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The Sotira Lykodimou – The Russian church of Athens

Churches in Athens

Sotira Lykodimou
(The Savior of Lykodimos)
The Russian Church

The Church of the Savior (Sotira) of Lykodemos, the largest medieval building in Athens also known as the Russian Church, is situated on the corner of Filellinon street and Amalias avenue. It is one of the most important Byzantine monuments of the 11the century. From the 19th century, the church was dedicated to the Holy Trinity (Agia Triada). It is the parish church of the Russian community in Athens.

The name Sotira Lykodimou is related to the initial dedication of the church to the Transfiguration of the Savior and a certain donor although there seem to have been a few variations on this name. From the variations “Sotira Lykodimou” or “Sotira Nikodemos”, the first is accepted as it is the one that has been transmitted to today by oral tradition. It is generally known as the Russian church because it is the focus of the Orthodox Russian community.

This Byzantine church was built a little before 1031 within the perimeter of the city’s defensive wall. There are two inscriptions on the church’s northern wall that indicate the date when the church was built. The first mentions the year 1031 while the second says that Stephanos, the major donor, died in 1044. Archaeological research in the 19th century proved that the church was built on the site of an early christian basilica which in its turn had been built over a Roman bath.

In comparison with other Byzantine monuments in Athens, the church is expansive. Even today and despite the fact that it is surrounded by much larger buildings, it still dominates the area in terms of size and quality of construction.

By its form it is a domed octagon. Internally the dome, with its low drum, unifies the space and the same unified sense of grandeur is evident externally. The sense of heaviness and power created by its volumes and low roof is counteracted by the vertical motion of the tall, three-sided narrow apses and the portals on the sides.The Savior of Lykodimos

The masonry follows a well-crafted cloisonné style. The rich brick patterns (pseudo-kufic letters and dentils) with the alternative use of bricks and stones, give the exterior its sculpted look. The kufic patterns (decorative elements that imitate the old Arabic writing in which the Koran was first written in the city of Kufa, in present-day Iraq) are embedded into the walls, inserted in small ceramic plates as well as form a frieze across the northern and eastern walls. Some original painted decorations remains are on the southern wall where one can still see the mural paintings of Christ, Saint Stephen and Saint John the Apostle.

It was a katholikon (main church) of a monastery during the Byzantine period and during the Ottoman rule. The church suffered damage from natural disasters, wars and the lack of respect by various invaders. In addition to the destruction of 1687, with the invasion of Francesco Morosini, the church was damaged by an earthquake in 1701.

In 1780, when Ali Hakseki was rebuilding the defensive wall, all the additional monastery buildings were demolished. It was then that the church became the parish of the monastery of Kaissariani. The church was further damaged in 1827 with shells dropped from the Acropolis soon after the Greek War of Independence.

The half-ruined church was purchased by the Russian Government in 1847 as the parish of the Russian community of Athens. In 1850, the building was restored by Tsar Alexander II. The side tribunes and the heavy bell tower were added and the interior decorated. The post-Byzantine mural paintings were replaced by paintings of German artist Ludwig Thiersch while the low marble Byzantine screen, which was illustrated by various travelers, was replaced by a tall Russian screen.

Ludwig Tiersch

Ludwig TierschThe German painter Ludwig Thiersch (1825-1909) taught art at the School of Arts in Athens. His presence influenced art in Greece with the spread of the Nazarene style. It used subjects from the life of Christ and was influenced by the work of the famous Renaissance painter, Raphael.

Thiersch’s decorative work in the Russian Church in Athens (he was assisted by Spiridon Hatzigiannopoulos and Nikiforos Litras), was crucial in the development of the Greek art. It established a new style of religious painting that imitated western pictorial traditions.

While these alterations naturally reflect 19the century Russian taste in art, they destroyed the church’s essential Byzantine character. The work was supervised by the Greek engineer, Major Tilemachos Vlassopoulos and the leader of the Russian community, Dean Antonin Kapustin.

Antonin Kapustin

The Russian clergyman Antonin Kapustin (1817-1894) was one of the first to study Athens’ Byzantine monuments. He was a theologian and professor of the Theological Academy of Kiev and became the vicar of the Russian church in Athens. In this capacity and with his knowledge and charisma, he supervised the excavation of the Roman baths underneath the church and the restoration of the church.

Antonin KapustinPutting aside criticism of the modification of the church’s original form, it must be said that the restoration of a Byzantine church was unique at that time when many other Byzantine monuments were left in ruin, either because ancient monuments were given priority or because of extremely poor town planning.

The results of Kapustin’s archaeological research were published in the “Archaeological Journal” and later in a monograph in Russian. In 1874, the Russian Academy of Science published his work “Early Christian Inscriptions in Athens”, the first systematic listing of Byzantine inscriptions which is still used by experts today. Kapustin also published a list with numerous documents from the parish of the Holy Sepulchre in Athens.

The Orthodox Russian Community of Athens

The interest of the Russian Tsar Nicolas I in Greek affairs had been evident during the Greek War of Independence and the early years of the Greek State (1830). The Russian Embassy in Athens regarded the Russian Church as a focal point. The church was purchased by the Russian Government and repaired with funds from the Russian community.

Those in charge of the church were people with a high social status and education that were leading figures in the Russian community. Their many charitable activities included the founding of the Greek clergy and the restoration of numerous churches and monasteries all over Greece. Those activities reflected and served the purposes of the Russian government in regard to the religious and political affairs of the young Greek State.

The Russian-born Queen Olga in particular contributed significantly to the development of the Russian community in Athens and the establishment of the Russian church as a cultural center that influenced religious music, painting and craftsmanship (liturgical clothing).

Location map Corner of Filellinon street and Amalias avenue
Nearest metro station Syntagma
For typical words, please consult our Greek glossary. Top of the page


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