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The Panagia Kapnikarea church in the centre of Athens

Churches in Athens

Panagia Kapnikarea
(Kapnikarea – Saint Mary)

One of the most important Byzantine monuments in Athens is in the middle of Ermou street. The church is dedicated to Saint Mary but it is better known as Kapnikarea. It is a complex tetrastyle cross-in-square church that dates back to 1050.

The higher parts of the masonry follow the cloisonné style while the lower parts consist of large courses (continuous horizontal layer of similarly-sized building material, such as stone or brick) arranged so that they form crosses. The elements that lead experts to date the church to 1050 are the kufic brick patterns, the limited use of dentils and the particular arrangement of the windows.

Mosaic over the entrance of Panagia KapnikareaWith its light proportions, the dome is typically Athenian. The color variations with the use of kufic brick patterns is less visible here than in earlier monuments. Instead the emphasis is placed on the sculptural values of the stones.

Soon after the church’s foundations, a chapel dedicated to Saint Barbara was added on its northern side. The outer narthex was added on the western side of the church and chapel during that time as well. Initially it was an open portico. The small columned porch on the narthex’s southern entrance was built in the 12th century.

When Ermou street was opened up in 1834 the church, that by then had been damaged and deserted during the Greek War of Independence, came close to being demolished. Ludwig of Bavaria, King Otto’s father intervened and the church was rescued. The building also escaped demolition in 1863 with the intervention of the Bishop of Athens.

The church’s interior marble screen was crafted later and it is a copy of the screen that is in the Monastery of Kaissariani. The pictorial decorations date from 1942 and were created by the famous icon-painter Fotis Kontoglou and his students. The mosaic over the entrance was made by Elli Voïla in 1936. The church of Kapnikarea now belongs to the University of Athens.

The name Kapnikarea

There are various theories regarding the origin of the name Kapnikarea. Most probably the name relates to the “Kapnikon”, a certain tax imposed during the Byzantine era. According to this explanation, the church was sponsored by an executive who might have been in charge of collecting this tax or simply carried the family name Kapnikares.

Panagia Kapnikarea fresco'sIn older documents we encounter variations of the name, most frequently the name “Kamoucharea”, originating from the word “kamoucha” (luxurious textile). These other theories however regarding the church’s name are no longer accepted. The church also used to be called “the Princess’s church” based on a tradition that is connected to most important churches in Athens with Athenian empresses of Byzantium.

During the 19th century the church was also known as “Panagia of Prentzas (Saint Mary of Prentzas) probably because of its association with a sponsor or donor of an important icon that might have been kept in the chapel though none of this has been proven. Even today, Athenians may say that an old, ugly woman “looks like Kapnikarea”, probably in reference to the poor state the church was in at the beginning of the 19th century.

Location map
Ermou street
Nearest metro station Monastiraki - Syntagma
For typical words, please consult our Greek glossary. Top of the page


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