The Church of the Most Holy Theotokos Eleousa, in the traditional settlement of Kynopiastes, 8 km south of Corfu town, has been the centre of village life, for at least 500 years. This is evidenced by the abundance of data found both in the Archives of the Prefecture of Corfu and in the Archives of the Parish.
Built, hagiographed and decorated with love, devotion, worship, offering, effort and sweat of the Kynopiastes, the Church of the Virgin Mary remains today a common point of reference for all residents of the village and beyond. It dominates the centre of the settlement, connected with the joys and sorrows, with the celebrations and festivals of its inhabitants.
A brief history of the Church is presented in the text that follows
The oldest documents that illuminate the life of the church of the Most Holy Theotokos Eleousa of Kynopiastes, are in the Archives of the Prefecture of Corfu. They date to 1542, with reference to 1540, when the members of the local Skortzi family are said to be the “owners and masters” of the church. This fact, in combination with the history of the village, leads to the increased possibility that the church already existed, at least since the 15th century.
A few years later, in 1556, a member of the same family, “the Holy Archbishop Markos Skortzis“, in another document, found in the Corfu Archives, is also mentioned as the owner and custodian of the church of the Most Holy Theotokos Eleousis in the village of Kynopiastes ”. This is in an agreement with Mr. Stylianos Skiadopoulos, to establish a vineyard on a property of the Church in the area of Milia.
On September 22, 1581, “the pious Mr. Antonios Skortzis, as the custodian and housekeeper of the church of Our Lady of Mercy”, signed an agreement with Pope Kaloioannis Kaloulis to operate the church for three years.
The 16th century was a period of population bleeding for Corfu, as during the first siege by the Ottomans in 1537, the troops of Suleiman the Magnificent, unable to capture the fortified Old Fortress of Corfu, massacred, looted and destroyed, this overspilling into other areas. According to the Corfiot chronicler, Nikandros Noukios, they took with them, 22,000 prisoners who were sold as slaves, in the slave markets of the East. Among them were several residents of Kynopiastes. But that was not enough. During the Venetian-Turkish war 1570 – 1572, many young people were recruited as rowers in the galleys. Of these, 9 out of 10 lost their lives to starvation, hardship and war.
Thus, in 1583, the population census of Kynopiastes, with only 193 inhabitants! In 1604, the church was apparently left without a pope. Its owners, as well as 34 representatives of the families left in the village, benefited from the presence of a priest who had come, as a refugee, from the Peloponnese, Pope Nikolaos Monovasiotis (from Monemvasia). They assigned him the duties of pastor, making an impressive and binding agreement with him as to what his responsibilities at the church would be and determining his remuneration in kind (wine, oil and wheat)! The relevant contract mentioned the contracted representatives of the families of the village.
The church during the 17th century, changed hands from the founding family, Skortzi, which still exists today, and became the property of the bourgeois family, Agapitos. From this family, Pope Antonios Agapitos donated the church in his will, on March 30, 1686, (ANK, Contract A.144, f. 35n) to the community of inhabitants of the village.
The church of Y.Th. Eleousa of Kynopiastes then became a fellowship church of the inhabitants of the village and acquired its own organization, administration and cash management. Three years after the donation, in 1689, the records of all the information pertaining to the church began. They were found, in relatively good condition, in a store during the church’s renovation, in 1991.
Many of the handwritten texts in the book concern donations made by the inhabitants for divine intervention by the Virgin Mary but also “for their spiritual salvation and that of their parents”. Donations to the church continued at an impressive rate as the village population grew. Very quickly, the small church around the current shrine with the epitaph icon (mural) of the Virgin was no longer sufficient for the needs of the village and it was decided to expand it to a classic single-aisled basilica. Four years after the second siege of Corfu by the Turks, in 1716, expansion work on the church began.
A stone iconostasis was made, the icons ordered from a remarkable hagiographer of the Ionian school, Pope Andreas Metaxas, and a bell tower was built (not the current one). For the expenses of the construction works and the hagiography, a comprehensive cash book was kept, where detailed transactions of expenses and contributions were recorded. The church was in a phase of great prosperity in the last four and a half centuries of Venetian rule, despite the abolition of the Orthodox Metropolitan Throne.
The orthodox clergy was led by the so-called Great Archbishop, who took care of the administration of the church on the island. In those years, in the fellowship church of Y.Th. Compassionate, the Commissioners, or ‘governors’ as they were known, were elected by secret ballot by representatives of the families to which the church belonged. A record of the election of two “Koumeni governors” of 1752, which survives in excellent condition, testifies to the impeccable observance of democratic procedures in those difficult years.
They participated in a secret ballot, 19 brothers of the church as voters (their names are mentioned) and three pairs of candidates (combinations we would say today). The elected won with 16 positive votes to three negative ones. The minutes typically state for the elected that “in the YES were found sixteen (16) balls and in the NO three (3) balls”!
From 1800 to 1807, the Russians under Admiral F. Usakov, today a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church, ruled the island. They expelled the French Democrats of Napoleon and reestablished the Orthodox Diocese. After more than five centuries of Latin rule the church entered a new period of prosperity. Donations multiplied. The sense of security of the inhabitants grew and the population increased.
From 1814, Corfu entered the last phase of xenocracy with the 50-year period of English “Protection” and the creation of the Ionian State. One of the main concerns of the newly formed state was the development of public education. Thus, in 1826, the first common school was founded in Kynopiastes in a small building, the loggia, owned by the Parish of Y.Th. Eleousa, on the southern side of the church.
Indicative of the importance of the village of Kynopiastes and the local church, is the visit made by the philhellene envoy of the British government to the church of Y.Th. Mercy, on Christmas Day, 1858. Later, Prime Minister of England, William Gladstone, visited several times in order to investigate the national mindset of the inhabitants, in view of processes for the Union with Greece.
The latest expansion
The local community was gradually educated and the population increased. By 1864, the time of the Union of the Ionian Islands with Greece, it had reached 843 inhabitants. The economic development, driven by the flourishing agricultural production and handicrafts, gave the inhabitants of Kynopiastes new possibilities, so ambitious plans for the church of Panagia were made.
Towards the end of the 19th century, with more than a thousand inhabitants, the idea of the new expansion of the church of Panagia matured. However, extending it forward was problematic, as it would limit the area of the square, where all the local celebrations took place. Extending backwards was also a problem, as the ornate stone iconostasis and the hagiographed Sanctuary would be damaged. Thus, it is decided to expand the church in width and height.
A frieze was then added to the iconostasis, where the icons of the Twelve Apostles were also placed. Two more aisles were built one to the right and another on the left, above them the gynaikonitis, the woman’s quarters. Thus, the capacity of the church was almost doubled.
In 1900, the construction of the present ornate stone bell tower was completed by craftsmen from Kato Garounia with stone from their area. The church was decorated inside and out and in 1913 it took on its current appearance with the unique marble sculpture of Penteli (the same as the Parthenon) at its main gate, created by the sculptor, Stefanos Kardamis. The great painter, Georgios Samartzis, illustrated the monasteries in the two aisles, while Socrates Paipetis, son of the Mayor of Mesochori Andreas Paipetis, donated the illustration of Ourania in 1909.
The reconstruction of the church took 10 years and was completed in 1920, with the excellent, decorative compositions on the floor of the church, one of the best on the island. Finally, the surrounding area of the church was formed and in 1926, the adjacent cemetery was moved to its current location, while its former space was transformed into a village square.
During work on internal repair of the church and preservation of its icons, at the end of the 20th century, by the Parish, under the pastor Archimandrite Chrysostomos Koutsouris, real treasures were revealed that were left behind by previous generations, despite the conditions of poverty and deprivation in which they lived.
Icons of exceptional artistic value, by the best hagiographers of the past centuries, especially those of the Ionian School, were discovered. Stone sculptures by folk craftsmen, decorative elements of advanced architecture, well-written ornate inscriptions, ancient chandeliers (1775) from the end of the 18th century, icons that came from the Holy Land in 1812, old priestly vestments, a torch and a scoop for the external liturgies that are performed according to the Byzantine standard, etc. are to be seen. The church is open daily to the public with free admission.
A visit is awe inspiring!
1.Το τοπωνύµιο “Μηλιά” σήµερα αναφέρεται στην οµώνυµη συνοικία των Κυνοπιαστών
2.Έγγραφο των Αρχείων Ν. Κέρκυρας που έφερε στο φως ο Κώστας Γραµµένος
3.Έλλης Γιωτοπούλου – Σισιλιάνου, Πρεσβείες της Ενετοκρατούµενης Κέρκυρας (16ος – 18ος αιώνας), σελ. 75
4. Σπύρου Χρ. Καρύδη, Ορθόδοξες Αδελφότητες και Συναδελφικοί Ναοί στην Κέρκυρα (16ος – 19ος αιώνας)
5. Νίκου Κ. Κουρκουµέλη, Η εκπαίδευση στην Κέρκυρα κατά τη διάρκεια της Βρετανικής Προστασίας (1816 – 1864)
ΑΡΧΕΙΟ ΜΥ ΚERKYRA Magazine
ΠΟΥΛΗΜΕΝΟΣ, Στέφανος (2017). “Η τρίκλιτη βασιλική της Παναγίας των Κυνοπιαστών“, My Kerkyra magazine: the Real Corfu, τευχ.19, σελ.14-17