Church of Agios Dimitrios
The Church of Saint Demetrius, or Αgios Demetrios, is the main sanctuary dedicated to Saint Demetrius, the patron saint of Thessaloniki (in Central Macedonia, Greece), dating from a time when it was the second largest city of the Byzantine Empire. It is part of the site Palaeochristian and Byzantine Monuments of Thessaloniki on the list of World Heritage Sites by UNESCO since 1988.
The first church on the spot was constructed in the early 4th century AD, replacing a Roman bath. A century later, a prefect named Leontios replaced the small oratory with a larger, three-aisled basilica. Repeatedly gutted by fires, the church eventually was reconstructed as a five-aisled basilica in 629–634. This was the surviving form of the church much as it is today. The most important shrine in the city, it was probably larger than the local cathedral. The historic location of the latter is now unknown.
The church had an unusual shrine called the ciborium, a hexagonal, roofed structure at one side of the nave. It was made of or covered with silver. The structure had doors and inside was a couch or bed. Unusually, it did not hold any physical relics of the saint. The ciborium seems to have been a symbolic tomb. It was rebuilt at least once.
The basilica is famous for six extant mosaic panels, dated to the period between the latest reconstruction and the inauguration of the Byzantine Iconoclasm in 730. These mosaics depict St. Demetrius with officials responsible for the restoration of the church (called the founders, ktetors) and with children. An inscription below one of the images glorifies heaven for saving the people of Thessalonica from a pagan Slavic raid in 615.
Thessaloniki became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1430. About 60 years later, during the reign of Bayezid II, the church was converted into a mosque, known as the Kasımiye Camii after the local Ottoman mayor, Cezeri Kasım Pasha. Other magnificent mosaics, recorded as covering the church interior, were lost either during the four centuries when it functioned as a mosque (1493–1912) or in the Great Thessaloniki Fire of 1917 that destroyed much of the city. It also destroyed the roof and upper walls of the church. Black and white photographs and good watercolour versions give an idea of the early Byzantine craftsmanship lost during the fire.
Following the Great Fire of 1917, it took decades to restore the church. Tombstones from the city's Jewish cemetery, destroyed by the Greek and Nazi German authorities, were used as building materials in these restoration efforts in the 1940s. Archeological excavations conducted in the 1930s and 1940s revealed interesting artifacts that may be seen in a museum situated inside the church's crypt. The excavations also uncovered the ruins of a Roman bath, where St. Demetrius was said to have been held prisoner and executed. A Roman well was also discovered. Scholars believe this is where soldiers dropped the body of St. Demetrius after his execution. After restoration, the church was reconsecrated in 1949.
The Chapel of Hagios Euthymios is attached to the east side of the south wing of the transept. It is in the form of a small three-aisled basilica, and is decorated with an interesting ensemble of wall-paintings. According to an inscription on the north wall, the cost for the decoration was defrayed in 1302-1303 by the protostrator Michael Doukas Glavas Tarchaneiotis, who was the founder of the Pammakaristos Monastery in Constantinople, and his wife Maria Palaiologina.
The wall-paintings of the chapel are representative examples of Palaiologan art of the early 14th century in Thessaloniki, and follow the iconographic program typical of the period, with scenes from the Dodekaorton, the Miracles and Teaching of Christ, and from the Synaxarion of Saint Euthymios. The scenes are unfolded as a narrative, one next to the other, and are not divided into separate panels.
One of the features of the basilica that give it its special character is its sculptural decoration. In the tribelon, the long colonnades of the nave and the transept, the windows, and the galleries, are to be found column capitals in a wide variety of forms and styles; these come either from earlier Roman or Christian buildings, or from the 5th century basilica, and were reused in the 7th century 'renewal' of the church.
The Early Christian column capitals, in particular, cover the development of sculpture in the 5th and 6th century, with a variety of two-zone Theodosian capitals with doves, rams and eagles at the corner of the abacus, capitals with waving leaves, and fold capitals.
The picture of Early Christian sculpture is completed by the cornices and the impost blocks of the pilasters. A contribution to the luxurious decoration of the church is also made by the marble facing on the intrados of the tribelon and the wings, the original marble revetment, and the panels of opus sectile, of which a few examples are still preserved on the walls above the colonnades of the central aisle.
In addition to the sculptural decoration, the first intercolumniation from the west in the colonnade on the north side of the central aisle has a marble funerary monument of great artistic value, representing as it does the Renaissance art of Venice.
This is the tomb of Loukas Spandounis, a wealthy merchant and notable of Thessaloniki, who was interred in the church of the patron saint of the city just after 1481. The monument incorporates a large verse inscription.
Another special feature of the decoration of Hagios Demetrios are the dedicatory mosaic panels, offered by ordinary citizens and officials of the city. Only nine of these mosaics, on the two large piers at the east of the sanctuary and the west wall of the nave, escaped the great fire of 1917. These mosaics, which cover the period from the 5th to the 9th century, are as follows:
1. On the east face of the west wall of the north aisle, above the entrance to the narthex, is a frontal depiction of Saint Demetrios wearing consular uniform. To his right, amongst colored clouds, is an angel playing a trumpet. Two figures in a naturalistic landscape, with other-worldly, introspective gazes, lend a distinctly transcendental atmosphere.
2. In the corresponding position in the south aisle, above the arched entrance from the narthex, is a mosaic depicting children making offerings to the saint, who is depicted frontally in the centre, in a typical, transcendental attitude of supplication, with his gold palms upraised; the figure of the saint is possibly modeled on a portable, cult icon. All around him, in a landscape full of strong color and light, unfolds a scene of children being vowed to the saint.
3. On the west wall of the central aisle, next to the tomb of Loukas Spandounis, another mosaic depicts Saint Demetrios amongst four priests, on the battlements of the city walls. The conventional, linear treatment recalls the style of the 7th-8th century.
4. On the north face of the south pier of the sanctuary, the founder's inscription in the mosaic scene informs us that it depicts Saint Demetrios with the Bishop of Thessaloniki and the Eparch Leo, who renewed the basilica in the 7th century, rendered conventionally in front of the battlements of the city wall. The realistic portraits of the two figures, and the rich drapery of their garments contrast with the transcendental treatment of the face and chlamys of the saint.
5. On the east face of the same pier is another figure of the martyr, with his arm around the shoulders of a deacon. The latter has pronounced facial features, and is probably to be identified with the deacon who helped in the reconstruction of the church after it was destroyed in 620, an event recorded in the Book of Miracles of Saint Demetrios. The participation of the citizens, and also of foreigners, in this rebuilding of the church is probably the reason why the saint is asked to protect them in the inscription associated with the mosaic.
6. On the west face of this same pier Saint Sergios is depicted in an attitude of supplication, wearing a purple chiton with military insignia at his neck.
7. On the west side of the pier on the north of the sanctuary, is a scene of Saint Demetrios with two children, a boy and a girl, who are shown by their dress to be of an aristocratic family. The saint is raising the right hand in a gesture of supplication, while his left rests on the girl's shoulders.
8. On the east side of the same pier is another scene of Saint Demetrios in an attitude of supplication, dating from the 7th-8th century, which is a copy of the cult icon of the saint, with the gold palms, in the nave.
9. On the south face of the north pier, a dedicatory mosaic Deesis, dating from the 9th century, depicts the Virgin and a military saint, probably Saint Theodore, in an attitude of supplication, while Christ can be seen blessing in a semicircle in the heavens.
Fragments of two more mosaics survived the fire of 1917 and, having been mended and conserved, are now on display in the Exhibition in the White Tower. One comes from the small colonnade on the north side of the church, where we know that there were dedicatory mosaics, dating from the 5th to the 7th century, on the wall above the arcade.
The surviving mosaic depicts Saint Demetrios, in an attitude or supplication before a niche, and the figure of the person making the dedication, who is shown next to the saint, on a smaller scale. The second mosaic comes from the intrados of an arch in the west gallery and has a peacock in front of a large vase containing water. Very few wall-paintings survived the great fire of 1917.
The painting on the south wall of the church is very important from a historical point of view: it depicts a mounted emperor entering the city with his military retinue, and a church put to the torch. There are grave difficulties of interpretation involved here. According to one view, the emperor is to be identified with Justinian II (685-695 and 705-711), portrayed here in connection with a victorious campaign against the Slavs. Another theory identifies him with Basil II and connects the wall-painting with his recapture of Sirmium (1019).
The second pier in the colonnade at the south of the central aisle has a representation of Hosios Loukas of Styris wearing monk's garb, which is dated to the late 11th century. Hosios Loukas carried out his askesis at the beginning of the 10th century in Phokis, where the monastery dedicated to him was erected. On the first pier in the colonnade to the south of the central aisle is a depiction of Saint Ioasaph with a church father on a smaller scale next to him.
The scene has been interpreted as depicting the emperor John VI Kantakouzinos, who became a monk towards the end of his life, with the name loasaph, and Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki who is censing the saint, thereby also honoring the emperor. The scene is probably to be associated with Hesychasm and the theological controversies of the 14th century in Thessaloniki, in which case it will be a work of the period 1360-1380.
The crypt (catacombs)
Underneath the Church of St Demetrios is the place where St Demetrios, Thessaloniki's patron saint, along with other Christians of the early Roman period, were martyred.
As the level of the ground gradually rose over the centuries, this area acquired the form of a crypt. According both to tradition and to archaeological findings, it was an old bathhouse, in which Demetrios was imprisoned and eventually martyred in 303 AD. In the 5th century, when the first Church of St Demetrios was built, the site of his martyrdom was incorporated into the church and the fountain was converted into a source of holy water. In the years that followed, the fountain acquired basins, from which the faithful could collect myron, the sweet-smelling oil produced by the saint's relics. The crypt filled up with earth during the period of Ottoman rule and was not rediscovered until after the fire of 1917. It has been restored by the Archaeological Service and was converted into an exhibition space in 1988.
It displays a collection of sculptures, capitals, closure slabs, and vessels from the Church of St Demetrios. More specifically, in room I there are sculptures from the original 5th-century church and piers with relief decoration and capitals with four acanthus leaves. In room II, in the saint's chapel, there are inscriptions documenting the history of the church, together with figural sculptures of the Middle Byzantine period. Room III displays photographs, plans, and copies of the restoration work done on the church after the fire of 1917.
In the next room, room IV, there are sculptures from the decoration of the church which was built after the fire in the 7th century, and the ambo from the original 5th-century church is in room V. Rooms VI and VII, lastly, display sculptures from the decoration of the church in the Middle Byzantine period (10th century) and sculptures and pottery of the 13th–15th centuries. More specifically, these include the remains of the original ciborium, which was constructed to house first the saint's icon and later his sarcophagus.
The ciborium was hexagonal and made of wood and silver. There are also an arch and fragments of arches from a Byzantine ciborium over the altar, which latter is ornamented with crosses in medallions and crosses resting on orbs. An inscription indicates that the donor of the ciborium was Theodore, Bishop of Thessaloniki in the 13th century.