Orthodox Cathedral in Thessaloniki, a fine example of modern Byzantine art and architecture

by Victor Grigore, Webphoto.ro

The second largest town of Greece is probably the place to see the most Byzantine artifacts in the world, whether it’s museum objects or standing buildings. But the thousand years long heritage of the Greco-Roman Christian empire is not only a museum exhibit, but a living tradition, preserved in daily religious life. The great Orthodox Cathedral presents in the best way how artistic traditions are perpetuated and reinterpreted.

Starting with the exterior, you are impressed by the absolute balance of proportions and by the warm colors that blend well in the surrounding streets with palm trees. The right combination of rounded domes and high bell-towers remind us that Orthodoxy not only means “the right faith” or “the right knowledge”, but also “the straight middle road”. The excess is viewed with suspicion in this conservative part of Christianity, very preoccupied with faithfully maintaining traditions and dogmas.

The outside decorations are just as needed to create a pleasant combination of white and cream tones, only contrasted by the brick shade of the dome. The current shape of the Metropolitan Church of Thessaloniki dates from the end of XIX century, after a fire destroyed a previous church on the same spot. It was built between 1891 and 1912, by architects Tsilos and Paionidis.

Besides the icons museum attached to the church, inside you can see an excellent collection of mosaics and frescoes built in the Byzantine tradition of Constantinople. On the large dome is painted the traditional image of Christ Pantokrator (Almighty) on a golden background. Surrounding Him is an entire hierarchy of angels, apostles, patriarchs and saints. The dome is risen on a barrel with numerous windows that provide lighting and on the frames of which are also images of saints.

Also in the Byzantine tradition consecrated by Hagia Sophia, in the rounded apse behind the altar there is a fresco of Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus. The iconostasis is a real work of art, framed into a meticulously sculpted marble portal. Fitted in this portal are the gilded doors to the altar and wooden icons. Above the altar doors, known also as imperial doors, there is a stone cross and an icon of the Mysterious Supper.

The Metropolitan cathedral in Thessaloniki has the name of Saint Gregory Palamas, who was the bishop of this place, during very turbulent times. The disputes with various heresies made Saint Gregory both popular and detested, cost him an exile and a period in prison. In the end, St Gregory Palamas got to be considered as one of the most influential Orthodox theologian, and his relics are preserved with great reverence in a a niche, with the episcopal crown on top of a sarcophagus of sculpted gold and silver.

Bishop’s see, the term from which the name “cathedral” comes from, is also an outstanding art object, sculpted with lions and other symbolic figures. The fresco is remade after the earthquake of 1978 by Kesanli, in a faithful Orthodox style. Among the recognizable scenes are: the Transfiguration of Christ, when Jesus showed His real Divine nature to the chosen apostles, the miracle on the Sea of Galilee, the tree of Esau, the good Samaritan or the Crucifixion. Also present in sculpted marble is the Byzantine symbol of the two-headed eagle.

The patron of this church, St Gregory Palamas, is one of the most subtle Orthodox theologians, interpreting the Scriptures with the techniques of Neoplatonism. He found the body-spirit dispute, that was to be crucial to Western thinking, as irrelevant. To strict rationality, Palamas opposed the technique of Hesychasm, in which continuous prayer helps the intellect descend into the heart. God, says Palamas, is of a different essence than man, so there is no common ground, except for the uncreated divine energies, through which God works onto man. The only path for man to know God is to fill his reason with the Grace of the Holy Spirit. In this way, God is not reasoned, but experienced through every ritual act, starting with the Christening, continuing with Eucharist, than prayer and brotherly love. Besides these, God remains inaccessible, but descends onto men through His eternal energies.

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