Bridging the Ancient and Medieval Worlds: Pagan and Christian Symbolism in the Little Metropolis Church (Panagia Gorgoepikoos) in Athens, Greece

Mario BaghosSymbolic World Icon
November 7, 2023


The Byzantine period of Greece’s history lasted from 330 AD—when St Constantine the Great moved the capital of the Roman empire to Byzantium in Thrace and renamed the city after himself, i.e. Constantinople—to the 29th of May, 1453 when the city fell to the Ottoman Turks. This organic continuation from ancient Greece to medieval Byzantine Greece persists in some ways to this day, specifically within the Orthodox Church which, from an artistic and architectural point of view, adopted and transformed elements of Greek artistic and architectural aesthetics within a Christian framework, conditioning the way that Orthodox edifices are constructed the world over.

Keeping all of this in mind, this brief article will address the ‘Little Metropolis’ church which in Byzantine times was dedicated to the Virgin Mary as Panagia Gorgoepikoos (Παναγία Γοργοεπίκοος/Panagia who Quickly-Grants-Requests). Located in the city of Athens—the capital of modern Greece—I will address the way that this church demonstrates the above-mentioned continuity from the ancient times to the medieval period. Deliberately constructed from ancient spolia—that is, architectural fragments taken from originally pagan structures—the Little Metropolis embodies both worlds, ancient pagan and medieval Christian in a profoundly symbolic way. According to the etymology of this word in Greek, ‘symbol’ or σύμβολον comes from the verb βάλλω and the prefix σύν, which mean ‘throw’ and ‘together’ respectively.1 Thus, it will be demonstrated below that this church does indeed ‘bring together’ the ancient and medieval worlds in a manner that was characteristic for the Byzantines: namely by prioritising Christ while ‘baptising’ positive elements from pagan culture within an ecclesial framework.

The Exterior of the Sanctuary. Source: Wikimedia commons

The Little Metropolis as a Bridge between the Ancient and Medieval Worlds

Next to the modern Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens dedicated to the Annunciation of the Theotokos (Καθεδρικός Ναός Ευαγγελισμού της Θεοτόκου), which was built in the mid-nineteenth century, lies a diminutive church which is called Little Metropolis (Μικρή Μητρόπολη), but is also known as St Eleftherios (Άγιος Ελευθέριος) or, originally, Panagia Gorgoepikoos. The reason for these different attributions is because of the church’s history. Scholars have found it difficult to successfully date the church, with estimates ranging from the ninth to the thirteenth century AD.

Bente Kiilerich has recently shown that the contemporary scholarly consensus dates it towards the end of the twelfth century (c. 1182-1204) under the tenure of the Metropolitan of Athens, Michael Choniates.2 In any case, it was known as Little Metropolis because, even before the construction of the new Metropolitan cathedral, the headquarters of the church of Athens was located in this precise area (now known as Metropolis Square). It is certain, however, that the church was originally dedicated to Panagia Gorgoepikoos, a designation it received from a miracle-working icon of the same name that it houses.

During the Greek War of Independence, the Metropolis and the church were abandoned until 1841, when the latter became a library, and functioned as such until 1868, when it was reconsecrated as a Christian church, this time to St Eleftherios. But architectural historians still refer to the church by its original dedication to the Mother of God.

The church is a cross-in-square structure, which is an architectural style popularised during the reign of the emperor St Justinian the Great3 and symbolises participation in the death of Christ on the cross, through which the congregation is ‘resurrected’ during the course of the divine liturgy—especially at its zenith, participation in the Eucharist.

It is also domed. The dome, because of its circular form, imitates the firmament’s trajectory over the horizon, symbolising the cosmos. Thus, through dying on the cross—which is embedded in the church’s design—Jesus Christ saves the whole cosmos with his resurrection. (Domes had in any case been combined with the cross-in-square design since Justinian’s reign; this style was paradigmatic in Byzantium and remains so for Orthodox churches all over the world.)

The structure is also constructed almost entirely of ashlar blocks of Pentelic marble that were taken from other ancient buildings and monuments—in other words, spolia. Whereas other middle Byzantine churches often used fragments of spolia as external decoration, the Little Metropolis is entirely comprised of blocks of varying provenance and with extant figural designs. Kiilerich has aptly described these images as follows:

Starting on the west front, on the gable, from top to bottom, it is possible to note the following: leaves growing from a kantharus, an intricate, interlaced carpet-like pattern which is intersected by the window, and remains of coffers arranged in a row, those on the right with plastic rosettes. On either side of the window are two Byzantine reliefs: upright slabs with respectively a cross flanked by animals and an interlaced cross framed by rosettes. At both corners on the wall below there are … Roman Corinthian pilaster capitals. Along the front runs an ancient cornice with dentils. Below the cornice and over the doors has been placed a long Greek (or Roman) calendar frieze to which crosses at places have been added. At the northwest end, below the pilaster capital, is a Greek relief showing a woman in profile facing a large double cross (crux gemina). Symmetrically arranged around the tympanum are four Byzantine reliefs with heraldically disposed animals: two gryphons flanking a tree of life and two peacocks fighting snakes; two sphinxes and two lions flanking a tree of life; two large sphinxes symmetrically disposed on either side of a tree of life, the branches of which are inhabited by a smaller pair of lions with human heads … At the southwest corner and positioned below the pilaster capital, is a fragment of a Roman peopled scroll disclosing among other figures a woman riding on a swan. The tympanum consists of an interlaced lozenge with central cross and rosettes. The lintel is constructed from a block with two lions flanking a cross, and with more crosses and rosettes at each end. On both sides of the lintel, the spolia show a cross in aedicula flanked by other cross symbols.4

Marble reliefs of sphinxes (left) and gryphons (top right)—as well as peacocks (bottom right)—on the exterior of the Little Metropolis. The horizontal band above them depicts the zodiac personified as various gods. Source: Wikimedia commons

The combination of explicitly Christian and pagan mythological motifs is here represented by the gryphons and sphinxes. Gryphons combined the back legs, body, and tail of a lion with the head and wings of an eagle and had their antecedents in ancient Assyrian and Akkadian mythology (with some variations). In medieval lore, however, they were typified in their most recognisable form, and were even interpreted as symbolising Christ!5 This is because the gryphon, which was comprised of an eagle that can soar to heaven, and a lion that has its feet on earth, was interpreted as an allegory for the heavenly and earthly in Christ (or, if you like, his divine and human natures).

Sphinxes of course date back to ancient Egypt, with the famous Great Sphinx near the Great Pyramids of Giza on the West bank of the Nile variously dated to the mid-third and mid-second millennia BC. Greece’s contact with Egypt in the Bronze Age (3300-1200 BC) meant that the creature would creep into Greek mythology, described as having the head and upper part of a woman, the haunches of a lion and the wings of a bird. Deceitful and deadly, all who could not answer her riddles were killed.6

The Great Sphinx of Giza. Source: Wikimedia commons

The zodiac comes from the Greek word ζώο (zōo) which means animal, and in its Latinised form of the ancient Greek ζῳδιακός κύκλος, or “cycle of little animals,” reflects the identification of constellations near the ecliptic (the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun) as twelve zoomorphic signs: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces. There are many variations on the zodiac across cultures, but its appearance on the church’s exterior—the latter of which could not be found on its interior—denotes the Byzantine Athenians’ tendency to appropriate the art that comprised the city’s largely pagan Graeco-Roman inheritance in a manner that could integrate it into the Christian story, yet without compromising the latter. Thus, the zodiac—which was the way that astronomers still described the ancient constellations in this context7—could be used outside the church; but not on the inside, lest it cause confusion or be misinterpreted in a syncretistic way.

Something similar was also exhibited within the Monastery of Christ Pantokrator (Μονή Παντοκράτορος)—which now goes by the name Zeyrek Camii—in Constantinople. According to Benjamin Anderson, upon “entering the naos from the central door of the narthex, the visitor to the church trod upon a large disc surrounded by a wheel containing the figures of the four seasons at the four cardinal points, with the figures of the zodiac placed between them in four groups of three.”8

The Wheel of the Zodiac in the Monastery of the Pantokrator, Constantinople. Source: Robert Ousterhout, ‘Architecture, Art and Komnenian Ideology at the Pantokrator Monastery,’ in Byzantine Constantinople: Monuments, Topography and Everyday Life, ed. Nevra Necipoğlu (Leiden, Brill, 2001), 139.

To reiterate, the zodiac in these contexts could not be the object of idolatrous worship. Nor was it used for the consultation of horoscopes, for that would imply a predeterminism that is antithetical to the Christian emphasis on the free will’s interaction with God’s providence. Instead, the zodiac here was used to symbolically denote that Christ is the centre of the cosmos that was described via its various zoomorphic signs.

Apart from Panagia Gorgoepikoos and the Monastery of the Pantokrator, this process—of using ancient pagan images as external decoration and to convey symbolic meaning—was in any case exhibited on a massive scale in Constantinople, where, as we know from the medieval city ‘guidebooks’ (including the Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai and Patria Constantinoupoleos) the reinterpretation of pagan images from a Christian point of view could be seen even in the city’s thoroughfares. But statues, for various reasons—and I speculate because of their aesthetic realism that could potentially exacerbate the passions—were prohibited from the ecclesial space, which was in fact increasingly decorated with icons in mosaic and fresco form showing Christ and the saints in states of dispassion. These mosaics and frescoes also incorporated and reinterpreted pagan motifs, like the peacock mentioned above, whose flesh in Greek mythology was considered immortal and which became an allegory for Christ, the eternal Son of God.9

In any case, the gryphons, sphinxes, the zodiac, peacocks and other motifs act both as decoration and to convey symbolic meaning in Panagia Gorgoepikoos, and in the case of the former two perhaps even perform the function of apotropaia: the inversion of classically malevolent creatures (at least in the case of the sphinx) to ward off evil from the place they adorn. In this way they can be compared to the gargoyles that covered medieval Western cathedrals. Irrespective, what we find in this church in Byzantine Athens is a perfect example of the tendency to appropriate—with discernment—ancient pagan motifs within an Orthodox Christian framework, transforming them in the process.

Moreover, it is not for no reason that the arboreal motifs that appear on the exterior of Panagia Gorgoepikoos can be interpreted as the tree(s) of life, which appears in Genesis chapters 2 and 3 in the middle of the Garden of Eden. The tree of life has been viewed as a symbol of immortality, an axis mundi connecting heaven and earth10, and a type of the cross of Jesus Christ. The latter for Christians in fact comprises the new tree of life, insofar as Christ died on the cross, defeated death with his resurrection and inaugurated life eternal for all people.11 In light of this, it can be said that the tree of life is in fact depicted in the centre of the reliefs mentioned above, with the mythological creatures—the gryphons and the sphinxes—on either side. This can be viewed as a subordination of these creatures to the tree/cross in a taxonomy that symbolically prioritises what can be seen as an explicitly Christian image, and which ‘baptises’ pagan motifs belonging to the surrounding culture, endowing them with a new significance in light of the Christ event and experience. Panagia Gorgoepikoos is thus a bridge—a symbol—of continuity, and not conflict, between the ancient and medieval worlds, and is extremely valuable for it.

A twelfth century mosaic of the Mother of God as ‘Wider than the Heavens’ (Πλατυτέρα τῶν Οὐρανῶν) and holding the Christ-child in the apse of Little Metropolis. Source: Wikimedia commons
Dr Mario Baghos is Senior Lecturer in Patristics and Church History at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College, Sydney, Australia, and Chief Publishing Officer of St Andrew’s Orthodox Press. His most recent book is entitled From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium: Kings, Symbols, and Cities (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021).

This article is currently being edited and will be reposted soon

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  1. Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 304, 1690.
  2. Bente Kiilerich, ‘Making Sense of the Spolia in the Little Metropolis in Athens,’ Estratto dalla rivista Arte Medievale, nuova serie anno IV (2005): 95-114, p. 95.
  3. Richard Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), 203.
  4. Kiilerich, ‘Making Sense of the Spolia in the Little Metropolis in Athens,’ 95.
  5. Cassandra Eason, Fabulous Creatures, Mythical Monsters, and Animal Power Symbols (Westport, Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press, 2008), 83.
  6. Ibid., 85.
  7. Theodore Meotchites, Introduction to Astronomy (Stoicheiosis Astronomike 1.5-30), trans. Emmanuel A. Paschos and Christos Simelides (London: World Scientific, 2017).
  8. Benjamin Anderson, Cosmos and Community in Early Medieval Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017), 111.
  9. James Hall, Illustrated Dictionary of Symbols in Eastern and Western Art (Colorado: Westview Press, 1996), 38.
  10. See my book From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium: Kings, Symbols, and Cities (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021), 98-99
  11. See my article ‘Christ, Paradise, Trees, and the Cross in the Byzantine Art,’ International Journal of Orthodox Theology 9:2 (2018): 112-155.

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