What is The Church of Panagia Kapnikarea?
The Church of Panagia Kapnikarea, or just ‘Kapnikarea’, is one of the oldest churches in Athens and was built in the 11th century on top of an ancient Greek temple.
The pedestrianised shopping street of Ermou is thronged with worshippers at the shrine of consumerism. But here in the middle of the busy shopping street stands a thousand-year-old church on a sunken plaza – a great spot for buskers to ply their trade and for weary shoppers to rest for a while with their bags stuffed with new purchases. Few passersby realise that this small and unassuming Orthodox church is one of the oldest in Athens.
The Church of Panagia Kapnikarea – or the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary – was built in the 11th century and has demonstrated a remarkable ability to survive against the odds. Like many Christian Orthodox churches from that era, the structure was built on top of an ancient Greek temple dedicated to a female goddess – most likely Athena or Demeter.
The Kapnikarea is one of the few Byzantine buildings still standing in Athens. You can spot the city’s Byzantine churches by their modest proportions, elaborate brickwork and cross-in-square plan. But what really distinguishes Athens’ Byzantine churches are their distinctive red-tiled, eight-sided domes – known as Athenian Domes.
The name Kapnikarea might have derived from the Greek word katakapnismeni, meaning ‘completely sooty’, as the church’s icon of the Virgin was found in such a state after the Ottomans set fire to the city. More likely, however, is that it’s named after the donor of the church: his surname, which originated from his professional name, was Kapnikaris (a collector of the kapnikon, the Byzantine hearth tax).
Architecturally, the Kapnikarea stands out from its Byzantine contemporaries because it’s actually a complex of three different units joined together, which were built successively. The church must have originally been the katholikon (or principal church building) of a long-gone monastery. Today, you can just make out the three distinct units: the southern church, with its dome supported by four Roman columns, that’s dedicated to the Virgin Mary; the chapel of Saint Barbara on the northern side; and finally the exonarthex (the area by the entrance) to the west.
Inside, the tranquillity makes it easy to forget you’re on one of the busiest streets in Athens. The remarkably bright frescoes date back only to the 1940s, as they were painted by Greek artist Fotis Kontoglou and his students. See if you can also spot the brick patterns imitating an early Arabic script in the southern church.
As Athens has changed hands between different rulers, conquerors and kings, the Kapnikarea’s existence has been threatened more than once. It survived being firebombed during the Ottoman period in 1689 and was earmarked for destruction by urban planners led by architect Leo von Klenze, who attempted to modernise Athens in the 19th century under the rule of King Otto. The church was saved when Otto’s father, Ludwig I of Bavaria, stepped in and demanded that the historic building be preserved.
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