Architectural History for studious beginners: Saint Nicholas Ragava
Saint Nicholas Ragava. How to distinguish a Byzantine church
A little above Tripodon Street, we stumble upon the church of Saint Nicholas Ragava. Its name, like in the case of most Byzantine and post-Byzantine churches of Athens, indicates the name of the family that undertook its construction.
Old churches of Athens are either Byzantine (before 1204, when Athens fell to the crusaders of the 4rth crusade), or post-Byzantine, namely, from the times of foreign domination, either Western European or Ottoman (from 1456 to Independence).
It’s fairly easy to distinguish them.
Byzantine churches were built as representatives of the official religion. Therefore, although small (as Athens was a small town), they have an elegant and elaborated external decoration. They also have a dome, a very important feature for the Orthodox religious architecture, as it symbolises heaven.
From the time of Western domination, there are no churches and practically no monuments, which depicts the very low state of Athens at that time.
Saint Nicholas Ragava. The very decorated exterior is very typical of Athenian Byzantine churches. This specific construction mode is characteristic of the churches from the 11th century until the end of Byzantium. The stones are encircled by bricks, thus creating decorative designs
The churches of Ottoman times differ from the Byzantine ones and are easy to distinguish. Since now they represent the religion not of the rulers but of the conquered population, they are of a poorer construction quality and don’t have a dome.
The dome was prohibited, as it added height to the building, which was not accepted, since the mosques, representing the rulers’ religion, had to stand out clearly. We will see a sample of this architecture later.
The interesting thing here is that, next to the eleventh-century main Byzantine body of very decorative exterior elements, we see a façade that has nothing to do with it.
This is –or was- the case of many churches in Athens, who, after Independence, underwent extensive works of enlargement, in order to include the increased number of parishioners, due to the new capital’s continuous increase of population.
Since the dominating style was classicism, the additions were made in that style, regardless of the lack of homogeneity that this entailed.
In many cases, the additions were removed in the 20th century, when Byzantine architecture gained the acknowledgement it deserved. But not in all cases, either because it was impossible to restore the initial form, or because the needs were too acute to diminish the church’s size.
Saint Nicholas Ragava. Here it’s obvious that the façade is a subsequent neoclassical addition
In this particular church, you will see something unusual if you walk in. Immediately after the entrance, there is a bell hanging in the interior. It’s kept there because of its historical value.
During the Ottoman domination, churches were not allowed to have bells. The only exception was Saint Nicholas.
It was, therefore, its bell that announced the liberation of Athens in 1833, when the Turkish guard delivered the city to the representatives of the newly elected King Otto.
To see the differences with a church of Ottoman times, click here http://culturehikes.com/en/architectural-history-saints-anarghyri-kolokynthi/
To see the video on Athens from Ottoman times to Independence, click here http://culturehikes.com/en/video-tour-pre-revolutionary-athens/
About the author
Hello! I am Denis, an architect based in Athens, Greece. I teach history of art and architecture in higher education. That’s one passion of mine. The other one is hiking, in and out of town. If you follow me, I’ll share my discoveries with you.
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