A little Byzantine jewel

A hot and sultry afternoon in Greece and we are exploring some of the mountain villages on our way back through the Mani from visiting Mystras. We park on the edge of the tiny village of Kastania (‘chestnut trees’) because the road doesn’t seem to go any further. Or rather it does, but I just don’t fancy chancing my arm in a hire car along what looks like narrow, steep tracks.

Kastania is on the western side of the Taygetos mountains in the area of the Peloponnese known as the Mani.

Kastania from the mountains - photo courtesy of John Chapman

Low cloud covers the tops of the Taygetos range as we walk in to the village square and flop down on rush-bottomed chairs in the cafe. Time for a cool drink and to get a sense of what this place is like.

The village has a small centre with the eighteenth century Doulakis tower off to the side. Kolokotronis, the Greek leader in the war of independence against the Turks, was almost betrayed here to the Turks, but managed to escape over the mountains.

The tower is a typical feature of Maniot architecture, built as a defended house at a time when feuds between whole families could go on for generations.

We set off through meandering high walled streets in search of the ‘many interesting churches in the village’ as the guide-book puts it.

In fact apart from the modern church in the square we only manage to find one at the top of the village, Agios Petros (St Peter), a tiny Byzantine church that dates from the eleventh or twelfth century. But it’s a little gem.

The church is built in typical Byzantine style, but the Venetian-style bell tower was added at a much later date in a completely different stone and looks weirdly out-of-place. The key is in a little niche on the left of the porch and it’s quite dark inside.

In the tympanum is a dark marble sculpture of a ‘stag being attacked by a Griffon and surrounded by large Ibis like birds.’ It feels quite sinister and out-of-place in a church.

The next thing that strikes you are the carved and highly coloured doors to the sanctuary. Again the mythological beast theme is repeated in the carving on the doors with the pair of green Griffons. The doors look ancient but, according to John Chapman whose website  (http://www.maniguide.info/) is a tremendous resource on the Mani and its churches, the gates were only donated in 1854.

It takes a while for our eyes to get used to the inside of this small dark Byzantine church and I was not yet in a state to be able to make out the medieval frescoes. Suddenly the door opens behind us and an elderly village lady, dressed in black bustles into the church and proceeds to do some aggressive tidying up whilst pointedly avoiding any eye contact. She clearly does not welcome our presence and so, feeling intimidated, we make our exit.

Here’s a view of the right hand side of the narthex, looking out to the village:

and a detailed shot of the marble checkerboard decoration on the arch:

Outside again in the road, she soon follows us, closing the gate firmly behind her:

I was tempted to go back in again once when had disappeared, but was persuaded by my wife that this might be a bit provocative. So we walk round the exterior of the church and get a good view of its structure. It is so small and homely: in a strange way I almost understand the village lady’s protectiveness towards it against the visitors.

Interestingly the church is covered in slates rather that red Byzantine tiles and looks in reasonable repair (according to John Chapman it was last repaired in the 1980s). As we looked closer at the stonework we noticed a series of images, stars, suns, moons, leaves embedded in it. They are curiously touching and add a folk element to the formality of the Byzantine architecture.

I am still trying to find out the significance of these external decorations.