Banner photo by Velissarios Voutsas

Byzantine Churches in Greece

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Exterior of the Rotunda of Thessaloniki, Photo: Velissarios Voutsas

The Rotunda of Thessaloniki

The rotunda was built by Emperor Galerius (reigned 305 – 311) or, according to some scholars, Emperor Constantine I (r. 306 –337), perhaps as an imperial mausoleum. Neither of them was buried there, however, and the building was converted into a church, probably in the late fourth or fifth century. Surviving mosaics in the dome depict male figures with arms outstretched in prayer.

Although they lack haloes, the figures are widely thought to represent saints, as several of the names and occupations inscribed next to them correspond to those of Christians martyred during periods of Roman persecution. The figures stand before facades that derive from those of Roman imperial palaces and theaters, but which here take on an otherworldly character. The shimmering gold-on-gold architecture, studded with gems, recalls Saint John the Divine’s vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem that would appear when Christ returned in glory at the end of time. According to his book of Revelation, Johnsaw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God . . . her radiance was like a most rare jewel . . . and the city was pure gold, like glass(Revelation 21).

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Interior of the Church of the Acheiropoietos, Photo: Velissarios Voutsas

Church of the Acheiropoietos

The Acheiropoietos is the best-preserved early Byzantine church in Thessaloniki. With a longitudinal nave ending in an apse, two side aisles, and a timber roof, it is a typical Christian basilica. Measuring 164 by 95 feet, the church was built around 450 – 470, at which time the nave would have been reserved for the clergy; the congregation gathered in the aisles and galleries above them. The walls were originally sheathed in mosaics, but only the fragment in this exhibition (no. 45) and those on the undersides of the arches separating the nave from the aisles remain. Their subjects — fountains, vases, grapevines, doves, fish, and other flora and fauna, often centered on a cross — evoke the beauty and bounty of a heavenly paradise. The church was probably originally dedicated to the Theotokos (Mother of God); the name Acheiropoietos (“not made by human hands”) is a reference to a miraculous icon for which it later became famous.

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Interior of Monastery of Hosios Loukas. Photo: Velissarios Voutsas

Hosios Loukas and Daphni

Smaller centralized churches became common in the period known as the middle Byzantine era (843 –1204). The best preserved is the main church of the monastery of Hosios Loukas in Phokis. The structure was completed in 1011 or 1022 and dedicated to an ascetic monk named Luke who died in 953. Its square nave is surmounted by a dome 28 feet in diameter that is carried by eight arches resting on massive piers. Colored marble panels on the walls and gold mosaics on the curved surfaces mask the structural elements, creating a luminous interior. With the exception of the mosaics of the dome, which collapsed in an earthquake, almost all the original decoration remains intact. Its lavishness may be due to the largesse of Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (1042 –1055). The late-11th-century monastic church at Daphni, near Athens, is similar to Hosios Loukas in plan, but its mosaics survive in a more fragmentary state. Together, Daphni and Hosios Loukas reflect the classic middle Byzantine program for church decoration. The highest areas ( the dome, cupolas, and semi-dome of the apse) represent the celestial sphere. They are reserved for the holiest figures — Christ, angels, and the Virgin — and for heavenly scenes such as the Descent of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost). Scenes from Christ’s life occupy an intermediate zone. Farther down are portraits of saints, with the most important placed in or near the sanctuary; local saints or holy monks appear closer to the entrance of the church, nearest the terrestrial sphere of the worshippers. The program is a microcosm of the Christian universe.

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Monastery of the Pantanassa. Photo: Velissarios Voutsas

Church of the Pantanassa, Mistra

Byzantium lost control of its southernmost Greek province, the Peloponnese, during the Latin Conquest (1204 –1261). The region was occupied by French crusaders, one of whom built a fortified castle in 1249 on a hilltop near Sparta. The town that grew up around the stronghold became known as Mistra. The Byzantines regained territories in the Peloponnese, which they called the Morea, in 1261 and later made Mistra its capital. Because the governors of the Morea belonged to royal families in Constantinople, Mistra benefited from imperial patronage. During the final centuries of the Byzantine Empire, the city flourished as a center of philosophy and the arts. It was the last outpost of Byzantine civilization, falling to the Ottomans in 1460, seven years after the defeat of Constantinople. The last major church built at Mistra belongs to the still-functioning monastery dedicated to the Virgin Pantanassa (All Holy). Completed by 1428, it is a domed basilica with a maximum length of 41 feet. Wall paintings, rather than expensive gold mosaics, adorn its interior, a sign of the empire’s dwindling resources. Rendered in soft, often pastel hues, the animated scenes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin are crowded with incidental figures and naturalistic details characteristic of late Byzantine art.

Exhibition Film

Five Byzantine Churches

Produced by the Department of Exhibition Programs, this ten-minute film presents original still and moving footage of the Byzantine churches featured to your left. Set to the music of Byzantine hymns and chants, the film evokes the original context of many objects in the exhibition.

This film was made possible by the HRH Foundation