Byzantine Churches > Byzantine Period

At the Eastern extremity of Europe, overlooking the Bosphoros which leads to the Black Sea, was a city established in the seventh century B.C. by people from the Greek city of Megara. The leader of this group was called Byzas and gave his name to the city of Byzantium.

The Emperor Constatine the Great realized the importance of its position and chose it as his Eastern capital. The building of new walls began in 324 and in 330 Constantinople was proclaimed the “New Rome”.

Constantine the Great is the first Christian Emperor, and Constantinople becomes the important capital of a new civilization. Christian in belief, Roman in its administrative system, military organization and justice, Greek in its spirit and culture and Oriental in the symbolism of its art.

Another follows the new movement, since it is part of the Eastern Empire, but retains its pagan traditions longer than any other city. The Schools continue, students come from all over the Empire, and the high philosophic teaching becomes a good source of income. Thus, each teacher employs men to await the arrival of ships at Piraeus to attract the newcomers. Each group of students formed around a teacher becomes a fanatical unit, the enemy of every other, and sometimes reaches the point of actual fighting to win over new members from the enemy camp. Something of the old ideals however still remains, and if not the present, at least the past still attracts the foreigners and forms the base of the teachings.

The first Athenian to become an a Empress is Athenais, the daughter of a philosopher, who takes the name of Eudocia and in 421 marries Theodoseos II.

During the fifth century a cultural revival begins in Athens based on the mutual influence of Neo-Platonic philosophy and Christianity.

The pagan temples within the city hace become Christian churches, and large basilicas are built on the outskirts of the city. They were usually built over the tomb of a martyr. One of the most important found in Athens is the Basilica of Ilissos, of which only parts of the foundations remain.

The Emperor Justinian closes the Athens Schools in the sixth century so as to wipe out any remnants of paganism and reduces Athens to insignificance, placing it under the administration of Thebes, which is the Capital of the “Thema” (an administrative unit of the Empire).

Very little is known of the life of Athens from the seventh to the tenth century. The city must have had few inhabitants and no monuments of these times remain. There must, however, have been a small society of some prestige, because we find the Emperor Constas spending his winter in Athens in 662 and two Athenian maidens becoming Empresses in the eighth and ninth centuries.

In 1019 the Emperor Basil II, called the Bulgar-Slayer, comes to Athens to bring gifts and do honour to the church of the Virgin in the Parthenon after his victorious wars. A new era seems to begin for Athens. Constantinople sends highly cultured clergy and new inhabitants. Artists also come from the capita, and we have examples of eleventh and twelfth century churches, which are jewels of Byzantine art. The influence of the capital is felt, but a special local character in architecture develops.

The most important remaining churches in the city are: the church of the Holy Apostles in the Agora, which has been beautifully restored; the church of the Saints Theodores with its intricate exterior decoration made of bricks and stone; the “Kapnikarea” with its perfect proportions in the shape of a cross with an elegant dome in the center and a small chapel added later on the North side; and the church known as the “Small Cathedral” or “Gorgoepikoos” (which means she who quickly answers prayers). This small church, in juxtaposition to the large Cathedral of Athens, provides a perfect example of quality and quantity. The Gorgoepikoos is unique in its architecture. Instead of using the traditional stone and brick of the Byzantine style, the architect used marble from old monuments, from which he also took capitals of columns and cornices to decorate his church. Reliefs surround it which date from pagan times through early Christian down to the Byzantine. Some come from temples, others from important buildings, while others are grave stones. These decorations have no symbolic connection with the church and were simply placed by the architect, sometimes even upside down, to give the effect of a frieze inspired most probably from pagan temples.

Unfortunately the interior of all these churches has been remedelled or decorated. There is however near Athens a perfect example of eleventh century interior decoration in the Church of Daphni. The mosaics of this church are among the most famous of Byzantine art. The gold backgrounds, the vivid colours perfectly harmonized, the plasticity of light and shade on the draperies which can be compared with classic Greek art, and above all the serenity of expression of the faces and the poise of the figures give grace and austerity to this supremely Christian expression of art.

The revival of Athens lasts only for two centuries. Again we find the city becoming a small unimportant town. We have letters written by the Bishop of Athens at the end of the twelfth century to friends in Constantinople, in which he describes the poverty and misery of the town and complains of the complete lack of educated people.


Copyright © 2000  
All rights reserved