Although Athens is most famous for its classical history, the city also has many beautiful Byzantine churches to discover. These small oases link the ancient with the modern and offer visitors a chance to escape the frenzied jungle of the metropolis.
Kapnikarea has a typical cross-in-square layout, but with an octagonal dome and a cloisonne brick system of masonry. It was built in the 11th century and used to be a monastery.
The Church of Kapnikarea is one of the most remarkable Byzantine churches in central Athens. It is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and has a rather unusual name. It is suspected to be a reference to the Byzantine tax “kapnikon” or to the last name of its founder, Kapnikares. The church was renovated several times throughout the centuries, but its most recent renovations were completed in the early 20th century. It also holds a number of paintings by the famous modern Greek hagiographer Fotis Kontoglou.
The exterior of the church is fairly simple, consisting of a large front porch and an outer narthex. The main church, on the other hand, is an interesting and complex structure. It has a cross-in-square floor plan and is supported by four columns. It also has a dome, and its walls are covered with cloisonne. In addition, there are dentils and Pseudo-Kufic ornaments on the facade. During the construction of Ermou Street in 1834, the building was in danger of being demolished because it did not fit into Leo von Klenze’s urban design plans. However, Ludwig of Bavaria, the father of King Otto, and Neofytos Metaxas, bishop of Talantio and Metropolitan of Athens, intervened and saved this historical temple from destruction.
When the church was reconstructed, it took on its current form. It has a single-aisle vaulted interior, which was decorated with certain preserved illustrations, but most of the decorations were done by the hagiographer Fotis Kontoglou in the early 20th century. In addition, a mosaic of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus Christ was added in 1936.
The church is currently a part of the University of Athens, which has taken steps to preserve its unique features. It is considered to be an invaluable link between modern Athens and the Byzantine city, and its architectural and aesthetic values are a tribute to the ancient glories of the capital. The church is a must-see when visiting Athens and is especially beautiful during its annual festival, which takes place in July. The celebration is accompanied by music, dance and fireworks, all of which highlight the beauty of this historic church.
The church of Daphni or Dafni is one of the largest surviving Byzantine buildings in Athens, dating from before 1031 or 1044 (an inscription on its wall gives these dates). It is also the oldest katholikon (main church) of a large monastic complex. The monastery was dedicated to Saint Lydia, and it was originally a female, orthodox monastery. The name Daphni derives from the grove of laurel trees that surround the building.
The main entrance to the precinct was in the west, at the end of a passageway (vault) 6 m long that opened under the tower. The door itself was protected by a fortified tower and two side bastions. From here, the church is approached by a walkway, or narthex, with large portraits of saints and the depictions of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection: the washing of the disciples’ feet, the Crucifixion, and incredulous Thomas touching the wounds of the risen Jesus.
When entering the naos, worshippers passed beneath a gold mosaic of Christ Pantokrator. The gold tesserae of this image reflect sunlight and candlelight alike in the daytime, giving the whole church a shimmering golden luminosity. The naos itself is an impressive space, with a high bema, an apse, and an octagonal dome.
A unique feature of these Middle Byzantine churches is the way that their interiors are unified in an aesthetic whole by the rich iconographic program. This “spatial icons”-as the art historian Otto Demus called them-convey a sense of majesty rarely equaled. The figures of prophets, saints, and angels are arranged in the curves and facets of these buildings on a background of gold tiling, and they often seem to interact with each other in the space that they inhabit.
The stern faces of the prophets Prodromos and Agios Nikolaos, with their arched eyebrows and dark shadows around their eyes, resemble those of the Pantokrator. The faces of the apostles, however, have a more nave quality, closer to a folk transcription of the great Byzantine models. This characteristic is particularly evident in the mosaics of Nea Moni and Hossios Loukas.
Located inside the ancient Agora archaeological site, Theotokos Acheiropoietos is one of the most remarkable Byzantine church monuments in Athens. Built at the end of the 10th century, this ecclesiastical structure represents a typical Middle Byzantine masonry with ashlar and bricks. It features an octagonal dome of the Athenian type.
It was originally a three-aisled timber-roofed basilica with an narthex, and traces of the east portico can still be seen on its west wall. The interior of the church is notable for its rich sculptural decoration, mosaics and frescoes, as well as its imposing wooden roof.
The main entrance to the church is in the southern part of its west wall through a tribelon. The narthex has two large transverse arches of green Thessalian marble that communicate with the side aisles. The church’s carved column capitals are of composite order, and they depict the cross and other decorative motifs of paradisal character such as birds, fruits, fish and vases with water.
Mosaics cover the intrados of the arches separating the nave and the aisles. The earliest ones date back to the 5th century, and they feature symmetrical patterns and a wealth of geometric figures as well as heavenly elements. They also include a number of floral motifs, fountains and vines adorning the walls of the sanctuary apse.
After the Ottoman conquest, the church was converted into a mosque and was known as Eski Camii (“Old Mosque”). Sultan Murad II himself donated an inscription to this church. It was the first church to be converted into a mosque, and it remained one of the city’s main mosques throughout the Ottoman period.
Following Greece’s re-unification in 1834, the church was rescued from demolishment or relocation by King Louis of Bavaria and Neophytos Metaxas. The apse and its mosaics were restored in the years 1959-1960, restoring the church’s original Byzantine style. Today, Theotokos Acheiropoietos stands among the most venerated church buildings in the Greek capital. Its imposing architecture and well-thought-out interior décor combine to create an exclusive atmosphere that attracts visitors from all over the world.
The Holy Apostles
Located in Klafthmonos Square and dedicated to Saint Dimitrios, this small church is considered one of the most important monuments of Byzantine Athens. According to an inscription in its western wall, this church replaced an older temple on the site and was built by the military man Nikolaos Kalomalos during the middle of the 11th century. Its impressive central dome, 9 meters in diameter, encloses a bema and a groin-vaulted apse. Its complex, compartmentalized plan is unified into a harmonious whole by a luxurious iconographic decoration. The exterior walls are decorated with Kufic motifs.
It is an architectural masterpiece that combines the best features of early and middle Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture. It is a cross-in-square church, whose dome rests on an octagonal base. Its external walls are characterized by high-quality cloisonne masonry, with dressed stones separated by double or triple courses of bricks. They are also adorned with pseudo-Kufic elements and dentils.
The church was rebuilt and enlarged several times. It was probably the second-most important church in Constantinople, after the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia). In its golden age it was also the burial place of many emperors and patriarchs, as well as the seat of the Metropolitan of Athens and Thessaloniki.
The current façade was constructed in the 16th century. Its unique iconostasis features five rows of carved cherubs and four columns of capitals. It is topped by a bell tower. It was restored in the 20th century by the architect Dimitris Pikionis, who also designed the pedestrian walkways around Philopappos Hill and two of the city’s theatres, Odeon of Herodes Atticus and Theatre of Dionysos.
The hagiographies of the church are also significant, as it housed many rare icons including the famous icon of Platytera or Our Lady of the Sign, by one of Greece‘s most celebrated hagiographers, Fotis Kontoglou. This enchanting monument of the Byzantine period is worth visiting and exploring its rich iconographic treasures.