Saturday 23 November 2013

Athens: Panagia Chryssokastriotissa

Athens: Panagia Chryssokastriotissa  (Παναγίας Χρυσοκαστριώτισσας )

 (Thrasivoulou 9 and Odos Alberti (Θρασυβούλου 9 και Αλιμπέρτη) open every morning tel. 210 3250322; a liturgy on Sunday

Panagia Chryssokastriotissa (the Lady of the Golden Castle or Our Golden Lady of the Castle) is just down from the Old University in Plaka. There was once a Byzantine church on the spot which was itself built on an ancient temple to Hestia (Athens!). What we now see is a barrel-vaulted single cell basilica, a 19th century church, purpose built for the post Independence population boom. Its exterior and bell tower are pleasant enough but not remarkable except to note the large size of the windows. The building is a good size (I estimated 16 to 17 metres in length) and one exterior feature needs an explanation. The northern façade (the street side) is faced with marble for one meter or so above road level. Apparently when the church was first built, the roadway was much narrower and the neigbourhood sheep and goats darkened the wall as they squeezed past. This marble facing kept things spic and span.

No match for graffitti artists though

Inside you see the style popularized by the foreign and Greek elite of the era. This particular version is very attractive indeed, made even more so by the amount of light allowed in by the arched windows.  Icons have taken on the look of the drawing room complete with the illusion of gold filigree frames, and the icons show a marked western influence in both composition and mood. Sentimentality is rampant. You almost expect to see a cocker spaniel resting at the feet of a saint.

There is no dome so the Pantocrator in the centre of the barrel vault is decal- like, surrounded by elegant filler decorations – not too many - in keeping with the style of the times- and an elegant chandelier presides.

Not surprisingly, given its name, this church has a golden glow, most obvious on its elaborate Iconostasis, a very sophisticated, style popular during this era.

The Bishop’s throne matches the iconostasis and is topped by a large golden crown.

The attractive tulip shaped Pulpit or Ambo with its eagle shaped lectern (or is it a dove?) is festooned for Easter celebrations. There is some confusion over the bird. In Orthodox iconography during the Byzantine period the outspread wings holding the Bible were an eagle’s; in the modern church it is said to be a dove, representing the Holy Spirit. Both images can be justified by all kinds of biblical quotes – so many that at times I think the carver hedged his bets and produced a hybrid. I always find myself doing a bit of bird watching when in a church, just to get it right.

When you look at the gynaikeion (women’s gallery) which runs across the back of the church there are a couple of surprising features. First of all, it houses an organ, an unusual accoutrement in an Orthodox church because a musical instrument or score was never supposed to drown out the all important words. The lady in the house opposite says it used to be used quite often for concerts but not lately. A pity. Secondly, the Eye of Divine Providence looks down from the ceiling.

This eye in a triangle may be more familiar to you as a Masonic symbol (where it has rays around the eye) but  the Eye with the addition of an enclosing triangle - an image of the Christian Trinity - was popular both in  medieval and renaissance iconography, more so  in Europe than in Greece.  All this makes Panagia Chryssokastriotissa a church with a difference - a pastel tone poem to nineteenth century sensibilities. Several churches exist in Athens along the lines of like this one, but few are so harmonious.

Panagia Chryssokastriotissa was named after a famous miracle working icon which originally resided in the Parthenon when it was an Orthodox church.  When the Franks came and the Parthenon became their Roman Catholic Cathedral the Parthenon’s icon was transferred here. The story goes that this was a move prompted by Mary herself, that Her icon disappeared from the Acropolis twice and was found resting under the cliffs where this church now stands. It was returned to the Parthenon on both occasions. The third time, the pious got the message and it remained here. Mary, of all the Holy figures, is the one most likely to wander in just this way; hundreds of churches all over Greece have been founded as a result similar iconic perambulations. Tradition has it that a candle remained lit under this icon up until the Greek revolution; some say after as well.

A Miracle is attributed to the Chryssokastriotissa icon. When the Turks first entered the acropolis, the women and children, a la Souli, threw themselves off the acropolis walls – to certain death. But the miraculous icon of the Panagia saved them all. Since then the church has a special reputation as a good spot for women and children in difficulties to pray.

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