17 July 2016
Hidden village church in Crete has
frescoes by 14th century icon writer
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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