Saturday, 29 September 2007

Byzantine Roots - Mistra

If there is a more beautiful spot on earth, I should like to see it. Mistra (or Mistras, Mystras) was the last capital of the Byzantines on Greek soil, and the centre of their administration in the Peloponnese. Its rulers (termed 'Despots') were usually brothers of the Byzantine Emperor, and indeed it was at Mistra that Constantine Palaiologos succeeded his brother as Constantine XI, last Emperor of Constantinople. The modern town square boasts an imposing statue of him with, above, the citadel of medieval Mistra.

Following the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, Mistra soon followed, and was surrendered to the Sultan's armies by the fallen Emperor's brother Demetrios in 1460. Thereafter, it gently drifted into decline, until today it presents a spectacular ghost town, a 'Byzantine Pompeii', looking out over the Spartan plain.

As a stronghold of the Palaiologos dynasty, Mistra became in its last decades the centre of an intense flowering of the arts; many scholars were based in the city, and their exile to Italy after the conquest fuelled the Renaissance. In painting and architecture, too, Mistra was a glorious hymn to late Byzantine culture. Below, the Despots' Palace, in the upper city, which is being reconstructed. The courtyard before it was once busy with processions, festivals and the coaches of ambassadors:

Now Mistra stands silent, its churches still functioning, but its streets, squares, houses and palaces clad in ivy, a haunting testimony to a vanished civilisation. Below, the still-occupied convent of the Church of Panatanassa:

The convent Church itself occupies a lofty vantage point high up on the side of the mountain:

Within, spectacular examples of fresco. I was interested in this, which portrayes the 'Throne of Grace' - the empty throne waiting to be occupied by Christ in judgement. This is an ancient device for portraying Christ, and an image we have considered for one of the domes in Westminster Cathedral:

The galleries of the convent provide unforgettable views:

The well-preserved Cathedral (below) stands in the lower city:

It preserves a fine pulpit. In the gallery above, ladies of the Byzantine above would have looked down at the divine worship.

The nave floor preserves a plaque of a double-headed eagle where, it is said, the last Emperor of Constantinople was crowned (below). Sadly, this is unlikely to be true: Constantine was never crowned. The Patriarch (who alone could perform the ceremony) was not in Mistras, and was anyway a deeply unpopular Uniate, whose presence at such a ceremony would have undermined Constantine's reign at its very beginning. However, it is certain that the last Emperor of Constantinople worshipped here, and would have gazed at these same images.

For the rest, Mistra hugs the mountainside, and it is most pleasant simply to become lost in it, to turn into winding alleyways or broad streets, to stumble across a church or a chapel, and savour the phenomenal views of the Spartan plain glimpsed between arches or windows:

I had the city to myself: a few early coaches departed, and I wandered with the ghosts of Byzantium:

The art of fresco reached a pinnacle at Mistra, with a cross-fertilising with the early Italian renaissance. Figures have a dynamism and a solidity that reflects what Giotto was doing at about the same time:

Every archway was worth a diversion:

Lying about 8km from modern Sparta, Mistra is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and of ourstanding interest in seeking to understand Byzantine civilisation.


John the organist said...

What a heavenly place!

Anonymous said...

Yes - Mistra (and also in my view Monemvassia) are two of the most idyllic spots in Greece. Your photos bring back vividly some fond memories of travelling there as a student. I also recall Christina's taverna in the village which served delicious loukaniko sausages washed down by the most acceptable retsina "apo to vareli" in Greece. I hope when you visited she was still alive and well and in business!