Notable monuments and artwork in the First Cemetery of Athens

The First Cemetery of Athens is much more than a burial site in the heart of the city; it is rather a home to dozens of monuments. Some actually think of it as the most significant outdoor exhibition of sculptures in Greece. Quite true, as since the 19th century already, the cemetery has been hosting burial monuments that are real masterpieces.

Stepping into the cemetery, you come across the “Sleeping Maiden” created by Yannoulis Chalepas. The work adorns the grave of Sofia Afentaki, daughter of Konstantinos Afentakis, a wealthy merchant at the time. There are many urban legends about the girl’s death, who passed away just at the age of 19, probably due to tuberculosis. One of those myths has it that young Sofia was in love with an Italian tenor, yet her father did not approve of their affair. Just like a modern Juliet, Sofia decided to put an end to her life and poisoned herself.

Not long after having returned from his studies in Munich, young Yannoulis Chalepas was asked by Sofia’s family to create a work of art for her grave. The outcome would mesmerize the entire city, with the Athenians hastening to admire the vivid expression of the face and body of the “Sleeping Maiden”, as subsequently named.

To the right of the entrance, there is the “Mother of the Occupation”, an emaciated female figure made of bronze, lying dead on a rock, with a baby trying to get breastfed from her chest. Although it is not a burial monument, it has been placed there to honor all those women and men who lost their lives to starvation and hardships during occupation years in Athens. This celebrated artwork has been created by Kostas Valsamis, one of the most prominent sculptors of his generation.

Walking along the first meters of the cemetery, look up and admire the grave of Heinrich Schliemann, the german pioneering archeologist, who discovered ancient Troy and Mycenae. The monument was created by german architect Ernst Ziller, creator of some of the most beautiful and impressive neoclassical buildings of Athens, such as the Athenian Trilogy, comprising the Academy, the University and the Library. The work is a copy of a doric order temple, whose basis displays iconic scenes of Iliad and Odyssey, whilst the grave’s sculptures were created by Georgios Xenakis.

One of the greatest burial monuments of Greece looms next to the church of Saint Lazarus. Created by Georgios and Lazaros Fytalis, sculptors of Tinos island, this piece of art is a statute of Michail Tositsas, one of the most pivotal benefactors of the Greek State. This impressive natural-sized statute is placed on an uplifted base, embellished with four female figures, personifications of the cities of Athens, Alexandreia, Metsovo and possibly Thessaloniki, grieving around the urn.

The “Mourning Spirit”, also known as the angel of death, symbol of sorrow and grieving, leaning over the grave and mourning the dead, is also one the most beautiful and astonishing sculptures of the cemetery, decorating the tomb of Koumelis family and created by Ioannis Vitaris, one of the most inspiring sculptors of the 19th century.

Walking around the cemetery, you cannot but admire “Martyrs and Victims” of Giannis Parmakelis, a modern art masterpiece gracing the family tomb of Nikos and Aikaterini Goulandris. An air-floating male figure pays tribute to all those unnamed persons, who at all costs and against all risks, have highly contributed to the evolution of human culture.

The central corridor, connecting Agioi Theodoroi square with Saint Lazarus church, being actually the burial core of the First Cemetery, hosts some of the most historic memorials, including among others, the tombs of the 1821 heroes such as Andreas Metaxas’ of Kefallonia island, who also served as Prime Minister of Greece from 1834 to 1844 or the family tomb of Konstantinos Kanaris, also a Greek Revolution hero and subsequent Prime Minister of Greece. The latter’s tomb is not adorned with elaborate sculptures, classy and simple it merely bears the admiral’s nautical sign. The graves of Emmanouil Xanthos and Odysseas Androutsos also share the same minimalistic approach.

General Makrygiannis’ tomb, on the other hand, is one of the stateliest monuments of this sector. His bust is imposingly placed in front of a mini greek ancient temple. Theodoros Kolokotronis’ cenotaph is also one of the First Cemetery landmarks. The spot where the grand revolution hero used to be buried is now adorned with his bust and his family members are buried there. Just behind, lies Nikitaras’ grave. Actually named Nikitas Stamatelopoulos, this revolution hero had expressed his last wish to be buried next to Theodoros Kolokotronis.

Across you can find one of the most distinct burial monuments. A marble made replica of sarcophagus, belonging to Georgios Glarakis, a physician and politician who, in 1838, recommended the 25th of March as the national annual celebration date of the 1821 Greek Revolution. Along the same corridor, take a look at the grave and bust of philhellene doctor Heinrich Treiber. Revolutionary armatole Georgios Karaiskakis is said to have died on his hands, whereas Heinrich Treiber later proclaimed the death of Ioannis Kapodistrias and took over his mummification.

A visit to the First Cemetery of Athens is a tour along paths of Art and History, narrated by greatly admired sculptures and burial memorials. A landmark of Attica, it is a place of dominating ambiance and lively storytelling about historic and eminent figures of Greece.

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