December 15, 2010

The "Little" Metropolitan Church of St. Eleutherios in Athens

The Church of Saint Eleutherios, also known as Mikri Mitropoli (Little Cathedral) or Panagia Gorgoepikoos (Our Lady Who Swiftly Hears), is located at Metropolis Square in Plaka, next to the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens (Megali Mitropoli). This tiny beautiful 12th century church stands in the shadow of the much larger and more recent Cathedral which dates from 1842. At the time, Athens was only a small town and a church as small as this was sufficient to serve the local neighborhood.

The church was built in the 12th century by Michael Choniates (1180-1204), the bishop of Athens, over the ruins of a temple dedicated to the goddess Eleithya, patron of childbirth. The Virgin Mary took over the same role in Christian beliefs, so the church was re-dedicated to her. It was common for Christian women of the time to pray at Panagia Gorgoepikoos Church if they were expecting a child. The hope was that the Virgin Mary, who is "quick to hear", would help the soon-to-be-mother experience a quick and painless childbirth.

There is a tradition that the church was built by Empress Irene of Athens in 787. During the Ottoman period after the 15th century the church was part of the Episcopal mansion and was called "Katholikon" (main church). St. Dionysios of Zakynthos was ordained a bishop in this church in 1577 by Metropolitan Nikanor of Athens. 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 re-dedicated to St. Eleutherios, the Saint of Freedom, after the removal of King Otto.

The Little Cathedral measures only 25 feet long by 40 feet wide. The domed cruciform church was built entirely from white Pentelic marble, which has weathered to a warm and creamy hue.

The exterior of the Panagia Gorgoepíkoös mixes Romanesque and Byzantine styles. The frieze over the main entrance, depicting the months of the year, dates from the 4th century BC. A Greek cross was added to the center in the 12th century when the church was built.

The small interior features a checkerboard floor about a foot lower than current ground level, four supporting brick pillars (which replaced the original marble ones in 1834), and an iconostasis.