Byzantine Crete

5. Church of Agios Dimitrios near Pigi

Agios Dimitrios village, Rethymno municipality, Rethymno regional unit
Early 11th century

This church, dedicated to Saint Demetrius, is located in a village of the same name near the settlement of Pigi, 8 km southeast of the city of Rethymno.

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It is a cruciform church with a dome. The dome is supported by four columns from an earlier period. The drum of the dome is divided into eight by narrow windows framed by brick ornaments, slender columns and dentil arches.

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The façades of the church are articulated with blind arches and a few small windows. The use of the recessed brick technique can be seen here and there, showing the influence of the contemporary Constantinopolitan architecture. The masonry of the church is, in general, very neat.

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The interior walls of the church were adorned with frescoes, dated variously from the 11th to the 14th century. The frescoes are, with the exception of the figure of Saint Tryphon, in a bad condition.


6. Church of Zoodochos Pigi near Koufos

Between Koufos & Alikianos villages, Platanias municipality, Chania regional unit
c. 1030; early 14th century (?)

This church, dedicated to the Mother of God of the Life-Giving Spring, is located in a rural landscape in the middle of orange and lemon trees.

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The church was founded by Saint John the Hermit in around 1030, after his return from Constantinople. Its shows the influence of the architectural trends that were prevalent in the Byzantine capital at the time. It may have been modified later, possibly after the 1303 earthquake.

It is a cruciform church with a dome and a narthex. The dome was supported by four marble columns from the Early Christian period (one now replaced by a pier). The design of the drum of the dome is very similar to that of the Church of Agios Dimitrios near Pigi, showing slender columns between its narrow windows and dentils above its brick arches. The narthex is lower than the rest of the church and its central bay is covered by a low dome.

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The façades of the church are decorated with large blind arches and windows of various shapes. The most attractive part of the exterior is the sanctuary apse, showing beautiful brick patterns, thin columns between the windows and dentil arches and friezes.

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The interior walls of the church are covered with frescoes in two layers. The first layer is contemporary with the construction of the church, while the second is from the beginning of the 14th century. Surviving frescoes include the figure of the Mother of God, scenes from the life of Christ, and figures of various saints, including Saint John the Hermit himself.

Entrance to the church from the southwestern bay of the naos must be from the Venetian period, as indicated by the pointed arch and the decorated corbels. Remains of wall paintings can be observed here as well.

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Various tombs have been discovered inside and outside the church. These are from the 11th to the 19th century.


7. Church of Agios Pavlos near Agia Roumeli

4 km southeast of Agia Roumeli village, Sfakia municipality, Chania regional unit
c. 1040

This church is located on a remote beach a scenic hike or a boat trip away from the village of Agia Roumeli.

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The church is believed to have been built by Saint John the Hermit in around 1040, after the completion the Church of Zoodochos Pigi near Koufos. It is dedicated to Paul the Apostle, who is believed to have landed and baptised people here on his way to Rome.

It is a simple cruciform church with a dome. There is little decoration in masonry, if one does not count the blind arches with marble elements above the western entrance. The church was constructed using stones from the nearby White Mountains, which is why it is hard to notice it when one approaches it from the sea.

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The interior walls of the church are covered with frescoes in two layers. The first layer is contemporary with the construction of the church, while the second layer is from the 14th century. According to some sources, the frescoes are, instead, from the 13th century. They depict scenes of the Nativity, the Epiphany, the Baptism, the Transfiguration and the Second Coming of Christ as well as various figures such as the Four Evangelists. Most of the frescoes are hard to read because of the damage caused by the vicinity of the sea.

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8. Church of Panagia near Fodele

1 km northwest of Fodele village, Malevizi municipality, Heraklion regional unit
11th century

This church is dedicated to the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple. It is located not far away from the house where Domenikos Theotokopoulos, a Cretan painter better known as El Greco, was born, according to the museum that operates in it.

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The church was built in the 11th century. It stands on the site of a three-aisled basilica from the 6th century, occupying a part of its nave. In the construction of the Middle Byzantine church, some elements from the old basilica were used as spolia, such as the marble columns of the three-light window in its east apse. Fragments of the external walls, the marble floor and the baptistery of the old basilica can be seen around the church.

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The Church of Panagia is a cross-in-square church with a dome supported by four piers. The interior is lit by the high and narrow windows of the dome, the aforementioned three-light window in the east apse, and the simple windows in the north, west and south walls. The windows are crowned with arches made in the recessed brick technique. Large blind arches accentuated by white stones and dentil patterns dominate the external surfaces in the west.

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On the inside of the church we can see a fragment from a marble iconostasis and frescoes in two layers.

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The oldest layer of frescoes is from the 11th century and can be seen in the west corners. It includes a series of full-length saints and martyrs, including Saints Constantine and Helen, on the west end of the north wall. The piers here show the figures of military saints.

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The frescoes around the southern cross arm are from 1323. They show the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple and scenes from the life of the Virgin.

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9. Byzantine bath in Episkopi near Ierapetra

Episkopi village, Ierapetra municipality, Lasithi regional unit
11th century

The village of Episkopi is located 7 km northeast of Ierapetra. As its name indicates, it must have been the seat of a bishop or, at least, a village with many church-owned estates in the Byzantine period. Its main church was dedicated to Virgin Mary, Saint John and Saint Spyridon. A large cruciform structure with a central dome and six smaller domes around it, it was known as Παναγία η Εφτάτρουλη (the Church of Panagia of the Seven Domes). It was demolished in the early 20th century.

Near the site of the demolished church and close to the stream that flows through the village stands what was originally a Byzantine bath. Built in the 11th century, it is one of the few surviving Byzantine baths in Crete.

The bath has a cruciform plan and a central dome. The dome stands on a rectangular base, and its upper part is adorned with blind arches made in the recessed brick technique. Apses protrude from the central area to the east and west. The upper parts of their external walls show blind arches similar to those of the dome. There is also a rectangular vaulted room to the north.

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The central space under the dome was probably the hot room, the space to the north must have been the cold room, and the space to the south probably served as the warm room.

The operation of the bath ceased in the Venetian period and the building was converted into a church. The conversion was facilitated by the cruciform plan of the bath. In the 16th century an aisleless church was built immediately to its south. To connect the two churches, the south space of the old church was destroyed and its west apse was pierced to allow for a new entrance. The patron saint of the bath church is Saint George, while the new church is dedicated to Saint Charalampos.

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10. Byzantine bath in Kato Episkopi near Sitia

Kato Episkopi village, Sitia municipality, Lasithi regional unit
11th century

This structure, built in the 11th century as a bath, is located 4 km south of Sitia, in the village of Kato Episkopi. In the Byzantine period, this village probably served as the seat of a bishop, or at least there were many church-owned estates here. The bath must have been connected to the episcopal complex, just like in case of the Byzantine bath in Episkopi near Ierapetra.

It is a cruciform structure with a dome. The original entrance in the west led to a barrel-vaulted space which served as the changing area and perhaps the cold room. Under the floor of the domed central part, remains of hot air ducts have been discovered, indicating that this space was used as the hot room. To its north and south are apses with built-in seats, which may have been individual bathtubs. In the barrel-vaulted space in the east, there is an arched opening and traces of fire, referring to its probable use as a cistern and a heating area for the water.

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The bath was converted into a church in the Venetian period, probably in the 15th century. The conversion of the bath into a church was facilitated by its cruciform plan. The decorations on the external wall surfaces, which include blind arcades in the recessed brick technique and brick patterns of the cross and sun motifs, may be from this period, although some have suggested that these were part of the original structure. The church is dedicated to the Holy Apostles.

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The third Byzantine bath in Eastern Crete that was later converted into a church is located near the village of Epano Episkopi, 12 km south of Sitia. The church is dedicated to Agios Vasileios.


11. Church of Panagia in Lampini

Lampini village, Agios Vasileios municipality, Rethymno regional unit
11th or 12th century

This church is located in the village of Lampini in the hinterland of the Rethymno regional unit, not far from the main road to Agia Galini.

It is essentially a cruciform church. Four piers divide the interior into nine bays, the central bay is covered by a dome, and the cross arms protrude slightly from the north and south walls, just like the sanctuary apse in the east. There is a bell tower on the apex of the west façade. The exterior walls and the drum of the dome are decorated with blind arches.

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The west entrance of the church seems to be made of reused stones, possibly from an Early Christian structure, but I have not been able to confirm this.

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The interior walls of the church are decorated with frescoes from four different periods. The oldest known layer of frescoes is from the end of the 12th century. This is the terminus ante quem of the construction of the church, although some have hinted that it was built earlier, possibly in the 11th century. The second layer of frescoes is from the mid-13th century, the third from the early 14th century, and the fourth from the first half of the 15th century.

The fresco of Panagia Platytera in the sanctuary apse shows the inscription ‘Η ΛΑΜΠΗΝΗ’, which explains the name of the church and the entire village.


12. Church of Panagia Zerviotissa near Stylos

1 km north of Stylos village, Apokoronas municipality, Chania regional unit
11th or 12th century

This beautiful church is located in a grove in the middle of agricultural land north of the village of Stylos. It was the katholikon of a monastery established in the late 11th or 12th century by the monks of the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian of Patmos. It was named after an icon of Virgin Mary holding Christ the Child in her left hand (‘ζερβά’ means ‘left’ in Greek).

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Panagia Zerviotissa is a large cross-in-square church. Four piers divide the space into nine bays and support an octagonal dome. Three apses protrude strongly in the east.

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The exterior walls show the use of cloisonné masonry, large blind arches and arches made of dentils above entrances and windows. There are no windows apart from those of the drum of the dome and the apses. One can see pieces from older structures used as spolia here and there in the walls.

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Of the frescoes that once covered the interior walls, only few traces survive.

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Remains of a cemetery can be found near the church.


13. Church of Agios Nikolaos near Kyriakosellia

1 km northeast of Kyriakosellia village, Apokoronas municipality, Chania regional unit
11th or early 12th century; first half of 13th century

This church, located in a picturesque valley in the hinterland of the Apokoronas region, is among the most beautiful of the Byzantine churches of Crete. It is dedicated to Saint Nicholas of Myra, although its original patron saint may have been Saint Nicholas the Studite, who was born in Kydonia (Chania).

The church was constructed in the 11th or early 12th century as an aisleless vaulted church, possibly with a dome. In the first half of the 13th century it was converted into a cruciform church. The central bays of the church are much wider than the bays on the sides, creating a spacious effect. The dome has a high and thin drum. The sanctuary apse protrudes strongly from the east wall.

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Other notable elements on the outside include two- and three-light windows framed by brick patterns, dentils and blind arches. The arch above the north entrance of the church has a similar decoratiton. There are beautiful brick arches above the high and narrow windows of the drum of the dome.

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The interior walls of the church are covered with well-preserved frescoes from the first half of the 13th century. These were painted by skilled artists and follow the Komnenian tradition. Representations include the figures of the Virgin, the Christ, Saint Nicholas of Myra and Saint Nicholas the Studite as well as scenes from their lives. The frescoes show intense and luxurious colours, most notably blue (Egyptian blue).

In the 20th century the western wall of the church was demolished and a large narthex was added to it.

Next to the church is the cemetery of the village. Nearby are the ruins of a Byzantine fortress.