Saturday 24 May 2014

Oddball Churches: Agios Andreas, Patras

Agios Andreas, Patras (Άγιος Ανδρέας, Πάτρας)



Picture postcard perfect, Agios Andreas towers over the older basilica next door (to the right)


The massive Church of Agios Andreas sits in a large square on the edge of the city centre. Struggle as I may, I still think of it as the concrete hulk.  Somehow echoing glorious brick built Byzantine designs using reinforced concrete seems like cheating!

Still, Agios Andreas is impressive. It is the largest church in Greece, able to accommodate 5,500 worshippers.

 Saint Andrew’s smaller basilica next door did not have the gravitas that civic fathers felt his shrine deserved in the twentieth century so a contest was initiated in 1904. 32 designs were submitted, winnowed down to 8, which were then sent to the School of Fine Arts in Berlin for them to choose the winner, a fact which speaks volumes about the state of architecture in Greece at the time. The three top designers were all foreign; a Frenchman, Emile Robert, got the nod.

The cornerstone was laid by King George in 1908 and construction began under the supervision of Greek architect Anastasios Metaxas. The cost was enormous for the time and a tax on raisin grapes was imposed to raise money.

The Balkan wars, the First World War, the population exchange with Turkey, the depression, World War Two and then the  Greek civil war, all intervened and put construction of the mega-church on hold.

In 1930: looking a little like something from War of the Worlds   

There were problems with the design too.  Many came to feel that it was too western (not surprising given the nationality of the designer. Note those more pointed domes in the model.) and that the original dome shape was somehow wrong and the windows not quite right. All needed modifying into something more, well, Byzantine!

 During all this, the Ministry of Education and Religion was a major player – large churches in Greece have never been merely of ecclesiastical concern. Changes were approved and it was decided in 1956 to levy a tax on all Patras citizens to defray the costs.

Twelve smaller domes for the apostles, the central dome (46 meters high and topped by a 5 meter high gold plated cross) for Christ

Although the church was inaugurated in 1974, the tax continued until 2005. 
How it was collected is interesting too. There would not have been enough raisin grapes in all of Greece to cover this post war project so the tax was collected by adding a tax on the city’s electric bills. This method of tax collecting has become all too familiar to Greeks in the last three years because that is how our property taxes have been collected. It is effective in roping in tax evaders. Everyone needs electricity!

Apparently there was no mass protest and each and every Patras dweller with a light switch had to help pay for the church, a municipal tax really – and an interesting social phenomenon all by itself, at least to people living outside of Greece.

 So, if Patras’ citizens regard their church today with a proprietary air, they have every right to do so.

The Interior

It’s big, highly decorated, and yet still seems strangely in medias res.  I think that is because of the mélange of styles. The marble floor is magnificent. Flowery mosaics on the arches, and the fish, rabbits, and grape motif around a double headed eagle on the floor harken back to early Christian churches even if the eagle does not. 

The rest of the church is even more eclectic! Wall and ceiling decorations are a mix of mosaic and wall paintings. I suspect that the original plan of covering the church in mosaics simply proved too expensive.

A beautifully painted Harrowing of Hell over marble and mosaics from an earlier artistic era.

There is an impressive mosaic near the front of the church of Andrew on his cross: 

He chose this cross for his martyrdom out of respect for Christ, not deeming himself worth of a cross similar to his Saviour’s  and was apparently tied rather than nailed to it; tradition has him preaching continuously from the cross for three days before he died. This X shaped cross has been known as the Saint Andrew’s cross ever since. 

Apparently all this was only partly because of his actual preaching; he had been in Patras preaching for some time before his arrest. The crunch came when he converted the wife of the Roman governor Aegeates who then refused her husband conjugal rights; the frustrated governor ordered his execution in late November 60 AD (1) and he died on November 30, the date now celebrated as his Feast Day.

 The wall painting of Mary in the apse of the church is wonderful even if it isn’t a mosaic: 



Her presentation is traditional but she presides over a folk art rendition of the Patras cityscape as seen from the Gulf, including the castle on the left and the church of Saint Andrew just beneath her left hand! This is as charming and unusual as it is a tad out of place behind that formal iconostasis. 

The huge twelve sided wooden chandelier hanging from the main dome is amazing. Each side represents an apostle and there are carved double headed eagles for each one too.

The dome with the Pantocratoras is impressive for its size, more than its execution.

Saint Andrew’s Relics: Lost in Translation

The real focus of this church’s interior is off center to the right of the iconostasis. It is the elaborate silver reliquary holding the cranium of the saint.

There used to be more. Tradition has it that Patras had all of the saint’s body –which was placed in a sarcophagus after his death and a church, now long gone, built to house it. But in the 300s when the emperor Constantine needed some significant relics for his new city on the Bosphorus, he expropriated (or translated to use the religious term) the saint’s body leaving Patras with only the head. Some versions claim he took that too and that the emperor Basil 1 returned the head in the 800s. (If this happened at all it would be because he apparently needed the good will of the city more than Constantine had 500 years earlier).

 In 1204, after the Forth Crusade, Constantinople lost the body to the Crusaders and the head, then definitely in Patras, went to Italy in 1453 tucked under the arm of Thomas Palaeologos, the last Byzantine emperor’s brother, as he fled the Turks.  He offered it to the pope in return for an annuity and protection. The pope was only too happy to oblige. An important relic could and often did facilitate just about any negotiation.

So Patras was left with only a finger of the apostle and quite an impressive empty sarcophagus while many European centers divided up the bones and built impressive churches to house the bits they had managed to acquire…

The relic drain reversed to some extent in 1964 when the Pope returned the cranium (or most of it – apparently Amalfi has the occipital lobe or thinks it does) to Patras where you now see it along with the finger and some fragments of the X shaped cross.
I wondered if, somewhat like the Acropolis museum in Athens, that the new Agios Andreas was partly conceived to encourage just such a return. First build the appropriate setting and then wait… 

The Small Basilica of Agios Andreas

This sympathetic basilica is always redolent of incense. It was completed in 1843, the work of  Lyssandros Kaftantzoglou and bears many of the hallmarks of that era’s taste.  The furniture is dark and plentiful, the wall paintings by  Dimitris Hatziaslanis, are oval portraits , even the ones on the dark ceiling, and a painted ‘eye’ – a very popular 19th century motif -watches you from behind the iconostasis.  The treasure here is the empty marble sarcophagus of the Saint.

There is one more interesting shrine to visit in this square which has drawn so many pilgrims over the years: the famous well. But before going one to it, there is a bit of a mystery to solve.  Patras has pride of place as the venue of Andrew’s martyrdom, but another reason this church is visited so often is because of the saint’s amazing popularity throughout Christendom, and this in spite of the veil of obscurity over his actual life and deeds. This apparent contradiction leads to a digression.

Andrew, Practically Everybody’s Patron Saint

Andrew is patron saint of Patras, Georgia, the Ukraine, Romania, Scotland and myriad places in between and beyond, and not just because of his status as the first apostle to be chosen by Christ. His missionary travels made him patron of so many places.

His travels to spread the Good News are legendary for the sheer size of the territory he covered, a territory so vast that some scholars suggest that they are just that, - legends. These claims allowed many cities to declare him as their first bishop.

 Because of the church’s insistence on the Apostolaic succession (2) of its bishops, many places in the growing Orthodox world just may have tweaked history a bit in order to have their church founded by an apostle.  

Andrew’s Alleged Voyages

See what you think, and keep in mind he had twenty seven years in which to accomplish the feat.

I did a very rough estimate of the distance involved as the crow flies both coming and going between the main points. The total exceeds a staggering 19,000 kilometres (about 11,800 miles) so even this extremely conservative estimate makes his total travels more than half the circumference of the planet, and that is not taking into account side trips, detours, or obstacles. 

 Note that, somewhere along the line, Andrew is believed to have preached in Byzantium and that stop-over made him the founder of the Church in Constantinople and of the Orthodox Patriarchate today.

With adventures like that – practically over every trade route known at the time including the Silk Route and those sea routes known by Arab traders, you would expect more contemporary stories about Saint Andrew and yet, as the Economist, in an article about the popularity of the saint commented that  for all his ubiquity, the biblical Andrew is a shadowy figure.

The reason for this obscurity appeals to my sense of the bizarre.

It seems that there were in fact many stories of the acts of  Andrew in circulation  well before 300 AD , but  many of his adventures and miracles were told in the spirit of ancient epics such as Homer’s Odyssey or romance adventures such as  Apuleius’  The Golden Ass, (3)  

One example is The Acts of Andrew and Matthias which includes amazing adventures, plenty of magic, gory details, improbable events, and a lot of appearances of Jesus to give advice, explanations, and to make sure that the plot unfolds as heaven ordains.

 Unfortunately, as the church defined its image, fine tuned its dogma, and began the complicated process of choosing what exactly would go into the New Testament or be left out, the exaggerations and tone these stories became an embarrassment and were suppressed, relegated to Apocrypha, or allowed to molder, often in the libraries of prominent theologians who, while they may have enjoyed them themselves, did not see them as properly edifying for the general population!  (4)

 Certainly mirroring the Odyssey or a romance like The Golden Ass to tell the story of the apostles is the most natural development imaginable –it was a form popular and familiar in the pagan world.  But this was also a period when the Church and emperor were dead against anything they regarded as smacking of Hellenism because they equated Hellenism with paganism and therefore something to be stamped out.

The following  Acts survived by the skin of its teeth! I have outlined the story below.

The Acts of Andrew and Matthias

 Saint Andrew saves fellow apostle Matthias from a horrible death at the hands of the flesh eating Myrmidons (5) Andrew, like all heroes gets help from the gods, only this time, ‘god’ is singular. Christ appears in the tale many times.

The story begins with the apostles drawing lots after Pentecost to decide where each should go to spread the Gospel. Apparently Matthias (Judas’ replacement) got the short straw. He was to go the land of the Myrmidons a country of notorious cannibals. This dangerous mission was designed to show to what great lengths the apostles would go to create converts and possibly to suggest that not even the worst of the worst were beyond redemption.

The Mymidons would first gouge out their prisoners’ eyes, give them a drug to make them lose their senses, and then feed them on grass for a time. This last detail intrigues.  Could this possibly have been an attempt to make flesh of carnivores more palatable?  Probably not. Certainly for plot purposes, there has to be a time lapse between capture and dinner to give Andrew time to get there.  Poor Matthias and his followers are given this treatment but Christ appears and restores both his sight and senses and then promises him that he will send Andrew to rescue him.

Andrew is reluctant at first because Christ gives him a three day deadline to reach the land of the Myrmidons and Andrew cannot see how he can manage that. Jesus tells him to go to the shore the next day and he will find a boat. Unknown to him Christ himself and two angels, disguised so as to appear human, are waiting. During the journey, the ‘pilot’ miraculously calms the seas (because “all of the earth which he created obeys Him”), allowing for a calm voyage and a long discussion about the miracles performed by Christ to prove his Godhead. At one point Jesus has a temple Sphinx become animate to prove a point.

There is a nice interlude here where Andrew’s followers are lifted to heaven in a dream where they see all twelve disciples (including Andrew) and hear the Lord say: Listen to the apostles in all things whatsoever they shall ask you.

Of course, like all epic stories, the plot evolves in such a way to make the hero heroic. Andrew has to undergo all sorts of humiliations and lacerations which show his steadfastness in the face of evil and to show the power of the Lord: “Andrew, rise up and show yourself to them, that they may learn my power, and the powerlessness of the devil working in them.”

  It gives Andrew a chance to perform a miracle or two as well. He restores sight to all the prisoners and, just like Dionysos in The Bacchai – is able to escape the prison at will, cause the knives fall out the hands of the executioners and, when they beat him and tear his flesh, the Lord steps in and turns the torn bits into “great trees bearing fruit”. Of course, the various devils he meets recognize his powers.

The outcome is happy because this is a Christian story. In the end, even the people Andrew kills are restored- the only fiat being that they must accept the Christian religion:

 ‘Then Andrew prayed, and they all came to life. And after these things he drew a plan of a church, and he caused the church to be built. And he baptized them, and gave them the ordinances of our Lord Jesus Christ, saying to them: Stand by these, in order that you may know the mysteries of our Lord Jesus Christ’.

It’s a great tale. If there had been more stories about the apostles like this one when I was a kid, going to Sunday School would have been a lot more fun. You can read the entire Acts of Andrew and Matthias at  I hope you do.

Andrew’s  (or Demeter’s?) Well beside the Basilica

Beside the basilica and down a few steps is the well where Andrew was said to sleep and pray and baptize converts.

When Andrew came upon it, it was sacred to Demeter, a goddess with a fondness for water rites too.  It was on this spot by her sanctuary that tradition says Andrew was crucified and, according to Peter Levi (6), his bones were kept for quite a time just beyond the metal doors beside the well.

  But not in 170 AD when Pausanias visited. In spite of Andrew’s martyrdom and mass conversions, the worship of Demeter at this well was still going strong a hundred years later, only this time with a twist – it had become an oracle for the sick.

 A mirror tied to a string would be suspended just at the level of the well water, a prayer said, and incense burned, - then a look into the mirror… It showed the supplicant either dead or alive – and its prophecy was always true.  The well is still functioning and although I took a sip, I decided not to try my luck with a mirror.

The custom in Pausanias’ time was to dedicate lamps to the goddess and there are quite a batch, just as they were found in situ at the new Patras museum.

 Just when Christianity again staked its claim to the well is not known, but it is a popular Christian pilgrimage site today, so much so that the Metropolitan bishop is still winning a running battle with the archaeologists who would like to excavate the area behind those metal doors.

A Map of Patras Showing Agios Andreas on the Lower Left

Open Daily 


(1) Don’t look for exactitude in the events surrounding Andrew’s martyrdom.  Some sources offer the date as 70 AD; later Church Fathers suppressed the story about the governor’s wife because it smacked of interference in matrimonial bonds – and so on and so forth….

(2) He is considered the founder of the Christian Church in Constantinople, as each and every ordination of a Patriarch, a Bishop, a Priest or Deacon can be traced back to the original Apostle Andrew. The liturgical act of laying on of hands in the Orthodox Church with the grace of the Holy Spirit is the transfer of the original Christ-given authority to the Apostles.We call this Apostolic Succession. 

(3) Dennis MacDonald posits the theory that the non-canonical Acts of Andrew was a Christian retelling of Homer's Odyssey.


4) Some 538 books or fragments telling New Testament stories have been salvaged from antiquity and as one commentator says. “ It should also be emphasized that the existence of an hypothetical New Testament greater than 27 books is a fact, independent in its own right, irrespective of individual prejudice as to the number of books to be considered as acceptable testimony for the truths of Jesus' claims. See


 (5) The author chooses a familiar name from the Iliad - Myrmidons (“ants”) for the villains of the piece.

6. Pausanias Guide to Greece, Volume One  Penguin Books, p.283







  1. Very interesting, Linda; reminded me that the sole of one of Andrew's feet isn't too far from Patras, in the museum by the convent of Ag. Andrea in Peratata, Kefalonia, and the sole of one of his sandals is located in a beautiful gold portable reliquary altar in Trier. Perhaps appropriate for a widely travelled saint!

  2. This is a terrific entry, thank you!

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