By Thaleia Mantopoulou-Panagiotopoulou | Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
The church of Taxiarches (the Archangels Michael and Gabriel) dates to the Byzantine era, and underwent several modifications during its long life. The last extensive restoration and expansion project, which gave the church its present form, took place between 1952 and 1958 under the supervision of the architect Hercules Leontidis. Today, Taxiarches is a two-story church, consisting of two distinct parts, one Βyzantine, and one Neo-Byzantine. The upper floor is a four-aisled basilica that has incorporated a Byzantine part at its eastern end. This latter consists of the bema flanked by two chapels, which are covered with different domical vaults and serve as parabemata. The bema and the prothesis have apses, five-sided and three-sided at the exterior respectively, and semicircular in the interior. The diakonikon has no apse. To the same era dates the eastern part of the central aisle, consisting of four pillars bridged by wide arches, three columns that are part of an arcade separating the southern aisle from the external one, and a small part of the northern wall. The eastern wall is covered by fine brickwork. The restoration work of the Byzantine part of the monument contains interpretative reconstructions and has not been published.
The lower floor, partly below the ground level, consists of a well-preserved Byzantine crypt encompassed at the southwest by an L-shaped modern exonarthex. The crypt has the form of a three-aisled basilica and is partially built on the original inclined hard rock. Thick walls and pillars separate the aisles. A narthex is located at the western part. Arched niches (arcosolia) used for burials, stand along all the walls, indicating a funerary function. Arches separate the crypt into twelve compartments covered either with lowered semi-cylindrical vaults or with crude groin vaults, probably dating from different eras. Remnants of a fire can be seen in some compartments.
Before the 1950's restoration, the monument had been a small single-nave church surrounded by a Π shaped gallery, as described in a book published in 1952 by professor Andreas Xyggopoulos, who dated the original church to the late Paleologan period. The original Byzantine church had been converted to a mosque perhaps in the 16th century with the name "İki Şerife Camii" (the mosque with the double-balcony minaret). It was restored to the Christian religion in 1912 and, because the original Byzantine dedication had been forgotten, the church was dedicated to Taxiarches as a local oral tradition associated the minaret's two balconies with the pair of Archangels. Modifications to the original church were executed both when the building joined the Muslim religion and when it was restored again to the Christian one, further blurring the form of the original church.
The church of Taxiarches is one of the most important monuments of the Palaiologan era and can be associated with the Serbian presence in Thessaloniki.
Morphological, constructional, and typological characteristics, in comparison with drawings made by the English architect William Harvey in 1908, and written sources both Byzantine and modern, lead to the conclusion that the part of the upper story attributed to the Byzantine era consists of two building phases. The collapse of its original construction was followed by a reconstruction, which incorporated the surviving parts.
The characteristics attributed to this latter reconstruction phase link Taxiarches to the church of Agios Nikolaos Orphanos, dated by many researchers to the second decade of the 14th century and built by the Serbian king Milutin (r. 1282–1321). Both churches share, among others, a characteristic of particular importance: a triangle formed by a double dentil course on the east and west pediment, that seems to be the "signature" of the construction workshop. Surviving frescoes in the present church have been dated to the same period and are attributed to the painter Georgios Kalliergis, who had links to the Serbian community of Thessaloniki. These details, together with information extracted from two imperial golden bulls of 1316 and 1317, lead to the conclusion that Taxiarches can be identified as the dependency (metochion) of the Hilandar Monastery in Thessaloniki, dedicated to Agios Georgios. This should have been the second of the two churches built, or, rather, restored by Milutin in Thessaloniki at the beginning of the 14th century, as attested in the written sources. Its present dedication and the oral tradition mentioned above probably resulted from confusion with the Rotunda (dedicated originally to the Archangels and presently to Agios Georgios), as both monuments bear the same dedications and were situated in the same extended Byzantine neighborhood of Agioi Asomatoi (the incorporeal classes of Heaven).
The original upper floor seems to have been a domed church. Its precise dating remains elusive as research is underway. All the known evidence points to the early 13th century. This should have been the metochion built by St. Savvas Nemanidis (1174–1236), who had realized its importance for the Hilandar Monastery, but also its usefulness as a Serbian post in Thessaloniki. The distinction of the majestic crypt building phases is a challenging puzzle. Differences in the wall thickness and brick and stone masonry techniques, various kinds of vaulting, as well as ventilation shafts point to different building programs which should be associated with the phases of the upper story. However, some constructional characteristics suggest even more, earlier building phases. The surrounding wall of the crypt is reinforced by buttresses similar to the ones used in buildings of the Hilandar Monastery on Mount Athos and other buttressed towers in Chalkidiki.
Modern written sources attest to the probable existence of another church dedicated to St. Savvas in the vicinity of Taxiarches and now demolished. The three churches linked in one way or another to the Serbs are situated in the eastern part of the Upper Town and especially in an unusually large building block that also encompasses the surviving 14th-century Byzantine bath. An enticing idea is that this block hides a great building complex and includes the palace that Milutin had built during his stay in Thessaloniki.
Kissas, Sotirios. Το ιστορικό υπόβαθρο των καλλιτεχνικών σχέσεων Θεσσαλονίκης και Σερβίας. Από το τέλος του ΙΒ αιώνα μέχρι τον θάνατο του Κράλη Μιλούτιν. Thessaloniki: University Studio Press, 2004.
This book offers an insight on the history of the artistic relations between Thessaloniki and Serbia in the Paleologan era, as well as research on the Serbian monuments in Thessaloniki.
Mantopoulou-Panagiotopoulou, Thaleia. “Οι μετεξελίξεις του ναού των Ταξιαρχών στην Άνω Πόλη της Θεσσαλονίκης από τη βυζαντινή στη σύγχρονη εποχή.” In Πρακτικά Τρίτου Επιστημονικού Συμποσίου: Βυζαντινή Μακεδονία. Θεολογία-Ιστορία-Φιλολογία-Δίκαιο-Αρχαιολογία-Τέχνη, 461–485. Thessaloniki: Society for Macedonian Studies, 2016.
A detailed attempt to discern the building phases of the monument and identify the original church, written in Greek.
Tantsis, Anastasios. “Taxiarches.” In Impressions: Byzantine Thessalonike through the Photographs and Drawings of the British School of Athens (1888-1910), 172–183. Thessaloniki: Center for Byzantine Studies, 2012.
First presentation and comments on the drawings executed by the architect William Harvey in 1908.
Τsigaridas, Euthimios. “L’activité artistique du peintre thessalonicien Georges Kalliergis.” Δελτίον της Χριστιανικής Αρχαιολογικής Εταιρείας 31(2010): 55–70.
A recent analysis and dating of the frescoes.
Xyggopoulos, Andreas. “Ο ναός των Ταξιαρχών.” In Τέσσαρες μικροί ναοί της Θεσσαλονίκης εκ των χρόνων των Παλαιολόγων, 5–24. Thessaloniki: Society for Macedonian Studies, 1952.
This is the first comprehensive publication on the church of Taxiarches, written in Greek.
This contribution was sponsored by the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross.