Monday 13 October 2014

Mystras: Agios Nikolaos

Agios Nikolaos

Agios Nikolaos

Agios Nikolaos is situated in the upper town just above and slightly east of the despot’s palace. It is hard to see as you approach because it is around a bend on a narrow lane and its own courtyard wall blocks the view until you pass through its gateway into the churchyard. 

Even then, a roofless and ungainly narthex obscures the view of the church it fronts. There must have been a good sized congregation when it was built in the 1600s for the narthex to have been so large. 

The narthex of Agios Nikolaos

Agios Nikolaos is sturdy rather than beautiful. It is built mostly of rubble masonry except at the eastern end where the effort to build in the grand Byzantine manner during difficult times shows.  

I like those clumsy Cloisonné tiers. It looks as if a precocious child has rendered a Byzantine church in modeling clay.

Even the window in the apse is a bit off kilter although the builder has made a laudable effort to incorporate a simpler version of a decorative feature from the Pantanassa on either side of it. 

Agios Nikolaos 1600s

Pantanassa 1400s

I am not sure how many of the churches built in Mystras’ heyday were still available to the population under the Turks. It is known that Agia Sophia, farther up in the same neighbourhood was turned into a mosque. This must have rankled and the small touches on Agios Nikolaos  or  indeed any church the captive population was allowed to build would try to echo better days wherever it could.

The Courtyard

On the northern edge the courtyard there is a modest bell tower (1) with a spectacular view of Sparta in the background.

In the courtyard a sign offers a diagram of the church. As you can see, it is of the tetrastyle inscribed cross-in-square variety, the only tetrastyle church in our series of Mystras churches.


Two things are worth noting.  First, it is a fair size. This is no bijoux chapel.  The sanctuary area is elongated. This effect is emphasized by the barrel vault of the eastern ‘arm’ of the cross and by the absence of an iconostasis.

Secondly, the word ‘Post-Byzantine’ is used in the text of the sign, a word that pops up often when visiting churches in Greece. It refers specifically to the period from the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 until Greek Independence after 1821 and is used instead of the less appealing term ‘Ottoman Occupation’.

The text states that in Post Byzantine times the Ottoman conquest put an end to the production of religious art.  Well, not true since even Agios Nikolaos once had its full complement of wall paintings and several schools of icon painters flourished during the Ottoman period.  It might have been truer to say that innovation was stifled in some places but even that is not true over all as the many Post-Byzantine churches in Greece can easily prove.   The truth is that we Greeks have trouble saying anything even remotely positive about the period of the Ottoman occupation. That is understandable but can distort perspectives too.

Greek history during this period is generally treated as an abysmal dark age and, while it is true that it was a grim period and many, many unspeakable things happened, life did go on in Greek towns and cities, churches got built, accommodations were made, and not everyone fled the territory.  In fact, the resilience of populations under this kind of stress always amazes me. At times Mystras thrived under the occupation and it suited the conquerors that it did so since that meant tax revenues. So although they treated the Orthodox population as second class citizens and worse, the Ottomans did not always discourage church building (although they did discourage the building of large churches  because of their potential as meeting places for sedition) and probably took as many bribes as possible during the difficult  process of obtaining a permission. It is unlikely that Agios Nikolaos was a hotbed of dissent. The comings and goings of its congregation would have within plain sight of any watcher from the palace which would have been in Ottoman hands when this church was built.

With so much to see in Mystras, is the relatively unimportant  Agios Nikolaos worth a visitor’s time?

 I think it is. To date Ag Nikolaos has been treated rather shabbily by the restorers, not yet getting the ‘full treatment’ like its ‘real-time’ Byzantine counterparts and that alone makes it interesting. Dusty and disheveled, its abandoned look leaves a lot to the imagination. It reminds me of a proud but down at the heels dowager with a ravaged face but with an elaborate bustle still in place. Like her, the church is definitely more elegant when seen from the rear!
I suspect too that Agios Nikolaos may have been regarded affectionately by the people who used it because it was built during a time of adversity. This was a period when the consolation of a new church would have mattered!

Inside Agios Nikolaos

It is spacious.  And marble columns must have been harder to come by in the 1600s because the four square piers holding up the dome are  built with stone and mortar. That in itself is quite a departure for Mystras churches.
The central Apse of Agios Nikolaos

No more marble or inlaid floors, but nicely done just the same

And Light. Who could resist putting in that large north window with ‘the view’ in the nave? Most of its wall paintings have disappeared but what is left is worth a look and all the more interesting for forcing you to make the effort and look closely.

I especially like the wall painting of the Archangel Michael visible on one of the piers:

He is dressed as a Roman soldier, as he often is, and in this rendition his breastplate has several prophylactic Gorgon’s heads. It seems that even an archangel felt the need of warding off the ‘eye’ or, more correctly, the artist thought he did! I think I counted nine eyes – a very well protected Archangel indeed.

The central apse

The sparse and empty central apse follows the expected iconic program but is so damaged only the Church fathers all in bishop’s garb are discernible:

The prothesis is better preserved and still has its ‘table’ in place:

No surprises here either but the execution of the figures is well done. Note the patterning under the table of preparation – no figures allowed but church painters hated a bare spot. The Pantanassa motif is repeated and a closer look reveals Christ in his tomb to the left of the window:

This depiction of Christ in His sarcophagus, naked from the waist up and displaying his crucifixion wounds,  was called “The Man of Sorrows” (Ακρα Ταπεινοσις). It developed in the 1200s and was especially popular in the era when this church was built. It was a fitting image for the priest to contemplate as he prepared communion.

Over the north wall you see the small comic strip like icons depicting the life of Saint Nikolaos:


These small ‘snapshots’ separated by a single red line would have been all around the nave at this level when the church was new. Note that the size of the squares altered according to the needs of the iconic happening depicted.

When a procession occurred, the rectangle could be stretched as needed as this very faded section on the south wall shows.

                 One image, and quite a vibrant one was captured better by

another visitor. It is the icon of Moses high up in the prothesis.  In the case of churches like this, looking up with a flashlight on inner walls is always a good idea. Vandals could not easily reach there and neither could damp.

This well preserved figure on a pier is worth a look just for the elaborate  filler decoration just visible at its base:

And there are other small gems here and there if you are persistent.

Agios Nikolaos, the Saint

Agios Nikolaos was born in Myra in Lycia ( modern day Turkey)  and his epithets were  Defender of the Faith and Wonderworker (Νικόλαος Θαυματουργός). As a bishop he attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 where the Nicene Creed was hammered out but was even more famous for his generosity – he gave gifts to all of the deserving poor he could. Many stories accumulated ( as stories about saints are wont to do) about his selfless gift giving.  Strangely, en route to his modern niche in Church history he became the patron saint of sailors and pawn brokers as well as the prototype for Santa. 

It is quite possible that both his roles as defender of the faith and as a giver of gifts would have  appealed to the inhabitants of Mystras in the 1600s. Certainly the average citizen would have felt that the faith needed defending at the time. So the choice of patron saint may have been a subversive message to the faithful  under the Ottoman yoke or merely a popular choice as he always was, and one that the Muslims would not object to because Agios Nikolaos was a favorite of theirs too.

Agios Nikolaos, if it celebrated a feast day, would do so on December 6th.


(1)  Was that church bell ringing during the Occupation or was it added later? The story is told about Athens and elsewhere that the ringing of church bells was forbidden by the Turks. However these rules were flexible, especially if money changed hands, so I don’t know in this case.





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