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Church of the Holy Apostles (Thessaloniki)

The Church of the Holy Apostles (Ἅγιοι Ἀπόστολοι) is a Late Byzantine church in Thessaloniki, the second city of the Byzantine Empire. It is one of several churches built in Thessaloniki around the late 13th and early 14th century, during the so-called Palaiologan Renaissance. The church, which is included on the list of UNESCO World Heritage monuments in Thessaloniki, is located within a small plateia (square) surrounded by 20th-century apartments near the western city wall.

Its original name is uncertain, though it was probably dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Its identification as a church dedicated to the Holy Apostles was first documented as a local tradition in the mid 18th century. While its original name is uncertain, most scholars believe it must have been the katholikon of a large unidentified monastery dedicated to the Virgin, possibly the Monastery of the Virgin Gorgoepekoos. This suggestion is supported by a depiction of its ‘second founder’ Paul praying before an enthroned Virgin over the entrance to the naos, along with scenes from the Life of Mary in the ambulatory.

While the identification of the church is uncertain, the original founder and date of the building are much clearer. An inscription on its marble lintel above the main portal, along with monograms on imposts of the outer narthex and monograms in brick, indicates that the founder (ktetor) was Niphon I, Patriarch of Constantinople (1310-1314). There is also a painted inscription over the entrance to the naos mentioning Patriarch Niphon and his disciple the abbbot (hegoumenos) Paul as founders of the monastery. This is complicated by dendrochronology, which dated the wood in the church to or just after 1329. It was originally suggested that the core of the church (naos and narthex) is an earlier church, to which Niphon added the ambulatory and restored it, though current research suggests it dates to the same period. It is also possible the work was left unfinished when Niphon was expelled from office in 1314, and the building was completely later.

The Ottomans converted the building into a mosque at an unspecified time, perhaps around the 1520s or as early as 1455. A minaret was added to the southwest corner of the structure and a low wooden porch was added to its northern and western sides. Its colloquial Turkish name Soğuksu Camii (“Cold Water Mosque”) was not recorded until the 19th century. It continued to function as a mosque until the Greeks took control of the city in 1912, after which it again functioned as a church. Restoration took place in 1926-1928 and 1940-1942, which involved the removal of Turkish plasterwork and conservation works, revealing its interior decoration. Consolidation work was carried out after the earthquake of 1978. In 2002, the mosaics were cleaned.

The monastic complex was located next to the western city wall, just south of the nonextant Letaia Gate. Traces of this monastic complex have survived, including a gatehouse and cistern that perhaps both date to the same period. The remains of a monumental gatehouse, which had a large barrel-vaulted passage, have survived south of the church. An image of Christ or the Virgin Mary might have been placed over the doorway. It perhaps had a tower with a chapel on an upper floor, as seen on Mount Athos. The cistern, which measures 16.35 x 8.27 m, is just north of the church and lies on an axis parallel with it. It has three pairs of columns with four Ionic capitals and two bases used as capitals. It collected spring water from the north of the city. The cistern has been associated with the church since the early Ottoman era, when the neighborhood was called Soğuksu (“Cold Water”). It is likely it was the water source for the nearby Pasha Hamam, south of the church. While it certainly was used as a source of water for the monastery, it also could have served the outside community as well. These traces of the monastic complex, taken together, suggest it covered an area of more than 10,000 m².

Church of the Holy Apostles (Thessalonik


The Church of Holy Apostles is a five-domed church, measuring 17.6 x19.3 m, which is lavishly decorated with ornamental brickwork on the exterior. It has cloisonné masonry - regular courses of cut stone framed horizontally and vertically by bricks. It is articulated by numerous arched windows and recesses on several levels. Its eastern façade is elaborately decorated with ornamental brickwork, which displays a dazzling range of designs, including lozenges, rosettes, interlaces, and meander patterns. The tall central naos, which clearly reflects the shape of the cross, is crowned by a central dome that dominates the whole composition. The vertical attenuation of the core, with four smaller domes framing the tall naos and dome, gives it a sense of monumentality.

Its core consists of a cross-in-square naos with a tripartite sanctuary and a narthex. The main dome rests on pendentives and is supported by four marble columns with Late Antique capitals. One was a composite Ionic capital dated to the 6th century, and three were Corinthian capitals, including two similar capitals perhaps dating to third quarter of 4th century. The naos is preceded by a narthex with three bays of groin vaults. The church also has a U-shaped ambulatory enveloping the naos and narthex.

The ambulatory consists of longitudinal parekklesia connecting with the outer narthex (exonarthex) to the west, which are illuminated by broad tympanum windows. The main dome is surrounded by four smaller domes in the ambulatory, with two domes on its eastern ends and a second pair of domes flanking the narthex. The domed chapels on the eastern ends communicate directly with the tripartite sanctuary. Between the domes of each parekklesion are two bays with a single groin vault and a single domical vault. The southern chapel, which is now walled up, originally had a door. The northern chapel, which has frescoes indicating that it was dedicated to St. John the Baptist, seems to have extended to the second dome. The western domed compartments were originally separated from the narthex by small columnar arcades, traces of which can still be seen. The outer narthex was originally an open porch with five bays, with three domical vaults and two groin vaults. During the Ottoman era, a wooden porch was added to its northern and western sides, and a minaret was added to the southwestern corner. It is possible that the church originally had a belfry.

There are no clear signs that its ambulatory was used for burials, as was the case, for example at Lips Monastery in Constantinople. Evidence also suggests the entire structure was built at the same time, unlike Lips or Chora in Constantinople. Instead, the Holy Apostles appear to have been conceived as a unified scheme, with distinctive care given to symmetry and the overall formal appearance.

Art of the Holy Apostles

The art of the Church of the Holy Apostles belongs to a cultural efflorescence that took place in the empire’s second city, during the late 13th and early 14th century. The mosaics at Chora and Pammakaristos in Constantinople and the Holy Apostles in Thessaloniki are frequently compared. As the mosaics of the Holy Apostles strongly resemble the mosaics of Chora, it has been suggested that they were made by the same workshop. However, it has also been argued that they are connected in style, rather than being made by the same team of mosaicists. Characteristically marble revetment would decorate the lower walls of the naos (as can been seen in Chora); however this is not the case for the Holy Apostles, which is decorated with frescoes on the lower walls of the naos, apparently with no relationship with the mosaics above. It has been suggested that work at the Holy Apostles was unfinished when Niphon was deposed and forced into retirement in 1314. The gold background of the mosaics is mostly missing and there are no marble revetments, perhaps because they never imported from Constantinople since Niphon was removed from office. It has been suggested that the frescoes could have been added later by the abbot Paul. It is commonly argued that the mosaics were damaged when the Ottomans covered the interior with whitewash or even that the gold tesserae were carefully removed before being whitewashed. The art of the Holy Apostles was uncovered in several stages beginning in 1926.

There are only mosaics in the upper portions of the naos, including its dome and barrel vaults. The figure of Christ Pantocrator (“Christ Almight”) making a gesture of blessing is in the apex of the dome. Christ, whose head and upper shoulders have been lost, is in the medallion with a circular band with an inscription from the Book of Psalms. He is encircled by Old Testament prophets (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Malachi, Elijah, Elisha, Habakkuk, Jonah, Isaiah, Nahum, and Zephaniah). The Four Evangelists are on the pendentives of the dome, though the heads are partially or completely damaged, except for the figure of St. Matthew. The Holy Mandylion is also on the eastern base of the dome.

Twelve representations of the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church decorated the barrel vaults and the upper walls, though they only partially survive. Nothing has survived on the eastern side above the sanctuary. The barrel vault on the southern side of the naos has fragmentary depictions of the Nativity of Christ and the Baptism of Christ. A significant portion of the Nativity has survived, though the figure of the Virgin is mainly discerned by the outline of her figure. Among the details that survive are the Christ Child with the heads of an ox and donkey viewed by two shepherd boys, the angels bringing glad tidings, midwives washing the Christ Child, and the Magi on galloping horses. Less of the Baptism of Christ has survived, though two angels facing Christ (now missing his head) are in quite good condition. The Annunciation and the Presentation of Christ at the Temple were below them, though they are mostly lost.

The Transfiguration of Christ and Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem are depicted in the western vault. The Apostles Peter, James, and John, who are depicted on the rocky lower level of Mount Tabor, are in good condition. The figures of Christ, Moses, and Elijah are also in decent condition, though the gold background surrounding the figures is almost completely gone. The Entry into Jerusalem is also in relatively good condition, with surviving scenes including Christ on a donkey (now headless) and the multitude in front of Jerusalem, which is depicted as a walled city with a circular domed temple.

The northern vault has depictions of the Crucifixion and the Anastasis (Resurrection of Christ). Most of the Crucifixion is missing; the midsection of the hanging Christ, including part of his legs and loincloth, has survived. Christ is flanked by fragmentary figures: the Virgin Mary and Myrrh-bearing women on one side and St. John on the other. The Anastasis, depicting the Resurrection and Descent into Hell, is better preserved. The scene is centered on Christ in a mandorla, with billowing garments, signifying intense movement. He holds the cross with his left hand and pulls Adam out of a sarcophagus with his right hand. Christ stands above the cavern of Hell; though fragmentary, some of the broken locks and keys can still be seen. Behind Adam stand Eve and other figures, with hands raised in a gesture of supplication. John the Baptist and King David are depicted behind Christ. The Dormition of the Theotokos is on the western wall, above the entrance to the naos. It is mostly lost, except for a group of Apostles at the feet of the Virgin Mary on the right.

Several mosaic depictions of saints also survive, including two groups of martyrs (Eustratius, Auxentius, Eugene, Mardarius, and Orestes, whose feast is celebrated on December 13, and Acindynos, Pegasios, Aphthonios, Elpidophoros, and Anempodistos, whose feast is celebrated on November 2). Under the Transfiguration is a depiction of St. Kosmas the Hymnographer holding a scroll with an inscription from one of his hymns. Fragments of the ornamental mosaics, with vegetal or geometric designs comparable with compare with those found at Chora, also survive. 

While much has been lost, the rest of the church was decorated with frescoes. The lower walls of the naos, narthex, and ambulatory all have surviving frescoes. Above its entrance to the naos is a fresco with an enthroned Virgin Mary and Christ Child flanked by angels, along with its second founder, its abbot Paul. The inner narthex has several surviving scenes from the Birth and Life of the Virgin Mary. While no art has survived in the eastern domes of the ambulatory, there are frescoes in the northwest and southwest domes depicting the Virgin and Child, and Christ, respectively. Notable frescos include a depiction of John the Baptist in the northern chapel, which has been used to suggest it was dedicated to this saint. There is a Tree of Jesse, showing the genealogy of Christ, in the southern chapel. The superb sense of elevation and exaltation in the central spaces of the Holy Apostles was once intensified by the natural light that entered through its numerous windows. 

Dome of the Naos

Christ Pantokrator and the Prophets 

Inscription from the dome 

Κ(ύριο)ς ἐξ οὐρανοῦ ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν ἐπ(έβλεψεντοῦ ἀκοῦσα)ι τὸν στεναγμὸν τῶν πεπεδημέν(ων) τοῦ λῦσαι τοὺς υἱοὺς τῶν τεθανατωμέν(ων), τοῦ ἀναγγεῖλαι ἐν Σιων τὸ ὄνομα Κ(υρίο)υ κ(αὶ) τὴν αἴνεσιν αὐτοῦ ἐν Ι(ερουσα)λημ.

“The Lord looked down from his sanctuary on high, from heaven he viewed the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners and release those condemned to death. So the name of the Lord will be declared in Zion and his praise in Jerusalem.” (Psalms 121:19-21)


Entry into Jerusalem

Transfiguration of Christ

Anastasis (Resurrection)

St. Matthew

Corinthian capitals (third quarter of 4th c.)

Composite Ionic Capital (6th century)

Capitals from the naos

Church of the Holy Apostles (Thessalonik


Outer ​​Narthex


Church of the Holy Apostles (Thessalonik

Tree of Jesse​​

Chapel of St. John the Baptist

Church of the Holy Apostles (Thessalonik

Outer narthex, originally a porch, with monograms and brick insciption naming Patriarch Niphon

Νήφων, Πατριάρχης, Κτήτωρ

Niphon, Patriarch, Founder (Ktetor)

Monograms from Rautman (1984)

Inscription of main door lintel

Πατριάρχης καὶ κτήτωρ

Patriarch and founder (ktetor)

Niphon I, patriarch of Constantinople (1310-1314), was born in Berroia and died in Constantinople in 1328. Niphon was abbot (hegoumenos) of the Great Lavra on Mount Athos in 1294 and then became metropolitan of Kyzikos sometime before 1303, when he led that city's defense against the Turks. While he was accused of theft and simony by Patriarch Athanasios I around 1309, he was chosen to succeed Athanasios on the patriarchal throne because of his moderate position on the Arsenite controversy, which was healed at the beginning of his patriarchate. When he became patriarch, he dismissed Thessaloniki’s Metropolitan Malachias and sent the monk Kallinikos to oversee the patriarchal buildings he himself had founded. In so doing, Niphon aimed at controlling the income of the Metropolis and increase his power in the second city of the empire. Niphon greatly increased patriarchal revenues by appropriating the administration of several wealthy sees, after deposing their bishops on charges of simony. In 1314, however, Niphon was himself deposed on charges of simony and retired to the Peribleptos Monastery in Constantinople. He took his revenge on Andronikos II, who had failed to rally to his defense, when in 1328 he advised Andronikos III to force his grandfather to retire.

Inscription from Donor Fresco

Παῦλο(ς) μοναχὸς [καὶ] προϊστά(εν)ο(ς) τῆς σε-

βασμίας μ[ο]νῆς ταύ(τ)ης κ(αὶ) μαθητὴ(ς)

[τοῦ ἁγι]ωτάτον οἰκουμεν[ι]κοῦ π(ατ)ριάρχου

κ(αὶ) κτήτορο(ς) κὺρ(οῦ) Νίφωvο(ς) κ(αὶ) δεύ-

τερος κτήτωρ…

“Paul, monk and superior of this revered monastery and disciple of the most holy Ecumenical Patriarch and founder kyr Niphon, and second founder.”

Cistern of Monastic Complex

Gatehouse of Monastic Complex

Texier (1864).jpg

Texier (1864)

Mary A. Walker (1864).jpg

Mary A. Walker (1864)

Texier (1864) 1.jpg

Mary A. Walker (1864)

Russian lithograph (c. 1870).jpg

Russian lithograph (c. 1870)


Josef Székely (1863)

Paul Zepdji (c. 1880)


Bury (1909).jpg

From Bury (1909)

Fred Boissonnas (c. 1903-1923).jpg

Fred Boissonnas (c. 1903-1923)

G. Massiot & cie (Circa 1910)​​

Pierre Machard (1917)


Charles Martel (1918)


Tourneau (1918)


Salt Research


American School of Classical Studies at Athens

Homer A. Thompson Photographic Collection

Plan from Ćurčić Apostle.jpg

Plan from Ćurčić


Rautman, M. L. The Church of the Holy Apostles in Thessaloniki: a study in early Palaeologan architecture

Nikonanos, N. Οι Άγιοι Απόστολοι Θεσσαλονίκης

Stephan C., Ein byzantinisches Bildensemble: Die Mosaiken und Fresken der Apostelkirche zu Thessaloniki

Ousterhout, R. Eastern Medieval Architecture: The Building Traditions of Byzantium and Neighboring Lands

Ćurčić, S. Architecture in the Balkans: from Diocletian to Süleyman the Magnificent 

Charalambos, B.; Mavropoulou-Tsioumi, C. & Kourkoutidou-Nikolaidou, E. Mosaics of Thessaloniki, 4th-14th Century

James, L. Mosaics in the Medieval World, From Late Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century

Kazhdan, A. Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium

Iliadis, I. “The Church of the Holy Apostles in Thessalonike: A study of the natural light” (JÖB 59)

Kuniholm, P. I. & Striker, C. L. “Dendrochronology and the architectural history of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Thessaloniki” (Architectura 20)

Velenis, G. “Οι Άγιοι Απόστολοι Θεσσαλονίκης και η Σχολή της Κωνσταντινουπόλεως”

Velenis, G. “Ο πυλώνας της μονής των Αγίων Αποστόλων Θεσσαλονίκης”

Xyngopoulos, A. “Μονή των Αγ. Αποστόλων ή μονή της Θεοτόκου”

Xygnopoulos, A. “Η ψηφιδωτή διακόσμησις του ναού των Αγίων Αποστόλων Θεσσαλονίκης”

Xyngopoulos A. “Les fresques de l’eglise des Saints Apotres a Thessalonique”


Church of the Holy Apostles Album (Byzantine Legacy Flickr)

Thessaloniki Album (Byzantine Legacy Flickr) 

Byzantine churches in Thessaloniki (Anton Skrobotov Flickr)

Church of Agioi Apostoloi (Religious Greece)

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