Church of the Acheiropoietos

Thessaloniki, Greece

The Church of the Acheiropoietos is a 5th-century Byzantine church in Thessaloniki.

The Acheiropoietos has been dated from its bricks and mosaics to ca. 450–470, making it perhaps the earliest of the city's surviving churches. It was modified in the 7th and again in the 14th–15th centuries. Known as the Panagia Theotokos in Byzantine times, it is dedicated to Mary. Its current name is first attested in 1320, presumably after a miraculous acheiropoietos ('not made by hands') icon of Panagia Hodegetria that was housed there. Byzantine sources also indicate that the cult of the city's patron saint, Saint Demetrius, was also practised there.

The building is a three-aisled basilica, some 28 m wide and 36.5 m long, with a wooden roof. Its eastern end is a semicircular vault, while on the western side a narthex, flanked by towers, and traces of an exonarthex survive. The three aisles are separated by columns, while the two side aisles have galleries above them. At the eastern end of the northern side aisle, a middle Byzantine chapel dedicated to St. Irene is attached. On the northwestern corner of the basilica, the stairway leading to the galleries survives. The current entrance is through a triple-arched opening (tribelon) that connects the narthex with the main nave, while on the southern side there is a monumental entranceway, which probably connected the church with the city's Byzantine-era thoroughfare. Another small adjoining building on the south side has been identified as the church's baptister The modern roof is lower than the original, where the section above the central nave was elevated to allow light in.

The surviving parts of the church's rich original interior decoration include particularly fine 5th-century Ionian capitals from a Constantinopolitan workshop, the green Thessalian marble columns of the tribelon, the original Proconnesian marble pavement of the central nave, and fragments of 5th-century decorative mosaics. Fine but damaged early 13th-century frescoes depicting the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste adorn the southern side. Underneath the north aisle's current pavement, three layers of floor mosaics from an earlier Roman-era bath have been uncovered.

After Ottoman conquest of the city in 1430, the Acheiropoietos was the first church to be converted into a mosque, by Sultan Murad II himself. Throughout the Ottoman period, it remained the city's principal mosque under the name Eski Camii ('Old Mosque'). An inscription by Murad survives in the northern colonnade, on the eighth column from the east.[1][3]

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Founded: 450-470 AD
Category: Religious sites in Greece

Rating

4.7/5 (based on Google user reviews)

User Reviews

Anthony Manmohan (3 months ago)
Built by late 5th century on a Roman baths complex. Became a mosque under sultan Murad under the Ottomans in 1430 and reverted to a church by 1930.
Konstantinos Kouklidis (4 months ago)
It's worthy to visit it!
Ελισσάβετ Μιχαηλίδου (4 months ago)
Very old and very beautiful church! Amazing floor!
Javier Diaz (5 months ago)
Beautiful. Try to go when there are ceremonies; the atmosphere is very intimate and welcoming
Nikolaos Varkakis (7 months ago)
Friendly atmosphere and very cozy. Very good Greek coffee!
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From 1239, Raynaud, the Bishop of Quimper, decided on the building of a new chancel destined to replace that of the Romanesque era. He therefore started, in the far west, the construction of a great Gothic cathedral which would inspire cathedral reconstructions in the Ile de France and would in turn become a place of experimentation from where would later appear ideas adopted by the whole of lower Brittany. The date of 1239 marks the Bishop’s decision and does not imply an immediate start to construction. Observation of the pillar profiles, their bases, the canopies, the fitting of the ribbed vaults of the ambulatory or the alignment of the bays leads us to believe, however, that the construction was spread out over time.

The four circular pillars mark the start of the building site, but the four following adopt a lozenge-shaped layout which could indicate a change of project manager. The clumsiness of the vaulted archways of the north ambulatory, the start of the ribbed vaults at the height of the south ambulatory or the choice of the vaults descending in spoke-form from the semi-circle which allows the connection of the axis chapel to the choir – despite the manifest problems of alignment – conveys the hesitancy and diverse influences in the first phase of works which spread out until the start of the 14th century.

At the same time as this facade was built (to which were added the north and south gates) the building of the nave started in the east and would finish by 1460. The nave is made up of six bays with one at the level of the facade towers and flanked by double aisles – one wide and one narrow (split into side chapels) – in an extension of the choir arrangements.

The choir presents four right-hand bays with ambulatory and side chapels. It is extended towards the east of 3-sided chevet which opens onto a semi-circle composed of five chapels and an apsidal chapel of two bays and a flat chevet consecrated to Our Lady.

The three-level elevation with arches, triforium and galleries seems more uniform and expresses anglo-Norman influence in the thickness of the walls (Norman passageway at the gallery level) or the decorative style (heavy mouldings, decorative frieze under the triforium). This building site would have to have been overseen in one shot. Undoubtedly interrupted by the war of Succession (1341-1364) it draws to a close with the building of the lierne vaults (1410) and the fitting of stained-glass windows. Bishop Bertrand de Rosmadec and Duke Jean V, whose coat of arms would decorate these vaults, finished the chancel before starting on the building of the facade and the nave.

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The west porch finds its natural place between the two towers. The entire aesthetic of these three gates springs from the Flamboyant era: trefoil, curly kale, finials, large gables which cut into the mouldings and balustrades. Pinnacles and recesses embellish the buttresses whilst an entire bestiary appears: monsters, dogs, mysterious figures, gargoyles, and with them a whole imaginary world promoting a religious and political programme. Even though most of the saints statues have disappeared an armorial survives which makes the doors of the cathedral one of the most beautiful heraldic pages imaginable: ducal ermine, the Montfort lion, Duchess Jeanne of France’s coat of arms side by side with the arms of the Cornouaille barons with their helmets and crests. One can imagine the impact of this sculpted decor with the colour and gilding which originally completed it.

At the start of the 16th century the construction of the spires was being prepared when building was interrupted, undoubtedly for financial reasons. Small conical roofs were therefore placed on top of the towers. The following centuries were essentially devoted to putting furnishings in place (funeral monuments, altars, statues, organs, pulpit). Note the fire which destroyed the spire of the transept cross in 1620 as well as the ransacking of the cathedral in 1793 when nearly all the furnishings disappeared in a « bonfire of the saints ».

The 19th century would therefore inherit an almost finished but mutilated building and would devote itself to its renovation according to the tastes and theories of the day.