Mystras – last outpost of Byzantium – churches and frescoes

Here we are in the Lower Town looking down on the complex of the Metropolis (Cathedral), the main church in Mystras.

The entrance courtyard to the Metropolis (Cathedral of Agios Demetrios) is calm and peaceful as we look out of the main gate towards the city. There is a dry fountain in the courtyard built by Metropolitan Chrysanthos in 1802, but the plants and flowers help to give it a cool atmosphere.

This is the biggest church in Mystras and was the seat of the diocese of Lacedaimonia. Over the entrance gate itself is an icon of the martyrdom of Metropolitan Ananias Lambardis who is supposed to have been executed by the Turks in 1760 for plotting with the Russians against them.

The main courtyard is delightful with great views of the Laconian plain. It provides  welcome shade and a cooling breeze in the Greek summer.

Under the portico on the left is an old Roman sarcophagus which is beautifully carved.

One of the challenges of visiting Mystras is that there is such a huge contrast between the blinding light outside and the dark interiors that is takes quite a while for the eyes to adjust and see what’s actually there. It’s also difficult to take good photographs of the interiors and the fabulous mosaics. Another challenge is that you really need several days to take it all in and do it justice, but unfortunately we are just here for one day.

Inside the Metropolis I manage to take a picture of the spot on which the last Emperor of Byzantium, Konstantinos XI Dragases Palaiologos, was crowned on 6 January 1449. It is marked with a carving of the double-headed eagle, the symbol of the Palaiologan Emperors. Four years later he was killed in the fall of Byzantium, though Mystras itself held out until 1460.

I also manage to get a couple of pictures, one of the dome fresco and another of a wall fresco.

The internal columns are engraved with decrees of the Despotate, but unfortunately my pictures are out of focus so I can’t include them here.

Not far from the Metropolis is the small church of the Evangelistria, built at the beginning of the 15th century and used as a mortuary chapel.

Another nearby church, the Church of Agioi Theodoroi, is dedicated to the military saints (St Theodor the General and St Theodor the Recruit) and features some stunning larger than life frescoes on the lower walls, mainly military saints and archangels.

The Hodegetria or Aphentiko was built in 1310 and was named after a monastery in Constantinople.

I see from my Mystras guidebook (translated by William W Phelps and to which I am indebted for numerous useful points of information) that there are some superb frescoes in the Hodegetria and I am sorry that, in my rush to see as much of this wonderful site as I could within the confines of a single day, I missed them!

There are many buildings and streets in Mystras which have not been investigated / restored. In fact people still lived here until the 1950s when the last families in the old Byzantine city were finally moved to Sparti about 3 miles away.

The Monastery of the Pantanassa was founded in 1428 and is still a working monastery with nuns in residence. By this stage unfortunately my wife and I are rushing to see as much as we can before the site closes at 6.00pm, so we were unable to spend much time here. The nuns welcome us, as they do in most places in Greece with “Greek Delight” and show us to a room where their handicraft work is for sale.

Finally, about 5.40 pm we reach the furthermost church from the lower entrance, the Monastery of the Perivlepton. Curiously built into the side of a cliff, it dates from the 1360s and is said to be one of the last great Byzantine churches to have been built.

As we start to wander round inside I greet the guide who, as she realises that we are English, starts to give us a marvellous extempore guide to the church and the frescoes. She ask us to feel the surface of them to make out the holes that the original artists made in the plaster to trace out the design. It feels a bit sacrilegious to touch such works of art, but it certainly makes you feel closer to their makers. She also points out the flowing, graceful nature of the painting, already moving away from the static figures of earlier Byzantine art and perhaps moving closer to the more familiar forms in Renaissance art.

It is a wonderful experience on which to end our visit to this magical place.

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Yasnaya Polyana – Tolstoy’s manor house

So many famous people visited Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana, you can almost hear their ghostly voices talking, arguing, laughing in the lilac-scented air. There are pictures of Chekhov sitting with Tolstoy on one of the front steps and on the wooden veranda at the sie of the house.

The manor house is typical in style of a nineteenth century landowner’s house in central Russia. It looks massive from the outside, but actually most of the rooms are on a very human scale. The use of birch wood throughout gives the house a warm glow.

We enter the house on the left-hand side as you look at it.

The entrance hall itself is quite small and dark. The clock in the hall (not visible in my photographs unfortunately) stands at 6.05, the time at which he died.

Stairs from the hall lead up to the dining room which includes several famous portraits of the writer, including two by Repin. All the furniture and items are original. Tolstoy’s library included 30,000 books, most of which have been retained.

Before she died in 1919, Tolstoy’s wife, Sofia Andreyevna made an inventory of all the items in the house and where they were located. During the Second World War the contents of the house were packed up and shipped to Omsk for storage and then brought back at the end of the war. Her inventory was used to ensure that everything was put back in its place.

In fact Yasnaya Polyana did not escape the ravages of the war, as the Germans occupied it for 45 days and one room was badly damaged by bombing. However, all the rooms have their original flooring.

In his study, his writing desk has been preserved and covered in glass. The chair he used looks quite low in relation to the desk: as he was short-sighted he liked to be close to the paper he was writing on and, as his eyesight got worse, he had the legs sawn shorter.

Behind his desk against the wall is an old black leather sofa – the same sofa that he was actually born on.

On one of the study’s walls are five engravings of angels / religious figures, and the same five engravings are also to be found on a wall in Dostoyevsky’s home in St Petersburg. They happen to have been given to both writers by the same person. The curious fact is that Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, two of the greatest Russian writers of the second half of the nineteenth century, never met. The closest they came to it was when they both attended an overcrowded lecture in St Petersburg in 1878.

Tolstoy and his wife has separate bedrooms, as was the custom in those days. On our visit, Sofia Andreyevna’s is closed ‘for repairs’. Tolstoy’s simple iron bed has a cover embroidered for him by his wife.

There are a couple of smocks that she sewed for him hanging on the wall. Here also hang a shooting stick and a stouter walking stick he used when he broke his foot. Until late in life he remained very fit, lifting weights every morning and doing pull ups on the wardrobe.

In the room where his two secretaries worked there’s an old Remington typewriter and a ‘copy press’ which was used to make copies of letters.

All the post that was addressed to Tolstoy was only opened by him – on average he received about 30 letters a day. On the day he died his wife gave instructions that no more post addressed to him should be opened and there are still a couple of unopened envelopes on display.

On the ground floor is a vaulted room that in earlier times had been used as a food store (in fact you can still see metal rings in the ceiling from which, presumably, meat was hung). It’s in this room that Tolstoy began to write War and Peace, and elsewhere in the house there is a portrait by Repin showing him at work in this very room. His poor, long-suffering wife used to make the fair copies of his manuscripts because his handwriting was so difficult to read and wrote out the manuscript of War and Peace twelve times with all his corrections. It is also said that Sofia Andreyevna used to dress up in the dresses that his female characters wore when he was writing to help him with the accurate description of their clothing.

The final room that is open to visit is the study that Tolstoy used when he was writing Anna Karenina, in fact he wrote the whole novel here. It’s interesting to note that there is a picture of Dickens on the wall, Tolstoy’s favourite writer. It was to here to that his coffin was brought from Astapovo station where he died and people came to pay their last respects to him, filing in from the hall and then on out through the French window.

It was also through the same French window that his coffin was carried out to its final resting place on the estate.

Many manor houses and estates were burnt down and destroyed during the Revolution, but the Bolsheviks stationed a detachment of troops here to protect it from rampaging peasants and in 1921 it was turned into a national museum.

Yasnaya Polyana is such a beautiful and peaceful place that you can understand why Tolstoy loved it. He said that it was like a microcosm of Russia and that he couldn’t exist without it.

Yasnaya Polyana – visiting Tolstoy’s estate

This is one of the loveliest estates I have ever visited. Despite the number of visitors it receives, it is remarkably unspoilt and treated like a place of pilgrimage for many visitors. There are birch trees everywhere and lilac grows in profusion, especially around the manor house itself where the lilac scent is very strong.

Beyond the white and green post of the main entrance is a long drive (known as the preshpekt in Russian), lined with beautiful birch trees, leading towards the manor house itself. The lower park is called the English Park and the upper park the French Park. Walking up the drive there is a big lake off to the left and two old ponds on the right.

The first place we visit is Tolstoy’s grave. Since he was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901, he was not allowed to be buried in the churchyard at Nikolskoye Slovo. The grave is out in the forest surrounding the manor.

The grave itself is very simple and as he wanted it: a stone block with nothing on it to indicate who lies there. Some people have laid small bunches of flowers near it. As a mark of respect we stand there for a while, heads bowed in silence. However, keeping still is a big challenge as there are lots of mosquitoes and they are vicious, even by the standards of Russian mosquitoes.

On the way back we see a strange natural phenomenon where two trees, a birch and a lime, are growing together as if in an embrace.

You get the impression that Yasnaya Polyana is still a working estate, with vegetable gardens. orchards and stables.

The old coachman’s cottage from Tolstoy’s day has been kept and the interior shows what the living conditions would have been like.

The picture above shows an old Russian stove inside the coachman’s cottage with the little wooden ladder leading to a bedspace over it. As this was probably the warmest spot in the cottage it would normally have been reserved for elderly parents to sleep on.

Yasnaya Polyana – on the way to Tolstoy’s estate

We’re on our way to Tolstoy’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana, about 30 minutes drive outside the city of Tula. It’s a hot morning in May and my host, Iosif, has told me that the temperature is likely to get up to 28 degrees today.

One of the things that continually surprises me here is how consistent the weather is. I used to find it strange when Belarusian and Russian visitors complained how changeable British weather is: “When we go out in the morning, it’s warm and the sun is shining. But, Peter, later on it rains and we don’t have a coat. Then the sun comes out again and when we’re going home it starts to snow. We don’t where we are.” Welcome to my world!

Of course Tula is in the middle of a great land mass, unlike Britain whose weather is determined by the surrounding seas and oceans. One of the side effects of being a buffeted little island is that we get amazing cloud formations. I’m very fond of clouds and their ever-changing variety. It never struck me that our Russian friends didn’t seem to have such similar displays – again until they came to England and noticed ours. I told my friend, Vasily, that it is the greatest free art exhibition in the world – a comment that he frequently quotes back to me now that he too has become a cloud watcher.

Our journey has been slightly delayed because our organiser, Natasha (a Russian married to an Englishman), has had problems with her Russian passport. Apparently it had expired, so the authorities wanted to take it away from her. She explained that if they did that and destroyed it, she would not be able to get back into England. The answer is Russian bureaucracy at its most inflexible: fill in this form and stand in a queue in order to appeal to the Head of Department. At this point, Natasha is so upset, she breaks into floods of tears and goes into the Head of Department’s office ahead of the queue, telling him she can’t wait because she’s got a bus full of people waiting for her. Amazingly, he gives her passport back.

On the way to Yasnaya Polyana we make a couple of additional stops. The first is at the railway station at Kozlova Zaseka. In the Middle Ages this was on the borders of the Russian state (Rus) and was a defence point against the Mongol invaders. ‘Kozlova Zaseka’ means ‘Goat’s Abatis’ – an abatis being a ‘defence made of felled trees with the branches pointing outward’ (OED).

This was Tolstoy’s local railway station and the station has been re-built in the old style, by his grateful descendants to look (approximately) as it would have looked in his day. Inside there are pictures of him standing on the platform, no doubt on his way to Moscow, St Petersburg or Oryol (perhaps to visit Turgenev on his estate).

Tolstoy died at Astapovo railway station south-east of here, as he was attempting to flee from his wife. A plaque on the outside of Kozlova Zaseka station commemorates the fact that at 6.30 am on 22 November (9 November Old Style) 1910 a train arrived bearing his body on its way back for the last time to Yasnaya Polyana.

Our second stop is at the church of Nikolskoye Slovo, Yasnaya Polyana’s local church where many of Tolstoy’s family were buried and where he was baptised.

The church has been beautifully restored, though the only original feature in it today is the wood block floor. The inside of the church is quite unremarkable, but I get carried away photographing fresco icons.

I am just taking one of Constantine and Helena when the priest rushes in, tells me to stop and virtually ushers us out into the churchyard. Nearly getting thrown out of Orthodox churches is becoming a bit of an uncomfortable habit.

In the churchyard are the graves of Tolstoy’s wife, Sofia Andreyevna, who died in 1919, their children who died in infancy, his favourite daughter, Masha, his parents (who both died when he was young) and his brothers. Also buried here is the poet Esenin’s wife, who was a Tolstoy.

Tolstoy was brought up by an aunt, Pelageya Iliynichna Yushkova (known as ‘Polina’), also buried here, and there is an interesting story about how that came about. Tolstoy’s father, Nikolai, liked Pelageya very much when he was young and indeed proposed to her and they got engaged. His family however were not at all happy at the proposed marriage as they wanted him to make a good marriage for the sake of the family’s fortune. So, Pelageya released him from the engagement and he married a really wealthy woman instead. Later, when his wife died, Nikolai proposed again to Pelageya and this time she turned him down. No one knew why. After Pelageya’s death a note in French was found amongst her effects which said that Nikolai had proposed to her twice: the first time she had accepted him, the second  she had rejected him, but told him that she would look after his children to the day she died.

I note on Pelageya’s gravestone above that she died in November 1875, but Rosamund Bartlett’s recent biography (Tolstoy – A Russian Life) states that she died on 22 December of that year. A minor discrepancy in an otherwise excellent life of the writer.

Mystras: last outpost of Byzantium – the Palaces of the Despot

The first church we visit is Agia Sofia (originally dedicated to – Christos Zoodotes – Christ the giver of life) in the Upper town. Built between 1350-65 by the Emperor Manuel Cantacuzenos, it was the official church of the palace of the Despot and the burial-place of several Emperors’ wives.

The picture above shows one of the issues encountered at this amazing site: the two ladies chatting under the portico. There are no guides to the architecture and history of the churches or to the frescoes. So we are left to wonder round in admiration but with little understanding of what it is we are looking at. The two ladies, and similar presences at the other churches on the site, seem just to be there as custodians, rather than guides.

However, there are some wonderful frescoes in this church.

From the Upper town you can also look down on the L-shaped Palace of the Despot, currently undergoing major renovation work. It sits on the only natural plateau on the site.

The unroofed building on the right is the first palace that was built either by the Franks or by the first Byzantine military governors of Mystras. The middle section of the right hand wing is the Palace of the Cantacuzenoi, built in the 14th century, and the left hand wing is the Palace of the Palaeologoi, built in the fifteenth century.

The upper floor of the Palace of the Palaeologoi, called the Golden Throne Room, was a huge room for ceremonies, receptions and audiences and had a low bench running round the walls where visitors sat. It was heated by eight fireplaces on the ground floor and was lit by two rows of windows on the inner side, eight large rectangular ones and 8 round ones above them. The large balcony was used by the Despot to address the local people assembled on the plateia in front of the Palace at official gatherings.

The scale of the building work raises a second issue, which seems to be a particular feature of Greek sites: restoration vs rebuilding. When does restoration cross the line and become rebuilding? If you look at earlier pictures of the Palaces before the current work was started, you see that they are all in the same state as the first Palace on the right hand side, ie just shells of buildings with no roof. Judging by the work in hand at Mystras the Cantacuzenoi and Palaeologi Palaces now look like a Russian oligarch’s modest dwelling. In other words they have gone beyond restoration and become completely new buildings. Even if they are built with total respect for historical accuracy, I don’t think it’s authentic. For me it’s almost as bad as the vandalism of Arthur Evans at Knossos.

Right, rant over!