When the Parthenon was converted into a Christian church

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The Parthenon in recent years. Credit: Kimberlym21 / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

The most brilliant symbol of Western civilization, the Parthenon, was converted into a Christian church for almost a millennium, from AD 500 to 1450.

Originally built in 432 BC to honor Athena Parthenos, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war, the magnificent Parthenon has undergone several changes.

In 500 AD, when Christianity took hold in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, the Temple of Athena became the Temple of Panagia Athiniotissa (Virgin Mary the Athenian).

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Soon the temple and the Acropolis hill became a center of Christian pilgrimage of great importance throughout the history of Byzantium.

Pilgrims from all over Greece and the Orthodox world flocked to the Acropolis as Pilgrims of the Virgin Mary.

A smooth conversion

One of the most interesting points of the conversion of the old temple into a Christian temple is that there have not been any drastic changes in its exterior.

The pediments were not covered, they were left as they are. The fear of the ancient “demonic” gods apparently did not include the Acropolis. It seems that Christians have shown their respect for this historic monument.

However, the interior of the nave and parts of the columns were badly damaged by fire (possibly due to the invasion of Athens in AD 267) or by an earthquake.

In the 5th century the Parthenon was transformed into a Christian basilica with three naves dedicated first to Hagia Sophia, then (in the mid-Byzantine years) to Panagia Athiniotissa.

During the reign of Emperor Justinian, however, it was consecrated and defined as “the Catholic Church of Athens”.

An anonymous 15th-century manuscript in the library in Vienna states that “the temple of Our Lady on the Acropolis was built by Apollo and Euligius”, who were contemporaries of Justinian and Tiberius II, respectively.

From the end of the 6th century, the dead of the clergy, bishops and others began to be buried around the church. Excavations in 1836 found many monuments from a Christian cemetery.

In addition, a marble inscription was found on “the holiest church in Athens”, as well as bronze coins from Emperors Justinian and Justinian II and gold coins from Tiberius II of Thrace.

Parthenon Christian Church
Sacred icons from the Byzantine era inside the Parthenon. Public domain

Parthenon decorated as a Christian church

Little by little, the temple of Panagia Athiniotissa was decorated with Byzantine icons, mosaics and frescoes.

The eastern entrance to the ancient shrine was closed and the pronaos which became the sacred step was raised one step above the old ground.

The altar was covered with Pentelic marble and rested on four small porphyry columns with marble and gilded Corinthian columns. Above hung a golden dove representing the Holy Spirit.

Two smaller ones were built in the sanctuary, to the north for the presentation of sacred gifts, while to the south was the sacristy in which the sacred vessels, vestments and liturgical books were placed.

At the bottom of the arch and in the middle of the semicircular platform rose the episcopal marble throne.

The old rear building was transformed into the narthex of the church, which was connected to the nave by a door and the church was filled with frescoes.

The old and wide entrance has been preserved as a large door. Elsewhere stood columns of jasper.

There was also a pulpit and a bell tower, which protruded from the wooden roof of the basilica, which rested on the nave of the temple of the Virgin Athena.

The golden image of the Virgin Mary stood in a niche above the shrine, adorned with thousands of psyches, the so-called golden stones.

On the back walls, faint relics of Byzantine icons are still preserved today. In this church burned a lime lamp, which has existed in the temple since ancient times. Pausanias mentions that he burned in front of the statue of Athena.

Parthenon Christian Church
Parthenon in 1839 engraving. Public domain

The Parthenon is converted into a mosque

After the brief conquest of Byzantium by the Crusaders during the Fourth Crusade (1204), the Christian Church of the Parthenon was plundered and then transformed into a Catholic Church, under the name of “Santa Maria di Atene”.

Later, when the rule of Athens was under the Ducal De la Roche family, the church was dedicated to Our Lady and a high bell tower was built in its southwest corner.

After the fall of Athens to the hands of the Ottomans under Mohammed II the Conqueror in 1458, the Parthenon was transformed into a mosque and the Frankish bell tower into a minaret.

Despite the occasional modifications and the damage it suffered, the building retained its architectural coherence and most of its plastic decoration until the 17th century.

It was not until 1687, in the midst of the Second Venetian-Turkish War, that a shell from Morosini’s artillery fell on the Parthenon, where the Turks had set up a gunpowder depot, causing the explosion of the temple and extensive damage to its sculptural decoration. .

For centuries Christians have believed that the Virgin Mary, Our Lady, protects her devotees – as the goddess Athena protected the Athenians – in every difficult moment of their lives.

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