A Walk through Byzantine Athens
This week has had a Byzantine theme. I lead the American School Regular Members to some of the Byzantine churches in Athens today. It was a bit of a challenge because the churches are spread out over a relatively wide area (relative to say, a single ancient site), and I had three hours to do it. In addition to the basic architectural tour, these three hours also included a short talk on the basic history of Middle Byzantine Athens.
So I had to make some decisions. I decided to focus almost exclusively on Middle Byzantine (10th-11th c.) Athens and limit the tour to five churches. I began with Moni Petraki which is next door to the American School. It’s also one of the oldest standing churches in the city (probably the oldest) perhaps dating from as early as the last quarter of the 10th century. It’s rounded apses, arcade type windows, rugged construction, and lateral vaults that protrude beyond the outer wall of the north and south crossing recommend an early date.
We then walked down to the Kapnikarea which sits in the middle of a bustling shopping district. The church is contemporary with another 11th century church in the city, Ay. Theodoroi which can be dated by an inscription to the mid-11th century. The use of dentelated bands (or dog-toothed friezes) and the grouping of the arcaded windows more closely together reflect its later date as does the appearance of “Kufic” decorations and stone crosses.
The group will then walk over to the so-called Little Metropolis. The tour route defies chronology and jumps to this Frankish period (the period after the Fourth Crusade’s sack of Constantinople in 1204) monument that most likely dates to the 13th century.
Famous for its use of spolia from ancient, Early Christian, and Middle Byzantine buildings, this church is among the best studied Byzantine monuments in the city. The extensive use of spolia in all Byzantine buildings in Athens makes it challenging to use architectural sculpture as a source of chronological information. Of particular interest to me is the use of Early Christian and Early Byzantine (say 8th and 9th century) fragments in these buildings. I’ve argued elsewhere that this practice reflects an interest in continuity between the Early Christian and later periods, but at the same time suggests an awareness of a some kind of break or discontinuity. After all, the original building from which the spolia derived was no longer in existence. An additional level of complexity derives from the possibility that some of the properly “ancient” spolia (particular column capitals) in Middle Byzantine buildings like the Little Metropolis might in fact be in tertiary use, having at some point been employed in an Early Christian context before being used again in a later building. Thus, the use of spolia become very much like the use literary or documentary evidence by the historian. On the one hand, the use of primary source evidence reflects an awareness of separation between the historian’s time and a previous moment in the past (i.e. discontinuity). On the other hand, the actual use of particular evidence in a contemporary historical text reflects its continued validity and its potential for translation from one context to another. Our ability to understand a piece of “primary source” evidence and use (like ancient spolia) it reifies the persistent sense of continuity between the past and the present.
From the little Metropolis we made a chronological jump backward to the Soteira Lykodemou (also called the Russian church). This is the largest church in the city and Ch. Bouras has recently proposed that it is, in fact, a 3/4 copy of the Katholikon church at Os. Loukas. It’s a crossed-domed octagon which presents a significantly different kind of interior space than the cross-in-square type churches common to Midddle Byzantine Athens. The church probably dates to between the death of the found of the church in 1044 and the completion of the Katholikon at Os. Loukas in the first decades of the 11th c.
Finally, we walked from Soteria Lykodemou over to the 11th century church of Ay. Aikaterini near the Lysikrates monument which is undergoing some repairs and renovations so that the foundations of the apse are exposed. The church has been extensively modified with a massive narthex and ambulatory. The church highlights one of the key issues facing the study of Middle Byzantine buildings in Athens (or any city for that matter). The churches are living buildings, they remained in use for centuries undergoing modifications to serve their varying congregations.
The Middle Byzantine churches of Athens remain a relatively understudied group with only a handful of detailed studies on specific churches. Few of the churches have received proper archaeological investigation and our dating of them has continued to rely on the stylistic chronology established by Peter Megaw in the 1930s (with some modifications). The remarkable thing is that over 70 years of archaeological and architectural study of the Byzantine buildings of Athens and the rest of Greece has done very little to modify Megaw’s overall chronology (although single buildings have received revised dates). You can read my hand out for the walk and some additional bibliography here.