Wednesday 25 June 2014

Mystras: The Hodegetria- Aphendiko

The Hodegetria -Aphendiko

Thanks to Sharon Gerstal

The church of the Virgin Hodegetria was built between 1310 and 1315 by its abbot, Pachomios, to be the new Katholikon of the Brontochion Monastery. Pachomios was no ordinary cleric; he was cosmopolitan, a book collector, an intellectual, and not only well-to-do but well connected. In imperial circles one meant the other.

Immediately prior to the construction of this church Pachomios visited Constantinople where he circulated with other ecclesiastical movers and shakers and was well enough known to be referred to by the court poet as “the pride of the Dorians” a pretty reference to ancient Sparta.

 He obviously soaked up more than just the atmosphere of the capital because, when he returned and built the elegant Virgin Hodegetria, many of the capital’s architectural touches were included in its design. Pachomios had every reason to be pleased with Constantinople. He had come back with one of many future Chrysobulls, (documents signed and authenticated by the emperor’s famous gold seal) which endowed his monastery with enough land, mills, and land laborers (peasants called paroikoi) and with an all important exemption from taxes to ensure its future independence, wealth, and prestige.

A typical Chrysobull. Some were fancier. All had the gold seal and the emperor’s signature in cinnabar, a colour only he could use.

Just what services this dynamic abbot had rendered to the empire is not clear, but that the Byzantine court regarded him as ‘their man in Mystras is. The monastery acquired and continued to acquire so many resources in the area of Sparta and elsewhere in the Peloponnese, that it was virtually a self sufficient fief and so wealthy  that the new church came to be referred to by locals simply as the Aphendiko  (the ‘head man’ or ‘boss’). 

Pachomios was one of the most prominent members of local society until his death in 1322 and his monastery became the richest of all the monasteries in Mystras.

For the Hodegetria’s design he took a page from the much larger church of Agia Ireni in the capital and built a five domed cross-square church that instead of having the dome resting on four pillars, had the entire elegant superstructure laid out upon on the base of a three aisled basilica. This design so impressed his fellow citizens that two other churches in Mystras would copy it and it has become known as the Mystras style.

Before the days of reinforced concrete, the construction of this multi-domed wonder would have been a tricky enough using four pillars. His effort was an even more complex undertaking because of weight distribution issues. The three columned aisles of the basilica below would bear the brunt of the roof and gallery.

The three aisled basilica base with the saucer domes indicated

So, to help, tall, thin vertical buttresses were added to the north and south façade as supports and in the side aisles downstairs saucer domes were used to create a sturdy  enough ceiling  to support the gallery and roof. 

Here you can see the vertical buttresses on the north façade of the main church

The roof with a large dome in the center, four others on the corners, and barrel vaulted arches for the arms of the cross was as elegant as it was complex:

And when the rounded roofs of the side chapels plus the domed narthex on the west were added to the mix, it was truly impressive.

                    A plan of the Hodegetria showing its porticos, chapels, narthex and square bell tower

This imposing church was dedicated to the Virgin Hodegetria (She who shows the way) the famous icon of Mary that was the protectress of Constantinople(1); it was both a compliment to the capital and a statement in stone that Mistras was no longer just a provincial stronghold against the Franks, but had the potential to become much more –an echo, even if pocket sized, of the big city on the Bosphorus.  That would seem like a ridiculous claim if it had not almost happened…

Aside from the basic design, many details of this church were a nod to Constantinople: from the high apses with the ‘blind windows” 

to the use of exterior colonnades or porticos outside. These elegant porticos are no longer in place (just three columns on the north side remain – see above picture). But the Aphendiko was the ‘boss’ in another way as well. If its architecture was a nod to the capital’s style, then the Aphendiko itself was the source of many design details seen today on many of the churches in Mystras. In the eyes of the townspeople, it was simply the best.

A Last Comment on the Exterior
The Aphendiko departed from its Peloponnesian predecessors in one startling way: It abandoned the usual Byzantine cloisonné masonry and most of the other frills we associate with Byzantine churches (see Agioi Theodoroi built 40 years earlier for the same monastery) and used ordinary albeit carefully cut stone for all exterior surfaces except the Bell tower.(2) Builders broke the monotony subtly with narrow rows of horizontal bricks. I am not sure why the usual Byzantine folderol was abandoned (shortage of the proper stone?) but the effect is strangely harmonious. Rubble masonry was often used for the sides of Byzantine churches which did not ‘show’ (see the south side of Agioi Theodorioi), but the Aphendiko’s masonry is much more elegant than that; the same technique was employed in the narthex and chapels which are contemporary with the main church. So, in the end it is the cloisonné masonry of the bell tower that seems out of place.
 A look at the apses of the two churches of the same monastery shows the difference: 

Clearly the Aphendiko was a departure no matter how you look at it:

Western facade

 southern facade

 Bell Tower

                                                                         Wiki Commons 

When you enter the nave, the effect of those low ceilinged saucer-domed side aisles only emphasizes the height of the central space of the nave as it rises to the gallery and domes above. The height of the central apse –extending uninterrupted to the height of the roof, helps to emphasizes the effect.

  The inside was built to impress. Originally the walls of the nave and narthex were lined with marble. Marble revetments were an expensive undertaking and harkened back to early Christian churches and Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. To be able to even do this in 1310 in the provinces shouted out the wealth of the monastery. Frescoes of standing saints were framed in polychrome and placed in each marble segment. This marble has disappeared, giving the lower floors of the church a bare bones look and making it hard to appreciate the intended effect:

Sadly shorn…
Thanks to Sharon Gerstal

                                   Here are marble revetments in Agios Andreas in Patras

The Aphendiko’s were even fancier. In both the narthex and main church arched frames with lots of coloured marble bits surrounded the standing saints (dust in the wind now) on the revetments and in the sanctuary the church fathers were framed in the same way. You can hunt for vestiges, but very little remains

One saint without his marble frame
Wiki commons

In better times, this marble revetment would have called for mosaics above but even the abbot’s budget had its limits and the Aphendiko made do with frescoes.

The Frescoes

This is either the boring part or the whole point of the visit, depending on your interests.  Compared to other churches, the main church offers slim pickings because the missing revetments leave just a few bits in the sanctuaries, some martyrs on in the tympana under the arches of the columns, and various saints and cherubs in the domes of the side aisles – all pretty much what you would expect. This church has no surprising deviations from the iconic program. The narthex has more to see. The galleries have even more (Parts of the Twelve Feasts remain) but are harder to discern since you are not allowed upstairs. Opera glasses and a flashlight never go amiss at Mystras. In the small domes upstairs are the seventy apostles, and on the domes of the corner chapels Biblical patriarchs and prophets surrounded by cherubim and seraphim.  My own strategy is to look for favorites and see what has been done.

General Characteristics of the Wall Paintings

Those who know mention  the broad and sure brush strokes of the painters, the pastel colours, the way complimentary colours have been placed side by side for dramatic effect, and the simplicity of the colours used . The style is impressionistic and lively because of this use of colour and modeling.

The Much More Interesting Side Chapels off the Narthex

The South Chapel


North wall of the south chapel, (thanks to Sharon Gerstal)

The south chapel off the narthex has a firmly shut glass door which is a pity because it is the most interesting chapel of all.  It contains the stairs to the upper gallery which, apparently when the monastery was a going concern, held administrative offices. Written on all four walls are white scrolls all with copious writing about two centimeters high, all unfolding  from  “Heaven” above  and guarded by angels. Originally Christ would have been in the dome and from the mandorla surrounding him a ray reaches out down each wall with an ethereal  ‘hand’ at the end holding a scroll.  This is not subtle symbolism. It simply shouts out:  from the hand  of  God via the hand of the emperor to Pachomios. Pachomios  recorded here for all to see a record of each and every Chrysobull in the monastery’s possession and therefore  of each and every holding to which the monastery had rights.

  This was not merely to boast although that element is there – he must have loved the flattering references to himself and his ‘boundless efforts” - but to create a more permanent record of the monastery’s holdings than ephemeral parchment. In this he was proved right – the only record still extant is in these painted Chysobulls. They provide the information we have today about the wealth of the monastery and about the feudalistic system under which the locals tied to the monastery worked.


No one entering the Katholikon with business upstairs could avoid passing this visible testament of the monastery’s holdings and its standing with the emperor. I am not sure if this was the first effort of an abbot to immortalize and sanctify (those heavenly rays!) his holdings in quite this way; in the Metropolis, for example, the bishop had already carved the monastery’s holdings in stone on a pillar, a testament that just may have given Pachomios the idea.  Successive bishops would continue to carve their holdings on the pillars of the Metropolis and on one, a curse is offered to anyone trying to alter the holdings bestowed. It suggests that there was a fierce rivalry for imperial favours and that there was also a pattern of gaining and losing holdings over time. (3)

 After all, Mystras was a relatively small enclave and resources were not infinite. (At times monasteries were even granted holdings that were in the hands of the enemy on the theory that they would ultimately be obtained).  The bishop of Mystras must  have felt especially resentful of his rich neighbor next door. Remember that monasteries in Mystras tried and often succeeded in ensuring that their holdings came from the Patriarch or Emperor in the capital, thus making them completely independent of the local bishop’s control.  This meant the local bishop would lose revenues to the monasteries and have to accomplish what he could all the while knowing that he did not have the ‘meson” (pull) of these more favoured institutions. 
Painting or carving the monastery’s rights for all to see was one way to claim that any gains made were ‘forever’.  Closing the room with a glass door and not providing good lighting is the Byzantine Ephorate’s effort to see that they do.

The North Chapel

The north chapel off the narthex was for burials of important personages. Pachomios himself is buried here. Unlike his desert forebear who started ascetic monasticism, our urbane Pachomios fully intended to be buried in style in ‘his’ church with a fitting epitaph and a lot of painted saints for company.

 He was eventually joined by Theodore II (Despot from 1407-1443). Theodore had spent his last years here as a monk either in piety or expiation, or maybe both.  It was common Byzantine practice for leaders if they lived long enough. It is very difficult for me to attribute any real sincerity to an emperor or despot  who in the last years of his life  after having no doubt done some of the terrible things that rulers  did in those days to remain in power,  decided on  monkish seclusion in preparation for the Final Judgment. I suspect the effort was most likely more sincere than my more cynical side wants to allow! These were different times

This chapel extends upward two floors and is still decorated with many frescoes. The Pantocrator is in the dome. There is a Deesis high up and Christ enthroned in glory as a judge – fitting depictions for a funeral chapel. On the lower walls is a parade of prophets, Apostles, patriarchs, martyrs and ascetics, all walking from right to left the very people those buried here would want to be with for the wait until the Second Coming.  

Wiki Commons

An inscription begs the Virgin, the Baptist, and all the saints for mercy and the salvation of the souls buried here.

(1)      When the Byzantine’s had recaptured Constantinople from the Latins in 1261, the icon of the Virgin Hodegetria, said to have been painted by the Apostle Luke,  had lead the victory parade back to Hagia Sophia. By naming  his church the Hodegetria, Pachomios was tying his monastery even closer to Her protection as well as to  the capital's aura, if you will.
Wiki Commons
 Apparently the original was a standing figure, but most later representations are like this 14th century version, - from the waist up with Mary showing the Christ child as ‘the way’

(2) I am not sure if the original bell tower is actually a true replica of the original. Its top was rebuilt by Professor Orlando when the church was restored in 1838.  The new bit looks out of place- to me anyway.

(3)  I am completely indebted to Sharon Gerstal for this interesting idea. Her wonderful and lucid article on this chapel can be found at    She kindly gave permission for me to use some of her illustrations.









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