Mosaics and Greeks in Moscow Road

THE SYNAGOGUE IN Bayswater’s St Petersburg Place, a gothic revival edifice, looks no more exotic or out of place than the Victorian gothic Church of St Matthew built 1881-82 on the same street. In fact, it is another building to the north of these two that is unashamedly exotic in appearance: Aghia Sofia (Saint Sophia), the Greek Orthodox cathedral on Moscow Road. This domed building constructed for a community of prosperous Greek merchants was designed by John Oldrid Scott (1841-1913 and completed in 1877.

The first Greeks began arriving in London at the end of the 17th century. By the late 19th century (according to the website http://www.stsophia.org.uk), members of the Greek community in London:

“… were distinguished for their industry and their business acumen, and … soon became for the most part financially independent. They now wished to enjoy a more comfortable life, both for themselves and their families. They kept their offices in the City, but took up their private residences in other parts of London. The favourite districts were Lancaster Gate and Bayswater. These districts, which today are almost in the centre of the unending metropolis, were then only on its fringe, and to go from the City to Hyde Park, for instance, was considered a long excursion, which was undertaken, normally, only on holidays, as a relaxation and in order to enjoy the fresh country air.

After three decades had passed from the founding of the Church of Our Saviour [in the City near London Wall], no one any longer had his private residence in the City; and whereas previously all had lived within a very short distance of the Church, now five whole miles divided the Church from the residential district of the faithful.

For the men, in particular, who had every day to make the journey to the City, a tiring one with the means of transport then available, it was hard to undergo the same fatigue on Sundays also, when they were supposed not only to perform their religious duties, but also to rest from the labours of the week. Moreover, the number of the Greeks had greatly increased, and there was scarcely room for them all in the Church then existing. These various difficulties made it imperatively necessary to build a new larger Church, situated closer to the residences of the Brothers.”

Just as the Jewish people, who had also settled in Bayswater, far from the older synagogues in the City and established a new one near their new homes, the Greeks did the same. Moscow Road’s St Sophia’s church interior is filled with icons and other religious paintings is colourful and attractive. Instead of frescos on the walls, which were believed to be at risk of damage from London’s damp climate, the church’s interior is lined with mosaics. Some of the earliest of these were designed by Arthur George Walker (1861-1939). In 1926, the Russian born mosaic artist Boris Vasilyevich Anrep (1883-1969) created some more mosaics for the cathedral. The marble floor of the edifice is also attractive.

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