When you visit the magnificent island of Santorini, you will notice there are many churches and chapels. The oldest church in Santorini, however, is not a blue-domed church and you can not find it on the cliffside with splendid views.
It is Panagia Episkopi church in Mesa Gonia, a small village close to Kamari on the foot of mountain Profitis Ilias, which you can visit while taking a Santorini Panorama Tour.
Panagia Episkopi church, a Byzantine-style Orthodox church
The oldest church in Santorini is dedicated to Panagia (‘All Holy’), a Greek Orthodox name for the Holy Mary. It is a significant site to visit, not only for the faithful in the Orthodox religion.
Panagia Episkopi church, a former bishop’s church from the Middle Byzantine period, was the seat of the Orthodox Diocese of Santorini until 1207 and from 1537 to 1827.
Nowadays, the church is open to pilgrims. You can go to visit it every day from 10 am to 12 pm and from 2 pm to 5 pm.
How to get to Panagia Episkopi
Panagia Episkopi is located in Mesa Gonia, a small village that is within walking distance from the famous beach village Kamari. Leaving Kamari along the main road, you must turn left to reach it.
You can get there by local bus from Fira as well. Get off at the last stop before Kamari and walk uphill to find the oldest church in Santorini.
It is also possible and quite simple to reach Panagia Episkopi church by car. You have to go in the direction of Kamari, and shortly before you enter the village, you turn right to take the short uphill drive, which leads you right outside. There you can find enough spots to park your car.
The history of Panagia Episkopi church in Santorini
There are two stories about why the Panagia Episkopi church was built at the end of the 11th century.
The first is a myth that says that an icon of Panagia repeatedly moved from its place on a hillside chapel close by to appear again in a different location. The locals understood this as a sign to build a new church for the icon.
Another legend says that Emperor Alexius I Komnenos was the church’s donator. He supposedly passed on the entire countryside outside the villages of Gonia and Pyrgos to the church. A traditional, almost destroyed inscription says the church replaced the predecessor of a three-aisled early Byzantine basilica. This replacement happened at the end of the 11th and the beginning of the 12th century.
Since 1207, we can follow the recorded history of this magnificent oldest church in Santorini. Back then, the island became part of the dominated by the Republic of Venice Duchy of Archipelago in the wake of the Fourth Crusade. The Venetians expelled the Orthodox bishop of the island and appointed a Latin bishop.
The church was called Panagia Episkopi church, as the seat of the expelled Orthodox bishop, while his Latin successor took his seat at Skaros Rock on the cliffs of the caldera. Next to the Orthodox altar in the Panagia Episkopi, a Catholic one was built.
The next conqueror was the Ottoman Empire in 1537, where the island, as well as the whole Aegean, was taken over.
After that, the Orthodox bishop returned to Santorini. He retook the Panagia Episkopi church as his episcopal seat, which the Catholics did not accept. The main reason was the valuable property of the church and the income from it. Until 1614 this dispute escalated when the church’s lands were shared. Both denominations were now allowed to hold their services in the church.
The disagreement between Orthodox and Catholics broke out again about who was allowed to hold the first evening church service before and on the central feast day of the Dormition of Mary. In 1767, an order was issued requiring Catholics to build an annex to the church for their worship.
So, they constructed a small room in the southeast of the church with a simple barrel vault. It is accessible through a door in the south wall and has a breakthrough to the sanctuary, where both altars stand.
The diocese moved to the new church in Fira, the capital of the island, in 1827. The possession of the oldest church in Santorini was gradually expropriated after the establishment of the Kingdom of Greece in 1832. From 1850 to 1902, the church sold its remaining property.
A fire in its building in 1915 destroyed most of the books, church documents, and priestly vestments. Fortunately, the icons of the church stayed undamaged.
The earthquake of 1956, which destroyed large parts of Mesa Gonia, caused severe damage to the church building. The reconstruction and a major restoration of the Panagia Episkopi church lasted until 1986.
While the reconstruction works took place in 1982, all 26 wearable icons were stolen and have not been found until this day.
The architecture of Panagia Episkopi church
Panagia Episkopi, the oldest church in Santorini, is a beige-whitewashed cross-domed church with extensions. The central building on the ground represents the plan of a Greek cross with a length of 14 meters and a maximum width of 11.10 meters. It carries a dome in the middle of the building, which is placed on the crossing through a tambour.
The roofs of the oldest church in Santorini are covered with red tiles or plaster. The building has a total of five entrances, two each in the south and north and the main entrance to the west. In the interior of Panagia Episkopi church, there are several larger and smaller rooms because several parts and the bell tower have been added throughout the years, giving the church an acutely angled appearance.
The decoration of Panagia Episkopi church
The interior of the Panagia Episkopi church was decorated with frescoes during its construction. They were covered with plaster in Ottoman times. Unfortunately, moisture destroyed most of them over the centuries. However, some of the frescoes could be uncovered and restored. The frescoes depict various hierarchs, martyrs, and saints, as well as scenes from the life of Jesus and other biblical stories.
On the walls of the interiors, you can find various icon stands lined up. The most famous icon that remains in the oldest church in Santorini is that of Panagia Glykofilousa, which is kept in a particular glass case under controlled conditions on the south side of the central church space. The 12th-century portrait is considered the most valuable icon of the church as it refers to Mary as “Sweet Kissing Madonna.” The icon shows her embracing Jesus, who caresses her chin.
Celebration of Panagia Episkopi church on August 15th
A Great Vespers is held the evening before the Feast. In Santorini, visitors are offered the local Fava and a bowl of very delicious bean soup. All accompanied by local wine, of course. Many faithful come from all over the island to spend their evening close to the Panagia Episkopi church.
The day of the Feast is celebrated with the Divine Liturgy in the morning.
Book one of our Santorini private tours if we have awakened your interest in the oldest church in Santorini. We would love to take you there.
Literature reference: Wikipedia
FAQs for Panagia Episkopi
What is the oldest Byzantine church in Santorini?
The oldest Byzantine church in Santorini is Panagia Episkopi. Built at the foot of Profitis Ilias Mountain in the 12th century, it’s one of the most important places of religious worship on the island.
What does Panagia mean in Greek?
Panagia means “All Holy” or “The Most Holy”. It’s one of the titles given to Holy Mary, the Mother of God, due to the Greeks’ fondness towards her.
What is the oldest building in Santorini?
Akrotiri archaeological site is the oldest ancient settlement in Santorini. Buried under the ash of the explosive volcanic eruption around 1600 BC, its ruins and buildings are well-preserved and worth visiting.
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