Thursday 12 December 2013

Oddball Churches: Agios Georgios in Thessaloniki

Agios Georgios (Αγίος Γεωργίος) in Thessaloniki

At the junction of Dimitrios Gounaris and Philippou streets, 125 meters northeast of the Arch of Galerius. Open Tues-Sunday 8-15. Tel:2310 968860

Ag Georgios falls into the oddball category for two reasons. The ancient building it took over and altered into Christian place of worship was itself a structure absolutely unique in Greece.  Secondly, in modern times, its status as a church has been something of an “on again - off again” affair nicely encapsulating a controversy about who should be guardians of venerable churches in Greece.

The Rotunda

The building that became Agios Georgios was built in 306 AD on the orders of the Roman tetrarch Galerius, one of the four Caesars at that time and commander of the Balkans. He had chosen Thessaloniki as the seat of his government and this circular building, along with a triumphal arch (still there), and a long processional corridor (dust in the wind), were to be part of a grand palace complex. 

a Wikipedia image

Some say it was intended as his Mausoleum, others as a temple to Zeus. Whatever the reason, it was built to impress.

When complete it boasted the largest brick-built dome in the world with a diameter of 24.5 meters and a height of 29.8 meters.  Its walls, composed of rubble masonry alternating with layers of brick, were over six meters thick, such bulk absolutely necessary to support the massive dome. Originally the outside walls were unarticulated but inside were eight large barrel-vaulted recesses set into the walls. Above the recesses were large arched windows and higher still lunettes to help light the dome.

The dome from an old postcard

  When completed, the Rotunda was awesomely grand for the provinces, - a masonry echo of the mighty Pantheon in Rome (1). It might have come down to us as yet another impressive Roman ruin but history intervened….

Galerius’ died in 311 and was buried abroad putting paid to the mausoleum plan and his grand plan for Thessaloniki. Shortly afterwards, Christianity would become a tolerated religion (later the official one), Constantinople would become the capital of the  Eastern Empire  and the emperor  Theodosius the Great, whose policy it was to convert all pagan buildings to Christian use, was not about to ignore the Rotunda. He ordered it made into Christian church in 395(2).

The Conversion
To do this, a rectangular area with a semicircular arch was attached to the east of the building (to the right in the diagram) to act as the Sanctuary, on the west a narthex and entrance were added, the ocular was closed, and an arcade or ambulatory with a couple of circular chapels off it was built all around the original structure thus enclosing it inside the church. The thick circular ‘center’ in the diagram below is the original Rotunda. If it had indeed been dedicated to a pagan god, he was well and truly surrounded!

from Wikipedia

The eight interior recesses of the original building were punched through to the outside to incorporate the add-ons and unify the whole. This may have weakened the original structure. Over time many architectural mishaps occurred and repairs were required. Still, the original building was saved from worse by the thickness of its core walls and has fared much better than some of the add-ons.

There was an original oddity that today’s visitor does not see.  The grand processional way which had been completed by Galerius was retained even although it led to the south side of the church and not its new western entrance!

The new church may have originally been dedicated to the Archangels but it is known as Agios Georgios today and it is the most important existing example of a church from the early Christian period in the Greek-speaking part of the Roman Empire and the oldest Christian church in Thessaloniki, a city of many old churches.

The Interior

Brilliant mosaic decorations were added in the fourth century. Only fragments of these have survived. They are all the more valuable for being rare examples of 4th century art. What you can (barely) see around the base of the dome is a band depicting saints with hands raised in prayer, in front of buildings rendered in the classical style. Binoculars might be a good idea if you visit.

The beautiful mosaic ring in the dome

From the same era are elegant bits of floral or bird designs like the one above. The fragmentary aspect of these wonderful mosaics can disappoint, especially since decorations from other eras abound – not always harmoniously. Such dissonance is all part of a larger historical mosaic.

The History

After 1200 years as a Christian Church, including a stint as Thessoloniki’s Metropolitan Cathedral, it was turned into the mosque of Suleyman Hortaji Effendi in 1590 by the Ottomans. One minaret is still standing as a reminder of that conversion. It became a Christian church again after Thessaloniki joined Greece in 1912 and then, by an edict of Eleftherios Venizelos in 1917, it became a secularized public building, - the Macedonian Museum .

 It has its old name back today but is still considered an historical monument under the aegis of the Ninth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities of the Greek Ministry of Culture and used for recitals and exhibitions.

Or is it?

 It has happened quite often in modern Greece that the Ministry of Culture has stepped in to help preserve a church and, in some cases, has even taken control or partial control of the building. Having to ask permission to use a church for the function it was intended has not sat well with all of the faithful. This was somewhat bizarrely illustrated at Agios Georgios  in January of   1996 when permission was granted  by the Ephorate for a night vigil. The priests wanted more and not only smuggled in many slabs of a marble during the evening, but by had defiantly constructed an altar as well! (3)

Oh to have a picture or video of that evening! 

The “altar-in”  did not succeed in the long run, nor did an attempt later in the same  year to disrupt a piano recital by storming the event and smashing the piano!

 But what events like this do succeed in doing is to highlight the tension between the Church as a place of worship and the Church as a cultural artifact, - a tension that will likely intensify as more and more churches and monasteries become major tourist destinations. Ironically, desanctifying a church, reducing it to a bare hall decorated only by its wall paintings, and then charging admission  seems to be the only way to preserve it at all.
The cost of renovating and preserving is immense and one often shouldered by the state– so the debate about the odor of sanctity versus the odor of plaster dust and fresh paint looks likely to continue.

 There is almost always some give and take, however. Today the Ministry of Culture while maintaining control, does give the Church access to Agios Georgios for ‘various festivities’. And there is an altar.....

(1) See D is for Domes
(2) Some say the church was constructed earlier under Constantine the Great.
(3) This story is recounted in Why Angels Fall by Victoria Clark, (Picador, c2000. P 149) 

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