15 April 2020
A ‘virtual tour’ of a dozen
churches in Rethymnon
for a lost Easter in Crete
I was supposed to be flying to Crete this afternoon, catching Ryanair flight FR7354, that was due to land in Chania at 9:15 (Greek time) this evening.
Easter is a week later in Greece than in Ireland this year, and I was looking forward to spending the end of Orthodox Holy Week and the Easter Week in Crete, visiting Chania, Rethymnon, and perhaps Iraklion, before returning to Ireland next Wednesday (1 May 2020).
I spent Orthodox Easter in suburban Rethymnon last year (2019) and in Thessaloniki the year before (2018), and both occasions were opportunities for my own retreat and spiritual refreshment. Indeed, ever since I first visited Rethymnon in 1988, visiting the cathedrals and churches has been a pilgrimage in its own way.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic is playing havoc with everyone’s travel plans, and sadly this may yet be the first year in many decades that I have not been in Greece on any occasion.
So, I decided this evening to offer my own ‘virtual tour’ of a dozen churches in Rethymnon as my own spiritual reflection.
These Wren ‘virtual tours’ are offered in the same spirit as my recent ‘virtual tours’ of a dozen Wren churches in London, ten former Wren churches in London, the churches of Lichfield and the pubs and former pubs of Lichfield.
1, The Cathedral, Mitropolis Square
Although Rethymnon is centuries old as a city, with classical, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman buildings around every corner, I know of no surviving remains of Rethymnon’s mediaeval cathedral, which was destroyed in a raid by Algerian corsairs in 1571.
The Cathedral of the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple is a relatively new building. It occupies most of Mitropolis Square was first built in 1834 on the site of an earlier church.
The second cathedral was badly damaged during World War II and was rebuilt as a miniature of Evangelistria, the great basilica on the island of Tinos, so that the present cathedral is refreshingly modern in appearance, both inside and outside.
The tall bell tower beside the cathedral was built in 1899 as a response by the Christians of Rethymnon to the tall minaret built beside the nearby Nerantzes Mosque. The money to build the bell tower was raised through selling postage stamps and a fundraising drive by the wine merchants of the town.
2, Saint Anthony’s, Mitropolis Square
Tucked away in a quiet corner in the square, almost hidden by the awnings of the taverna next door, is the tiny, single-aisle Church of Saint Anthony. It was built in 1863 but looks much older and is decorated simply inside.
Nearby, in Mousoúrou Street, off the square, is the Bishop’s Palace, an impressive, symmetrical, palatial white neoclassical building renovated in 1900 at the expense of General Thedore de Chiostak, the commander of Russian troops in the town. Twin stairways lead to the entrance, while above there is a balcony on the upper floor.
Behind the Bishop’s Palace, the Diocesan Church Museum is usually open for two hours some days during the summer weeks.
3, Aghia Barbara, Aghia Barbara Street:
From the corner of the square opposite tiny Saint Anthony’s, halfway along Aghia Barbara Street, is the Church of Aghia Barbara, just a hundred metres from the cathedral.
The church was built in 1885 to replace an earlier Latin church of the same name, dating from at least 1613. That church, in turn, probably took its name from Saint Barbara’s Monastery, which once stood at the end of Arkadiou Street, on the site of the later Kara Musa Pasha Mosque.
Aghia Barbara is a cruciform church with a dome. The story of the painting of the church walls appears as an incident in A Tale of the Town by Pandelis Prevelakis. From 1898 until 1907, the church was used as the garrison church for the Russian troops in the town.
Behind the church, the former Girls’ School stands on the same grounds and has long been the town library. The blue flowers on top of the white wall that is shared by the church and library drop down on the other side into the gardens of Pepi Studios, where I have stayed in past years.
4, Church of Saint George, Aghios Gheorghíou Street:
Off Patriárchou Grigroíou Street, Aghios Gheorghíou Street is an almost-hidden cul-de-sac, with only a discreet sign indicating that at the end of the street, tucked into the right behind taller houses, is the tiny single-aisle Church of Saint George, squeezed in against the back of the houses on neighbouring Pateálrou Street.
There is a modern Church of Saint George in Rethymnon, on Egeou Street in the eastern suburbs, behind the long sandy beach.
5, Saint Francis Church, Ethnikís Antistaseos Street:
The most important church in the Venetian town was Saint Francis, which stands on Ethnikís Antistaseos Street, almost at the junction of Tsouderon Street, where I have sometimes stayed during my times in Rethymnon.
Saint Francis is one of the few Western saints from the period after the great schism who is also revered in the Eastern Church. The church is also one of the most important examples in Crete of western European architecture, among the most important works of architecture in Rethymnon with its doorway, interiors, carvings and proportions.
During the Venetian period in Crete, many Franciscan churches were built in Crete, including Iraklion, Rethymnon, Chania and Neapolis. Petros Philargos, a friar of the Franciscan community in Iraklion who was born in Neapolis in eastern Crete, later became Pope Alexander V.
The Church of Saint Francis (Agios Frangiskos) in Rethymnon was the church of the Franciscan Friary in the town. It is a single-aisle, wooden-roof basilica. The ground floor windows and the main doorway seem to be of a later date than the main building. The elaborately – almost excessively – decorated ornate doorway is mainly Corinthian in style but includes the only example in Rethymnon of compound capitals, which are one of the five Renaissance styles.
The overlapping levels of the architrave help to date the doorway from the same time as both the doorway of Santa Maria Church and the Rimondi fountain, both only a few paces away. The keystone is notable for its large acanthus flower.
The church was used as an imaret or poorhouse during the Turkish occupation. It was used in the 1920s to provide shelter for Greek refugees from Anatolia. In more recent years it contained a number of shops, and then until 1996 it was used as an exhibition centre for the local city council. Careless and fruitless attempts at restoration work in the 1970s led to part of the building being demolished. However, recent excavations around the church unearthed some important archaeological discoveries, including the tombs of two Venetian nobles.
For a time, the building belonged to the University of Crete, and the latest plans are to use the former church to house the Byzantine Museum of Rethymnon and the Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Collection of the Prefecture of Rethymnon. Meanwhile, it remains closed to the public.
6, Church of Saint Anthony of Padua, Mesolongíou Street:
The Franciscan link with Rethymnon continues with the town’s one Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Saint Anthony of Padua, which is run by the Franciscan Capuchins.
This small neoclassical church stands on the corner of Mesolongíou Street and Salamínas Street, behind the old port and beneath the slopes leading up to the entrance to Fortezza.
It was completed on 30 March 1890, although there has been a continuous albeit small Catholic presence in the town since the arrival of the Venetians in the early 13th century. The doorway is crowned by a pediment is a semi-circular Venetian window, and above this is a circular window in an opening in the centre of the tympanum.
There is an older church in the basement beside the present neoclassical church. This was used by the Capuchin Friars from about 1855 and is still in good condition. Although it was later used as a garage, it served as a church once again briefly in the 1980s while the main church was being refurbished.
7, The Church of the Four Martyrs, Tessaron Martiron Square:
Immediately outside the old town, at the Porta Guora Gate, one of the largest churches in Rethymnon is the Church of the Four Martyrs, which stands in a busy square of the same name, Tessaron Martiron.
The church is often mistaken as the cathedral and is a fashionable venue for baptisms and weddings at weekends. It was completed on 28 December 1975, but stands on the site of two previous churches, the first from 1905 to 1947 and the second, which was demolished in 1972.
The church stands on the place where the four martyrs of Rethymnon were executed on 28 October 1824. Throughout Greece, 28 October is a national holiday, ‘Οχι’ Day, recalling Greece’s trenchant ‘No’ to Mussolini that brought Greece into World War II on 28 October 1940. In Rethymnon, 28 October is also the day when the city recalls the Four Holy Martyrs who give their name to this church. The four were Crypto-Christians, all from the Vlatakis family and from the Melambes region, who were executed by the Turks on this spot in 1824 for standing up for their Christian faith.
For four months, Manouil, Nikolaos, Georgios and Angelis Vlatakis were held prisoner in the building at the old harbour that later housed the custom house. As they were taken to their place of execution outside the Porta Guora gate, with their hands tied up, they saw their executioner holding his sword, and heard him ask: ‘Will you adopt the Turkish faith?’ The standard answer was a humble ‘Yes, my Lord.’ But instead the first man in line surprised everyone with a scornful ‘No.’ A few seconds before his head was cut off, he added: ‘I was born a Christian and a Christian I will die.’ One by one, the others did the same. As each was executed, his dying words were ‘Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy.’
The central aisle of the church is dedicated to these four local saints. But the northern aisle is also dedicated to the Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebaste – Roman soldiers, martyred in Armenia during the reign of Licinius in AD 320. The southern aisle is dedicated to the Ten Holy Martyrs of Crete who were beheaded by Decius in 250 AD.
8, Mikri Panaghia (The Church of Our Lady of the Angels), Nikifórou Foká Street:
Another story of conversion is told in another church, Mikri Panaghia or the Church of Our Lady of the Angels. It was a church first, then a mosque, and once more a church.
In the closing days of Venetian rule, a three-aisled church was built by the Dominican friars on the corner where Nikifórou Foká Street and Arampatzoglou (Thessaloníkis) Street meet and it was dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene.
The Christians of Rethymnon continued to use the church in the immediate aftermath of the Turkish conquest of Crete. Then one day, as the Ottoman conqueror, Huseyin Pasha, was riding through the streets, he was enraged when he saw the congregation spilling out of the church.
He ordered that the church should be converted into a mosque and renamed, although the parishioners were given the use of a neighbouring, smaller church. The new mosque was named after Huseyin Pasha’s successor, Angebut Ahmed Pasha. A minaret was built beside the former north aisle, but the top soon fell to the ground and the minaret was known to later generations as Koutsotroúlis, ‘the Old Stump.’
After two and a half centuries as a mosque, local Christians took advantage of the declining fortunes of the town’s Muslims, and on the night of 3 and 4 April 1917 they staged the miraculous ‘discovery’ of an icon of the Virgin Mary on the steps of the minaret.
The mosque was turned back into a church, dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels, or Mikri Panaghia – to distinguish it from the cathedral, ‘Great Saint Mary’s.’ A shrine of the icon was set up in the restored church and a new belfry was added in 1920. Sadly, the original Renaissance doorway was demolished at the same time.
Two further churches that were converted into mosques no longer function as either mosques or churches today – the Church of Aghia Sophia and the Church of Santa Maria.
10, Former Church of Aghia Sophia, Koronaíou Street:
It may be that every major Greek city had a church dedicated to Aghia Sophia, the Holy Spirit as the Holy Wisdom of God. The best known are those in Constantinople and Thessaloniki. At the western end of Koronaíou Street, on the corner with Smyrnis Street and opposite two Turkish fountains, Rethymnon had its own Church of Aghia Sophia.
Inside, this is a twin-aisled building, with two pointed vaults resting on a semi-circular arch. After the Turks captured Rethymnon, the church was converted into a mosque, and a minaret was added to the building. The windows were designed to allow passers-by to glimpse people inside at prayer. The south aisle belonged to the Qadiri Sufi order, whose rites included joining hands and dancing in a circle until they fell in exhaustion.
The building never reverted to being a church, even when the Turks were expelled from Crete. For many years, it remained a humble carpenter’s workshop and was in danger of becoming part of Rethymnon’s lost heritage. But it has been restored and renovated recently and once again is using the name Aghia Sophia. Although it was closed all last week, the former church and mosque has recently hosted a harp Concert and an exhibition of maps and prints.
10, Former Church of Santa Maria, Ethnikis Antistaseos:
The Nerantze Mosque or Gazi Hussein Mosque is on the corner of Ethnikis Antistaseos and Vernardou streets, and faces onto what was once the grand Venetian piazza of the old city.
In Venetian times, this was the Church of Santa Maria, and in the style of Saint Mark’s Square in Venice, it faced a large open piazza that included a clock tower, fountains and public buildings.
Santa Maria was originally built in the Venetian period as the church of an Augustinian Priory. But only the east and north side of the original building survive.
The east side has round windows, while the elaborate entrance on the north side, which provides a glimpse of the original splendour of the church, has two tall narrow windows, similar to those in the nearby Saint Francis Church, and a monumental doorway whose design may have been inspired by Roman triumphal arches. The wide entrance is flanked by a pair of columns with Corinthian capitals.
Inside the church, the floor plan is square. During the Turkish era, the original peaked and tiled Venetian roof was replaced by three small domes.
When the town fell to the Turks in 1657, the church was converted into a mosque by Gazi Huseyin Pasha, and three domes were added to the building although it retained its original elaborate entrance. This became the largest mosque in Rethymnon, and in 1890, shortly before Crete became an autonomous state, work began on building the tallest minaret in the town.
After the Turks left Crete, the mosque was reconsecrated as a church in 1925 with a dedication to Saint Nicholas. However, it was seldom if ever used as a church, and for many years housed a Music School. Now known as the Odeio, it is used for lectures, concerts and theatre performances, and is open to the public, although the minaret has been closed for restoration in recent years and is cladded in scaffolding.
11, The former Corpus Christi chapel:
To the west of the church is the shell of the Corpus Christi Chapel, with a Renaissance doorway. This small church, was built at the expense of the sisters Anna and Maria Muazzo, from a well-known Venetian family in Rethymnon whose name survives in the name of a boutique hotel nearby.
When the town fell to the Turks in 1657, the Chapel of Corpus Christi was turned into a library and was also used as a madrassa or Islamic religious school.
There are three further churches on the summit of the Fortezza which overlooks the old town: Saint Nicholas, Saint Catherine and Saint Theodore.
The Sultan Ibrahim Han Mosque, in the middle of the Venetian Fortezza, was originally the Venetian Cathedral of Saint Nicholas or San Nicolo, built in the 1580s. It replaced an earlier cathedral down below in the old town that had been destroyed in 1571 during an attack on Rethymnon by the Pasha of Algeria, Ulu Ali Reis.
A new Episcopal Palace was also built on the Fortezza in 1575, and in 1583 Bishop Chiapone of Rethymnon laid the foundation stone for the new cathedral. However, it may have been too small a building for its purpose, and when the cathedral was completed in 1585 Bishop Chiapone’s successor, Bishop Carrara, refused to celebrated the mass there, claiming conditions in the cathedral were too cramped and there were no sacred vessels there.
Perhaps these were only excuses, for Bishop Carrara did not want to move up to the Fortezza, and hoped to stay living in the Bishop’s Palace in Arampatzoglou Street (Thessaloníkis Street) in the old town.
The Venetian rettore of Rethymnon, Benetto Bembo, whose official residence was opposite the new cathedral, was insistent on its use, and had alterations made to the cathedral in 1586 so that it could accommodate soldiers and residents at the Sunday Mass and so that the bishop could have no further excuses.
When Rethymnon was captured by the Turks in 1646, the cathedral was converted into an Ottoman mosque by the Sultan Ibrahim Han and was given his name.
Close to the cathedral is the Church of Saint Catherine, which was built in the 19th century, but probably stands on the site of an earlier church with the same name.
The single-nave domed Church of Saint Theodore or Aghios Theodoros Trachinás was built in the late 19th century and was dedicated on 21 March 1899. However, this may have been a rebuilding programme rather than a new building project, as Venetian documents show there was a church on this site in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The new name was chosen to honour the commander of the Russian troops, General Theodore de Chiostak, who was present at the dedication. He repaid the compliment a year later when he paid for the cost of rebuilding the Bishop’s Palace near the new Greek Orthodox cathedral in the centre of the old town.
12, The twin churches in Platanias and Tsesmes:
For five years in a row, I have stayed in the suburban areas of Platanias and Tsesmes, east of Rethymnon. This area is a mix of suburban, commercial, and slowly developing tourism.
The shops and supermarkets cater primarily for the local residents, but there are a number of small hotels and apartment blocks where I have stayed, including La Stella, Varvara’s Diamond, and Julia Apartments, and restaurants that I have become comfortable with and where I was expecting a warm welcome this week.
These two villages have merged almost seamlessly, and although they have two churches, they form one parish, served by one priest, Father Dimitrios Tsakpinis.
These churches are recently-built parish churches: the church in Platanias dates from 1959 and the church in Tsesmes from 1979. They are small, and in many ways, unremarkable churches, compared to the older, more historic churches in the old town of Rethymnon.
But when I am staying in Platanias and Tsesmes, I have seen them as my parish churches, and I have always been welcomed warmly.
A major part of my delight in visiting the churches and cathedrals of Rethymnon over three decades or more, has been the sound of the bells of so many of them ringing across the city throughout the day, and even more so that so many of them have been open for visits by local people, by tourists, by the curious, and most importantly have been open for prayer … and not just on Sunday mornings.
Hopefully, we shall soon return to this normality, and hopefully when this pandemic has passed I shall be back in Rethymnon, visiting its churches.