Monday 25 November 2013

Athens: Panagia Gorgoepikoos (Παναγία Γοργοϋπήκοος)

Right beside the Metropolis cathedral off Mitropolis st, down from Syntagma. Open 8:30 - 3:00

Dedicated to Panagia Gorgoepikoos (She who hears quickly). This elegant late 12th century cross-in-square church with its Athenian dome is iconic for many reasons. Don’t worry too much about pronouncing the name. The Turks couldn’t either. They shortened it to Gorgopiko.

Today it also answers to  Ag Elefterios (Άγιος Ελευθέριος) and the Little Mitropolis,  the latter since it was replaced as Athens cathedral church when the big Mitropolis was built next door after 1842, and the former because the saint’s name means 'freedom'. Those named  didn’t really stick, so Panagia Gorgoepikoos, a lovely epithet, it has remained.  This is the most elegant small church in Athens, entirely built of marble, spolia from ancient and earlier churches.

They say that it was built on the site of an earlier church founded by the Empress Irene a local girl who made good in spectacular fashion by being successively the emperor’s consort (775-802), the dowager  regent(780-780) and then Empress in her own right  ( 797-802). She is famous for the preservation of icons in Orthodoxy but that is another story. In her guise as home town girl, she was proudly called Irene the Athenian (Ειρήνη η Αθηναία), because she endowed the city with many churches, including the one that used to be here. The one you see may have been built under the aegis of another famous Athenian, this time the city’s archbishop from 1182 to 1205, Michael Akominatos. He was a crusty old antiquarian of note and certainly would have been delighted by the design.

 It is possible, likely even, that a good deal of the marble from Irene’s church is embedded in the church walls and a lot of ancient blocks as well. All in all 90 sculptures of different eras are embedded in the walls.  Look at the narrow frieze over the entrance to the church. Those who know say it is from a second century AD calendar of the Panathenaic Festival, a yearly extravaganza which involved parading a wheeled float carrying the Panathenaic ship through town. The ship has been replaced by a Cross (Maltese in this case), the usual way  to sanctify a pagan symbol, but the wheels are still visible as are various signs of the zodiac.  I can’t make them out but I keep trying… There is a Doric frieze depicting poppies, myrtle bundles (plemochhoe) – a top shaped vessel peculiar to the Eleusinian mysteries above the south door that came from gateway to the  ancient Eleusinion once on the north side of the Acropolis Hill. On the exterior of the apse are inscriptions and tablets along with an ancient relief of dancing girls, a permissible motif because of the Psalms.

A block of grey marble, on the church’s south side is said to be a stone from the bench that Christ reclined on in Caana  when he changed the water into wine, a miracle that must have appealed strongly to the pilgrim who hauled it all the way back from the Holy Land. For this bench there are many possible candidates. A very pleasant half hour can be spent examining the exterior of the church. The inside, aside from the architectural features themselves, is almost bare. The brickwork is exposed, revealing how the barrel vault was created and the brick pillars are square, something more likely to be seen in Mani churches than Athenian ones.

The lintel of the door between the narthex and the nave is quite lovely – grapes and birds entwined and a little creature whose species I cannot identify but have seen in other door carvings here and there. The ears have me stumped:

 the bird

 the critter

The area around this church was once a cemetery. The Ottomans forbade large Greek cemeteries, so many churches like this one had their own graveyards or sometimes  purpose built chapels (parekklesia) were added to an existing church  and tombs placed in the floor.

The nearby Archbishop’s residence was destroyed during the revolution and has been replaced by quite a grand one nearby on Ag Filotheis St, in keeping with the gravitas of the present large cathedral. The entire square has an ecclesiastical air; many of the surrounding shops sell church vestments, still a thriving business in Athens.

1 comment:

  1. I think this church can be demonstrated to have been built by Florentines in the 15th C, before 1458, when they controlled Athens. The primary evidence comes from Cyriaco of Ancona's collection of Athenian inscriptions. Then, the use of spolia is quite unlike that of any other Byzantine church, but very much in the decorative style of contemporary Florentine paintings.