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Architectural details of the Little Metropolis, also known as Panagia Gorgoepikoos and Agios Eleutherios, in Athens, Greece (photo credit: Adriana Iacob, Shutterstock)

The best art gallery of Athens

By all accounts, Michael Choniates was a remarkable individual. He was born in the town of Chonai in western Asia Minor. His family may have been important locally, but his rise in the ranks of the imperial bureaucracy was mostly due to his personal ability. He studied in Constantinople and Thessaloniki, and in 1182 (while he was in his early forties) he was selected as the new metropolitan bishop of Athens. 

Michael was a gifted and versatile writer of homilies, speeches, poems, and letters, as well as an ardent bibliophile who brought his voluminous library from Constantinople to Athens at a time when no moving companies even existed.  As a pupil of the famous classical scholar Eustathius of Thessalonica, Choniates was influenced by ancient Greek literature and frequently expressed his admiration for the cultural accomplishment of classical Greece. The first speech he addressed to the assembled Athenians was in a classicizing and sophisticated language his flock could not understand. The disjunction between the classical descriptions of the city and the reality he encountered must have been shocking; his correspondence is full of derogatory remarks (“everything from Athens is meager and cheap”). And yet, he considered the Athenians as direct descendants of their famous ancestors and was truly sad when he was forced to flee the town in the wake of the Latin conquest in 1204. 

Choniates’ Athens is now long gone. Four centuries of Ottoman rule and a few post-independence decades of frantic classical idealism resulted in the almost complete eradication of the city’ medieval past…with one notable exception.  

The Little Metropolis

The Little Metropolis (also known as Panagia Gorgoepikoos and Agios Eleutherios) is a small cross-in-square church next to the much more imposing modern cathedral of Athens. Even a casual perusal reveals something quite extraordinary about this building. Most medieval churches in Athens were built with stone, lined with bricks (when funding was available), or rubble (when money was scarce). The Little Metropolis, though, is constructed almost entirely of finely dressed blocks of white Pentelic or bluish Hymettus marble laid in neat courses of the same height. This expensive material was recycled from one or more unknown derelict building(s), which served as a convenient quarry. But even more astonishing is the upper part of the exterior walls, since it is composed of approximately ninety spolia (figural reliefs). There is simply no other building (secular or sacred) anywhere in the world with such a massive use of reused pieces of sculpture.   

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

The spolia consist of classical Greek, Roman, and Byzantine sculpture. The wealth of imagery is truly fascinating. There are architectural elements (pilaster capitals, coffers); figural reliefs depicting animals (lions, peacocks, an eagle with a hare), a tree of life, fantastic creatures (sphinxes, lions with human heads), a woman riding on a swan, a naked satyr, a seated Cybele (i.e. an Anatolian mother goddess), Nikes; ornamental reliefs (rosettes, leaves, four or six-petalled roses, laurel wreaths); and epigraphical blocks. There is also a stunning frieze above the main entrance representing the months of the Attic calendar with some of the Athenian festivals that took place during each month alongside the signs of the zodiac. Interspersed among all these beasts, gods, and mortals are crosses; these were added at different times during the Christian era (as evidenced by the diverse types used) to neutralize the evil forces that supposedly resided in the sculptures.

The secret of the arrangement

Whoever designed this church took some care into arranging the spolia in such a manner that they would be as visible as possible. They selected pieces of roughly similar size and made sure to adorn the doors in the most splendid manner; the main entrance is crowned with the spectacular calendar frieze. The two pieces were placed in reverse order though, as evidenced by the rough surface in the middle; in antiquity, the frieze would have begun with the current right-hand block. Most of the ancient blocks were placed along the edges on the upper part of the walls. This arrangement may hold an (unknown) signification, but it is also possible that the placement was determined by structural reasons; the ancient blocks are much sturdier than the later Byzantine slabs, so they were ideal for the structure’s weakest points.  

The tell-tale inscription

When was the church built and who was the commissioner? For the longest time researchers assumed that the building belonged to the period of Michael Choniates’ stay in Athens (ca. 1182-1204), on the assumption that the extensive use of spolia reflected the metropolitan’s interest in classical Greece. In 2005, though, professor Bente Kiilerich noticed a two-line inscription on a large block inserted in the upper western half of the south wall. The inscription consists of a handful of nondescript names (ΗΡΑΚΛΕΩΝ ΗΡΑΚΛΕΩΝΑΣ ΚΗΦΕΙΣΙΕΥΣ. ΔΩΡΟΘΕΑ ΙΣΙΓΕΝΟΥΣ ΜΥΡΡΙΝΟΥΣΙΟΥ ΘΥΓΑΤΗΡ) and is hardly visible to the untrained eye. In 1436 Cyriacus of Ancona copied this very same inscription during his first visit to Athens. Only he did not find it embedded on the walls of the Little Metropolis but lying about somewhere in the vicinity of the classical agora, hundreds of meters to the west of the church. The conclusion seems inevitable: there was no Little Metropolis before 1436.  

So who built the church? It is possible that the Little Metropolis was commissioned by a member of the Florentine family of Acciaioli, who ruled Athens at the height of the Renaissance. It is also possible that the church was built after the Ottoman conquest of Athens in 1456 to serve as a refuge for the icon of the Virgin Mary from the church of Panagia Atheniotissa (i.e. the Parthenon that was converted into a mosque). The answer may remain elusive, but the little church will long remain a marvelous blend of works of art that encapsulate the city’s long and turbulent past.

King Otto’s Athens - Mentor in Greece - Cultural Routes in Greece
Link to King Otto’s Athens – Mentor in Greece – Cultural Routes in Greece

King Otto’s Athens – Mentor in Greece – Cultural Routes in Greece

In 1834 King Otto decided to move the capital of his newly acquired kingdom from Nafplio to Athens. His selection was based on emotion instead of reason.