Athenians, tourists and surrounding shopkeepers were treated to a majestic sight as workers finally dismantled the scaffolding to reveal the revamped historic Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens. Free from constraints, the gleaming cathedral on Mitropoleos Street appears to have regained some of its lost lustre after almost 20 years of renovations.
A generation of Greek teens has grown up never having seen the Athens Cathedral in its full glory without building works obscuring the view. The bells have never stopped chiming, but all that could be heard from inside was the less-than-angelic pounding of hammers.
Only workers and priests were privy to the exquisite treasures of the historic three-aisled domed basilica that had in the past been the site of coronations of kings, swearing in ceremonies of statesmen and archbishops, important weddings and state funerals. Damage from two earthquakes and the passage of time caused scaffolding to be erected so as to hold up some sections of the building.
In 2009, Athens Archbishop Ieronymos announced the closure of the church for a one-year period. The center of Orthodoxy was temporarily moved to Agios Dimitrios Areopagitou church at Skoufa Street in upmarket Kolonaki.
As the years passed, the scaffolding became as much a fixture of the cathedral as the fixtures supporting the Parthenon. The relics of two martyrs – Saint Philothei and Gregory V, Patriarch of Constantinople – became nothing more than brief mentions in school textbooks, and no longer accessible to the public.
Meanwhile, conservationists intermittently breathed new life into the Byzantine murals by iconographer Spyridon Giallinas and German painter Alexander Seitz. Restoration work was carried out on the pulpit and other ornate details by sculptor George Fytalis, whose brother, Lazaros Fytalis, sculpted works at the Holy Church of Panagia on the island of Tinos.
Then there were more practical tasks of urgency. “There were huge problems, the cables were in a wretched condition,” says Father Thomas Synodinos, head of the Holy Archdiocese of Athens. “It could have caught fire at any moment.”
“Free from constraints, the gleaming cathedral on Mitropoleos Street appears to have regained some of its lost lustre after almost 20 years of renovations.”
It took 20 years and three architects to build the cathedral, following the laying of the first cornerstone by King Otto and Queen Amalia on Christmas, 1842. The cost exceeded the amount originally benchmarked for the project. For this reason, the 130-foot long, 65-foot wide and 80-foot high basilica was built in three stages using the material from 72 demolished Christian churches.
The first plans were drafted by Danish architect Theophil Hansen, who also constructed two of the contiguous buildings of the “classic trilogy” on Panepistimiou Street: the Academy of Athens and the National Library of Greece. He built up to the first series of windows before construction was interrupted in 1843 due to financial problems.
Three years later, Dimitrios Zezos took over the construction until his death in 1857, before the work was handed over to French architect Francois Boulanger.
Inaugurated by the King and Queen themselves on May 21, 1862, the landmark, dedicated to the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, was criticized for its ill-defined architectural character with the lower part, by Hansen, looking smaller in relation to the rest. The hodgepodge of materials and styles, however, are also what make the cathedral unique.
“The first plans were drafted by Danish architect Theophil Hansen, who also constructed two of the contiguous buildings of the “classic trilogy” on Panepistimiou Street.”