An important site really worth visiting on Santorini, not only for the faithful in the Orthodox religion, is the oldest church of the island: Panagia Episkopi, a former bishop's church from the Middle Byzantine period.
One can find this church in Mesa Gonia on the foot of the mountain, Profitis Ilias. The church is dedicated to Panagia ('All Saints'), a Greek Orthodox name for Holy Mary, the epithet means 'related to a bishop'. Panagia Episkopi was the seat of the Orthodox diocese of Santorini until 1207 and from 1537 to 1827.
There are two stories to why it was built at the end of the 11th century. The first is a myth which says that an icon of Panagia repeatedly moved from its place on a hillside chapel close by to appear again in a different place. The locals understood this as a sign to build a new church for the icon.
Another legend says that the Emperor Alexius I Komnenos was the donator of the church because he passed by on the entire countryside outside the villages of Gonia and Pyrgos to the church. After a traditional, almost completely destroyed inscription, the church replaced the predecessor of a three-aisled early Byzantine basilica at the end of the 11th and the beginning of the 12th century.
Since 1207, we can follow recorded history of this magnificent little church. Back then, Santorini became part of the dominated by Republic of Venice Duchy of Archipelago in the wake of the Fourth Crusade. The Venetians expelled the Orthodox bishop off the island and appointed a Latin bishop. The church was called Panagia Episkopi, 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 and accepted the church again as his episcopal seat. The Catholics did not accept this, mainly because of the valuable property of the church and the income from it. The dispute escalated until 1614 when the church’s lands were shared and both denominations were 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, a small room was built 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 bishopric moved to the new church in Fira, the capital of the island, in 1827 and after the establishment of the Kingdom of Greece in 1832, the possession of the church was gradually expropriated. From 1850 to 1902, the church sold her remaining property.
A fire in the building of Panagia Episkopi 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 large parts of Mesa Gonia were destroyed, caused serious damage to the church building. The reconstruction and a fundamental restoration of the Panagia Episkopi lasted until 1986.
While the reconstraction works took place, in 1982, all 26 wearable icons were stolen and have not been found until this day.
The Panagia Episkopi is a beige whitewashed cross-domed church with extensions. The central building on the ground represent 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 by means of a tambour. The roofs of the church are covered with red tiles or simply plastered. 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 there are several larger and smaller rooms because several parts and the bell tower have been added throughout the years, giving the church a very angled appearance.
The interior of the Panagia Episkopi 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, various icon stands are lined up. The most famous icon that remained in the church is that of Panagia Glykofilousa, which is kept in a special 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.
Literature reference: Wikipedia