05 May 2009

Ag. Thomas at Midea

This is how Ag. Thomas looked in 1978 and this is how history happens.

Ag. Thomas is a sweet small church, up many steps above the road leading to the archaeological site of Midea. In 1978 it was surrounded by brush, its walls were rough though immaculately whitewashed, and in 1978 there was evidence on the exterior that it was built in the 13th century.

For one thing, there was a dentil trim--corners of bricks barely visible in this picture -- along the roof line and across each side under the windows. For another, there were -- whitewashed over then -- crosses made of ceramic bowls over the windows on the north and south sides, like this bowl from
the church of the Dormition of the Virgin at Merbaka-Ag. Triada which used to have 52 of these jewel-colored ornaments. Ag. Thomas had at least 12 making up the two crosses, and there may have been more.

Inside the apse are remains of indecipherable frescos. The iconostasis was in 1978 and is now painted a splendid bright blue. At the base of the iconostasis is a hole -- recall that Thomas wanted to put his fingers into the hole in the Master's side for proof -- through which children were once, perhaps still are, passed for healing.

What you see in the immaculate exterior, the clumsiness of the arches, the gaiety of the paint and the amateurishness of the icons is that this church is beloved by the people of its small village to whom it belongs.

This may be the problem -- it certainly is a problem for archaeologists, art historians, and those who require history to be frozen for the buildings of their choice. There is a great word here in Greece often seen on restored buildings, anapaliotheke -- "made old again" which is what happens to these medieval churches when they are officially discovered, fixed, and frozen.

Ag. Thomas was not officially discovered and so in recent years, its village has done the fixing. The brush was cleared out and the pavement extended on the south side looking south to Midea and down the valley east to Nauplion and the sea. The porch roofs were sensibly enlarged and electricity put in. So far, so good.

But then the uneven roof line was regularized -- the interior vault was left intact, but the walls on the east and west ends were raised a bit, and the center walls cut down to the tops of the windows. This eliminated the ceramic bowls that had survived for 700 and more years.

The exterior of the church was replastered, eliminating any sign of dentil moldings, sizes and shapes of stones, and any other indications of age. The photographs of Ag. Thomas from 1978 and from 2009 are so unlike that anyone who has not been there may have to accept on faith that these are photographs of the same
building. This new one is immaculate, well cared-for, and has nothing of its former appealing shabbiness.

This is partially a class thing, this yearning for charm and shabbiness, this desire for the picturesque. The picturesque is generally a function of long-time poverty, and if there is anything people want when they no longer have to submit to poverty, it is to signal that is has gone. If you repair and paint your home, why not your church

This is a problem for me as a historian: why should these remnants of the past, valuable to me as an outsider, one who neither pays taxes here nor helps whitewash -- why should the people to whom they belong maintain them for my satisfaction? Real vandalism has been done to several churches I know, particularly one on private property, but for a government agency to take over under the rationale of the value of "national heritage" may do violence to other values, and to individuals who already have a firm concept of their own heritage based on the information available to them.

I particularly love the Saints Thomas: Thomas Apostle, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Becket, Thomas More -- all in love with accuracy, even to the point of disaster. So I want to be accurate about Ag. Thomas-Midea: it has not been vandalized, it has been cared for by the people to whom it belongs. And it is accurate to say that this care has created loss for another community.

1 comment:

  1. Like the run-ins between the poor townsfolk of Rethymnon and "The Archaeology" that Herzfeld wrote about in A Place in History: all very well for the government to want to maintain their rundown houses frozen in the Renaissance, they didn't have daughters to dower...


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