Wednesday 30 July 2014

Mystras: The Peribleptos

The Peribleptos (Παναγίας της Περιβλέπτου)

The charming Peribleptos, dedicated to the ‘all-seeing Virgin Mary’, is the most eccentric church in Mystras. 

The bell tower

A slim and precarious looking bell tower on the rock above it marks the spot, and a good thing too because the Peribleptos is tucked away almost out of sight in the corner of the defensive wall in the south-east part of the lower town. 
 The Katholikon has survived in good shape, and the remains of a refectory in the pretty courtyard are substantial enough to engage your imagination.

The courtyard 

The Peribleptos is a distyle cross-in-square church, which means that the dome is supported by two columns on the west and the wall of the sanctuary on the east. It belongs to the well known Helladic type in Greece. In Mystras there are two others: Agia Sophia and the Evangelistria. The stylistic elements employed here are the most ‘old fashioned’ of the three, its architectural details harkening back to similar churches built in the 11th and 12th century.  Agia Sophia, the Despot’s chapel in the upper town, built at the same time as this one and apparently built by the same donor, has a more contemporary style reminiscent of the latest trends in the Byzantine capital.

In spite of its more conservative bent, the Peribleptos, still displays the fusion of Frankish and Byzantine styles that would become even more pronounced as Mystras’ history unfolded.  This is evident in details inside the church and more especially on the façade of the refectory:

More ‘European fairy tale’ than Byzantine

I’m not the only one to think so. I ran across this romantic rendition by a nineteenth century traveler. It just needs the princess in distress and a knight in shining armor somewhere at its base.

The Unusual Placement of the Katholikon

 The Peribleptos’ west wall is built up against a rock cliff and a cave. It was no doubt a shrine in ancient times (1), and in the Christian era was rededicated to Agia Katerina. The yellow door you see in the first and second pictures leads into her low ceilinged shrine.  Agia Katerina was important enough for the design of the Peribleptos to be skewed in order to incorporate it.

 Because of this, the apses of the Peribleptos are not aligned as closely to the east as they would normally be. And a rather high ‘platform’ had to be built as a base for the church in order to raise it to the level of the cave.

 The main entrance is, of necessity, on the north (a niche was placed on the interior west wall as a reminder that a door to a narthex should have been there!). When you enter the church, the west wall is on your right and the prothesis of the sanctuary is immediately on your left.

 The interior ceilings are all barrel vaulted . You would expect the in a church of this design for the corners to be groin vaulted (like an open umbrella with four spokes) But because of the Church’s position, the western arm of the cross is longer, and groin vaults would have only emphasized that irregularity.

The Chapels

The two small chapels clinging like limpet mines to the apses were added somewhat later than the katholikon and, by hiding the retaining wall for the big church, give the impression that the church is being shored up by its chapels!

These pint-sized sanctuaries are equally holy, but wildly different in style. The nearest one looks a bit like a garden shed; the one beyond it a provincial’s idea of elegant, adorned as it is with a tiny dome. A single door leads to both; I have never found it open…

Here is the second chapel from another angle, looking like a small scion sprouted by the big church!

The “south” view. Above the wall is the south arm of the cross.

 That roofless chamber in the above picture was a narthex added later to the southern facade; the rock face prevented its erection on the west.  Apparently needs dictated that it replace what experts say was a much more elegant portico.

Agia Αikaterina

Behind that uppermost yellow door, Agia Katerina’s design is skewed as well. Caves make that happen. Its sanctuary is on the south side.  According to some, this chapel boasted one really unusual feature:  a relief of Alexander the Great’s  Ascension to Heaven - not unheard of in Greek churches, but not something depicted every day either!

 Other sources say this tablet moved to the floor of the katholikon when it was built. It is in the Mystras museum at the moment, and a strange hybrid it is, one that looks oddly primitive in spite of its designated date of sometime in the 1300s.

Is he is holding aloft two deer, two lions? Shades of Artemis – and griffons? – hmmmm. (The griffons are part of this legend I have since discovered thanks to Diana Wright).  And then there is the Islamic looking design of fleurs de lis: provincial confusion of myths, fabulous fusion of styles, oddball artistan, or all of the above?

The Date

The Peribleptos was built sometime between 1350 and 1375 and like the Hodegetria and Agia Sophia named after a famous church in Constantinople.  Experts are pretty sure that the sponsors of this church were the Despot Manuel Kantakouzenos  Palaiologos and his wife Isabella de Lusignan  because there are lions rampant on the Monastery’s gateway, a lion on a plaque near the lobe of the nave’s south window, and another lion plaque now in the museum.

The lion had become an emblem of both the Kantakouzenos family and was an emblem of the Lusignans. The Byzantines were never ones for coats of arms like the western nobility but by this period in the Byzantine saga members of the imperial family were taking Frankish wives willy-nilly, and lions rampant were creeping onto many Byzantine standards. 

This faint bas-relief boasts two upright heraldic lions on either side of the monogram of the monastery. It surmounts the arched gateway.

There is more:  a representation of the founders  - a man and woman offering a model of the church to the Virgin can be discerned on the tympanum of the blind arch of the drum on the west wall below the depiction of the Descent into Hell. This representation of donors was standard Byzantine procedure and, although they are not identified in writing, those who know say it suggests the Despot and his wife.


Inside the Peribleptos, the sculptural details, like all churches in Mystras, show no homogeneity – a fact that makes them interesting.  Bits and pieces are set here and there and seem to have come from anywhere. I already mentioned lions. Here is a nice Fleur-de lis from the iconostasis, yet another example of eclecticism and the Frankish influence:

A Fleur de lis was a no guilt addition to Byzantine iconostases because its shape could so easily represent the Trinity!

The Frescoes

The frescoes are the reason most people visit.

The Peribleptos has the most lavish and best preserved frescoes in Mystras.  Apparently Agia Sophia in the upper town had the same treatment but most of its frescoes have not survived. In the Peribleptos they cover all walls and vaults. A cleaning completed in 1962 has made them, if not as good as new, certainly easier to ‘read’. 

One visitor wrote that if Mystras were only this church, it would still merit its World Heritage Site status. They are that stunning. (2). The boundaries of individual wall paintings do not seem to be as important in the Peribleptos as they were, say, in the Aphendiko. This creates an almost panoramic interior artscape that needs to be experienced ‘in the round’ to be truly appreciated.

Experts claim they can detect the hands of four very skilled painters – no surprise there because church wall painters almost always worked in teams. The general opinion is that these painters came directly from the Byzantine capital because of the sophistication of the representations.  Steven Runciman (3) begs to differ. He is not as impressed by their sophistication and suggests that the wall painters may well have been locals. He also detects a hint of wistfulness in the art here. Even experts on  Mystras cannot escape their perspective. The painters and their patrons may not have had any idea in 1350 plus that all would be lost a hundred years later. But it is almost impossible to write about Mystras in retrospect without thoughts of ‘sad relics’ or ‘twilight of an era’ creeping in somewhere. Historians are human too and often more romantic than they would like us to believe.

 These frescoes are the stuff of PHD theses. They are considered a perfect illustration of what a typical late Byzantine iconic program looked like.  I have found that being too dogmatic about the exact placement of icons in any church is bound to be contradicted one way or another almost immediately even if the general outline is correct! But, if understanding an iconic program in a late Byzantine church is your aim, this is the place to be! (see The Geography of a Greek Church in this Blog for a very general discussion of the iconic program). Suffice it to say here that the three cycles that one would expect are represented: the Liturgical, the Life and Passion of Christ, and the Life of the Virgin to whom the church is dedicated.

I am going to mention only few highlights with no attempt to be definitive.   I always look for my personal favorites: the Nativity,

Wikipedia Commons

the Theophania (Baptism),

 and Mary in the apse along with whatever else strikes my fancy always of course including the west wall or narthex with their depictions of the Last Judgment.
The frescoes in the dome are intact:

Here you can see the characteristic blues in many hues that are a hallmark of this church and the beginnings of each of the four barrel vaults that form the arms of the cross.


The Pantocrator in the dome is surrounded by prophets who foretold the coming of Mary, the Preparation of the Throne, and Mary flanked by two angels, -  all what you would expect in a dome, especially in a church dedicated to Mary. 

The Virgin Platytera is enthroned in the apse of the sanctuary. Higher up, the vault is covered with a representation of the Ascension, with four superb angels surrounding Christ. 

The walls of the Prothesis are decorated with a magnificent Divine Liturgy which has generated a lot of scholarly writing –with details too deep for here.  In churches like this each art expert believes he or she detects a subtlety hitherto unnoticed. And that is entirely possible. Although wall painting teams followed guides for each icon, individual painters had their quirks and certainly the ktetor of a church could suggest small changes either reflecting a different liturgical emphasis or simply insisting on the inclusion of a favorite icon. 

 On the upper part of the apse of the Diaconicon there is a marvelously preserved Sleeping Christ Child (not often depicted), The Repentence of Peter and the Road to Calvary.

 In the vaults surrounding the dome unfold scenes from the Twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox year as you would expect.

 In the eastern vault are representations of the Transfiguration, the Raising of Lazarus, the Last Supper, and the Entry into Jerusalem; in the north vault: Pentecost and the Incredulity of Thomas.

    There are full-length prophets around the tympana of the windows.
On a lower level full-length life-size figures of military saints, angels, prophets and bishops are depicted on pilasters, arches and the remaining expanses of wall-space.

Warrior saints from the north wall

The life of the Virgin to whom this church is dedicated, is illustrated in a band (on various levels) which girdles almost the entire church. The finest of these scenes is the Dormition of Mary on the north wall, immediately above the entrance. 

The cave like entrance with the Dormition of Mary above (north side)
A wonderful shot of the entrance by

A Small Summary

 These frescoes with their crowded scenes and slender figures are a delight. The adjectives most often used are serene, otherworldly, elegant graceful, vivid harmony of colours, and the ease and sheer authority of each depiction. They would influence the Cretan School of icon painters, a school of painting that also would borrow western touches and which we will run across again because this school of art dominates the wall paintings of post Byzantine churches in Greece.
 Just how this confident, freer style of painting would have developed had Byzantium not fallen is a moot point. Dana Facaros (4), had a thought when we were discussing where this amazing art might have gone had history not intervened. Her answer was almost immediate: probably to Venice.
Luckily, it went anyway. The art of Mystras and the artists influenced by it would help create the artistic revolution that was the Italian Renaissance.


(1) Many believe that the cave of Agia Katerini is the cave visited by Pausanias when he travelled in Laconia.

(2)When I visited the Peribleptos I did not take enough good pictures of the interior, a situation I intend to remedy sometime soon.  I will post the results but this is a case where experiencing them personally is best.

(3) Runciman is a much decorated expert on the Byzantine empire. His excellent work The History of Mystras and the Peloponnese can be found on line.

(4)Dana Facaros is the insightful author of the excellent Cadogan Guides.

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