Monday 25 November 2013

Athens: Sotira Lykodemou (Σωτείρα Λυκοδήμου)

 Five minutes south of Syntagma along Filellinon Street, between Xenofondos and Souri Streets. Open 8-12 daily and in the evenings when services are scheduled

Sotira Lykodemou, built in 1036 by Stefanos Lycodemou, is a testament to both the contemporary prosperity of this aristocratic family and the speed with which architectural innovations could travel. The church is a domed octagon, a style which has the large hemisphere of a single dome, resting on eight supports which formed an octagon. These piers were placed on the periphery of the nave leaving the entire nave under the dome an open space.  The style had been introduced on the mainland only 25 years earlier with the construction of  Hosios Loukas in Fokida. It even had three three-sided apses, albeit narrower, like its model. This was the only domed octagon church in a city of families who seemed to prefer  the more elegant cross-in-square style for acts of personal piety.

During the Byzantine and Ottoman eras, Sotira Lykodemou was on the very edge of town. This church was the katholikon of a monastery and would have then been surrounded on all four sides by outbuildings.  By 1770, time, raids, and earthquakes had reduced the these outbuildings to rubble, handy for Voivode Hadji Ali to use for his new defensive wall around the city. He enclosed the church, now standing alone, inside his walls. It was damaged by cannon fire in 1827 and moldered in neglect until the Russian government bought it in 1847 as the new parish church for the Russian community. By 1856 it has been restored to its former splendor with the addition of a still grandiose bell tower. 

Given that this is the largest medieval structure to have survived in Athens, you have to wonder just how large the Russian population was when the church was purchased. Probably not that many, but churches are often built with other reasons in mind. Tsar Nicholas 1 was the buyer, a Tsar whose banner during his reign was Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality. His dream was to enforce Orthodoxy on all of his subjects and he was enthusiastic about the idea of a Russian ecclesiastical protectorate over the Balkans. The Russians had flirted with the Greek freedom fighters before Independence, sometimes supported them, and often left them in the lurch, but ties between Orthodox countries are strong and the Russian embassy would have been watching the German royal dynasty closely during the 1840s and may  have wanted to make their presence felt as the new city was taking shape. Their bell tower and impressive church were looming over the city a full 6 years before the Metropolis church, the Greek Archbishop’s cathedral church, was complete. It is also true that at this point in Athens history when architects both German and Greek were looking at European models, perhaps the Russians were the only ones to value a Byzantine monument like this one.

Today, known simply as the Russian Church, most people walk by its bulk without giving it a second glance. A second glance will show that the Russians knew their mid-Byzantine stuff. The outside of the church has all of the hallmarks of that period, cloisonné brickwork, dog-toothed edgings, Kufic lettering and white marble outlining the doors.

Inside, the spaciousness is somewhat hidden by a great number of kissing height icons on elaborate stands . The octagon of the nave is stressed by having eight cherubs define it. Above the nave, a gallery runs around three sides. Look up and in the squinches (the four concave triangles that turn the dome into a square or octagon) and you see the four evangelists, just where they should be in the iconic program, holding up the heavenly dome. The extremely high iconostasis is a Russian stylistic hallmark, but the rest of the interior is more 19th century “anywhere” with wall paintings by the German painter Loudovikos Thirsios a proponent of the 19th century Romantic school. The icons of the saints are larger than life, the Pantocrator in the dome benign, and the animals depicted both  realistic and charming. The woodwork and cupboards reminded me of a Victorian salon. The marble floor is grand in its way – all in all a church worth closer scrutiny and one that was closed up tight when I went to photograph its interior. 

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