Kapnikarea (23)

This small Byzantine church, one of the oldest still standing, owes much to King Ludwig of Bavaria, whose direct intervention saved it from being destroyed when Ermou Street, where it is located, opened up in 1834. 

Therefore, its presence today is astonishing. It is situated in a small square in the middle of the street, surrounded by modern buildings, shops and offices that could not be more different from the church. Had it not been for this king, who went down in history precisely because he was not a very competent king, Ermou Street would be just another street and would not boast this little gem. 

The origin of the name of the church is unclear. Some say it was named after its founder, a property tax collector, an occupation known as a "kapnikon". 

Although the structure you can see today dates from the 13th century, the original building was built in the mid-11th century. Shortly after its construction, a chapel dedicated to St Barbara was added, and many faithful still flock here to light a candle. In the same century, another chapel was added, which, along with the first, formed the western, cross-shaped narthex that forms part of the layout of the church today. 

Apart from its cross-shaped layout and its columns with carved capitals, the most distinctive hallmark of this small church is the dome, which is made of stone and brick. This small dome is beautifully decorated with frescoes and constitutes a highly characteristic example of the Athenian Byzantine style. 

If you want to appreciate the richly decorated interior, with its reliefs, varied colours, golden tones and stonework, we recommend you visit on a very sunny day, since little light reaches the interior of the church and its small size make it an especially dark place. As is typical of Byzantine art, the sun creates a mystical atmosphere, especially when small shafts of lights penetrate the church and play on the colours of the walls. 

Since 1931, the Kapnikarea church has belonged to the University of Athens, which has been the main architect of its restoration and ensures that it is kept in excellent condition. 

After walking under the harsh sun of Athens, this tiny and unusual church offers an interesting respite, a totally different style from the architecture normally associated with the capital, and yet, as Athenian as the Parthenon.

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