Byzantine Architecture in athens
In 51 AD, St. Paul the Apostle visited Athens, the cradle of Philosophy, Science and the Arts, and the proud host of Parthenon. He arrived by boat at Faleron, the then port of the greater Athens area. Legend has it that as St. Paul walked towards the city he found an altar bearing the inscription “to the unknown God”. As he waited for his students Silas and Timothy, to arrive from the northern Greek region of Macedonia, he walked across the the ancient Agora, the center of all civic life and the Acropolis, and got into discussion with various philosophers, before ending at Areos Pagos where, according to the legend, he preached the Unknown God to the Athenians and introduced Christianity in Athens.
During late Antiquity Athens still constituted a great intellectual and cultural center. However, the following period was characterized both by the prohibition of the teaching of philosophers in the School of Plato under Justinian and by the conversion of the Parthenon into a Christian church. The veneration of Athena, a so-called pagan virgin goddess, gave its place to the veneration of the Virgin Mary. These two initiatives of the Byzantine Government sealed the end of the national cultural tradition of the Mediterranean identified with Athens. Gradual demographic and building decline followed indicative of the period after the 6th century in Greece. The overthrow of the traditional economic life after certain northern raids (the Heruli towards the end of the 3rd century, the Goths in the end of the 4th century, the Vandals during the 5th century, the Slavs after the middle of the 6th century, the Saracens in the 8th century onward) was the reason of a nerveless social, financial and cultural life.
Athens was represented by a bishop in the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.), testifying to the existence of a substantial Christian community in the city. In the countryside, the self-sustained rural communities, which continued the life of the ancient demoi, also embraced Christianity. Due to the freedom granted to them due to the distance from the center, they started building the first temples, mostly from the end of the 5th and the beginning of the 6th century. These churches – basilicas with exquisite mosaic floors, sometimes entire complexes in Braona, Aigosthena (Porto-Germeno), Stamata, Lavrio or in Glyphada but also in many other places – are representative examples of this type in Attica. All these basilicas are distinguished by baptisteries and remarkable mosaics.
From the middle of the 9th century onward, Athens follows the growing course of the Empire, a route of reconstruction and decorative embellishment known as the Macedonian Renaissance. New churches are built in new architectural types. This building activity will reach its peak during the 11th and the 12th century around Attica. The dominating architectural type – during the middle Byzantine period - was the one of the cross-in-square church, which obtains its own traits in Greece. Nonetheless, early Christian survivals in combination with new forms are observed. Something similar is viewed in the case of the church of Aghioi Apostoloi within the area of the ancient Agora in Athens, where we come across the rather radical combination of a central, tetraconch and cross-in-square church. Furthermore, a new architectural type makes its appearance with the Athenian dome, which crowns mostly the small churches in Attica.
There are several early Christian and Byzantine Churches in Athens. The byzantine order of architecture in which Christian churches have been built anywhere, and in Athens, vary in form, according to the time they were built.
So, in the early Christian period the usual form was that of the basilica, that is to say, of a long rectangle, divided by two or four rows of columns into three or five naves (κλίτη) of which those on the sides, called "collateral", supported a second floor, the tribune intended for women (γυναικονίτης).
A little later in time, and after the introduction of the cupola, the form of the cross was given to the churches either free-standing or included in a square.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, the prevailing form was that of the cruciform with a cupola, as in the small and elegant churches of Kapnikarea and Sts. Theodores.
The Greek-Orthodox church is ordinarily composed of three parts, the narthex, or great closed vestibule; the large nave, generally communicating by three doors with the narthex; and last, but lot least, the sanctuary, which comprises of the prothesis, the central apsis, where the Holy Table stands, and the diakonikon. The sanctuary is separated from the nave by a marble enclosure, the iconostasion, formed by small pillars, between which, plates bearing fine bas-reliefs are fitted. Later, instead of marble, gilded wood was used. The outside walls of Byzantine churches are built of stones fitted together and surrounded by rows of bricks.
For a page with Basic Architectural Terminology, including terms used in the description of the ancient Greek temples and the Orthodox churches of Athens, click here!
For a list, but also for individual pages on the most noteworthy churches of Downtown Athens, visit this page!