The entrance to the church of Panagia Kapnikarea in Athens.
At the center of Athens, and on Ermou street, the most prominent commercial street of the capital, there is one of the most important monuments of Byzantine architecture, the church dedicated to the Presentation of Virgin Mary, known as Panagia Kapnikarea.
The church was built at the beginning of the 11th c. on the ruins of an ancient temple, dedicated either to the goddess Athena or to Demeter, and was probably named after its donor.
The name of the church, Kapnikarea, which probably comes from the profession of the founder, a collector of the so-called "kapnikon" tax. Among other names we also encounter the name "Kamoucharea", from the luxurious Byzantine textile "kamoucha", which was manufactured in the nearby workshops, Chrysocamouchariotissa, Panagia tis Vasilopoulas (Virgin of the King's daughter).
Architecturally it belongs to the type of complex cross-in-square church with a dome which is supported by four Roman columns. One can admire three apses on the east side and a narthex on the west. In the north side of the church, a chapel dedicated to Agia Varvara was added as well as the outer-narthex, which was built later in front of the two churches. On the western side, alongside the two churches, there was an open gallery where later, in 1934, when the church became the property of the University of Athens was converted into an outer-narthex. On the southern side of the outer-narthex there is a colonnaded porch, that dates from the 12th c.
The church is built according to the cloisonné system of masonry of the Middle Byzantine period, while in the lowest part older stones have been placed so that they create the shape of crosses. At the joints of the southern and eastern side there are very few examples of the characteristic ceramic kufic decoration, which mimics Arabic letters. It is interesting that they have incorporated ancient and Early Christian sculptures in its masonry. The dome is of the “Athenian” type, octagonal, with small columns at the corners and lobed windows.
An old rendering of the church of Panagia Kapnikarea on Ermou Street, Athens.
Most of the paintings inside the church of Kapnikarea are the work of the artist Fotis Kontoglou and his pupils, a school of hagiography strongly influenced by Byzantine tradition. In 1942 Kontoglou painted Theotokos Platyteraat the arch of the church, which was his first monumental work. The decoration was completed in 1955 with the help of his pupils. The wall paintings of the vaulted narthex and the exo-narthex, which show western influences, are the work of an unknown artist and date from approximately 1900. The mosaic of Virgin Mary holding Christ at the porch was made by Elli Voila in 1936.
The history of the church is a turbulent one. During the Greek Independence War it suffered damages, like most of the monuments in Athens. In 1834, the year of the construction of Ermou Street, the authorities considered plans to relocate the church, or demolish it, since the Bavarian architect Leon von Klenze, who had undertook the street planning of the new Greek capital, wanted Ermou street to be unified and free of obstacles. The monument was saved thanks to the intervention of the King of Bavaria Ludwig, the father of the young Greek king Othon, as well as those by Neofytos Metaxas, Bishop of Talantio and Metropolitan of Athens, and the church was preserved at the present location.