In the sunlit Arcadian plain close to the ancient city of Mantineia in Greece, there’s a church like no other. It’s an astonishing melange of styles, combining elements of Classical, Byzantine and Modern architecture, and yet remaining true to none.
Its construction is the life’s work of architect and iconographer Kostas Papatheodorou, who has delivered an epic display of drama, faith, and devotion that has astonished, as well as divided, ever since.
Born in Chalkida, Greece in 1937, he studied architecture in the Architecture Faculty of TU Berlin, moving on to Vienna and Aachen where he was exposed to Gothic religious architecture, particularly influenced by Erwin Von Steinbach’s work in Strasbourg Cathedral. After completing his studies, in 1967, he returned to Greece, where he worked for the Ministry of Culture, studying further under the architect Dimitris Pikionis. During his tenure there, he was exposed to the idea of building a monumental church on behalf of the Mantineian Association, a cultural group dedicated to the preservation of the antiquities of Ancient Mantineia in the southern region of Peloponnese. Bewildered by the beautiful scenery, the majesty of the ancient site, and the character of local customs, he proposed the design of an extraordinary building that captured the region’s quintessence: a visual link that brings together the Classical, Byzantine and Modern traditions of Arcadia.
Papatheodorou resigned his public service role in 1970 to dedicate himself to the project, which eventually became a lifelong commitment. No formal contract was drawn: funding was scarce, mostly based on charity grants and donations from locals and members of the Mantineian Association. Driven by an almost divine inspiration, Papatheodorou moved on location for the first few months of the project, living in a tent pitched next to the site. This way, he could absorb the spirit of the locality, and focus on the formative stages of the project unhindered. He was often seen roaming construction sites and recycling centres in nearby towns, gathering reject materials: cornerstones from demolished townhouses, leftover marble slab fragments, or broken clay tiles from old roofs. He worked mostly alone, collecting, measuring, chiselling the materials, shaping and piecing the fragments together into an astonishing monument that soon began taking shape. His only help was unskilled manual labour provided by local farmhands. The Classical and Byzantine parts and techniques merge into one another on the walls and bell towers of the church, creating a visual disruption that expresses the forward motion of mankind – as one era blends into another, leaving its indelible mark at the seams of history. The church becomes a visual representation of the area’s disparate yet interlinked memories, converging through the aeons to create a homogeneous body of local culture.
The main structure was completed by 1974, then the interior work began. Inside the church, we see the expression of the architect as an iconographer: The concept of stylistic variety continues, with sequences of religious and pagan themes combining on the mosaics and wall paintings. Classical symbolism such as meanders, pastoral or hunting scenes abound, and figures in ancient togas blend with Christian saints dressed in modern attire, such as jeans and t-shirts. It was too much for a portion of local clergy, who began raising eyebrows: certain offending visuals are then amended to avert the church being characterised as inappropriate for consecration. Conservative circles begin to gossip Papatheodorou, accusing him of irreverence and idolatry. Some others allege that he has unlawfully appropriated materials from the ruined temples and shrines of Ancient Mantineia to incorporate in his church.
But those who recognised and appreciated his work also lend their support – they are architects, archaeologists, and museum or art curators: their sympathy underlines the multidisciplinary reach of his work. The famous Greek painter Yiannis Tsarouchis described the church vividly as fresh water for those in thirst: “When I saw the church, I felt the elation one feels when a justified complaint is suppressed. I’ve heard people characterise Kostas Papatheodorou as an “aping architect”. What I found at the church, however, was a genuine heartbreak, a desperate confession. In our age of fake moralism and ludicrous rationalism, these rare qualities become as important as a vein of fresh water during drought”
The next few years saw the construction of two ancillary buildings, a miniature Classical shrine dedicated to local war heroes, and a fountain with a circular colonnade, representing the biblical fable of Jacob’s Well. The Church is considered work in progress to this day. Some contemporary critics stated that the Church of Agia Foteini of Mantineia is the Greek Sagrada Familia. This may be a somewhat flattering, even inflammatory characterisation for some. There are parallels, however, between the work of Antonio Gaudi and Kostas Papatheodorou. Both churches are considered incomplete, to begin with. Both architects deployed their proficiency in a number of related disciplines, incorporating these in their design: it was ceramics and wrought ironwork for Gaudi, it’s iconography and mosaics for Papatheodorou. Gaudi pioneered the use of trencadís, his famous mosaics made of reject materials, broken tiles, shards of glass, china or shells. Papatheodorou employed a similar technique by fashioning reject materials – such as stones and tiles – as found into walls, towers and mosaics. Last, both architects are inspired by Gothic religious architecture, and they are driven and inspired by their faith – which leads them to wholly devote their lives in their work. Agia Foteini of Mantineia might not have the scale or monumental appeal of the Sagrada Familia. It is however an equally unique spiritual monument, and an important symbol of the historic, cultural and religious ties that bind the people of Arcadia together.
- Some story lines and photos in this article first appeared at LIFO in 2015
- a version of this article appeared on Architectuul’s Forgotten Masterpieces #37 in July 2020
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