The church of the Panaghia Katapoliani

The church of the Panaghia Katapoliani­– (or Hekatontapyliani­) is the oldest and the most historically important church in the Aegean Islands (open daily 8–1 & 4–9). In spite of the damage wrought by Khaireddin Barbarossa in 1537 and by several earthquakes—especially in 1773— the church has survived as an active place of worship for nearly 1,700 years, something that cannot be said of many other places in the Christian world. Today it has pre dominantly the appearance given it by the architect of the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century; but by the time he took the building in hand there had already been a church and baptistery (still visible) here for 200 years, built over a pagan structure. It is an extraordinary sensation to find a building of such Constantinopolitan grandeur in the Cyclades. The building was substantially cleaned, consolidated and purged of later additions in the 1960s by the veteran Greek archaeologist, Anastasios Orlandos.

The history and development of the complex

Baptisteries—as places of symbolic death and re-birth— were frequently built on or near the site of a martyrdom: this was a way of celebrating the death of a martyr by acknowledging his or her rebirth into a new life beyond death, as well as reinforcing the intercession of the martyr on be half of the neophytes subsequently baptised on the spot. The cruciform baptistery here to the south of the main church, which is possibly the oldest element of the complex, may have come into being shortly after Constantine’s edict of tolerance in 313 in order to commemorate the martyrdom during the persecutions of an unknown figure on this site in the ancient city’s gymnasium. Like many other vulnerable sites of martyrdom and baptism, this could have been lost and forgotten, particularly in the Dark Age of the Saracen invasions of the 8th century. But the fortuitous visit of St Helen, the pious mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great, who quite probably put in at Paros during a storm, as tradition relates, on her way to Jerusalem in 326–7, brought the building suddenly to the forefront of the Christian consciousness. In gratitude for a safe onward journey to the Holy Land, St Helen vowed to build a church to the Virgin on the site beside the baptistery. She was a generous benefactor of new buildings wherever she went. Helen died in 328, but her wishes must have been fulfilled after her death, perhaps on the orders of her son, so that the baptistery was enlarged and a timber-roofed, basilica church was built to its north in c. 330 ad i.e. around the time that the city of Constantinople was being re-founded. The building had, like Constantine’s basilicas in Rome, a large, porticoed atrium in front with a central fountain—a feature which functioned for ablutions, just as in Islamic mosques today. The 4th century chapel of St Nicholas in the northeast of the existing church, which had a different dedication at that time (St Nicholas lived in Asia Minor in the 4th century and his cult became common only much later) may also predate the visit of St Helen, like the Baptistery; or it may have been a part of the Constantinian basilica built after her death. We cannot say for certain.
   The reasons why, 200 years later in the 6th century un der the Emperor Justinian, the whole church was rebuilt in a new form with a vaulted roof and dome, are less clear. deeply divided Church and to give the Empire new impetus and identity through an ambitious programme of building. The 4th century, Constantinian church may have been destroyed by fire, and its rebuilding may have seemed a good opportunity to assert an imperial presence at the very heart of the island communities. According to tradition, one of the two architects Justinian had employed for Santa Sophia in Constantinople—probably Isidorus of Miletus—was sent to Paros to superintend the new building which was to be executed by a pupil of his named Ignatius. The Katapoliani­ has many architectural characteristics in common with Justinian’s churches in Constantinople—especially with Aghia Irini which was built in 536 AD.
   As you visit the buildings, it is important to bear in mind the chronology: 1) the monastery buildings enclosing the church and courtyard were added in the 17th century; 2) the main church of the Virgin and its portico, or narthex, date from the 6th century; 3) the smaller church now incorporated into the northeast corner of the latter, the chapel of St Nicholas, and the Baptistery to the south of the complex, both date from the first half of the 4th century ad; 4) the whole ensemble is built over a 4th century bc Gymnasium of the ancient city.

The name
The church, dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin, is referred to by two names, both of which are first recorded in written sources in the 16th century. ‘Katapoliani­’ refers to the site of the church which is kata (‘across from’ or ‘down from’) the polis (city), i.e. not in the city, but slightly outside of it; and ‘Hekatontapyliani­’ is a typically periphrastic, Byzantine compliment to the beauty of the church, which symbolically possessed hekaton (one hundred) pyli (gates). The first name might have be used for Constantine’s original church of the 4th century, the second, for Justinian’s later rebuilding; but both names have survived and are commonly used.

The main (6th century) church of the Panaghia

As you approach the church, the three-arched entrance (tribelon) to the narthex is echoed by a three arched window above (belonging to the gallery of the church) and yet another three-arched window in a pediment above that. Apart from the pleasing architectural rhythm of this, it gives an intimation of how luminous the interior will be. The building is pre ceded by a spacious, transverse portico, supported by ancient architrave beams which function as the vertical supports here, filled at ground level with 7th century marble closure panels. The plan of the interior is a centrally domed cross of unequal arms, c 40m in length and 25m in width—spacious but not overwhelming. The dome, vaults and floor were rebuilt in the restoration of the 1960s. The windows—strongly reminiscent of the churches of Constantinople—may originally have had marble frames, with panes of thin, translucent Parian marble, which would have imparted a softer, glowing luminosity to the interior. In front of the eastern piers of the dome, a couple of modern glass panels in the floor reveal two columns from the buildings of the ancient Gymnasium at the lower level beneath both standing on well-preserved marble bases. The iconostasis is a composition of different elements: the screen includes an ancient frieze, which runs the entire width at about chest height; the columns in different marbles, carved in heavy relief with vines, are also ancient pieces with 7th cen tury carving; the rest of the screen all dates from the 17th century, in a grey Tiniot marble, which strikes a melancholy note here by comparison with the more joyous, white, Parian marble of the island. The icons—mostly covered with protective silver revetment—were the gift of the of the Mavrogenis family (see pp. 34–36) in the 18th century. The only uncovered icon is the beautiful Dormition of the Virgin to the right, a fine Cretan work of the 17th century. Against the northwest pier is a venerable icon of the Praying Virgin, dated to around the year 1200.
   The spaciousness of the interior is greatly enhanced by the Women’s Gallery, or gynaecaeum, which runs around the interior at the upper level—another decidedly Constantinopolitan feature of the church: it beautifully articulates the interior space, together with the arcade of columns and capitals which supports it. Only a few of its closure panels are original; most are modern replacements. The gallery is entered by the flight of steps outside the church in the southwest corner; it provides the best views of the interior and of the area of the sanctuary behind the templon screen. The sanctuary is spacious: the liturgical drama takes place in front of an impressive synthronon (seven rows of seats), below a central episcopal throne flanked by two lesser seats, and centres on an altar covered by the ribbed dome of a magnificent ciborium, made originally from a single block of marble, supported on four antique columns. Beneath the altar table is an {tip text=”a place where there is holy water”}”aghiasma”, or natural pool of sacred water. This would have been the water used in the adjacent baptistery. The paintings on the wall above date from the early 17th century: they illustrate the stanzas of the Acathist Hymn to the Virgin—a sacred hymn to the Mother of God which originated in the 6th century. Their surface has been regular ly chipped in preparation for the application of another layer of plaster and painting on top; the surface chipping would help the new plaster ‘key into’ the existing layer. The painted seraphim visible in the pendentives of the main dome (an unusual iconography, shared by Santa Sophia in Constanti nople) are of the same period.
   In a recess of the north wall is the small chapel or oratory of the Blessed Theoktiste, built around her tomb in the floor. She was a young nun from Methymna on Lesbos in the 9th century; she was captured there by pirates, but escaped on Paros when the boat carrying her into captivity stopped on the island. She took refuge in the church of the Katapoliani­, lived and eventually died there as a hermit after 35 years. She is a patron saint of the island.

The (4th century) chapel of St Nicholas

The chapel of St Nicholas, more a small church in its own right, which fits snugly into the northeast shoulder of the main church, still has an air of great antiquity imparted by its solemn rows of fluted Doric columns which were taken from a pagan structure and converted into a church here during the reign of Constantine. Justinian replaced the original 4th century pitched, timber roof with a vault and central dome, which was restored in the last century. In the sanctuary are a small synthronon and throne again and vestiges of opus sectile floor to the south. At the east end of the north wall of the chapel, the remains of murals of St Elizabeth and her son, St John the Baptist, date from the 7th/8th century; whereas the painting of Christ and the Apostles in the conch of the apse is from a thousand years later.

The Baptistery

The broad proportions and gentle light make the Baptistery a space of great beauty. It is contiguous with the main church and connected by a door directly into its south side. This is probably the oldest element of the complex, predating St Helen’s visit and, as one of the oldest surviving baptisteries of Christendom, is comparable in antiquity and state of preservation with the baptistery of St John in Lateran, in Rome. Once again, the original 4th century construction was in the form of a timber-roofed basilica with an apse, and once again it was given a dome and vaulted roof by Justinian in the 6th century. It is entered through three doors whose frames are all constructed of ancient marble architectural elements. The cruciform font*for baptism by immersion, created from carved slabs of antique Parian marble, may belong to the original phase of the building. The idea that the officiating priest balanced stylite-like on its central column, as some have suggested, is surely erroneous: the neophyte passed from west to east via the steps, with the priest standing to one side. Small areas of the 6th century coloured, mosaic floor with abstract designs are visible at three points (just north of the west door, beside the north door into the main church, and just southwest of the font). The only surviving area of wall-painting, figuring St George and an Angel, dates from the 12th century. There are many ancient spolia: above the west door is a fine frieze of egg-and-dart design, with dentils above, taken from a Hellenistic building. In the southwest corner are stacked fragments of the original ambo from the Constantinian church (with vine and peacock de signs), and the broken segment of the ciborium dome (with curved ridges). The whole complex of buildings is visually bound together in a simple and pleasing fashion by a projecting, dimpled cornice which runs round the interior of all three buildings and unites them.

The courtyard

The courtyard in front of the main church, filled with flowering trees and cypresses, occupies the area of the porticoed atrium of the first Constantinian structure. Today the mo nastic buildings which surround it are all from the 17th century. The central area is like a museum of ancient fragments and spolia—Early Christian and pagan. The southwest corner is occupied by a small Ecclesiastical Museum (hours as on p.14), containing a good collection of icons. Most date from the 17th and 18th centuries, but the earlier exhibits are of particular note: a fine 16th century icon of the Crucifixion, and the painted sections of the 15th century sacristy doors*, depicting the Apostles, Peter and Paul and an Annunciation scene. There is also a beautifully carved, wooden epitaphios of the 18th century.
   Along the north wing of the courtyard, you will notice a curious monumental gate in a classical revival style. Dating from 1678, this was once the monumental doorway of the church. The columns which frame the door stand on squat marble bases sculpted into grotesque, pot-bellied, mustachioed figures, similar in style to those in the portico of Agora Street, just below the Kastro.

Travel Guide to Paros & Greece

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