In the mountains of Apokoronas, the village of Maza revolves around the small Church of St. Nicholas (Άγιος Νικόλαος), built at the center of the village square. The church is located 25 km southeast of Chania and can be reached in a 40-minute drive from the city. This church is the fifth of the eight remaining churches painted by Pagomenos. The dedicatory inscription painted on the interior western wall reflects shifting perspectives on the importance of painting and its rightful place among the liberal arts, as well as the status of the artist as a creative and accomplished intellectual.
Site description and development
According to the dedicatory inscription painted on the interior western wall, the church was painted with the contributions and efforts of Dimitrios Sarakinopoulos and Konstattis Raptis who funded half of the costs, while the remaining sum was covered by Konstattinos Dimitrios Sarakinopoulos, Georgios Mauromatis, the priest Michael, and the inhabitants of the village of Maza, whose name the lord knows, by the hand of the sinner Ioannis Pagomenos in the year 6834 (1325-26). The church is covered with a barrel vault in the interior and a tiled, saddle roof on the exterior. It is divided into two bays by a transverse arch (Spathanakis).
Today, the church remains at the center of the village’s main square and is surrounded by a cafe on the north and a residence on the south. On the east and west are buildings not currently in regular use, one historic and abandoned on the east side of the square and the other appearing to provide storage and seating for when there is a higher level of activity in the square. The church is currently in more regular use, because the new church in Maza experienced a fire and liturgy is being practiced in the old Church of St. Nicholas.
It is interesting to note that the church’s dedicatory inscription mentions the painting of the church —as opposed to the foundation and building of the church — reflecting Pagomenos’ own perspective as an artist and creator. At the Church of St. Nicholas in Maza, Pagomenos demonstrated an exceptional ability to accommodate eight scenes from the life of St. Nicholas within the small church, in addition to depicting Christological scenes (scenes from the life of Christ), making for a particularly engaging decorative scheme. The frescoes dynamically alternate between narrative scenes and icons of individual saints. Thus, the miracles of St. Nicholas—his birth, his first day of school—contrast nicely with the standing figures of saints welcoming the congregation into the church. From left to right on the western wall, SS. Photini, Paraskevi, Barbara, and Anastasia flank the door, standing as pillars of faith and Orthodox role models. Above them, the Crucifixion reminds all Orthodox of Christ’s promise of salvation.
The concept of salvation is echoed in the semi-dome of the apse, where St. Nicholas appears once again in the Deesis. With the Virgin Mary, he intercedes on behalf of all supplicants gathered in the naos, asking Christ for their forgiveness and absolution of sin. While the Virgin is always present next to her son, the Pantokrator (Ruler of All), Pagomenos introduced the titular saint of the church, St. Nicholas, in the customary position of St. John the Baptist.
On the north wall, next to the large portrait of St. Nicholas receiving the gospel book from Christ and the omophorion (bishop’s stole) from the Virgin, stands a small figure dressed in the ubiquitous mi-parti garment seen repeatedly on images of donors. This figure likely represents one of the men mentioned by name in the inscription, showing him as a valued member of the community, and one whose contributions earned him the privilege of being portrayed next to St. Nicholas.
The selection of St. Nicholas as patron saint is in itself intriguing, as none of the named donors was named in honor of this particular saint. Alongside warrior saints such as St. George and St. Demetrius—also represented at Maza, on horseback and in full Crusader armor—St. Nicholas received increased attention during the late Byzantine period, particularly in contested areas with shifting rulership and under military threat (e.g., the Crusader States, Frankish Cyprus, Venetian Crete). He was known as a staunch defender of the Christian faith, particularly for his defense of Orthodoxy against the Arian Controversy at the first meeting of the Ecumenical Council in 325, in the city of Nicaea. It might be that the citizens of Maza invoked St. Nicholas in response to Catholic pressure and increased Venetian presence on the island during the early fourteenth century.
State of conservation