Athens is not as famous for its Byzantine architecture as Istanbul or Thessaloniki. It has, however, a number of cute churches from the Middle Byzantine period, mostly from the 11th century. The most important of them is the Daphni Monastery in Chaidari, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
My portfolio consists of photos of 13 Byzantine churches in the Greek capital. It does not include the Kaisariani Monastery and some lesser-known churches, but I consider it to be representative. I took the photos in April 2018. In writing the descriptions I consulted the following websites: Byzantine Monuments of Attica, The Byzantine Legacy, and Athens Info Guide.
You will find the locations of all these churches on the map below.
1. Church of Panagia Pantanassa
Various datings between 7th and 12th centuries
This church is a basilica. Its nave is covered by a barrel vault while above the aisles there are cross vaults. It is a good example of the transition from the Early Christian basilica plan to the cross-in-square church of the Middle Byzantine period.
The barrel-vaulted basilicas of Athens are from the 8th or 9th century. However, some have suggested, judging on the basis of the masonry, that the Church of Pantanassa is older, possibly from the 7th century. Others date it to the 10th century. The capitals make reference to the 11th and 12th centuries.
A 17th-century sigillum mentions this church as the katholikon of the Great Monastery, which was an annex of the Kaisariani Monastery. Towards the end of the 19th century the monastic buildings, located on the site of today’s square, were demolished, and the church – and the adjacent neighbourhood – acquired the name of the Small Monastery, or Monastiraki in Greek.
2. Monastery of Hagioi Asomatoi Taxiarches / Petraki Monastery
Ioannou Gennadiou 14, Ampelokipoi
10th century, later additions
This church, located not far from the Evangelismos Hospital, was the katholikon of the Monastery of the Holy Incorporeal Taxiarchs (Archangels Michael and Gabriel).
It is a cross-in-square church that follows the traditions of the architectural school of Constantinople. The walls are made of rubble masonry. No brick patterns can be spotted on the external walls, which distinguishes it from the other Middle Byzantine churches of Athens. Cloisonné masonry can only be spotted in some repaired upper parts. The octagonal dome with the rounded corners and slightly concave sides dates from the Late Byzantine period. The exonarthex is from the beginning of the 19th century.
The name Petraki comes from the man who renovated the church in 1673. The building serves as the seat of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece.
3. Church of Hagioi Apostoloi Solaki
Ancient Agora of Athens
Late 10th century
This church, located near the Stoa of Attalos, stands partly on the site of a 2nd-century nymphaion. It is dedicated to the Holy Apostles. Solakis may be the name of a person who sponsored the renovation of the church some time later. In the 19th century the church was located in a densely populated neighbourhood also known as Solaki.
The Church of the Holy Apostles is the oldest significant Middle Byzantine church in Athens. Its interior plan is unusual: a combination of the tetraconch and cross-in-square plans. There are bigger conches at the end of the cross-arms and smaller ones between them, the latter constituting the corners of the square. As such the structure can be seen as a combination of the Early Christian octagonal church and the Middle Byzantine cross-in-square church. The circular design conveys a strong impression of unity in the interior, unusual in the ordinary cross-in-square churches.
The church has what is the oldest known example of the so-called Athenian dome – a tall eight-sided dome pierced by narrow windows and framed by colonnettes at the corners. The dome is unusual as its windows are bipartite. (The later Athenian domes generally have undivided windows.) On the inside, the dome is supported by four columns.
The church is also notable for its stonework. On the lower level of the external walls large, randomly-arranged stones can be spotted. On the higher level there is an opulent system of cloisonné masonry, enriched by Pseudo-Kufic ornaments and dentils. The chromatic contrast created by the arrangement of red bricks around white stones is a common feature of many Athenian churches of the period.
4. Church of Soteira Lykodemou
Between Filellinon, Souri & Psilla
Before 1031 or 1044; modified in 1850-1855
This church stands on the site of a 6th-century basilica, built over a Roman bath. It dates from the early 11th century, possibly from before 1031 or 1044, as these years are mentioned in the inscription that can be found on one of its walls. It is the largest surviving Byzantine church in Athens.
The church was the katholikon of a large convent. Its name means ‘the Saviouress of Lykodemos’, Lykodemos probably being one of its founders. In the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a theory that connected the name to the Lyceum of Aristotle, but the discovery of the latter’s actual site in 1996 disproved that theory.
The other buildings of the convent were torn down in 1778 by the Ottoman governor to construct the new city wall. In the late 1840s the church was given to Russians, who had it renovated between 1850 and 1855. That renovation did not respect the original plan precisely, which is why only the eastern side, much of the northern and southern sides, and the lower parts of the western side survive of the original building. The bell tower is from the 19th century as well. It was at that time that the church was dedicated to the Holy Trinity (Hagia Triada).
This church is the earliest and the most faithful copy of the great katholikon of the Hosios Loukas monastery in Boeotia. It is a cross-in-square church with a dome resting on an octagonal base. The external walls have high-quality cloisonné masonry, with dressed stones separated by double or triple courses of bricks. Pseudo-Kufic decorations can also be found on the external walls, with a design similar to that of the Church of the Holy Apostles. Some motifs are placed individually amidst the masonry, while others form a frieze. The façades are also enlivened by dentils.
The interior is covered with frescoes, most of which are from the 19th century. Of the original interior, only a bust of Christ and two figures survive, located on an arch of the southern wall. The dome probably had a depiction of Christ the Pantocrator, surrounded by eight angels.
5. Church of Hagios Nikolaos Rangavas
Between Pritaniou & Epicharmou, Plaka
First half of 11th century
This church probably belonged to the aristocratic Rangava family. It must have been an important church, as a gate in the nearby defensive walls as well as the neighbourhood around it was named after it.
It is a simple, four-columned cross-in-square church. The dome is of Athenian type. The masonry is cloisonné, while in the lower part of the wall large stones have been employed. There are also Pseudo-Kufic ornaments and dentils on the façade.
To the northern side of the church, the Chapel of Saint Paraskevi was later added. Newer are also the narthex and the bell tower. The apses have the form of a unified buttress.
6. Church of Hagioi Theodoroi
Between Klafthmonos Square and Evripidou Street
Before 1049 or 1065
This cross-in-square church has heavy proportions, massive three-sided apses, and few small openings. Its ancient features indicate that it was built on an older church. Above its western entrance there are two marble bricks with an inscription, which indicates its time of construction, read by specialists as either 1049 or 1065. The dome has bipartite windows, like in the Church of the Holy Apostles. The masonry is cloisonné. The lower parts show large stones mounted in a way that crosses are formed. There is a Pseudo-Kufic frieze above the entrance, dentils on all the sides of the building, and brick arches around the windows. The bell tower and the frescoes inside are newer.
7. Church of Panagia Kapnikarea
Church – around 1050; chapel and exonarthex – third quarter of 11th century; porch – late 12th century
This church, the most visible of the Byzantine churches of Athens because of its location in the middle of the Ermou Street, was built on the ruins of an ancient temple dedicated to a female goddess, possibly Athena or Demeter. Its donor may have been a collector of a special tax, or the kapnikarius, who gave it the name by which it is known.
The structure consists of multiple parts.
The main church, dedicated to the Entry of Theotokos into the Temple, has a cross-in-square plan, with a dome supported by four columns, three apses on the east, and a narthex on the west. The walls are built in the typical cloisonné masonry, decorated with some Pseudo-Kufic ornaments and dentils. On the lower parts, large bricks of stone are placed in a way that they form crosses.
To the north of the church a domed chapel dedicated to Saint Barbara was added some time later.
In front of the two structures an exonarthex with triangular roofs was constructed in the third quarter of the 11th century.
Finally, possibly at the end of the 12th century, a small porch with two columns and mosaics was added at the southern end of the exonarthex. The mosaic over the entrance is from 1936.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the church was in a very bad state. In 1834, when Ermou was opened up, the Kapnikarea was destined to be demolished. It was only after Ludwig I of Bavaria, father of King Otto, intervened that the church was saved. There is an old Athenian saying that makes a reference to this period: an old, ugly woman ‘looks like a kapnikarea’.
8. Church of Hagios Theodoros / Church of Hagia Aikaterini
Between Lisikratous, Chairefontos, Gkoura & Galanou, Plaka
This church was built on the site of an Early Christian basilica, which itself stood on the remains of an ancient building. Remains of a column and an architrave of the atrium of that basilica survive until today.
The church was originally a part of the Monastery of Hagios Theodoros, as shown by a votive inscription preserved in a fragment of a big column supporting the altar. That monastery fell into ruins after the Ottoman conquest in 1458. The church was restored and rededicated after 1769, when the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai acquired it. It was rebuilt and enlarged in 1927.
Of the original structure only the dome and the central apse survive. The dome rests on a very high octagonal drum and is internally supported by four columns.
Refugees from Asia Minor have kept the icons of their local saints in this church since the exodus of 1922.
9. Church of Hagioi Asomatoi
Agion Asomaton Square, Thiseio
Middle or second half of 11th century
This church, dedicated to the incorporeal saints, or angels, has a cross-in-square plan. Its Athenian dome is internally supported by four columns. The masonry is cloisonné. On the lower parts the walls, large stones have been placed crosswise.
On the western wall, two fragments of Pseudo-Kufic decorations are visible. These were probably part of a larger frieze (cf., the Church of Hagioi Theodoroi).
On the northern façade there is a horseshoe arch above the entrance, showing Islamic influence.
10. Daphni Monastery
At the end of Iera Odos, Chaidari
Church – around 1080; mosaics – around 1100; exonarthex – early 12th century; porch – early 13th century
The Daphni Monastery is located to the west of Athens on the Sacred Way to Eleusis. It stands near a forest surrounding a laurel grove, from which it got its name.
The oldest known structure on this site is the Temple of Apollo Daphnaios. It was destroyed during the invasion of the Goths in 395. The first monastery, dedicated to the Dormition of the Mother of God, was built here in the 6th century. Its katholikon was a three-aisled basilica, and it was enclosed in strong defensive walls. The current church dates from around 1080. It incorporates some elements of the older structures.
The walls of the church are built in the simple cloisonné masonry. The windows have arched frames made of brick. The contrast provided by the cloisonné and the red bricks around the windows create, together with the orange roof, a sophisticated elegance.
The church has a cross-in-square plan. The central square bay is covered by a high and broad dome. The squinches, carried by tall L-shaped piers, turn the square into an octagon, which higher up transforms into the circular base of the dome. In churches with the simple octagonal plan the eight supports of the dome are embedded in the walls (i.e., as pilasters), leaving the inner space completely free. Here, however, the dome supports are some distance away from the outer walls, creating smaller compartments around the central area. The Greek cross is formed by four barrel-vaulted arms projecting from the central bay. The remaining bays are covered with groin vaults and are only one storey high.
The narthex of the church used the thin Ionic columns from the old Temple of Apollo. Of these only one survives today; the rest are in the possession of the British Museum. The exonarthex was added to the structure in the early 12th century. The porch with three Gothic arches dates from the Latin period in the 13th century. Around the same time the second floor was built above the narthexes. It was reached by a spiral staircase in a square tower on the north wall. It probably functioned as the abbot’s residence or the library.
The most important features of the church are its mosaics. These make Daphni the greatest Byzantine monument in Attica and are the reason why it is inscribed in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.
The mosaics are of exceptional technical quality. They represent the classical idealism of the Middle Byzantine art. The figures are naturalistic. Their faces are austere, lacking emotions, and their gestures are restrained. The arrangement of the mosaics respects the traditions of Constantinopolitan art. They are placed in the dome, the sanctuary, the cross arms, and the esonarthex, following the concept which stated that the nave represents the universe, the dome the heavenly vaults, and the floor the earth.
The mosaics narrate scenes from the life of Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary. There are also individual depictions of archangels, prophets, saints, martyrs, and bishops. Arches above the windows are decorated with non-figurative mosaics.
On the dome, the Christ is depicted with a stern face that conveys strength and power. Notable is the intersection of the arched horizontal of his eyebrows and the long nose, which creates a symbolic cross. It is one of the masterpieces of Byzantine art.
Christ the Pantocrator
At the base of the dome the Christ is surrounded by sixteen prophets. They are wearing ancient garments and hold a parchment containing texts which proclaim the glory of Christ or the Second Coming. Their tranquil attitude makes one think of ancient philosophers and orators.
On the four squinches the most important evangelical scenes before the Passion are depicted, namely the Annunciation of the Virgin, the Nativity of Christ, the Baptism of Christ, and the Transfiguration of Christ.
The scene of the Annunciation takes place in a field of gold with no landscape as the background. Archangel Gabriel approaches the Virgin. His robes are slightly folded and follow the body movements. The Virgin is depicted frontally, with the head turned slightly to the right. The wings of the archangel and the garments of the both figures are adorned with silver tesserae in places (cf. the apse mosaic of Hagia Eirene in Constantinople).
Annunciation of the Virgin (top right), Transfiguration of Christ (top left), and Prophets Zechariah and Aaron (bottom left and right)
In the mosaic depicting the Transfiguration, Christ is in an ellipsoidal blue-white glory, framed by a wide strip of silver mosaics. With his right hand he blesses, while on the left he holds a wrapped scroll. To his left and right are the prophets Elijah and Moses. Apostles Peter, John, and James are kneeling before him.
Transfiguration of Christ
The scene of the Nativity takes place in an idyllic landscape. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are hosted in a rocky cave, surrounded by low hills with limited vegetation. The upper part of the mosaic is filled with the images of four angels and two shepherds. Notable is the depiction of the star’s glow in the background. On the lower right a group of sheep drink water from a stream. The landscape is in full agreement with the peaceful forms of Mary and Joseph.
Nativity of Christ
Annunciation of the Virgin (left), Nativity of Christ (right), and prophets (top)
The scene depicting the Baptism is symmetrical. In its centre is the naked figure of Jesus, dipped in the waters of the Jordan. His body, clearly visible in the water of the river, is embellished with tiny white and pink chips. The proportions of the naked body and its position resemble a classical statue. On the right there are two angels ready to dry the body of Christ.
Baptism of Christ (top) and Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus (bottom)
The Crucifixion scene shows three figures: Christ on the cross, and Virgin Mary and Saint John at the foot of the cross. The figures are arranged in the shape of a triangle against the empty golden background. The body of Christ is depicted in a classic, athletic style, even though the anatomy is not true to life. Saint John is depicted with his weight on one leg – a pose often used by Greek sculptors. The gestures of the Virgin and Saint John are reminiscent of tombstones of classical antiquity.
Crucifixion of Christ (bottom) and Nativity of the Virgin (top)
Crucifixion of Christ (bottom), Nativity of the Virgin (top left), and Annunciation of the Virgin (top right)
The Resurrection scene shows the triumphant Christ moving dynamically to the left. He is full of gold and is holding a cross. Adam and Eve are emerging from the left, together with David and Solomon in luxurious garments and crowns. On the right there are John the Baptist and a group of the righteous. At the feet of Jesus, there is the defeated death.
Resurrection of Christ (bottom) and Adoration of the Magi (top)
On the main apse, the Virgin, the mediator between the heavenly spheres and the earth, is depicted enthroned and nursing. She is flanked by the archangels Michael and Gabriel, standing on the two lateral niches.
The Virgin with Child Christ (bottom), Archangel Michael (left), and Archangel Gabriel (right)
The prothesis of the church has a mosaic depicting of John the Baptist, accompanied by four other figures. The diaconicon is dominated by the mosaic of Saint Nicholas, also together with the depictions of four figures. John the Baptist and Saint Nicholas are the most important figures after the Virgin in mediating the divine forms. They both have strict faces with arched eyebrows and dark shadows around the eyes, reminiscent of the Pantocrator on the dome.
John the Baptist
Below there are some other of the mosaics of the Daphni Monastery.
Transfiguration of Christ (top left) and Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (bottom right)
Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple
Assurance of the Apostle Thomas
Saint Gregory of Agrigentum
Christ the Pantocrator
The lower sections of the walls were originally covered with beautiful marble slabs. These were replaced by mediocre paintings in around 1650.
The church is surrounded by structures from different periods. Among the oldest of them is the cemetery of the monastery. It is also home to the Chapel of Hagios Nikolaos, which was constructed in the 9th century. To the north of the church are the remains of the refectory – an oblong rectangular building with an apse, originally also decorated with wall paintings.
An interesting fact about the church is that for a short while, in 1883-1885, it was used as a lunatic asylum.
11. Church of Metamorphosis Sotiros
Theorias & Klepsidras, Plaka
Second half of 11th or early 12th century
The Church of the Transfiguration of the Saviour is located to the north of the Acropolis. Because of its small size it is also known as the Sotirakis. It has a cross-in-square plan and four columns supporting its Athenian dome. The external walls are made of cloisonné masonry and have some decorative elements. The western façade is newer.
12. Church of Hagios Ioannis Theologos
Erotokritou & Erechtheos, Plaka
Late 11th or early 12th century
This church is dedicated to Saint John the Theologian. It has been dated to the reign of Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118), on the basis of a copper coin found during a restoration. It has a cross-in-square plan. Two columns with Roman capitals support the Athenian dome. The masonry is cloisonné all except for the southern side.
This church is one of the very few in Athens in which the original Byzantine paintings survive. On the dome there is a depiction of Christ the Pantocrator, while above the sanctuary the Ascension of Christ can be found. On the northern compartment of the sanctuary there is a well-executed depiction of a saint, possibly Saint George, wearing armour on a horseback. The paintings are of provincial character and are stylistically related to the wall paintings of other churches in Attica, such as the church in the Davelis Cave or the Church of Hagios Petros in Kalyvia.
13. Church of Panagia Gorgoepikoos / Church of Hagios Eleftherios / Little Metropolis
Late 12th or early 13th century, with marble spolia from various periods
This small church, standing next to the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens, is also known as the Little Metropolis. Its original attribution to the Panagia Gorgoepikoos, the ‘Virgin who is quick to hear’, comes from a famous miracle-working icon that it once had. The attribution to Saint Eleutherius is more modern.
The church stands on the site of an ancient temple dedicated to Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth and midwifery. A church was built above the ruins of the temple in around 600. The current church has been variously dated, beginning with the 9th and ending with the 15th centuries. The most probable date of construction is the turn of the 13th century.
It is a cross-in-square church with an Athenian dome. Originally the dome was supported by four columns, as was typical in cross-in-square churches, but these were replaced by piers in the 19th century. The middle part of the narthex is taller than the sides and is vaulted.
The church is unique in Athens in that it is almost entirely built of reused marble blocks from earlier buildings. These stones are from the Classical, Roman, Early Christian, and Byzantine periods. The lower parts of the façades are of plain marble, while the upper parts have intricate reliefs.
Above the arch of the western entrance there are slabs from the 4th century BC. These are covered with reliefs depicting the Attic calendar. The months are personified by figures carrying out the activities and celebrating the festivals of that month. The scene representing the month Hekatombaion shows the Panathenaic ship, with the sacred peplos draped on its mast. This is the only extant depiction of this renowned vessel. It has, however, been largely obliterated by two Maltese crosses, added during the Latin occupation. These slabs are flanked by Roman anta capitals.
Another ancient relief, located on the north wall, shows the figure of a naked bearded man with wild hair. He is standing between two crosses, again later additions. On the south wall there is a block of grey marble known as the Stone of Cana. Its name comes from an inscription stating that it was used at the Wedding of Cana.
The marble door frame at the western entrance is thought to date from the earlier church. Smaller doors of similar design can be found at the side arms of the cross.
Some plaques are from the 9th and 10th centuries, showing influence of oriental or folk art.
I haven’t been able to find any information about these beautiful internal door frames.
The interior was originally decorated with frescoes. Of these only one survives, dating from the 13th or the 14th century and depicting the Theotokos.