Little Metropolis, Athens

Date: ca. 1200 or 1450s
Location or Findspot (Modern-Day Country): Greece
Dimensions: W ca. 7 m
Description: The small cross-in-square church originally dedicated to the Theotokos Gorgoepikoos (Quick to Hear) is known as the Little Metropolis for its proximity to the large nineteenth-century metropolis (archbishop's cathedral) of Athens. It was built with classical and medieval spolia, consisting of figural, epigraphic, and ornamental marble blocks. About one-quarter of the figural sculpture is pagan, including an ancient calendar frieze on the west facade below the roofline. Some of the ancient panels have been Christianized by adding crosses of different shapes (and, in one case, by removing genitalia), but this may have been done at an earlier moment, before the blocks were reused on the church.

The Byzantine spolia, including the sphinxes and other creatures on the west facade, can be compared to reliefs elsewhere that range in date from the ninth/tenth to the early thirteenth century. The church is often dated ca. 1200, but it might be a post-Byzantine confection spurred by the Ottoman conquest of Athens in the 1450s.

The rationale for such extensive use of spolia is unclear: Was it simply a practical matter of available stone? Did it reflect a particular patron's interest in the classical past, a nostalgia for the glory of ancient Greece? Was the assemblage of ancient imagery intended to be apotropaic, showing Christian control over fantastic beasts who represent evil? In the absence of written sources or close Byzantine comparisons (the ninth-century Koimesis church at Skripou has much less figural spolia), the Little Metropolis remains fascinatingly enigmatic.
Relevant Textbook Chapter(s): 8, 11
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons; Flickr

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