The oldest church on the island of Santorini is Panagia Episkopi, an ancient Episcopal church from the Middle Byzantine period.
Located in Mesa Gonia at the foot of the mountain, Profitis Ilias, it is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it was founded at the end of the 11th century by Emperor Alexios I Comnenos.
It is a church with an inscribed cross, four columns and a cupola. Inside are preserved wall paintings of excellent quality and a carved wooden temple (iconostasis), decorated using the mastic wax technique.
There are two stories why it was built at the end of the 11th century. The first says that an icon of Panagia repeatedly moved from its place on a nearby hillside chapel only to reappear in a different place. 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 donor of the church because he traveled through all the countryside outside the villages of Gonia and Pyrgos to the church.
After a traditional inscription almost completely destroyed, the church replaced the predecessor of an early Byzantine basilica with three naves in the late 11th and early 12th centuries.
Since 1207 there is a recorded history of this important and historic church. The Venetians expelled the Orthodox bishop from 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 place at Skaros Rock on the cliffs of the caldera.
Then, at the Orthodox altar of the Panagia Episkopi, a Catholic altar was built.
The next conqueror was the Ottoman Empire in 1537, where the island, along with the entire Aegean Sea, was taken over. After that, the Orthodox bishop returned to Santorini and again accepted the church as the episcopal see.
Catholics did not accept this, mainly because of the value of church property and the income derived from it. The dispute escalated until 1614 when church lands were divided and both denominations were allowed to hold their services in the church.
The church is considered the best example of traditional ecclesiastical architecture on the island.
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 case under controlled conditions on the south side of the central space of the church.
The 12th century portrait is considered the church’s most treasured icon as it refers to Mary as “Sweet Kissing Madonna”. The icon shows her embracing Jesus, who caresses her chin.
The church gathers extremely large crowds of locals and visitors on August 15, which is also the feast day of the church.