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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