Hagios Ioannis at Kerami
Hagios Ioannis at Kerami
In the verdant olive-growing plain of Tragaia — the region of central Naxos so rich in Byzantine churches — to the left of the road leading from Chalki to Apeiranthos and just outside Kerami, stands the small but heavily proportioned church of St. John the Theologian.
The church was investigated by K. Kalokyris, who assigns it to the 13th century, and by M. Sotiriou, who dates its wall paintings to the same period, i.e. the “early Palaeologan Revival”.
The church is square, of the single-aisled type with a dome. The large dome — in proportion to the size of the church — looks rather like a quadrilateral with rounded angles. Two of the four arches supporting the dome are built into the thickness of the lateral walls. The diameter of the sanctuary apse is almost equal to the width of the naos. From the outside the building has the appearance of a cube surmounted by a dome with a tapering cylindrical drum. The apse, semicircular on the outside, is so high as to give the impression that its half-dome is very lowered. The walls, built of common undressed stones, are entirely coated with a very hard mixture of powdered brick (kourasani) and pumice stone. The general appearance of the building is archaic.
Inscriptions have not survived and no information on the history of the monument is available. A vaulted extension to the west and a single-arched belfry are later additions, while remains of an eastward prolongation of the north and south walls indicate, perhaps, an older building phase.
Following consolidation works undertaken by the Archaeological Service (1971-1972), the formerly dilapidated monument is at present in a fair state of preservation. The half-dome of the apse was consolidated and part of the sanctuary wall was rebuilt. The interior arches added at a later date in order to strengthen the westward extension were removed and so was the arch of the south wall, which had been actually transformed into a double arch. The original Holy Table was found and restored. Lastly, the floor was paved with slabs. For greater safety, two buttresses were built outside, against the south wall. Despite its small interior dimensions (2.33*3.42 m.), the few and small lights of the church leave enough surfaces suitable for a painted decoration.
The original decoration is not all in a good state of preservation. Some of the wall paintings have survived to a great extent — for example, in the dome — others are fragmentary — in the sanctuary apse — and some are completely ruined — in the lower part of the walls.
Conservation works on the wall paintings undertaken in 1971-72 included their consolidation, whenever necessary, and their cleaning. Some of the wall paintings were exposed following the removal of the props that had been used at times to support the building.
Although the iconographic programme has not been preserved in its entirety, it can be reconstructed to a great extent. Oq the half-dome of the apse conservation works have uncovered a few fragments, probably from the neck of the figure of Christ, and very few traces, from other figures that must have belonged to a representation of the Deesis (Fig. 4, Plan no. 9), a composition often seen in Naxos (the Protothrone, St. John the Theologian at Apeiranthos, St. George at Lathrinos etc.). The curved wall of the apse is painted with the usual co-officiating hierarchs, three on either side of a Holy Table covered with a sumptuous cloth. The Holy Table has a disproportionately large paten with the inscription:
(“Take, eat; this is my body”) and the representation of the Infant Christ as the Lamb. The north half of the composition includes St. John Eleimon (Plan no. 1), St. Basil (Plan no. 2) and St. John Chrysostom (Plan no. 3). Two of the hierarchs of the south half are greatly damaged (Plan no. 5, 6), the third is St. Polycarpos of Smyrna (Plan no. 7).
The dome is painted with the Pantocrator (Plan no. 10) in the usual type, in a medallion with cross arms extending towards the cardinal points and decorated with a pattern of double circles (Fig. 5). Diagonally placed, four full-length majestic angels with outspread wings (Plan no. 11-14) raise their hands above their head and support the central medallion. Around the Pantocrator an inscription (Fig. 5) reads:“The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men”, Psalm 14, 2). The pendentives are painted with the four Evangelists. The NW pendentive shows St. Luke with the beginning of his Gospel: “Forasmuch as many…” (Fig. 7, Plan no. 17). On the SW pendentive St. Mark is seated at a fully equipped copyist’s desk with a rich architectural background and writing the opening words of the Gospel:
“The beginning of the Gospell) (Fig. 8, Plan no. 16) . The SE pendentive has preserved only the greyhaired head and upper half of the figure of St. John and part of the architecture-scape (Plan no. 15), while the painting of the NE pendentive, now totally ruined, must have shown St. Matthew (Plan no. 18).
The intrados of the four arches supporting the dome are decorated with busts of saints and prophets in coloured medallions. Of the eight medallions painted on the soffit of the east arch, two are preserved in good condition: those with the busts of St. John (Plan no. 20) and of Sampson (Plan no. 25). The south arch has St. Artemios (Plan no. 32), St. Euthymios (Plan no. 33), St.Barlaam (Plan no. 34), St.Cosmas the Poet (Plan no. 35) and the Prophet Ezekiel (Fig. 10, Plan no. 36). The west arch shows the Prophet Isaiah (Fig.
9, Plan no. 38), the five Saints from Sebasteia, Orestes (Plan no. 40), Auxentios (Plan no. 42), Eugenios (Plan no. 43), Eustratios (Plan no. 44), possibly Mardarios, and a young prophet (Plan no. 45). The north arch has the Prophet Zephaniah and the Apostles Simon (Plan no. 58), Andrew (Plan no. 55) and Paul (Plan no. 54).
The pilasters supporting the arches are painted with standing figures. Christ (Plan no. 52) is portrayed on the east pilaster of the north arch and St. John the Baptist (Plan no. 30) on the east pilaster of the south arch. A representation of the Descent into Hell (Plan no. 51) has survived fairly well on the tympanum of the north arch. The figures of Solomon, David and St. John the Baptist (Fig. 11) are in better condition. Below, on the wall, are the full-length figures of St. Artemios (Plan no. 47), the Sts. Theodoroi (Plan no. 48, 49) and the Virgin (Plan no. 50).
The tympanum of the south wall was painted with the Nativity (Plan no. 28) (it now shows traces of Joseph, the Bathing of the Infant Christ, the head of a shepherd) and the Baptism (Plan no. 29) (an angel has survived in better state and fragments from the other figures).
The iconographic programme follows the established pattern. The sole figure of the Pantocrator occupies the centre of the dome. In this case, however, the medallion is depicted with the arms of a cross and four standing angels supporting with their raised hands the vault of heaven. These motifs associate the representation with Early Christian works (in S. Vitale and in the Chapel of the Archiepiscopal Palace, Ravenna) expressing eschatological and doxological conceptions of the times, which have now become symbols of man’s victory and salvation through Jesus Christ. Likewise, the painting of the intrados with saints and prophets appears to have been organized according to a unified iconographical and theological conception. The iconography starts with prophets (of the eight that were originally painted only two are recognizable: Isaiah and Ezekiel), while on some arches we find unities of saints, like the five martyrs from Sebasteia (Eustratios etc.), the Apostles and soon.
The fragmentary state in which the wall paintings have survived and the absence of entire compositions, except for the one in the dome, do not permit a thorough appraisal of the painter’s abilities. We can, however, detect his stylistic affinities and innate talent, as well as his skill in rendering single figures. The oval of the Pantocrator’s face, the short beard and pronounced downward curve of the moustache, the tranquil arc of the eyebrows, the relatively low forehead, the uniform pale modelling enlivened by the diffused red colouring of the cheeks, associate this painting with 12th century works encountered mainly in the periphery of the Byzantine Empire (Mani, Cyprus etc.).
The portrait of the Pantocrator does not seem to fit in the medallion, which is rather small compared to the size of the dome. The left hand holding the Gospel Book is omitted and only a part of the blessing right hand has been painted.
The composition with the four angels is one of the major achievements of the artist who painted the dome. The rhythmical postures, the raised hands and outspread wings, the wide opening of the mantle revealing the form of the body, the variation of colours in the garments, impart a controlled dynamism to this painting. On a green preliminary underpaint, red and brown strokes of the brush design the features of the faces and the dreamy eyes (Fig. 6). After seeing only part of one of these angels, M. Sotiriou remarked: “A Greek character is reflected in the rhythm and freedom of the entire composition and also in the purity of form, the gentle modelling, the sensitive design and the delicate relief of the features”.
The most notable elements in the representation of St. Mark the Evagnelist are the writing implements and the architectural background. Tall and narrow buildings are set without order, as if space were insufficient. Distinction between sides — their perspective, so to speak — is indicated by colour: green for the fa9ade, yellow for the sides, without gradation. On the faces of the Evangelists, fine green-coloured brush strokes are used for the shadowy parts while prominent features are painted in warm tones. In the medallions of saints, the modelling of faces is similar but the effect is further enhanced by the alternating, red, green, dark blue, colours of the field and the splendid raiment of the saints.
The iconographic elements noted above would be more appropriate to an epoch possibly before the 13th century. Nevertheless, the morphological characteristics, the plasticity, the rich colouring, the love of beauty, the ethos of the figures and their marked humanity, point to a revival of art and support a dating in the second half of the 13th century. The talented colourist of the church of St. John may have chosen for some representations iconographic models older than his time, probably prompted by his own or the donor’s conservatism. However, his sensibility and skill make him accept the general contemporary trends of the major centres that had reached even this remote small village of Frankish-ruled Naxos. This he does certainly with the changes and adaptations imposed by the different circumstances which, in turn, are not unrelated to the prevailing political and economic situation of the island.