Monday 30 June 2014

Mystras:The Metropolis (Agios Demetrios)

Mystras: The Metropolis  (Agios Demetrios)

Out of all of Mystras’ churches, the Metropolis, dedicated to Agios Demetrios, is my favorite. It is not the most elegant but it is the oldest. It, alone has witnessed the entire history of Mystras; its structure changed over time as tastes, needs, or ambitions, changed. It endured during the Turkish occupation when others crumbled or were turned into mosques.  And even today, dog-eared, and somewhat squat as if still hunkered down for the long run, it is the only church in this city of ghosts that smells of incense.  On special occasions liturgies are still held.

The Metropolis was built in 1264 by its first bishop Evgenios (Ευγένιος) to be the Metropolitan Church of the brand new city. In honour of his efforts, he is depicted in a fresco in the Diaconion of the sanctuary.  A Metropolitan church is the seat of the bishop and by tradition, Metropolitan churches, following the pattern of early Christian churches, are basilicas.  Not nearly as grand as the early Christian behemoths, it was three-aisled and three-columned with a higher pitched roof covering a central barrel vaulted aisle and lower roofs covering the two lower barrel-vaulted aisles on either side.  Its original silhouette would have looked something like this.

The Metropolitan church at Kalambaka

And its floor plan like this:

The design was nothing new but the extensive use of spolia (marble bits and pieces) makes its structural elements, including the floor, cornices, and iconostasis worth a really close look.  It is as if the bishop was let loose in the most wonderful second-hand builders yard ever (the whole valley floor around the ancient Spartan citadel), and asked to choose whatever caught his fancy, regardless of the era,  to be embedded or erected in the new Metropolis. If you decide to record even the most unusual marble bits and pieces, you will be grateful for digital cameras with megabytes to spare – there are that many just waiting to catch the discerning eye:

An ancient sarcophagus reused in the courtyard

The use of marble spolia was not just for economy although that must have been a big factor. It was also a way of affirming the continuity of a church with those which preceded it and could have had an almost magical function as its use did in the Athens Metropolis built in the 19th century: to affirm the unbroken continuity of the Orthodox tradition. (1)  
Sometimes guessing what you are looking at can be dangerous. I remember photographing what I was convinced was a crusader on my first visit to Mystras years ago – because I was not very familiar at the time with the icon of Saint George slaying the dragon. We live and learn.

I must have missed the halo first time around!

The exterior brickwork of the original Metropolis was grand enough and followed a pattern that would have been the norm in Greece for the time in which it was constructed (the late mid-Byzantine period).

Its bishop, like all bishops, would have lived in a ‘palace’ (probably a fairly simple two story building hard by the church), but a Metropolitan church was not exclusive: it was for the entire population, not private worship. It was built in the lower town, far from the upper area that would become the center for Mystras’ elite as time passed. The lower town was more for Oi  Polloi  (the many) and the Metropolis would be where important  state ceremonies were held, and the Great Feasts of the Calendar year celebrated.  It, in fact, was the ecclesiastical heartbeat of Mystras, the city.

A bishop’s role was prestigious and often powerful;  sometimes these offices were bought and sold by ambitious prelates.  But theoretically and often enough in reality, a Bishop’s role was spiritually all important to his community. He was responsible for the souls of his flock. In the early church, the Bishop was held to be responsible before God on Judgment Day for the sins and backslidings of the Christians under his care.  The Turks would carry this burden to absurdity under the Millet system they employed to keep the subjugated Greeks in line. If the citizens rebelled, the bishop, no matter how uninvolved or against it, paid the price. That is why the first thing you see upon entering the gate to the Metropolis complex is an “icon”  in a niche over the door showing Mystras’ bishop being slaughtered by Turks as a punishment for a citizen’s revolt in 1760:

But in the 1200s, the bishop was less concerned about martyrdom and more concerned with either building or improving the church buildings and assuring that the bishopric was endowed with enough property, mills, and orchards to ensure its financial viability. In an economy where riches and endowments had to filter down from the top – in this case the Imperial court either directly or through a local governor to the church, it was important for a bishop to have the right connections if he was to make his church and see an impressive one. There was a lot of competition for funds in this new city on the hill and often a bishop had to build what he could and then wait for more money to continue a project. 
 By 1291-2, just thirty years after it was started, the Metropolis had acquired just such a bishop, a certain Nikophoros  Moschopoulos   (Nικηφόρος Mοσχόπουλος) whose placement here shows that even early on, Mystras was important to the powers that be. He and his brother are responsible for many alterations and improvements, certainly for the building of the two story narthex.  Nikophoros started a practice that would continue in this church and elsewhere: of carving in stone of his accomplishments and a listing of holdings and improvements made.
 The first inscription dates from 1291 on the wall of the outside staircase leading to the women’s gallery on the second floor. The second is on the first column on the right (south) as you enter the nave and it dates from 1311-2. It says that he ‘built this church’ (not quite true) and reconstructed the Mills at Magoula, planted trees, and bought property around the Metropolis.  More interestingly, he promises the curses of 318 Fathers if anyone takes away these holdings!  Obviously, that was a real danger either from enemy invaders or the ambitious abbot of the nearby monastery who also sought holdings for his institution.
This sacred ‘branding’ reminds me of the practice in Ancient Greece of dedicating extensive lands around a temple to a god. The temple of Artemis in Lousi comes to mind. There the entire valley was declared sacred to Artemis. It was a handy way to make sheep stealing or any kind of local pilfering a religious crime and therefore more heinous and frightening to commit. That was the theory, anyway. It wasn’t much of a deterrent back then and probably not much of one here either!

A column in the nave (Thanks to Sharon Gerstal)

Another Metropolitan bishop would appropriate the third column on the north side of the nave for his list in 1330, and yet another from 1339-41 used the third column to the north! There is a lot to see!
The Haircut
By the 1400s, Mystras had become so wealthy and important that the Metropolitan bishop, Matthew (Μαθαίος) by name, sheared off the entire roof of the Metropolis and plunked a five domes cross-in square church on top of the downstairs basilica. 

Of course he was copying the neighbouring  Hodegetria- Aphendiko  whose innovative and elegant design must have seemed like a reproach for some one hundred years or so as it gained all of the architectural kudos and set the tone for all future Mystras churches. Somehow the bishop gathered enough money to scalp his Basilica and replace with something he believed was a more fitting memorial of his bishopric. He left his name in several places in the church – just so that posterity would know. 

                                           I think it looks pretty good!

Manolis Chadzidakis,  in his excellent guide (available in Mystras town) to the frescoes,  laments the acts of this ‘vainglorious bishop’ but Matthew was just doing what all bishops seemed and still seem prone to do in Greece – aggrandize their churches at every opportunity. It is still common practice and one rarely criticized by the general public until recently; the economic crisis has made us all look at many accepted practices with a new eye.
When the Aphendiko’s abbot Pachomios had used the cross-in-square  design piggy backed on a basilica, he had the advantage of starting from scratch. Matthew could not have achieved quite the same elegance unless he had reduced his church to rubble – so downstairs in the nave, the side aisles are still barrel vaulted, and the overall architectural effect is grand but a bit cumbersome.  I cannot find an exact date for this renovation although we know it was after 1400.  I cannot believe that the bishop did not intend to paint over those frescoes whose figures had their heads cut off all along the nave to accommodate the ‘top-lift’.  Events appear to have intervened so these truncated icons are silent witnesses to a job interrupted.

You can see that the frescoes in the side aisle fared better

Approaching the Metropolis

It is the first church you encounter as you enter the lower gate. You first see its apses; they are part of the original church and interesting for that reason alone.

Wikimedia Commons

This neatly arranged cloisonné masonry is typical of Greek churches from the 900s on. The dog-tooth decoration rather austerely outlines the windows. I rather like those two well-placed squares with circles in the middle - meant to hold round ceramic plates, now long gone.  This placing of ceramic plaques on churches of this era has always struck me as a little odd but you see it everywhere, especially in the Mani. That square bell tower was added sometime after 1316 (in imitation of the Aphendiko?) so it is really impossible to see this church chronologically. Note that the tower is rubble masonry with only a band of cloisonné to link it to the apse.  Was there some reason involving defense here?  Certainly almost all Mystras churches sport square towers – quite a departure whatever the reason. I find it hard to believe it was merely to copy a Frankish custom. They are too formidable – more like castle keeps.

As you approach the gate to the complex you are quite high up and looking at the southern façade of the south gallery over the wall and then - upon entering the main gate - you see the courtyard and the western façade of the Metropolis along with several outbuildings, one the present day museum.

The western façade (

The church looks all the better for being used. Again, do not look for chronological homogeneity. That arcade in front of the narthex was built by Mathew in the 1400s and he interrupted its flow by lowering what should have been the fourth arch of the arcade to carry the load of an Episcopal hall – current needs always trumped symmetry in churches like this which are constantly in use!  A restorer too is always faced with choices when renovating such churches– what should go, what should stay? You rarely see all that was there because choices are made.  To the right, an outside stairway leads to the women’s gallery over the narthex (2)

The northern peristyle facing the court was built during the Turkish occupation, proving that some funds were available and that the decorative features introduced in the Aphendiko were still the ones to copy. This peristyle was probably built by the same unfortunate bishop, (Ananias of Dimitsana) who was martyred at the gate in 1760.

In Turkish times, this courtyard and these buildings would have been the administrationcenter of the bishop in charge of the Orthodox population.

The Marble Bits
They are everywhere and much more fun if you find them yourself. I will mention the iconostasis which experts say is a hodgepodge of sculptural bits all from the 1100s or earlier.

Wikimedia commons

                    There is even a centaur! (Image thanks to Sharon Gerstal)

The horizontal decorative moldings, or cornices, above the columns and elsewhere are worth a look. And note that the column capitals do not match – they were salvaged from here and there in the valley.

                  The iconostasis and some columns (thanks to Sharon Gerstal)

The marble plaque in that marked off  square looks like this:

It is the Palaiologan double headed eagle and marks the spot where Constantine, the then Despot of Mystras, was crowned as the last emperor of Byzantium in 1449  before he rushed to Constantinople and his eventual death. The Orthodox Church was quick to adopt this Palaiologan standard as its own. It certainly was not there when Constantine was crowned and may even have been placed after the Turkish occupation.  No matter; it is still sacred ground to many in Greece. There are many stories about Constantine: my favorite is the one where he was turned to marble and still waits in some hidden cave until Byzantium is reborn… Well.
Constantine himself was an able leader at an unlucky moment. His coronation took place in the provinces probably because he had to move fast to secure his claim and also because the Patriarch in Constantinople was at the time in favor of union with the Catholic church and to have him invest the new emperor would have been unpopular with the majority of the people.  So, although some kind of ceremony would have also been held in Constantinople, the ‘big’ one was here inside Agios Demetrios. 

More on the Interior
To speak with authority of the wall paintings in this church is entirely beyond my competence. I have read the scholarly articles and can just see the outlines of the distinctions made among the three periods of painting that comprise the Metropolis iconic program which dates from the late 1200s to the first half of the 1300s.  I have no trouble seeing that the large icons in the iconostasis do not fit in; they are 19th century add-ons, but the subtleties of the rest are not so clear to me that I could seriously write  about them. Leave that to Mr. Chatzidakis (3). One gloss covered the issue by saying that the wall paintings were the last example of the Palaiologan style and yet somehow foreshadowed the future…. Hmmmm.
A damaged standing Mary in the apse is the earliest painting:
Wikimedia Commons

The dome, the centerpiece of Matthew’s alteration, has the Pantocratoras  as you would expect and is held up by the four evangelists – no surprises here. 

Wikimedia Commons

Have a look at the series of wall painting depicting the life and martyrdom of Agios Demetrios in the prosthesis and along the northern aisle; they are contemporary with the building of the church and the figures in them all look foreshortened, - their legs too short for their torsos.
The western wall of the nave has some standing saints (from the earliest paintings again) and to me at least, a rather unusual ambo or pulpit, immediately identifiable by the eagle (or dove) perched on its edge – ready to hold the Bible when sermons are read:

It’s placement is unusual, looking a bit like something in the balcony sceme of a Shakespearian play. In early churches the ambo, as pulpits are called in Orthodox churches, would have been a stepped marble affair in the middle of the central nave so that the priest could be somewhat higher but among his flock. In the middle Byzantine period (at least in Athens) and now, the pulpit tends to be partway down the nave and to the left – a kind of crow’s nest above the congregation.
Here it certainly would have set the bishop apart when he used it and would have necessitated a 180 degree turn by the congregation away from the altar – not a big problem in a church where everyone stood for the service.
The frescoes in the vaults and walls of the south aisles are in good nick and again offer no surprising departures from the iconic program of the era.

Wikimedia Commons

 A narthex usually contains, among other things, scenes that are more worldly and this one does not disappoint. On the east wall, it has scenes of Church Councils, those backbones of Orthodox belief and elsewhere scenes of the Last Judgment for anyone foolish enough to have  ignored them – or unlucky enough to have been born in the wrong era. Therefore you often see Adam and Eve in the garden depicted in the narthex. In this case, there is a rather ghastly parade of sinners burning in Hell, or being devoured by serpents, or both.  If a narthex were missing, these would be on the west wall of the nave (See The Geography of a Greek Church in this blog).
 Although less graphic than western depictions of Hell (an entire topic on its own) these depictions are as disturbing as they are fascinating. The sinners, as in all iconic art, show little worldly emotion no matter the torture;  they alone can be depicted naked although snakes manage to do a pretty good job of covering the titillating bits.  And those artistic curvo-linear flames!  Western art stresses the agony; Byzantine, the implacable eternal certainty. It’s almost worse…

It is a relief after the narthex to go out into the sunny courtyard and on up to the museum. It is a ‘must visit’, and has some very intriguing bits and pieces which, no matter how well displayed, can never be as interesting as they would have been in situ

(1)  In the Metropolitan church in Athens (see the blog entry) spolia from some 70 churches were embedded in its walls, out of sight visually but not spiritually.

(2)  Kevin Andrews, in his autobiography “The Flight of Ikaros” visited this church when Mystras was ravaged yet again, this time by the civil war and found families of Greek refugees living in the women’s gallery. At that time the church was in a terrible state of repair, the icons blackened by time and cooking fires.

(3)  See Mystras: the Medieval City and the Castle, by Manolis Chatzidakis, (Ekdodike Athenon S.A. Athens) 1983.











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  2. I found this article due to your mention of embedded ceramics in walls of Greek churches. Have you come across any information about the origin of this tradition? It occurs in Italy, as well. .//john