The Byzantine Church of Panagia Drosiani on Naxos

Right next to the road between the villages of Moni and Khalki on the island of Naxos and in among the olive groves stands this little church, said to be one of the oldest in the Balkans and one of the most revered churches in Greece. It seems incredible, but the oldest part of the church dates back probably to the 6th century, though the little guide to the church claims it dates from the 4th century. Dedicated to the Panagia (Our Lady) Drosiani (the one who cools), it is the only remnant of an old monastery, perhaps giving the village of Moni its name (Moni in Greek means monastery).

Architecturally, the church was built and added to over the course of about a thousand years. The oldest part is the area consisting of the apse, the sanctuary, the iconostasis and the top part of the nave. On the northern side of the church are what look like three side chapels set at an angle to the nave, probably from the 7th century. The main body of the church, the nave, dates from the 12th-14th century.

Here’s a view of the church looking towards the iconostasis and apse:

Marble iconostases, like the one here, at this early stage in the development of Byzantine church architecture were generally low, as was the original one in Haghia Sofia. It was only later that it was raised in height to obscure the view of the sanctuary from the laity.

The church is famous for a miracle-working icon of the Mother of God which is said to perspire whenever the village is at threat. I have to confess I didn’t pay much attention to it in my eagerness to look at the frescoes.

The area around the apse and sanctuary are the only part that has frescoes. What makes them so special is that they date from the period before Iconoclasm (between the early 8th and mid 9th centuries) when the Byzantium turned against the making of images. Not only that, they destroyed many existing ones; very few frescoes or icons survived. Notable examples can be found at St Catherine’s Monastery on Mt Sinai, one of the oldest monasteries in the world. But it is remarkable that this church on Naxos pre-Iconoclasm frescoes. Perhaps its isolation and distance from Constantinople enabled it to preserve them.

On either side of the top of the nave facing each other are frescoes of the military saints on horseback, St George here:

and St Demetrios:

The tympanum of the apse has a seated Christ surrounded by angels that is really hard to make out and certainly too faint to photograph (even for me).

In the sanctuary there is a beautiful Virgin holding the infant Jesus in a circle in her breast, called the Nikopoios type in Greek (meaning Victory-making):

On either side of the Virgin are roundels of the healing saints, Kosmas and Damian:

In the space beneath the apse depiction of the Virgin, it is customary to depict four saints, usually the Three Hierarchs, the great teachers of the Orthodox Church (Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory the Theologian and St John Chrysostom), plus usually in Greece, St Nicholas. In this case, there is an unusual selection.

In the centre is Christ standing on a footstool:

To the left of Christ are the Virgin also standing on a footstool, with hands held out in supplication:

and next to her is what the guidebook says is Solomon holding a cross, a really strange choice. To me he looks more like a Byzantine Emperor: his imperial purple clothes are studded with pearls and he wears a pearl-encrusted crown. I don’t know how to explain the halo though. To the right of Christ is the figure of St John the Baptist and next to Christ what looks to me like a Byzantine Empress (not a female saint as the guidebook says) with a pearl and jewel-encrusted crown and pearl pendilia (pendants hanging down from the crown). Maybe she is the companion of the Emperor depicted on the left. Could they be Justinian and Theodora or Constantine and Helena?

In the dome are two very badly damaged portraits of Christ, symbolising the human and divine natures of Christ:

On one of the arches are inscriptions referring to the donors who paid for the church to be built:

The arches also have damaged full length depictions of saints, most unidentifiable, such as this female saint with a bag of healing medicines:

and this one:

This is the Holy Martyr Julian in a very badly damaged fresco:

On the north wall are these two striking head fragments:

On the south wall is a very naïve depiction of the Mother of God, looking cross-eyed:

On the north and south walls under the frescoes of SS George and Demetrios are red crosses that looks as though they may date back to the time of Iconoclasm:

Of the three side chapels, one was used as an ossuary and one as a ‘secret’ school, a church school that taught Greek to local children during Ottoman rule. The Ottomans though had a light presence on the island and left the Venetians to administer it, so it may be that this is a piece of myth-making.

I had asked the old lady guardian if I could take photographs inside the church and she quite willingly me agreed to let me do it. However, as I got to the end of shooting the frescoes, I suddenly heard her shout at me ‘Stop!’ in a very angry voice. Of course, I stopped taking photographs, but I couldn’t understand why she had suddenly turned against me.

A very old olive tree near the entrance gate to the church:

Finally, a view of the church of the Panagia Drosiani at the bottom of the valley with Mt Fanari in the background:

A pilgrimage to the Byzantine monastery of Osios Loukas – part 3: the Church of the Panagia and a look around the grounds

This is the third and final post in my series on this monastery. You can find the first post here and the second one here.

The Panagia is the oldest of the two main churches, built in the second half of the 10th century. It was probably decorated with frescoes, but hardly anything remains and with its plain stone walls it feels a bit of an anticlimax after the magnificence of the katholikon.

In the exhibition room next to the Panagia Church in addition to Osios Loukas’s cell there is a space between the floors that was used either as a ‘hidden school’ to teach children to read and write Greek or to hide them from the Paidomazoma (Tur: Devshirme) during Ottoman rule in Greece. Paidomazoma was the Ottoman practice of kidnapping Christian boys to recruit soldiers and bureaucrats to the Sultan’s service.

Here are some more views of the monastery’s buildings:

These wonderful arches form a series of flying buttresses between the katholikon and the old refectory:

Here’s the rear of the katholikon (on the left) and the rear of the Church of the Panagia (right):

The dome of the katholikon behind the drum of the Panagia:

Drum of the Panagia:

The original monastery entrance gate:

Exterior of the Panagia church:

An old outbuilding:

The monastery’s ancient cistern:

A quite corner in the grounds:

Cannot resist a good door:

Finally on the terrace in front of the monastery there is a monument to Archbishop Isaïas Salomon who with his brother Gaga-Giannis died fighting the Turks at Khalomata on 23 April 1821 (ie at the start of the Greek Revolution against Ottoman rule). In this monastery, which the monument refers to as the base of the Revolution, he also blessed the weapons of the revolutionary fighters.

Osios Loukas is a beautiful place: it has an aura of calm and peace from the concentrated prayers and meditation of all the monks who have lived and worshipped here over the past 1,000 years.

Ravenna – the Church of San Vitale

The Church of San Vitale, right next to the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia that I blogged about in my last post, has some of the most famous mosaics in Ravenna, its depictions of Justinian and Theodora frequently featuring in books about Byzantium.

The church is dedicated to a local saint, St Vitalis, allegedly martyred on this very spot by being thrown into a well. Building started in 525 AD under Bishop Ecclesius and it was consecrated in 546/7 by Bishop Maximianus. Both bishops feature prominently in its mosaics. The work was part funded by a Ravenna goldsmith called Julianus: judging by the size of the church and craftsmanship of the mosaics he must have been fabulously wealthy. It was also a project with Byzantine Imperial support designed to make a political and religious statement. It emphasised the restoration of Imperial control over Italy, finally secured by Justinian in 553, and the triumph of Orthodoxy over the Arianism of the Goths, whom Justinian defeated.

On entering this octagonal-shaped church, the first big surprise is that only the apse and the part of the nave nearest the altar are decorated with mosaics. The rest of the church is either plain or decorated with eighteenth century frescoes totally outclassed by the original mosaics. It gives the church an unfinished look as if the sponsors ran out of money part way through the building work. As I approached the altar, I was overwhelmed by the rich colours of the stunning mosaics: golds, reds, greens and blues.

In the tympanum of the apse is a wonderful mosaic of Christ Pantokrator. Above it are two angels holding what looks like a Chi Rho, symbolising both Christ’s resurrection and Byzantine Imperial power. On either side of the angels are walled cities, Jerusalem on the left and Bethlehem on the right.

A clean shaven Christ in Imperial purple robes is seated on a throne with the earth as his footstool, holding the gospels. Two archangels stand on either side of him and in his right hand he holds out a martyr’s crown to St Vitalis whose outstretched hands are covered as a sign of respect to receive it:

I love the little detail of the coloured feathery clouds over their heads.  To Christ’s left stands Bishops Eclesius of Ravenna, the initiator of the building, offering a model of this church to him:

In the dome above the apse is the lamb (looking a bit like a horse) of God in a roundel supported by four archangels standing on globes against a background of animal and vegetal motifs.

On either side of the apse are scenes from the Old Testament and depictions of the Prophets:

The detail and richness of the decoration is stunning, as in this shot of the upper ambulatory, the gallery where women were allowed to worship. This also features the shell motif that occurs throughout the church notably, as I will describe later, in the depiction of the Empress Theodora.

Here is the simple marble altar table, with rather horse-like sheep again on either side of the cross.

Behind the altar and set into the wall of the apse is a marble seat meant presumably for the bishop.

Lining the walls of the apse behind the altar are these wonderful marble and porphyry revetments that remind me of Haghia Sophia that was being built at around the same time. Perhaps they shared the same craftsmen.

There are many similar marble revetments around the church’s walls, some looking like stone Rorschach tests:

So to the Imperial mosaic panels themselves, quite difficult to see and photograph straight on owing to their position and the fact that entrance to the apse is roped off. First, here’s the Justinian panel:

Justinian is flanked on either side by the two great powers and supports of his reign, the church and the army. On his left are representatives of the Church, including in the most prominent position, Maximianus, Bishop of Ravenna, holding a jewelled cross. Next to him are two priests, one carrying a gold and jewel-encrusted gospel book and the other a censer:

Justinian’s body seems to hover in the air (more evident when you are actually looking at the mosaics rather than at these photographs), indicating his status as Emperor and also as God’s representative on earth. To his right are two high ranking courtiers and a group of soldiers carrying spears and shields:

The Emperor is wearing Imperial purple robes, crown, pearl pendilia, an elaborate tunic fastening on his right shoulder and he is carrying an offertory basket. His realistically depicted face is solemn and his eyes, like that of all the figures in the mosaic, stare out like those in icons, as if fixed on eternity.

On the opposite wall is the mosaic of Justinian’s wife, the Empress Theodora:

She too is flanked by two groups of attendants, on her left a group of noble female courtiers distinguished by the rich variety of the designs of their dresses:

On her right are two courtiers, one of whom is mysteriously pushing back a curtain onto a pitch black scene. In front of the curtain is a fountain, symbolising eternal life:

The Empress wears a lavish Imperial crown with pendilia and a pearl necklace. Above her is that shell motif again. Often the shell symbolises death, a motif that figures on grave steles for example, and some have seen a hint in it of Theodora’s death. She died, however in 548, a year after the consecration of San Vitale, so that does not quite fit. As with the figure of Justinian, the Empress seems to float slightly above her followers, but noticeably not as much as her husband. The hem of her purple cloak carries a depiction of the Three Kings, picked out in white and gold, bearing their gifts to offer to the infant Christ.

It is interesting that Justinian and Theodora are both depicted with haloes, though they were not made Orthodox saints until much later.

The floor has some interesting Roman mosaics:

And in front of the altar area is a very interesting marble labyrinth floor, complete with directional arrows that must surely be medieval.Another marble design on the floor reminds me a bit of one in Haghia Sophia which indicated the position of the Emperor’s throne:

Finally on matters flooring related, here are some repetitions of the shell motif:

One oddity of this church is this huge baptismal pool on the side opposite the apse:

Under the central octagonal dome is this monstrous eighteenth century Baroque painting, looking completely out of place:

and here are some of the arches of the ambulatory beneath the octagonal dome:

Finally there are several stone sarcophagi inside the church with interesting iconography:

A side panel of the sarcophagus above shows Christ raising Lazarus:

This one shows the Three Kings again offering their gifts to Mary and the infant Jesus.

I am not sure what this end panel depicts: Daniel in the lions’ den?

This was undoubtedly the highlight of my trip to Ravenna and one of the most interesting Byzantine sites I have visited. It is a remarkable church containing some of the highest quality mosaics I have ever seen. I can see why they are endlessly reproduced.


The Church of the Holy Saviour in the Chora – part 3

The third main theme of the mosaics in the Chora is the life of Christ.

Here John the Forerunner bears witness to Jesus before baptising him in the river Jordan:

Then there are a series of miracles, starting with the miracle at Canaa:

The miracle of the loaves and fishes:

Healing the mother-in-law of St Peter:

Curing the blind:

Healing the halt and the lame:

Curing the young man with the withered arm:

Over the entrance door to the inner narthex is a wonderful mosaic of Christ Pantokrator:

In the inner narthex itself there is a huge Deesis depicting Christ Pantokrator

and the Mother of God. Below the Mother of God kneels the figure of Isaac Komnenos, son of the Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, who extensively re-built the Chora in the twelfth century.

Kneeling to the right of Christ Pantocrator is the figure of Melani Komnenos, though I haven’t been able to discover why she is depicted in this particular mosaic:

The Chora - Deesis - Melanie Komnenos

Finally in this cycle are two of my favourite frescoes in the Parecclesion (a place of burial) of the Chora, and possibly also in Byzantine art. The first is in the semi dome over the apse and is a wonderful depiction of the Resurrection of the Dead, with Christ trampling down the gates of hell and raising Adam and Eve from their tombs. It is simply jaw-droppingly beautiful:

The second is in a vault of the Parecclesion and shows the Last Judgement:

Christ is surrounded by angels and saints. Above him an angel rolls up the skies (the snail-like object) containing the sun, moon and stars. Beneath Christ a throne for the Second Coming has been prepared: Adam and Eve bow down before it to ask forgiveness for the sins of mankind. And beneath that scene two angels weigh the sins and good deeds of the souls of the dead: sinners are sent to hell (the fiery area to the bottom right) and the righteous are sent to paradise on the left.

Between the two frescoes is a depiction of the Archangel Gabriel:

In a separate fresco, St Peter is shown opening the door to paradise for the crowd of the righteous. The rather surreal figure in the doorway is supposed to be a cherub guarding the gate.The repentant thief, who was crucified with Christ, is on the right (holding a cross) and escorting the righteous into paradise. Two angels stand on either side of the enthroned Mother of God.

In my final post on the Chora, I will include some of the other rich decorations that make this such an extraordinary Byzantine church.

The Church of the Holy Saviour in the Chora – part 2

The second main theme of the Chora church is the life of the Theotokos. The scenes depicted in these mosaics are based on the life of the Mother of God contained in the apocryphal Gospel of St James. Most of this is unfamiliar territory, though it fed through into Renaissance iconography. Here are some examples of this theme illustrated in the Chora.

Zechariah rejects the sacrifice of Joachim and Anna (the parents of the Mother of God) who long for a child though Anna is barren and unable to bear a child:

Joachim spends 40 days and nights fasting and praying in the wilderness:

An angel brings the good news to Anna about the birth of a child: I love the combination of the everyday (Anna about to draw water from the well) and the transcendent; the movement implied by her robe and her foot as she steps onto the area surrounding the well, as she suddenly freezes: and the surprise on her face as she looks over her shoulder and sees the angel.

The birth of Mary:

Zechariah entrusts Mary to Joseph who has been recognised by the fact that his staff has turned green:

The Annunciation: I love the setting of this mosaic, with the elaborate buildings behind and the garden with its trees and fountain. I wonder whether the inclusion here of the running fountain is a reference to the curious Greek icon of Mary as the life-giving spring (zoodokhos pigy).

Joseph’s dream:

The Nativity – Mary is shown as giving birth in a cave (an Orthodox tradition), rather than a stable, whilst Joseph is deep in thought and the angel announces the news of the birth to the shepherds:

The Census – Mary stands before Quirinius, Governor of Judaea, and remains silent when she is asked who is the father of her child, whilst Joseph steps forward.

The Magi arrive on horseback and ask Herod where they can find the king of the Jews:

The Massacre of the Innocents – Elizabeth, holding the baby John the Forerunner, escapes from a Roman soldier by hiding in a cave:

The holy family visit Jerusalem during the Passover. Interestingly, Christ in the centre of the mosaic, is depicted as beardless:

The final mosaic in the cycle is the Dormition of the Theotokos, one of the very few mosaics left in the nave of the church:

The Church of the Holy Saviour in the Chora – part 1

The Church of the Holy Saviour in the Chora (“the countryside”) is one of the most remarkable Byzantine churches I have ever visited. It’s about a 20 minute bus ride from the old centre of Istanbul and not far from the Theodosian city walls. From the outside it looks rather dull, but inside it has some beautiful, well preserved mosaics and frescoes of the late Byzantine period.

After the fall of Byzantium the Church was turned into a mosque and is now known as the Kariye Museum.

A church has stood on this site since before the sixth century and may have been built in a cemetery where Babylas, a Christian saint, and his followers had been buried. Under Justinian I a monastery was built on the site and destroyed in an earthquake in 557. It was re-built and gradually fell into obscurity until re-discovered in the twelfth century by the Imperial Court which had relocated to the nearby Blachernae Palace. However, it was pillaged following the Latin occupation in 1204 and lays in ruins until its restoration was taken up as a project by Theodoros Metochites in the early 13th century.

Metochites, born in Nicaea in 1270, was brought to Constantinople by the Emperor Andonikos II as one of the bright people he recruited to his court. Eventually he rose in the imperial service to become Grand Logothete, Chief Treasurer of the Empire, and used some of the wealth he accumulated from his position on restoring and decorating the Chora church between 1315-21. However, when Andronikos II was overthrown by his grandson, Andronikos III in 1328, Metochites fell too, losing all his property and wealth. He was sent into exile, but in 1330 he was allowed to return to Constantinople and become a monk at the Chora where he died in 1332.

He was a man of some education and refinement with an interest in mathematics, philosophy, astronomy and literature and was himself a poet.

Metochites described the purpose of the restoration and decoration of the Chora as retelling how ‘the Lord himself became a mortal on our behalf”. The main themes of the mosaics are: the genealogy of Christ, his Infancy and Ministry, and the life of the Theotokos.

The north dome of the inner narthex depicts Christ and beneath him in the flutes, his ancestors from Adam to Jacob and below that the 12 sons of Jacob.

The north dome of the inner narthex features the Theotokos with the infant Christ, with the kings of the House of David in the first row and other ancestors of Christ in the second row.

As you can see, the colours on the frescoes are stunning and very well-preserved. I find it curious that the faces of the figures in the row beneath the Theotokos are pretty much identical. I can’t work out whether this was intended to demonstrate family likeness or is just lack of effort by the artist. The other thing that strikes me is the variety and complexity of the floral decoration on the ribs between the figures – and indeed this richness of floral ornamentation is evident in other parts of the Chora too.

And then they came to the holy city of Byzantium – Haghia Sophia 3

A ramp takes you from the ground floor of Haghia Sophia to the west gallery on the upper floor. I find this part of the building very atmospheric and it’s easy to imagine the conquerors of Constantinople in 1453 swarming up the ramp to explore the upper reaches of the church.

The galleries were for the use of the Empress and women of the court: the west gallery is spacious and light after the dim light of the lower floor and ramp.

Looking down from the gallery into the body of the church I am reminded of the view from the upper floor of St Mark’s in Venice, one of the most Byzantine of western churches. From up here it is easier to get a sense of the scale of the church and the great space of the nave.

The huge wooden roundels were only added in 1821 by the Fossati brothers and display in Arabic calligraphy the names of Allah, Mohammed, the first four caliphs and the prophet’s martyred grandsons, Hasan and Hussein.

Originally the church had a silver iconostasis which would have stood in front of the apse. It is sad to think that it was in this great space in 1054 that Cardinal Humbert excommunicated the Emperor Michael I Cerularius and was in turn excommunicated. This marked the beginning of the Great Schism between the eastern and western wings of the churches that has lasted to this day.

Islamic windows in the apse:

You also get a closer view up here of the extraordinary mosaic of the Mother of God in the apse. This mosaic was inaugurated in 867 by Patriarch Photius and Emperors Michael III and Basil I. The gold background of the mosaic dates back to the sixth century.

The entrance to the south gallery through a marble doorway called the Gates of Heaven and Hell, though exactly what function they served is not known.

On the north side in the space between the ground floor arches and the clerestory are mosaics of saints, including St John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople and Ignatios Theoforos, Patriarch of Constantinople. I find it surprising that these apparently survived intact – perhaps they have been restored or perhaps they were sufficiently out of sight not to be an offence to the Ottomans at worship.

One curious feature in the north gallery is a piece of Viking rune graffiti from the ninth century scratched into the balustrade (apologies in advance for the quality of the photograph). It would be interesting to know what the graffiti says and I wonder what these visitors from distant Scandinavia (possibly part of the emperor’s Varangian guard) made of Haghia Sophia and the religious services they witnessed here.

After the fall of Constantinople, the Ottomans covered over many of the mosaics in Haghia Sophia with plaster. Just past the Gates of Heaven and Hell you come across the first of three mosaics, the Deesis (Entreaty) mosaic depicting the Theotokos and John the Forerunner (John the Baptist) interceding with a powerful Christ Pantocrator (Ruler of the Universe) for mercy for humanity on the Day of Judgement. So much of this mosaic has been lost that it is fortunate that these three beautifully realised figures survive, though to my eye the colours have been over-restored. The mosaic dates from 1267 and probably marks the end of the Frankish occupation of Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade and its return to use as an Orthodox church after being used as a Roman Catholic cathedral.

The lower part of the mosaic is badly damaged, but a picture to the side gives an idea of what the original mosaic would have looked like.

Opposite this wonderful mosaic is a marker on the floor indicating the location of the tomb of Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice who led the Fourth Crusade in 1204 that was responsible for the sacking of Byzantium.

From an open window there is suddenly a clear view across the domes of the church towards the Blue Mosque.

At the end of the south gallery are two further mosaics. The first shows the Mother of God holding Christ, with Emperor John II Comnenus on the left and Empress Irene on the right:

On an adjacent column, as if extending the mosaic round the corner, is their son, Alexius Comnenus:

The second is a mosaic of Christ with Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and Empress Zoe:

In the baptistery there is a huge stone basin with steps for total immersion baptism and several interesting pottery containers, including this one;

Leaving the church through south-west exit and just before the Vestibule of the Warriors,  where the emperor’s guard waited for him when he went to services, there is a mosaic (probably tenth century) which was only discovered in the middle on the nineteenth century. On the left Emperor Justinian I presents a model of Haghia Sophia to the Theotokos and Christ and on the right Emperor Constantine presents a model of Constantinople.

My favourite mosaic is the Deesis and particularly the powerful image of Christ.

The asymmetry of the eyes reminds me of the sixth century panel icon on Christ Pantocrator at St Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai.

And then they came to the holy city of Byzantium – Haghia Sophia 2

The Imperial Doors are massive and must have required a lot of effort to open and close. They also must have been difficult to break through. I would like to think they are original, but I don’t think they can possibly be 6th century. Looking through the Doors in this picture you can also see the marble panels, particularly the pink striated ones, which are also a feature of the inside of the church.

As I step through the Imperial Doors I am immediately struck by the sheer size of the building and its spaciousness which the pictures don’t really convey very well.

Walking into the middle of the I look up at the huge dome which is simply staggeringly beautiful. It stands at 184 feet high and it’s a marvel to see how such a structure hangs in the air without any internal supporting columns, creating such a huge open space.

The figures in the squinches are interesting: to me they look like representations of the Holy Spirit but according to my guidebook they depict the Seraphim.


There are further examples of the simple cross used to cover over depictions of sacred figures during the periods of Iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th centuries, such as this one:

There are also numerous examples where these Iconoclast crosses have been altered to incorporate them into a more geometric pattern.

I assume these changes were made after the Ottoman capture of Byzantium, perhaps because the image of the cross was perceived as more offensive to Islamic sensibilities. All the same it is curious that not all such crosses in Haghia Sophia have been altered in this way.

In the apse is a magnificent mosaic of the Mother of God with Christ.

In the apse is also a fragment of a mosaic of the Archangel Gabriel:

There is an unbelievable richness in the detail of the decoration:

Curiously reminiscent of the depiction of Christ through the image of an empty throne in the very earliest icons, there are two empty spaces on the ground floor of Haghia Sophia. The site where the Emperors were crowned:

And finally on this floor the site of the Patriarch’s Chair:

Sic transit gloria mundi…

And then they came to the holy city of Byzantium – Haghia Sophia 1

Haghia Sophia is one of those places, like Russia, that I had long known about, often dreamt of visiting and was afraid might ultimately disappoint. I should not have worried: the reality is better than I had expected.

The first thing that strikes you from the outside is the size of the building, its height and bulk, the sheer size of its dome. If it hits you today, what must it have been like in the sixth century when it was first built? Overpowering, awe-inspiring, a fitting place to worship a god. It was the largest church in Christendom until the Renaissance.

The massive buttressing over the main entrance shows how the walls have had to be reinforced to support the weight of the huge dome.

Scattered around what was the churchyard are old tombs and stone pillars from the Byzantine period, a sad reminder of its imperial past.

The current Haghia Sophia is the third church built on this site. The first one dates from the 4th century.  A second one, dedicated in 415 AD, was destroyed by fire in 532 AD and is represented by a fragment of a frieze in front of the main entrance to the church. The current Haghia Sophia was dedicated by Justinian in 537 AD.

The main entrance door with its high and wide frame, and the thickness of the outer walls give an indication of the vast scale of the building.

Just inside the main entrance is the outer narthex, an entrance or lobby area. Today it is a museum of items from the Byzantine era, a porphyry stand, the tomb of an express, a huge stone bowl, Greek inscriptions, as well as explanatory boards about the church.

From the outer narthex you get a view through the Imperial Gates through into the body of the church itself.

Originally the Imperial Gates were only allowed to be used by the Emperor and his entourage and were guarded 24 hours a day. In the tympanum over the Imperial Gates is a mosaic from the late 9th / early 10th century showing an emperor (possibly Leo VI (the Wise)) kneeling beside Christ

Interestingly in another tympanum in the inner narthex is a reminder of the Iconoclast periods of Byzantine history. For reasons still the subject of scholarly debate in the periods 730-787 and 814-842 the Emperor and the Orthodox Church turned against  the use of icons and the depiction of Christ and the saints. Perhaps it was due to Byzantine military failures against Islam, a culture that also forbade the making of images of the divine. Perhaps it was due to the church trying to assert its authority and gain control over the popular veneration of holy images. During these periods, many old images were destroyed and frequently covered over with a simple cross, as in this tympanum.

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.