Thursday 28 November 2013

Oddball Churches: Panagia Faneroméni in Xilocastro

Oddball Churches: Panagia Faneroméni (Παναγία Φανερωμένη),  in Xilocastro

On the western outskirts of Xilókastro (on the Old National Road) 500 meters or so west of the toll road exit. It has regular services and is open from 8:30-10:00 or so every morning according to the priest at Ag Blasios, Xilokastro’s main church: which can be contacted at: tel: 27430-41435

  A Warp in Time

Panagia Faneromeni should stop you in your tracks. Attached to its north side is an open space as big as the church, enclosed by massive blocks of white marble, - not something you see every day.  And this is a mere introduction to the weird otherness of Panagia Faneromeni begun in the 1970s by Father Nikkon (παπά Νίκωνας) whose concept it was. His vision of ecclesiastical perfection did not include a high iconostasis, multiple domes and so on – “so much Turkish folderol” as he put it. His beau ideal went farther back, - to early Christian churches when large three aisled basilicas were the norm, the pulpit, or ambo, was a raised platform with stairs on two sides and placed  in the center of the congregation, and the iconostasis was a low railing not interfering with the view to the apse or altar.

Fabulous mosaics glitter in the narthex, nave and sanctuary, and there are more to come. The conch of the apse does not follow the conventional iconic program. Here Christ Pantocrator, not Mary, is in the ascendant position. He believed that Mary should not be usurping the position of her Son. One mosaic still in the planning stages will be the Ascension of Alexander the Great, not an unheard of subject in Greek Churches, but unusual, to say the least.
The altar has its own canopy and curtains block it off during the parts of the service when it should not be seen.

When the curtains are open it is possible the dove, symbol of the Holy Ghost, hovers over it  mobile-like. Sometimes Orthodox symbolism can be breathtakingly literal and naive at the same time!

The Bapistry, attached to the south side of the nave contains an exact replica of the baptismal font in the famous  4th century AD church of Panayia Ekatontapyliani (Παναγίας της Εκατονταπυλιανής) in Paros.
Notice the portable baptismal font in the right hand corner, a more practical option. Full immersion basins for adult baptism probably died out at the same time that infant baptisms came in. Note that a Bapistry, like a monastery refectory, is set up like a church with apse and altar to the east even although this particular one is a room off the main church.
There is more…The small colonnaded atrium before the western entrance looks like one you would expect to see in an early Christian church albeit in miniature, but the large basin here is more like the ritual lustral basins (perirrhanteria) which stood outside of ancient Greek temples than the domed and colonnaded phiales of the Byzantine era. In fact, there is one just like this in the Isthmia Archaeological museum dating from the 6th century BC.

Even curiouser are massive bronze doors leading to the narthex. They replicate the doors of Phillip’s (father of Alexander’s the Great)  tomb in Macedonia, with an added cross motif. These, along with the huge  Italianate bell tower that dominates the south side of the church make you realize that although the church is a replica of an early Christian church in most ways, in some details the time is weirdly “out of joint”.

The details in the mosaics are wonderful:

And marble  filler decorations are also  in the style of early churches:


The open area to the north is as impressive as it is odd.  At its eastern end in the apse behind the altar rail is  a large marble altar and behind it a synthronon with the bishop’s chair at the highest point, as it should be (see the Geography of a Church in the set texts).  We are back to early Christian churches again if you ignore that this one is open air.

Except for the fish motif, this could have been an altar outside any classical temple

The cost of Panagia Faneromeni has to be as staggering as the concept. And yet donations came in.  Father Nikkon had plenty of help from architects and historians in realizing his dream. He was as unusual as his creation, - starting out as a monk, but finding the life unsatisfying, he considered the priesthood. Thanks to the understanding of the bishop in Corinth he was allowed a village church although unmarried. Apparently his sister was a widow with children and that covered the situation!
We met on several occasions. The church was his obsession; he believed his mission was divinely inspired and not, as it seemed to some scoffers, a sign of megalomania. On one visit, an old wooden bed was placed hard by the altar rail so that he could sleep in the church long after the workers had left, and not waste time. Late in life, he was wont to say pretty much whatever came into his mind about life in general and the church in particular. These remarks were sometimes shocking, but never dull; an encounter with Father Nikkon was always an experience. He was personally modest, but not about his church. On one occasion I went by Panagia Faneromeni with a group of friends from abroad.  He greeted us in his best regalia and patiently pointed out every single feature with pride.  All agreed it was the highlight of their day - a day that included both Mycenae and Nemea.

There are two side rooms on either side of the open air sanctuary each with massive doors. 

In the southern one   depicted above  is a highly decorated sarcophagus that would look at home in ancient Rome.  It was empty the only time I saw it and when  I asked, Father Nikkon  he said that it was for him, that a voice in a dream told him to prepare it. I have to say, the sarcophagus gave me pause; the whole concept was so over the top and grandiose for the twenty first century.
 And yet, and yet - there is more to this impressive building than meets the eye. It is a reminder that Orthodoxy today, as in every era, still has plenty of room for individuality and eccentricity both in its priests and its churches. And in the most surprising places too.

Father Nikkon died in 2011 and rests in his sarcophagus, exactly as he planned.

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