London's Oldest Surviving Greek Cathedral Celebrates New Museum Opening

By Siba Matti | 30 November 2006
photo shows church exterior

The outside of the Greek Cathedral is relatively modest, like many Victorian Church of England buildings. But within, every inch is elaborately decorated with dozens of different kinds of marble, and mosaics. Photo: Siba Matti.

For over 200 years, London has been home to a prominent Greek population, and at the heart of the community is the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sophia, on Moscow Road in Bayswater.

Siba Matti went to explore the new museum in the crypt of the church.

A magnificent building designed by John Oldrid Scott (1841-1913) in an elaborate Byzantine style, St Sophia’s was built in 1879 to accommodate the large numbers of Greeks who emigrated to the capital and needed a place of worship.

But more than that, it also gave Greeks a sense of home. Their culture was, and continues to be preserved at Sophia’s with a Greek choir, Byzantine music and dancing lessons, and a Greek children’s school, in which pupils discover the history and language of Greece.

photo shows museum cases with chalices and other objects within

Museum displays. Photo: Siba Matti.

In fact, Greeks feel such an affinity with St Sophia’s that when Greece won the European 2004 Football Championship, hundreds came to celebrate on Moscow Road.

The oldest surviving Greek Church in London, St Sophia’s has long depended on contributions from Greek parishioners. Over the years many iconic objects have been accumulated, and the cathedral is displaying some of the most beautiful in a new museum, thanks to funds donated by the A.G Leventis foundation.

Archaeologist George Manginis, who has worked with the cathedral on the project since 2002, was on hand to act as an informative guide.

The structural work of the museum was completed in August, and since then all the pieces have been painstakingly compiled to produce a small but fascinating exhibition. However, it may be a surprise to some that most of the items were not made in Greece.

“95% of the objects in the museum were made in British workshops, but were commissioned by Greeks, according to very particular specifications- there has been a conscious effort to create a Byzantine style. They all have Victorian London hallmarks so we can date them and they are all unique,” says George.

photo shows gold frame showing biblical characters

An 18th century icon. Photo: Siba Matti

The museum is split into two sections. The upper floor contains objects dating from before St Sophia’s was built, including a magnificent bejeweled gospel book cover and a pearl and garnet encrusted chalice, both gifts from the Ralli family, and two large 19th century candlesticks in a neo-baroque style, donated by the Ionides family.

An 18th century icon set in 19th century gold and Russian cut diamonds is equally as eye-catching. A note beside the icon states:

“My son, this icon is very blessed. I have donated these diamonds so that the Virgin will take care of us. I hope you marry a fair maiden, and have lots of offspring, but if you do not, you have to give this icon to somewhere where it will be respected.”

The son didn’t have any children, and so the icon was passed onto St. Sophia’s. As George says, these are yet more examples of how the cathedral obtained objects- thanks to the generosity of families within the Greek community.

photo shows red stone with inscription in modern greek

The Cathedral's dedication stone - forgotten for many years, it was rediscovered when the crypt was cleared to make space for the museum. Photo: Siba Matti.

When moving down to the lower floor, which is dedicated to the building of the cathedral and the modern day Greek Orthodox Church, you pass a red column that is directly beneath the altar of the cathedral and contains the dedication stone, although George admits that they were not always aware of this, so it was a welcome surprise when they found it.

Downstairs on show is a small collection of 19th century ecclesiastical objects including some intricately woven priests robes, which were restored by the Byzantine Museum in Athens, and also a very grand crown worn by bishops when officiating in the church.

A black and white image of former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, celebrating liturgy with the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Dean of St Sophia is also worth a look. Interestingly, according to George, the large crucifix in the picture (and indeed still hanging in the Cathedral) was featured in the James Bond film, GoldenEye.

George also hopes to include a revolving display section within the museum, and there are also many more donated objects that will be added in the future. It has almost been a snowball effect in terms of the benefactors’ kindness, as George says,

“Once you do something, and when people see it, they are happy to channel their energies towards it. Once people see something is there, they are inspired by it. This is what has happened at the museum.”

photo shows gold coloured bishops robes

Bishops robes. Photo: Siba Matti.

With so many gifts from families, it is clear that this museum represents mutual respect within an incredibly close community that has worked so hard to preserve its culture, beliefs and traditions.

The museum will officially be open to visitors on 19 December, but unfortunately, due to a lack of funds and available volunteers, there are no fixed opening hours. George is hoping to arrange that the museum will be open after the Sunday service from 12.30pm until 2pm, but until that is confirmed, anyone interested in visiting the museum can call (020) 7229 7260 for more information.

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