18 April 2020
A ‘virtual tour’ of a dozen
churches in Thessaloniki on
a lost ‘lockdown’ Easter
I had planned to visit Crete for Holy Week and Easter, which falls this weekend in the calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church. But the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic has cancelled all my travel plans.
I am still hoping to visit Thessaloniki and Halkidiki at the end of August and beginning of September. But still hope I can plan in a few weeks’ time to visit Crete later this year.
Meanwhile, to mark Easter in the calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church this weekend, I offer a ‘virtual tour’ of a dozen churches in Thessaloniki, in the spirit of my ‘virtual tours’ earlier this week of a dozen monasteries in Crete, a dozen churches in Rethymnon, and a dozen restaurants in Rethymnon.
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. Later this year, in the New Testament cycle of readings in the Revised Common Lectionary, we are reading from I Thessalonians from Sunday 18 October to Sunday 15 November 2020. So, Thessaloniki is a city with a rich Biblical and Byzantine heritage, and in 1988 Unesco declared many of the churches as World Heritage Monuments.
1, The Cathedral Church of Saint Gregory Palamas:
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 Archbishop of Thessaloniki from 1347 to 1359.
An earlier church on this site was a three-aisled basilica, built in the late 13th century. It became the Metropolitan Church or Cathedral of Thessaloniki at the end of the 16th century.
The church was destroyed in a major fire in 1890. The cathedral was rebuilt after the fire to designs by the architect Ernst Ziller and his Greek colleague Xenofon Paionidis, and was completed in 1914.
The building retains considerable Byzantine influences, but there are neo-classical elements too. It is based on the Byzantine octagonal type, and the main church is cross-shaped form, like many Orthodox churches.
The church holds the shrine and relics of Saint Gregory Palamas, who lived in Thessaloniki in 1325-1359. The walls are covered with bright, modern frescoes depicting the life of Christ and the ministry of the Apostle Paul.
2, The Monastery of Vlatadon:
In the hills above the city, the Royal and Patriarchal Monastery of Vlatádon 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 visit it each time I am in the city. I spent Easter Day there two years ago (2018), 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 Vlatádon stands on the very spot where the Apostle Paul preached when he visited Thessaloniki in the year 50.
3,The Church of Aghios Dimitrios:
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 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 often functions as the de facto cathedral of Thessaloniki.
The crypt under the sanctuary and the transept 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 Saint Dimitrios 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.
4,The Church of Aghia Sophia:
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 or cathedral 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 church was converted into a mosque by the Ottoman Turks in 1524. 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.
The Turkish plaster was removed in 1961 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 present church differs in many ways from the original seventh century church. Several parts of the interior decoration are preserved, including mosaics on the dome and in the sanctuary, dating from the eighth to the 12th centuries, with a striking mosaic of the Ascension of Christ in the dome that is 10 metres in diameter, and wall paintings from the 11th century in the narthex.
5, The Church of the Panagia Acheiropoietos:
The Church of the Panaghia Acheiropoietos is an old Byzantine church, dating from the mid-fifth century. The church was built in on the site of a Roman bath, and was dedicated to the Virgin ‘not made by human hands’ (Acheiropoietos), 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.
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. A building attached to the east of the propylon may have been 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.
6, The Church of the Saviour (Church of the Transfiguration):
One church in Thessaloniki that never became a mosque but that often goes unnoticed because of its location is the 14th century Church of the Transfiguration of the Saviour (Μεταμορφώσεως του Σωτήρος, Metamorphosis tou Sotíros), also known as the Church of the Saviour (Ναός του Σωτήρος, Naós tou Sotíros).
This 14th century Byzantine church is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site as one of the ancient Christian and Byzantine monuments in Thessaloniki.
This church 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.
7, The Church of Panaghía Chalkéon:
The Church of Panaghía Chalkéon (the Virgin of the Coppersmiths) was built in 1028 by 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.
8, The Church of the Prophítis Ilías:
The Church of the Prophítis Ilías (the Prophet Elijah) has the features of a monastic building. It was once the katholikon or principal church 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.
9,The Church of Óssios Davíd:
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, who was baptised while her father was away on business.
In keeping with the theme of Theodora’s baptism, 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.
10, The Church of Aghios Panteleimon:
The Church of Aghios Panteleimon (Saint Panteleimon), close to the Arch of Galerius, 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 building was restored to use as a church once again.
11, The Rotunda (the Church of Aghios Georgios):
The Rotunda is the oldest church in Thessaloniki, and some Greek sources claim this is the oldest Christian church in the world, although there are competitors for that title. It is the most important surviving example of a church from the early Christian period in the Greek-speaking part of the Roman Empire.
The Rotunda, which is close to the Arch of Galerius is, built by the Emperor Galerius as his future mausoleum. But he died in Serbia, he was never buried here, and the Rotunda stood empty for several decades.
The Emperor Theodosius I ordered the conversion of the Rotunda into the Church of Asomaton or Archangelon in the late fourth century. The church has eight barrel-vaulted niches and was decorated with high quality mosaics. Some fragments of the frescoes and mosaics survive.
After the city fell to the Ottomans, it was converted into the Mosque of Suleyman Hortaji Effendi in 1590, and a minaret was added to the building. It continued to be used as a mosque until 1912, when Thessaloniki was incorporated into the modern Greek state.
The Rotunda was reconsecrated as the Church of Aghios Georgios (Saint George), although the Ottoman minaret was left standing. The building was damaged in the 1978 earthquake, and has restored once again.
It is now an historical monument under the Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities of the Greek Ministry of Culture, and the Greek Orthodox Church continues to use it for festivities on some days during the year.
12, The Church of Panagia Deksia:
The Church of Panagia Deksia, about 150 metres south of the Rotunda, was built in 1956 on the site of an older church, Saint Hypatia the Miracle Worker. Although this is a modern church, its style of architecture is mostly Byzantine, with some neo-classical embellishments such as arcades resting on columns and barrel vaults.
The name means ‘Mother of God Right-Sided’ and is thought to come from the icon above the sanctuary depicting the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child on the right side. The church interior is illuminated by windows in the dome, and is richly decorated with frescoes, paintings and icons, some considered miraculous.
The interior of the dome depicts Christ the Pantocrator holding the New Testament in his left hand and blessing with his right hand.
One fresco depicts three women: Saint Irene, Saint Catherine and Saint Barbara. In icons and frescoes in Greek churches, saints are often found together in traditional groupings, such as the Apostles Peter and Paul, as an icon of Church Unity, Saint Paul and Sant Barnabas, the Cappadocian Fathers and the Three Holy Hierarchs.
But this is an unusual grouping of three women saints. The men in the lives of these three women seem not only to have hated women, but to have hated themselves and to have devalued themselves rather than the three women.
Saint Irene is one of three saints and sisters, Irene, Agape and Chione, who were born in Thessaloniki and who were martyred there for their faith in the year 304 AD. Their feast day was earlier this month, on 3 April.
Saint Catharine of Alexandria was a daughter of Constus, Governor of Alexandria in the reign of the Emperor Maximian (286-305). A vision of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child had convinced her to become a Christian at the age of 14. When the persecutions began in the reign of Maxentius, she rebuked the emperor for his cruelty.
The furious emperor condemned Catherine to death on a spiked breaking wheel, but, at her touch, it shattered. Maxentius ordered her to be beheaded. Catherine herself ordered the execution to commence. A milk-like substance rather than blood flowed from her neck. Angels transported her body to Mount Saint Catherine, next to Mount Sinai, where Saint Catherine’s Monastery was founded by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century.
Her popularity grew with the reported rediscovery of her body at Mount Sinai around the year 800. Her principal symbol is the spiked wheel, which has become known as the Catherine wheel. Her feast day is on 25 November.
Saint Barbara, whose Feast Day is 4 December, is known in the Orthodox Church as the Great Martyr Barbara. Accounts place her in the third century in the Greek city of Nicomedia in Anatolia, or in Heliopolis of Phoenicia, present-day Baalbek in Lebanon.
Her biographers say Saint Barbara was the daughter of Dioscorus, a rich man who guarded her from the outside world by keeping her locked in a tower. She secretly become a Christian and rejected a forced marriage arranged by her father. When she was condemned to death by beheading, her father carried out the death-sentence. But he was struck by lightning on the way home and his body was consumed by flame. It is said she was martyred on 4 December in the reign of emperor Maximianus and Prefect Marcien (286-305).
Alongside Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Saint Barbara is known as one of the ‘Fourteen Holy Helpers.’ The lightning that killed her father has caused her to be invoked against lightning and fire. She is also the patron of artillery and mining.
To outsiders, the Orthodox Church can sometimes be seen as behind the times in its attitude to women, exemplified in debates about the ordination of women or the exclusion of women from Mount Athos. But the exclusion of women from Mount Athos is more about protecting and honouring the celibacy of the men in the monastic communities, and I am confident that because the debate about the ordination of women is theological rather than misogynistic that it is capable of moving forward in time.
On the other hand, the Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent ‘lockdown’ has resulted in a reported rise in domestic violence in Ireland. Irish society today needs to root out misogyny and gender-based violence today, just as it set about rooting out racism and class discrimination and prejudice in the past.
These three women in this fresco – Saint Irene, Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Barbara – emerged as strong figures in their own right. They continued to adhere to their principles and their insistence on the truth when they were betrayed and sexually mistreated by the men in their own family circles. They were brutalised and faced court cases in which their truthfulness and their self-worth were publicly doubted. Their public humiliation finally lead to their deaths. Yet it was men in their lives who were the real perpetrators of injustice, while the women retained their integrity and their own values, no matter what men said about them or projected onto them.
There are so countless other churches in Thessaloniki that I could have included in this ‘virtual tour.’ The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (Καθεδρικός Ναός του Ευαγγελισμού της Θεοτόκου) on Frangon Street, for example, is the main church of the Apostolic Vicariate of Thessaloniki, the equivalent of a Roman Catholic diocese, formed by Pope Pius XI in 1926.
The cathedral, built in 1902, was designed by the Italian architect Vitaliano Poselli, who also designed the Roman Catholic cathedral in the grounds of the Franciscan Capuchin friary in Chania.
Or there is the Church of Saint Menas, built on the site of earlier churches destroyed by fire, earthquake and bombardment. Despite these disasters, Aghios Menas is the protector of the commercial market of Thessaloniki, and the original church, built in the eighth century, was the oldest church in the area.
During the Turkish occupation, the church was one of 12 churches that remained available to Christians and it was not converted into a mosque. That church was destroyed in 1687 during the bombing of Thessaloniki by the Venetians and again by fire in 1700.
The apse of an early church survives, but the present church was built after the fire of 1890. The church was the venue for the liturgy to celebrate the liberation of the city on 26 October 1912. The only part of the original church that still exists are two columns along with some marble sculptures.
Thessaloniki is also a starting point for pilgrims setting off for the monasteries of Mount Athos.
But perhaps that could be another ‘virtual tour’ in the days to come.