Detail from an Iconostasis

The phraseology utilised in these pages is deliberately non technical. This is for two sound reasons. One - I've never quite grasped (or rather, retained) the finer details of church architectural nomenclature myself, and two - it is likely that most amateur or just curious church seekers haven't either. Therefore descriptions along the line of "…fine entablature on the absidiole of the diakonikon" can be left to the experts. They'll know what what's called but still be able to find it by my cruder descriptions. I also use, interchangeably, the words "fresco(es) and painting(s). Now I know that the vast majority of the wall paintings you will encounter in Greek churches will be just that. Paintings. Frescoes (or frescos - you can spell it either way) are wall pictures where the pigmentation is laid on into the still wet plaster - which calls for exceedingly speedy work and is actually rather rare. However most lay - and any number of expert - persons use the terms indiscriminately and so shall I.

Even so a number of terms of need to be used and a quick glossary is needed.

Religious goods and paraphernalia can be found in specialist stores in most large Greek towns. This one is in the old quarter of Kalamata


The divide between the main body of the church, where the worshipful hoi poloi gather, and the sanctuary/altar area, where only the priest should be permitted. This can have one, two or three entrances to it and can be made of stone (when it should strictly speaking be called a Templon) or wood (the norm in more modern centuries). Sometimes (i.e. Ag. Petros, Kastania, Ag. Iannis, Platsa) there will be a later wooden addition to a stone original and sometimes there is a wooden framework filled with rubble and plasterwork. The Iconostasis is usually decorated with icons of the church's saint and across the top Christ and the Virgin with the apostles flanking them.

On the left an iconostasis - made of carved wood - on the right a templon - made of stone and plaster (though topped by a wooden cross) (left. Vaidenitsa and right. Ag. Nikolaos - Kato Milia)

18th and 19th century iconostasis design in the Mani was particularly ornate and painted carved wood dragons often top a gloriously baroque edifice which has much to do with western artistic influences.

Right. Icon in an iconostasis with later framed icons. Left. Donor inscription on the wall of the bema - small chapel - Pedino - 1778.

The face of the icon has been defaced. One hears different stories to explain this form of vandalism. One is that they were defaced by Moslems as the depiction of the human face is frowned upon under Islam. Possible, and in other parts of Greece, Turkey and the Balkans probable, but unlikely in Mani where the Turks rarely appeared - plus this is an early 19th century example. The other explanation is that superstitious locals excise the face (and sometimes the eyes of frescoes) and retain them as they are perceived to have miraculous properties.


An outer vestibule or room to the church on the west end, almost invariably the same width as the church. Often paintings of the Last Judgement and the Harrowing of Hell are found in the narthex. There can be Exonarthexes too (in other words a vestibule on a vestibule) in large churches. Exonarthexes are uncommon in Mani churches and indeed narthexes are not very prevalent.


The Sanctuary at the east end of the church which is reserved for the priest. Strictly speaking it is still a definite no go area unless invited and women are actively discouraged, indeed banned, from entering and there are still widespread superstitions about the bad luck of allowing menstruating women into churches (how anyone can tell is difficult to figure out). As most churches are empty when you visit you can ignore these strictures - but if a priest or keyholder is in situ - ask first and don't be surprised if the answer is "Ochi" and even if, as a male, you are allowed into the bema you shouldn't cross in front of the altar.

Bema seen through the iconostasis - Koimisis - Stavropigio

During a service keep well clear of the sanctuary as it is then firmly the territory of the priest and you will be told to buzz off in no uncertain terms. From my small experience of them, Greek Orthodox services are less formal from the point of view of the behaviour of the congregation than Anglican or Catholic ones. Especially at festivals people seem to wander in and out at will, light candles cross themselves, natter to a friend and in one case I observed, at the festival of the Panagia on the island of Halki in the Dodecanese, a Greek-American happily video-ing the entire event - the Papas did growl at the eager cinematographer when the lens came a little too close to him.


In English churches what we would call the nave. The main body of the church. The brown and yellow signs put up by the local heritage organisations describe the whole building as "Naos"rather than 'ekklisies' in Greek but revert to "Church" in the English translation.


The rounded bit at the east end of the church above the sanctuary. Usually containing a large depiction of the Virgin and Child amongst others. There can be a varied number of apses, from the outside often one, but inside - usually three but sometimes just the one and in a few cases either two or four conches. The left hand apse or conch is called the Prothesis and normally has a small niche containing a depiction of Christ in Pity or Humiliation, the crown of thorns on his head, rising from the tomb. The right hand apse or conch is called the Diakonikon.

Tamata - small votive pressed tin plaques decorated with simple embossings - such as a baby, a leg, a boy or girl and even sometimes a motor car. These are hung onto the iconostasis. You can find these for sale in religious paraphernalia shops in larger towns.


A mezzanine floor to the rear (west end) of a church, usually built of wood and reserved for women. This is usually a later - nineteenth or twentieth century addition to a church and needs a relatively large church to be a viable structure. There are some in Mani - and I suspect more of the larger 'parish' churches I haven't been into have them. Some of the examples I know of are in the main church of Ano Doli, the Koimisis Theotokou - Stavropigio, Koimisis Theotokou- Kastania and the main church in Prosilio.


On to Frescoes and Iconography