09 April 2018

A tiny Byzantine church
that has survived Turks,
earthquakes and fires

The Church of the Saviour or the Church of the Transfiguration … suffocated by the surrounding apartment blocks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Thessaloniki is a city rich in Byzantine treasures, including churches, buildings, towers, walls and arches. Many of these have survived through the Turkish occupation, countless earthquakes and the Great Fire of 1917

Although many of the churches were converted into mosques in the Ottoman period, those that survived returned to their original use as churches in the 1910s and 1920s, and they often dominate the streetscape.

However, one church that never became a mosque and that is easy to pass unnoticed because of its location is the 14th century Church of the Metamorphosis tou Sotíros (Μεταμορφώσεως του Σωτήρος, the Transfiguration of the Saviour), also known as the Church of the Saviour (Ναός του Σωτήρος).

This 14th century Byzantine church is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site as one of the ancient Christian and Byzantine monuments in Thessaloniki. It stands across the street from the Arch of Galerius, at the junction of Egnatia Street and Palaion Patron Street, between the church of Panagia Gorgoepikoos and the Church of Ipapantis.

The small sanctuary area in the niche is not screened off by an iconostasis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Yet this charming little Byzantine church, despite its tall cupola and its unique and rare architectural features, is often missed by passers-by because it is half-hidden below the current street level of Egnatia Street and is suffocated by the apartment blocks that tower above it and all around it.

A coin found mounted in the dome of the church indicates it was built around 1340-1350. Some tombs found under the floor of the north and south arch, under the narthex, and in the area around the building, lead archaeologists to conclude that the church was originally as a sepulchral chapel for a Byzantine monastery.

A small reliquary marking the consecration of the church after it was built and two other inscriptions show that the church was first named in honour of the Panaghia, the Virgin Mary.

In its original form, this was a square church with a dome, but an earlier, though not Byzantine, narthex at the west end of the church was demolished in 1936 to add the later narthex.

The church has a a square floor plan, with four semi-circular niches, one of which forms the arch into the Sanctuary area, and there is no icon screen to mark this division as in other Greek churches.

The church has a large and high octagonal dome that is decorated with successive arches and brick semi-columns. The walls are made of raw clay stones at the base and bricks in the upper section.

The walls inside were decorated in 1350-1370, and this decorative work is part of the Palaeologan tradition. The frescoes in the dome have been dated to the same period, between 1350 and 1370.

The dome depicts the Ascension of Christ and the Divine Liturgy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The frescoes in the dome are unusual for their depiction of the of the earthly Divine Liturgy as it evolves in the church. The Ascension of Christ is at the top of the dome, and in the levels below are the Virgin Mary (the Panaghia) with the Apostles, accompanied by depictions of the sun, moon and winds. Eight prophets can be seen between the windows of the dome, while at the base there is a depiction of the Divine Liturgy with bishops, deacons, cantors, and lay people.

The church was never transformed into a mosque during the Turkish presence in Thessaloniki. Perhaps it was too small for use as a mosque, perhaps it was saved because it stood in yard of a house in the Christian district of Panagouda.

The church survived the great fire that raged through Thessaloniki in 1917. But 40 years ago, the great earthquake in 1978 caused significant damage to the church, and the tower with its cupola still seems to lean to one side even after extensive repairs.

Despite its half-hidden place below street level on Egnatia Street, this church was busy throughout the weekend on Great or Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter night.

The church tower and cupola seem to be leaning to one side (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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