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Achilleion Palace in Gastouri, 10 km south of Corfu city, was built for ‘Sisi,’ the Austrian Empress Elisabeth, at the suggestion of the Austrian consul, Alexander von Warsberg. She was deeply saddened by the death of her only son, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, at Mayerling in 1889, and she had this summer palace built as a refuge a year later.

Achilleion provides a panoramic view of the city to the north, and across the southern part of the island and the Ionian Sea. The architectural style of the palace is said to have been inspired by the mythical palace of Phaeacia, and the motif centres on the myth of Achilles.

The first room on the right off the main entrance hall was the Empress Elisabeth’s private chapel, and is decorated with a apse fresco of Christ on trial before Pilate, a large painting of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, and images of the Virgin Mary.

The walls in Sisi’s chapel are decorated with paintings and images of the Virgin Mary and saints (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This Roman Catholic chapel is a work of art in itself. While the rest of the palace was inspired by classical Greek culture, the chapel was decorated in the Baroque style.

The large painting in the apse depicts the trial of Christ. Above the altar there is a large painting of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child in a golden frame. Along the walls and in niches are statues and paintings of the Virgin Mary and saints.

None of the owners of the palace after the Empress was a Roman Catholic, so the chapel may never have served its original purpose after 1907. But through the Achilleion Palace the Empress Elisabeth influenced style and taste throughout Greece at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

11, Holy Trinity Anglican Church:

The former Ionian Parliament building became Holy Trinity Anglican Church in 1870 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When the former Anglican Church of Saint George in the Old Fortress in Corfu became a Greek Orthodox in 1864, the Anglican community was left without a church. On the other hand, with the incorporation of Corfu and the Ionian Islands into the Greek state, Corfu no longer needed a parliament building. The Greek government offered the former Ionian Parliament building to the Anglican community. The building was designed by a Corfiot architect John Chronis.

The gift was ratified in Greek law in 1869, and the building was given to the ‘British community of Kerkyra (Corfu) of the Anglican faith so long as it might serve as a house of worship of the said persuasion.’ The deed of consecration was signed in 1870. The Ionian Parliament became the Holy Trinity Church and the premises to the rear became the parsonage or residence of the Anglican chaplain.

Holy Trinity Church was in a unique position because it belonged not to the British Government nor any church body, but solely and entirely to the Anglican community in Corfu. The church flourished from 1869, with a permanent resident chaplain until 1940, and for 71 years the church served the island’s many British residents.

The former chaplain’s residence now serves as Holy Trinity Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At the outbreak of World War II, most British residents left Corfu, and the Commonwealth and Continental Church Society (now ICS) was appointed trustee of the church.

The church was bombed during World War II, leaving only parts of the outside walls. Although the parsonage to the rear suffered bomb damage, it provided shelter for the Maltese community. However, with the slow return of British residents to post-war Corfu, the Mayor of Corfu took advantage of this situation, the city took over the church, restored the building, and retained it.

Later, through negotiations, the residence part of the building was retained, repaired and served many uses. While he was the British Vice Consul, Major John Forte set about bringing recovering this part of the building, and reopened Holy Trinity daily during the week for public worship from 9 until 1. On Easter Day 1971, Holy Trinity Church Corfu reopened on a permanent basis for the first time in 31 years.

Today, Holy Trinity Church has a vital congregation that continues to reach out to residents and visitors alike in Corfu.

12, Saint George’s Church, former Anglican garrison church:

Saint George’s Church was an Anglican and garrison church in Corfu until 1864 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There has been an Anglican presence in Corfu since 1814 Corfu, when Corfu and the other Ionian Islands became a British Protectorate. The High Commissioner, the administrators, and the soldiers and sailors based in Corfu, required a place of worship, and a chapel was built in the Doric style in the Old Fortress and was named Saint George.

Saint George’s remained the garrison church until 1864, when Corfu and the other Ionian Islands were incorporated into the modern Greek state. The Greek Parliament in Athens wanted to turn the old fortress into a military base, and Saint George’s became an Orthodox church.

Indeed, this was the church where Prince Philip, later the Duke of Edinburgh, was baptised according to the rites of the Greek Orthodox Church in 1921.

The tower of Saint Spyridon Church is a landmark in the heart of Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Some recent ‘virtual tours’:

A dozen Wren churches in London;

Ten former Wren churches in London;

More than a dozen churches in Lichfield;

More than a dozen pubs in Lichfield;

A dozen former pubs in Lichfield;

A dozen churches in Rethymnon;

A dozen restaurants in Rethymnon;

A dozen churches in other parts of Crete;

A dozen monasteries in Crete;

A dozen sites on Mount Athos;

A dozen historic sites in Athens;

A dozen historic sites in Thessaloniki;

A dozen churches in Thessaloniki;

A dozen Jewish sites in Thessaloniki.

A dozen churches in Cambridge;

A dozen college chapels in Cambridge;

A dozen Irish islands.

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