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Forgotten Mystra: Byzantium’s Last Flowering

text and photos by Margot Granitsas

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Mystra, the beautiful Greek fortress city above ancient Sparta was the scene of Byzantium’s swan song. All that remains of past days of glory when it was the hub of intellectual and commercial life are its expertly restored churches where Greek Orthodox nuns now reside.

Mystra is located on the Peloponnesos, a peninsula forming the southern part of mainland Greece. In the 13th century the Peloponnesos was known as Morea after the Latin word Morus for mulberry leaf – the shape of which the Peloponnesos resembled.

Morea was the Byzantine principality and Mystra the residence of the despots (rulers). During its heyday in the 13th century, Mystra boasted of a population of 40,000.

A castle built by the French Crusader, Guillaume des Villehardouin is credited with giving the city its name. Villehardouin decided to build his home on the cone-shaped hill leaning against the mighty Taygetos mountains. The castle soon became known as Maistessa or mistress in medieval French.

Fourteen years later he had to surrender his fortress to the Byzantine forces. This marked the beginning of Mystra’s short and intense history. It was also an age where the life of the farmer and craftsman changed little from the serfdom he had known for many centuries.

Mystra was a place where scholars met and found stimulation and inspiration among each other. It was also an important center of trade, primarily famous for its silk.

Today, little is left of Guillaume des Villehardouin castle that crowned the hill. The houses and buildings of the once thriving town are in ruins, leaving traces of roads, portals, foundations and some individual mansions that climb up the steep hill.

The only aspect of Mystra’s history that remains are its churches. Seen from afar, the churches and the surrounding crenellated walls of the fortress are still imposing.

Magnificent frescoes cover the walls and cupolas of the six churches. The frescoes are among the best examples of icons from the late Byzantine era. When human elements and influence from the West were introduced the severe style of the early Byzantine painters was softened. There is a new-found dynamism that adds movement to the large wall paintings making them more lively. Along with drama and details added to the scenes, the colors have new nuances contributing to diversity.

The Metropolis or St. Demetrius church is the first among equals of the religious architecture on Mystra. The frescoes, like those in other Byzantine churches follow strict rules. The upper-most part of the walls and cupolas are reserved for the scenes demanding the highest reverence; paintings of Christ and Mary, surrounded by angels, prophets and apostles. Just below are the scenes from the Dodekaheortaon, the twelve major liturgical feast days of the church year. These days are the Nativity of the Mother of God, the Exultation of the Holy Cross, the Entrance of the Mother of God to the Temple, the Nativity, the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, the Entrance of Our Lord to the Temple, the Annunciation, Easter, the Ascension, Pentecost, Transfiguration and the Doromition of the Mother of God. In the lower region of the fresco there are scenes from the Bible and the lives of the saints. For the devout churchgoer, the fresco in its entirety was not only a vision of the universe but also a vast picture book.

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Tags: Monastery Greece Architecture Historical site/city Frescoes