Athens, symbol of the classical civilization, changed its course during the Byzantine period. During late Antiquity it constituted a great intellectual and cultural center in the Empire. However, the following period was characterized both by the prohibition of the teaching of philosophers in the School of Plato under Justinian and by the conversion of the Parthenon into a Christian church. The veneration of a pagan virgin goddess gave its place to the veneration of the Virgin Mary. These two initiatives of the Byzantine Government sealed the end of the national cultural tradition of the Mediterranean identified with Athens. Gradual demographic and building decline followed indicative of the period after the 6th century in Greece. The overthrow of the traditional economic life after certain northern raids (the Heruli towards the end of the 3rd century, the Goths in the end of the 4th century, the Vandals during the 5th century, the Slavs after the middle of the 6th century, the Saracens in the 8th century onwards) was the reason of a nerveless social, financial and cultural life.
Athens, according to Apostle Paul, had already accepted Christianity since the 3rd century A.D. It is of remarkable interest that it was represented by a bishop in the First Oecumenical Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.). In the countryside, the self-sustained rural communities, which continued the life of the ancient demes, also embraced Christianity. Due to the freedom granted to them due to the distance from the center, they started building the first temples, mostly from the end of the 5th and the beginning of the 6th century. These churches – basilicas with exquisite mosaic floors, sometimes entire complexes in Braona, Aigosthena (Porto-Germeno), Stamata, Lavrio or in Glyphada but also in many other places – are representative examples of this type in Attica. All these basilicas are distinguished by baptisteries and remarkable mosaics.
In the year 662/663 A.D., the emperor Constans II spent his winter in Athens, while two women of distinguished Athenian families – proof of the existence of a local aristocracy – Irene and her niece, Theophano, ascended the Byzantine throne (end of the 8th century and in the 9th century respectively). Moreover, Basil II celebrated here his victory against the Bulgars, paying tribute to the church of the Panagia the Athiniotissa, which is no other than the Parthenon.
From the middle of the 9th century onwards, Athens follows the anodic course of the Empire, a route of reconstruction and flourishment known as the Macedonian Renaissance. New churches are built in new architectural types. This building activity will reach its peak during the 11th and the 12th century around Attica. The dominating architectural type – during the middle Byzantine period – was the one of the cross-in-square church, which obtains its own traits in Greece. Nonetheless, early Christian survivals in combination with new forms are observed. Something similar is viewed in the case of Hagioi Apostoloi Solaki in the ancient Agora in Athens, where we come across the rather radical combination of a central, tetraconch and cross-in-square church. Furthermore, a new architectural type makes its appearance with the athenian dome, which crowns mostly the small churches in Attica.
The churches built during that period are nowadays known as the churches of the historical centre and not alone. All of Attica is distinguished by a number of churches. The most prominent of all, the Daphni, is decorated by great mosaics, which reveal the association of Attica with the new artistic trends of the big empire centers. On the other hand, even smaller churches, which used to be the katholikon of small monasteries, do not lack interest. On the contrary, they are often decorated with exquisite wall paintings, a fact that makes us wonder whether Attica was indeed declining at that stage.
A great number of these churches is presented on this site. Along with the churches, a series of wall paintings, sculptures, mosaics, engravings but also unpublished material of the British School at Athens (drawings and photos of 19th century English architects) as well as the maps encourage a visit to the sites!
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