The Church of Hagios Demetrios, Thessaloniki wood engraving
signed lower right
18 x 20 cm
private collection, Nicosia
sold for 353.55 €
The Church of Hagios Demetrios is the main sanctuary dedicated to Hagios Demetrios, the patron saint of Thessaloniki dating from a time when it was the second largest city of the Byzantine Empire.
The first church was built on the site in the early 4th century AD, replacing a Roman bath. A century later, a prefect named Leontios replaced the small oratory with a larger, three-aisled basilica. Repeatedly damaged by fires, the church was eventually reconstructed as a five-aisled basilica between 629 and 634. This is the surviving church form much as it is today.
The basilica is famous for six extant mosaic panels, dating to the period between the latest reconstruction and the inauguration of the Iconoclastic policies in 730. These mosaics, depicting Hagios Demetrios alongside officials responsible for the church’s restoration together with children, represent rare examples of art surviving from the Dark Age that followed Justinian's death.
Other magnificent mosaics that we know decorated the church interior have been lost, either during the four centuries when it was used as a mosque (1493–1912) or in the Great Thessaloniki Fire of 1917 that destroyed much of the city.
Following the Great Fire of 1917, it took decades to restore the church. Archaeological excavations conducted in the 1930s and 1940s uncovered interesting artefacts that are housed in a museum situated within the church's crypt. The excavations also uncovered the ruins of a Roman bath, where Hagios Demetrios was said to have been held prisoner and executed. A Roman well was also discovered. Scholars believe this is where soldiers left the body of Hagios Demetrios after his execution. After restoration, the church was deconsecrated in 1949.
The church is one of the Palaeochristian and Byzantine Monuments of Thessaloniki and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988.