Thursday, 13 October 2011

Exploring Biblical and Byzantine Christian roots in Thessaloniki

The Monastery of Vlatádon ... a working monastery with strong links with academic theological life in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

This week’s visit to Thessaloniki is providing me with a unique opportunity to look back on centuries of architecture and to see some of the city’s wonderful ecclesiastical heritage as I visit its ancient churches.

Christianity first came to this city with Saint Paul, who wrote two of his epistles (I Thessalonians and II Thessalonians) to the early Christians here.We start reading I Thessalonian as the New Testament Lectionary readings in the Revised Common Lectionary cycle next Sunday (16 October). So this is a city with a rich Biblical and Byzantine heritage, and in 1988 Unesco declared many of the churches as World Heritage Monuments.

The Church of Aghios Dimitrios, the largest church in Greece, recalls the martyred patron of Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The most famous church in Thessaloniki is the Church of Aghios Dimitrios, named after the martyred Roman soldier who is the city’s patron saint and whose feast day is celebrated later this month on 26 October. The church was first built as a small oratory shortly after the year 313 on the ruins of a Roman bath and on the site of the saint’s martyrdom ten years earlier on the orders of the Emperor Galerius.

A new church was built on the same site in the fifth century. This was a large, three-aisled basilica, but was burnt down in 634. Soon after, the present five-aisled basilica was built on the site, and it remains the largest church in Greece.

The church became a mosque in 1493, but was restored to Christian worship in 1912. It was destroyed by fire again in 1917, but restoration work began immediately after the catastrophe of 1917. Very few fragments of sculptures, mosaics or frescoes survived the fire of 1917, but those that have survived are representative of the successive phases of the church’s history.

Today, the church serves as the de facto cathedral of Thessaloniki.

The interior of the Church of Aghios Dimitrios ... the largest church in Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The crypt under the sanctuary and the transept was closed by a two-day strike when I went to visit it yesterday. But this is said to be the place where the saint was martyred, and has been an archaeological site since it was discovered in 1918. The remains of the saint were returned from Italy in 1980 and are part of the exhibition open to the public, with items that survived the 1917 fire and others that came to light during recent excavations:

● The fountain of the holy water and holy oil associated with the cult of Saint Dimitrios.
● Architectural sculptures, including columns and parapets, from the first architectural phase of the church in the fifth century.
● Corinthian-style capitals from the first architectural phase of the church.
● Two small fifth century pillars from the sanctuary.
● The restored ambo (pulpit) of the church; it dates from the sixth century, and in the seventh century was placed in the wall where it is now exhibited.
● Fragments of middle Byzantine sarcophagi.
● Fragments of icons of the Virgin Mary from the 11th and 12th century relief decoration of the church.
● Fragments of a 13th century ciborium.
● Decorative fragments from a 14th century burial monument.
● A mosaic votive inscription from the decoration of the church destroyed by the 1917 fire.

The Church of Aghia Sophia in Thessaloniki ... modelled on the great basilica of the same name in Constantinople (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The Church of Aghia Sophia in the centre of Thessaloniki, stands on Plateia Aghia Sophia, between Egnatía and Navarínou, and is said to have been first built as a replica of the great Aghia Sophia in Constantinople.

The church was built in the seventh century on the ruins of a large, five-aisled basilica dating from the fifth century. It was the metropolitan church of Thessaloniki, dedicated to the Wisdom (Sophia) of God, and it soon became the nucleus of a large building complex, with administrative and religious functions. It was here that Saint Gregory Palamas, as Archbishop of Thessaloniki, preached his sermons on the uncreated energies of God.

The present church is different in many ways from the original seventh century church. Several parts of the interior decoration are preserved, including mosaics on the dome and the sanctuary, dating from the eighth to the 12th centuries, with a striking mosaic of the Ascension of Christ in the dome, which is 10 metres in diameter, and wall paintings from the 11th century in the narthex.

The interior of the Church of Aghia Sophia in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

In 1524, the church was converted into a mosque by the Ottoman Turks. The church was burnt down in 1890 and was repaired between 1907 and 1909. After the liberation of the city in 1912, the church was restored to Christian worship. The building was restored again in 1941. In 1961, the Turkish plaster was removed and the wall paintings in the narthex were uncovered and cleaned. The liturgy is no longer served in the church, but it remains open to the public.

The shrine of Saint Basil, Archbishop of Thessaloniki, in the Church of Aghia Sophia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

An even older Byzantine church is the mid-fifth century Church of the Panaghia Achiropiitos. The church was built in on the site of a Roman bath, and was dedicated to the Virgin “not made by human hands” (Achiropiitos), a reference to an icon rather than an inference of any miraculous role in its building.

Inside the church, a few fragments of mosaics from the fifth century have survived in the soffits of the arches of the colonnades. Several parts of the wall paintings date from the 13th century, are also preserved in the south aisle.

The Church of the Panaghia Achiropiitos was built in on the site of a Roman bath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

This is a three-aisled basilica with a narthex on the west side and a second entrance with a monumental propylon in the middle of the south wall. To the east of the propylon a building is attached, probably a baptistery or a diakonikon. A small parekklesion (chapel) is formed at the east end of the north aisle.

This was the first church in Thessaloniki to be converted into a mosque after the conquest of the city by the Turks in 1430. The Turks hammered down practically all the figurative decorations in the church, including the mosaics and frescoes. In 1930 the building was turned back into a church.

The Church of Panaghía Halkéon was once a mosque, serving the guild of coppersmiths (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The Church of Panaghía Halkéon (the Virgin of the Coppersmiths) was built in 1028 by a Christophoros, a Byzantine official named in an inscription on the marble lintel at the main west entrance. After the Ottoman Turks took Thessaloniki in 1430, the church was turned into a mosque, serving the guild of coppersmiths in the city. When it became a church once again in 1912, the Turkish plaster was removed and the earlier wall paintings were cleaned.

The church was damaged by the earthquake in 1932 and was subsequently restored; and parts of it were rebuilt. Similar work was also carried out after the earthquake of 1978. There are fragmentary frescoes in the cupola and some icons.

The Church of Aghios Nikólaos (Saint Nicholas) Orphanós, close to the house where Ataturk was born, was the katholikon or main church of a monastery and dates from the early 14th century. The name refers either to the charitable works of Saint Nicholas on behalf of orphans, or to the probable founder of the monastery, a member of the Byzantine Orphanos family. Another story says the church was founded by a Serbian named Milutin. However, the church is a metochion (dependency) of Vlatádon Monastery near the Byzantine walls of Áno Pólis, the old city.

The marble iconostasis remains almost intact as well as many superb if age-damaged frescoes and wall paintings that have been dated to 1310-1320. Aghios Nikólaos continued to function as a church, even during the Ottoman Turkish period. To help preserve the frescoes, candles are only lit during the Liturgy on Sunday mornings.

The Church of Dódeka Apóstoloi (the Twelve Apostles), with five domes, once served as the katholikon of a monastery, probably dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was founded in 1310-1314, by Patriarch Niphon I, who is named in an inscription on the marble lintel over the entrance and the three monograms on three capitals on the west facade.

When the Ottoman Turks converted the church into a mosque in 1520-1530,many of the mosaics were hammered down and the rest of the paintings were whitewashed. After the city became part of the modern Greek state in 1912, this became a church once again. The church was restored in 1940-1941 and again after the earthquakes of 1978. At the same time, the wall paintings were cleaned and restored. The surviving 14th century mosaics are among the last executed in the Byzantine Empire.

The Metropolitan or Cathedral Church of Saint Gregory Palamas in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Today the metropolitan church or cathedral of Thessaloniki is the Church of Saint Gregory Palamas. The cathedral, which has a round red dome, is named after the saint who was the Archbishop of Thessaloniki from 1347 to 1359.

The shrine of Saint Gregory Palamas in the Metropolitan Cathedral Church in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Inside are the shrine and relics of the saintly archbishop, while the walls are covered with bright, modern frescoes depicting the life of Christ and the ministry of the Apostle Paul.

The Church of the Prophítis Ilías, dating from the 14th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The Church of the Prophítis Ilías (the Prophet Elijah) has the features of a monastic building. It was the katholikon of a monastery and dates from the 14th century.

The church was converted into a mosque after 1430 and during the Ottoman Turkish period most of the frescoes were stripped away, and the building was reinforced with colossal buttresses. A few fragments of frescoes survive, especially in the narthex, and the church was restored as a church after 1912.

The Church of Óssios Davíd, first built to commemorate the baptism of Theodora (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The little fifth century Church of Óssios Davíd is said to have been built to commemorate the baptism of Theodora, a daughter of the anti-Christian Emperor Galerius, while he was away on business.

The church has well-preserved mosaics and rare 12th century frescoes depicting the Baptism of Christ. The four rivers of Paradise, replete with fish, flow from beneath Christ, lapping the feet of the prophets Ezekiel and Habakkuk.

The Church of Aghios Panteleimon, close to the Arch of Galerius (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Close to the Arch of Galerius, the Church of Aghios Panteleimon (Saint Panteleimon) was the katholikon of the Monastery of Theotokos Perivleptos, and was built at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries by Bishop James of Thessaloniki.

During the Turkish period, the church was converted into a mosque, probably around the years 1568-1571. Most of the frescoes were hammered down and the walls were whitewashed. After 1912, the church was restored as a church once again.

The Rotunda, built by the Emperor Galerius, was turned into the Church of Aghios Georgios (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Also close to the Arch of Galerius is the Rotunda, built by the Emperor Galerius as his future mausoleum. But he died in Serbia and was never buried here. Instead, the Emperor Constantine converted the Rotunda into the Church of Aghios Georgios (Saint George).

The church has and eight barrel-vaulted niches, and some frescoes survive. Later, the Ottomans transformed it into a mosque, and the minaret they erected has been restored.

The Monastery of Vlatádon is in a leafy, secluded location above the city (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

In the hills above the city, the Royal and Patriarchal Monastery of Vlatadon is in a leafy, secluded location. As you make your way up the hill, you keep seeing the over-hanging walls of the monastery, founded in the 14th century, perhaps by two monks from Crete.

In recent years, Vlatádon has been renovated and expanded, and has lost much of its old feeling. But the charming, inner, tree-shaded courtyard is a cool and refreshing place to rest and contemplate. This is one of my favourite places in Thessaloniki, and I once met the actress Irene Papas in this courtyard in the late 1990s.

From Vlatádon , the panorama looks out over the whole city and as far as the peaks of Mount Olympus. The resident peacocks are usually in good voice. They are here because peacocks are an early Christian symbol of faith in the resurrection, perhaps because it was believed that their flesh did not decay after death.

The Turks badly damaged the original frescoes in the church and they have not been restored. Today, the monastery of Vlatádon is the only active monastery among about 20 monasteries in Thessaloniki. Traditionally, the abbots and monks of Vlatádon have close links with the University of Thessaloniki and the Theological School in Chalki. The Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies was founded here in 1965, and it has a library and publishes the journal Klironomia.

By tradition, the little chapel of Saint Peter and Saint Paul at Vlatadon stands on the very spot where the Apostle Paul preached when he visited Thessaloniki in the year 50. And so my visit to Thessaloniki this week’s is truly a Biblical and Byzantine experience.

Christ Pantocrator in the dome of a church in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin