Wednesday 20 November 2013

Byzantine churches in Athens: a few things it helps to know about their architecture

                            Byzantine churches in Athens: A Few things it Helps to Know

Most of the extant Byzantine churches in the center were built either in the 11th or 12th centuries. There was quite a renaissance in the city during this period because of the success of the emperor Basil 11 in both conquering the Bulgarians and consolidating the empire. It gave Athens breathing space and its economy a much needed boost.  The cross-in-square church with an Athenian dome was by far the most popular design. The following is a short reminder of what that means and what to look for.
 Cross-in-square Church (also called an inscribed cross-in-square)

                                     Narthex                    Nave                         Sanctuary

A typical cross-in-square church has a nave (mine is colored) that is divided into nine bays by four columns (or piers). The central and usually the largest bay is under the high dome which is supported by the four columns. The four rectangular bays that directly adjoin this central bay form a cross and are usually covered by barrel vaults. These are the arms of the "cross" which is inscribed within the "square" of the nave, hence the name of this type of church. I have highlighted the cross in pink and outlined in pencil the position of the dome on the roof. The blue bits are the four corner bays.

This type of church originated in the 700s and spread quickly all over the Byzantine empire. It was both intricate and elegant. The following diagram shows the large central dome and the four barrel vaulted arms of the cross so you get an idea how it works in three dimensions.

The word ‘vault’ simply means any arched ceiling. In the above diagram you can see that the arms of the cross are barrel vaulted.
 The four remaining bays (my blue ones) in the four corners are usually groin-vaulted, a fancy term for a vault that looks from underneath like an umbrella with four spokes.

                                                  A groin or cross vault

The spatial hierarchy of the three types of bay, from the largest central bay to the smallest corner bays, is mirrored in the elevation of the building, a feature clear from the inside of the church if you are looking for it but even more easily comprehended by looking at the roof from the outside:  the central dome is taller than the roof of the “cross” arms, which are in turn taller than the corner roof.
An example of the genre is Panagia Gorgoepikoos in Plateia Mitropolis down from Syntagma .

Not all cross-in square churches are so tiny although the Athenian ones are, and expect to see three eastern apses although the two flanking the main one will be smaller.  And there were inevitably add-ons on almost all Athenian churches. Even the one in the picture above had a large extra narthex added on to it which was removed when the church was renovated to bring it back to its original elegance. Other add- ons called parecclesia (parecclesion in the singular) were sometimes built to honour a special saint, sometimes to act as funerary chapels. When present, they alter the look of the simple cross-in-square church, sometimes seamlessly, sometimes not.
 Do not be put off by descriptions like tetrasyle”. Tetrastyle  just  means  “four columned”.  Sometimes the cross in square church is called distyle and that means that instead of having four independent columns holding up the dome, there are only two columns in the nave. In this case the dome is also supported by the walls of the sanctuary and the eastern arm of the barrel-vaulted cross goes through it to the apse. Distyle churches are often called the Helladic style because they occur so frequently on the Greek mainland.

                                              The Athenian Dome

This slim dome crowns almost all Athenian Byzantine churches and has come to be called the “Athenian dome” even although it originated at Hosios Loukas in Fokida and can be found in other Byzantine churches in Greece. It has eight sides with its corners decorated by small upright marble columns; a semi-circular eave forms at the top of each hexagon giving the dome a very pleasing and elegant fluted look which is enhanced by arched marble following the flutes, and stone waterspouts at the top of each column. As a rule, there is one simple window on each side of the octagon. There are variations in brickwork, the shape of the water spouts and so on, but the shape is so distinct that it really cannot be mistaken for any other kind of dome.  It is always elegant in its simplicity and with its cross on top has become a symbol of Byzantine Athens.

The Outside of Byzantine Churches
The outside of Panagia Gorgoepikoos is absolutely unique in its complete use of spolia – bits and pieces of ancient monuments or early Christian churches – and marble spolia at that. Other Byzantine churches in Athens whether cross-in-square or not, are built of either round or square stone most often combined in ingenious ways with the thin red brick that is a hallmark of the genre.  
The picture below illustrates most of the usual features.

Cloisonné masonry – four sided stones framed by thin red bricks dominate in the majority of church walls, a style brought over from Constantinople. Red bricks of various sizes were also used to create a multitude of linear patterns around the walls under the eaves or just about anywhere: zig-zags, key-patterns, one popularly called dog’s tooth, more formally a dental band, and so on. Decorative bricks were features around windows as well. On some Athenian churches you see Kufic  lettering, said to be a rather loose imitation of a ninth century Arabic script from the city of Kufa in today’s Iraq.  An odd bit of decoration to catch on in Christian ecclesiastical art, but there it is. The dome and vaults of the roof are covered with terra cotta tiles.  Window and door frames are most often white marble.
 The kufic lettering in the illustration above is that band of squiggles somewhat like the Greek key pattern just under the eaves. That in turn is framed by dentil bands. Sometimes two terms are used for the same thing so sometimes you will read ‘pseudo Kufic” lettering.
Not every Byzantine church will display every feature and sometimes a much rougher, not to say inventive version of the style was used, rounded stones or a mish mash of different shaped limestone is called rubble masonry and it can also have red brick tiles interspersed here and there.  Chunky marble blocks in the lower courses are not uncommon; there was a lot of marble lying about and often the way these stone blocks are placed is very attractive. The way these simple elements are put together makes every church unique in its way.
It has often been said that the outside of Byzantine churches are not interesting; the focus is on the interior wall paintings and iconostases. But I beg to differ. I find them innovative, especially when built in times of economic hardship, often elegant, and seldom dull. Many are small masonry poems – and all you get to see if the church is closed.

What to expect regarding wall paintings, iconostases and the like will have its own chapter. If you have a picture in your mind of all of those divisions in the church made possible by the columns or piers, the barrel and groin vaults, you can have no trouble imagining that teams of painters were needed to decorate the interior with wall paintings. There was a lot to cover even in a tiny church.  In the cross-in-square church the transition from the columns (a square) to the round dome is effected first by some rather hefty capitals on top of the columns which in turn form a base for curved triangular pendentives made of brick and then plastered which in turn allow for the circle of the dome.  I am trying to give you an idea of this in three dimensions in the diagram below. The arrow points to one of the four concave triangular pendentives. They are worth knowing about not just because without them there would be no dome, but because in the program of wall paintings they are important and what is on them is always worth a look.

 A List of Cross-in Square Churches in the Centre
Panagia Gorgoepikoos (Mitropolis Square)
Aghioi Theodoroi (Kafthmonos Square)
Aghioi Asomatoi (Theseion)
Kapnikarea (Ermou Str)
Aghios Ioannis Theologos (Plaka)
Aghios Nikolaos Ragkavas (Plaka)
Sotiras of Kotaki (Plaka)
Aghia Ekaterini (Plaka

Not every Athenian  Byzantine  church is cross-in-square although most are. Pantanassa in Monastiraki and Sotira Lycodemou near Syntagma march to different drummers and their architectural style will be discussed along with the churches. The only thing you might want to know about before visiting the churches are squinches, a lovely onomatopoeic description of the concave triangular hollows forms in right angled corners to create a base for a round dome or an oval cupola. They do look squinched in but they do the trick. Again, I needed to see a simple three dimensional drawing of a squinch to get it set firmly in my mind. The pale blue bit is the squinch and the triangles in the other corners are squinches too if we only had x-ray vision.

1 comment:

  1. Good morning Linda, I am really impressed by YOU, Very interesting to look at and easy to from your fan Fenny