Tuesday 26 November 2013

Athens: Agioi Apostoli Solaki (The Holy Apostles), Άγιοι Απόστολοι Σολάκη

Inside the Agora  archaeological site.  Open 8:00 - 15:00 winter and 8:00- 18:30 summer. Tel: 210 321 0185 

The church of the Holy Apostles stands out in the ruins of the ancient agora, immediately recognizable as what it is, a mid Byzantine era gem set on top of an ancient temple dedicated to the nymphs. It wasn’t always this lonely or this small. Built sometime in the late 10th century Agii Apostoli  is a one off for many reasons. Firstly, it is an Athenian domed  tetrastyle cross-in-square church but with each of the four arms of the cross ending in a  rounded conch making it a tetraconch church, the only Byzantine building like it in Athens.  The eastern conch is, of course, the apse and a door was set into the western one. To complete the design, the unknown architect rounded out the four corner bays, so the effect is like an opened eight-petalled flower and very appealing. A square narthex was added on to the western side  with three doors leading from it to the nave so again, the proportions remain attractive. 

Secondly, if you accept a later date for the building of Pantanassa, this is the oldest Byzantine building still standing in Athens. Athens being Athens and its history being what it is, of course there were add-ons in various centuries, all removed in the period of 1954-6 when the building was restored.  The American School has a complete record of the renovation.
Thirdly, this is one church that you have to pay admission to see. When the area of the agora was teeming with businesses and houses,  Agioi Apostoli was rubbing shoulders with many neighbouring buildings. This area was teeming with life and at some point this became a parish church. The Apostles were the patron saints of used goods vendors, men who once crowded the adjacent streets and gathered here on the church’s feast day (June 30th). Workers in the same trade had their own patron saints throughout Byzantine history and into the Ottoman period as well. The nickname “Solaki” probably refers to a prominent family with holdings in the area. In the 1930s all of the houses and buildings around Agioi Apostoli were razed by the American School to uncover the ancient agora you see today, leaving a parish church standing alone without a parish.
It is easy now to investigate the outside of Agioi Apostoli and you see pretty much what you expect – cloisonné masonry, dentil bands (five ), kufic lettering, double layers of bricks in horizontal courses for emphasis,  and the so called arcade style windows of an early type. The inside is a cool surprise, clean cut and eggshell white except where an icon has been preserved – here the transition from Church to historical artifact is complete and the effect is actually quite pleasant.
 The Pantocrator is still in the dome and the pendentives  (the triangles above the columns and just  under the dome that effect the transition from square columns to round dome) still have the apostles holding up the heavens.  Three of the columns are copies and one is the real thing – from the Roman period. The iconostasis is in the style of the period, even using some pieces of the original.
The icons in the nave are from other churches in the now destroyed parish. 

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