Sunday 24 November 2013

Athens: Agios Nikolaos Rangavas ( Άγιος Νικόλαος Ραγκαβάς)

On Rangava St, (where it meets Pritanou St) on the northern edge of Anafiotika.  Open every evening 6-8 and mornings from 8:-12:30. Tel: 210 3228193
Ag. Nikolaos was built in the 11th century as a private chapel by a member of the aristocratic Rangavas family one of whom, Michael, had a short stint as Byzantine Emperor (811-13) He was deposed and sent to a monastery but his three sons were castrated by his successor so they could never be contenders, - a very common Byzantine practice. Blinding was an even more popular method of ensuring no pretender to the throne could succeed. An emperor as icon of Christ had to be physically perfect so any disfigurement disqualified a candidate. It did not always work. There is the notorious case of Justnian 11  Rhinometus  (685-695 and 705-110) who had been knocked out of the competition by having his nose sheared off, but somehow regained the throne through sheer force and wore a prosthetic golden one; no one was inclined to argue the point. He went down in history with the official title of   Justinian 11 Cutnose.

Many  aristocratic families had similar tales to tell, the price of ambition in those turbulent times but apparently this branch of the Rangavas family was still going strong  in Athens three hundred years later and wealthy enough to build this tetrastyle cross-in-square church. It has the expected Athenian dome and the cloisonné brick work of the era, attractive dental bands, and even some kufic lettering.  It would have resembled Ag Asomaton and the Metamophosis when first completed. The modern narthex and Italianate bell tower completely overshadow the original church; the join between old and new looks raw, as some architectural Frankenstein had done the business. The apse is truncated and plastered. Apparently damp was the culprit, and time. Even the elegant dome is now so out of proportion to the whole that it looks a bit like a top hat on an elephant.

And yet today this busy parish church has a grandeur of its own. It is responsible for several churches in the area including two of caves built into the south of the Acropolis hill over the ruins of the ancient Asclepeion: Agioi Anargyri (Άγ Ανάργυροι)  and Zoodoxos Pygi  (Ζωοδόχος Πηγή). Water still runs in one (handy for the Asclepeion back in the day), but alas they are off limits to all but archaeologists unless a service is held by the priest of Nicolaos Rangavas. This is rare, but one was scheduled for a few weeks after my visit, the one occasion in which you can strut by the ticket kiosk for the Theatre of Dionysos without paying by announcing you are on your way to church. The priest tries very hard to get around to all of his churches and keep them in good repair, - not an easy task in these days of austerity. It is do-able because of the proximity of the churches. Parishes in old Athens are tiny unlike in the country when dependencies can be kilometers apart. Ag Nikolaos publishes a small flyer monthly with the schedule of services planned in its parish churches.
You enter today’s church either from a door on the north façade or from a very pretty courtyard with some ancient bits and pieces of the original iconostasis in evidence, and inside there is an impression of spaciousness. The interior of the dome has a Pantocrator still but damp has taken its toll here and on the darkened wall paintings of the original church. Someone has donated a breathtakingly romantic rendition of Ag Demetrios to help make up for their loss but it looks startlingly out of place.
 The eastern two columns supporting the dome are now behind the iconostasis and one is still in need of extra support.

The small lined up icons in the Diaconian are spectacularly trumped by the ancient capital that is the base of the Holy Table

In the nave, because of structural damage there are now four columns instead of two supporting the western side of the dome, - in pairs and close together, one ancient and one modern to a side.
These columns have attractive capitals but the columns are plastered over and painted to create shiny marbled effect. At eye level there is a small square incision that lets you see that the ancient monolithic columns were much nicer. The modern and rather drab  parekklesion of Ag. Paraskevi is built on the south side and open to the big church’s nave.

 And there you have it; Ag Nikolaos is what it is, one of the oldest parish churches in the Plaka and the first church to acquire bells after Independence (The Ottomans had forbidden the ringing of church bells in Greek lands) and therefore the first Athenian church to proudly  ring in Easter after Independence in 1833. 

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