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The Panagia Gorgoupekous - Agia Eleftherios church in Athens

Churches in Athens

Panagia Gorgoepikoos - Agios Eleftherios
(Virgin Mary - Saint Eleftherios)


The church of the Virgin Mary Gorgoepikoos is next to the Cathedral of Athens on Mitropoleos square. It also is known as the Little Cathedral. It is one of the very few churches that have maintained its original form and it has unique external sculptural decorations.

Panagia Gorgoepikoos is a Byzantine church from the end of the 12th century, the period when Michael Choniates was Bishop of Athens (1180-1204). According to legend, Empress Eirene of Athens founded the church in 787. During the Ottoman period the church was part of the Episcopal mansion and was called “katholikon” (main church).

Eirene of Athens (752-803)

Eirene was Empress of Byzantium, born in Athens, wife of Leo IV and mother of Constatine VI. After Leo’s dead she came into power as the guardian of her young son. Later she removed him from the throne and became the first Empress (797-Empress Eirene of Athens802). She lost her throne to Nikephoros I in 802 and was exiled to Lesvos.

Eirene restored the icon worship which had been banned in the Byzantine Empire by the so-called “eikonomachi”, (inconoclasts), people who destroyed icons. Emperor Leo III ordered the destruction of all icons of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints in his empire. She was active in charitable work and her international policy was quite successful. Her financial policies, however, proved damaging to the public in the long run.

In 1841, after the foundation of the Greek State, the church was used as the National Library, housing the first collection of books donated to the Orphanage of Aegina. The church underwent repairs in 1863 and was later also rededicated to Saint Eleftherios.

The church is built as a cross-in-square with a three-part narthex whose middle part is vaulted and taller than the other two. The dome is the most characteristic and best preserved example of the Athenian type and is therefore particularly important.

Detail of a window of the Panagia Gorgoepikoos - Agios Eleftherios church in AthensThe church is built largely of marble. Bricks or stones have hardly been used apart from the dome. The lower part consists of undecorated marble blocks, whereas in the higher part there are ninety ancient Greek, Roman, early Christian and Byzantine walled-in reliefs. A number of these were used in a way similar to their original function while plaques with engraved scenes formed a frieze around all sides of the church.

The variety of walled-in reliefs is particularly interesting. Among them are plaques from the 9th and 10th century using designs of oriental origin (animals, plants, representations of the tree of life etc.) or stemming from folk traditions. There are also sculptures with trophies of the Panathenaic Games representing athletic games and roman triumphs as well as other of Byzantine origin with oriental sphinxes, geometric shapes, animals and plants.

A 4th century BC cornice has also survived representing celebrations from the Attic calendar, including a scene showing Herakles with Hebe. Interesting is that the artisans attempted to Christianize these ancient sculptures by adding the symbol of the cross between different scenes.

Locaton map Metropolis square
Nearest metro station Monastiraki – Syntagma
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