Sunday 4 January 2015

Mystras: The Pantanassa

The Pantanassa Monastery   (Μονή Παντανάσσης)

The Pantanassa Monastery, dedicated to Mary 'Queen Over All', was completed in September 1428. It is perched on a steep part of the hill on the east side of town, its walled area extending east from the median wall between the lower and upper city. 

As you can see, its enclosed area is large with the nuns’ cells forming the north wall of a quadrangle, giving the church a fortress like look and the nuns a spectacular view of the valley.

Pantanassa becomes even more impressive the closer you get: 

Its Katholikon is the second storey of the structure. The lower supporting platform, hidden in the above photo by the nuns’ cells, is partially hollow, containing a small chapel and I don’t know what else because it is off limits. Byzantine churches with ‘basements’, are unusual in the Peloponnese, but here the architect made a virtue of the necessity of a high standing platform and made use of the space.

 Pantanassa’s forecourt is charming:

And if you have puffed up from the lower entrance to the site as I did, take a well deserved rest in the narrow inner courtyard between the nuns’ cells and the church.

This day there were no nuns bearing the glasses of cold water that every guide book mentions. We made do with the garden hose and it was a welcome find. The nuns must get tired of the constant stream of visitors, - hardly the contemplative life they opted for. I wondered how they got supplies and asked a guard in the lower town. It turned out that groceries are delivered by car to the lower gate and loaded onto donkeys just as in Mystras’ heyday. He pointed to two donkeys munching grass near the Aphendiko.  From a donkey’s point of view, this is a cushy job. There are not a lot of nuns.

The Pantanassa is the third and last church in Mystras to be built as a five domed cross-in-square set on a three-naved basilica (see  the Metropolis and the Aphendiko) but, in spite of that similarity, it offers stylistic quirks that make it instantly unique. The bell tower’s unusual egg- shaped roof strikes the eye first, and the elegant northern colonnade with its own small dome suggests at a glance that the late Byzantine penchant for decoration has been given free reign here. (1)The same type of colonnade once stretched across the western façade as well and would have made the church’s appearance even more harmonious than it is now.

 Ascending the stairs and passing through the north colonnade brings you to the eastern façade where you are greeted by a symphony of exuberant design: 

The lower course of rubble masonry is what you would expect but after that it is definitely a case of late Byzantine meets Gothic. Garlands in bas-relief festoon the area above the windows and, whereas the windows themselves are rounded, the stone decoration surrounding them suggests the Gothic pointed arch.

Compare this apse to the Metropolitan, the first church built in Mystras and the difference is striking:

Make the same comparison of the bell towers of the Metropolis

 and the Pantanassa:

On all four sides, the two upper levels of the Pantanassa belfry have three-fold arched windows set in the outline of a large pointed Gothic arch.  Together with the turreted egg shaped dome and those trefoil designs punched out on all four sides above the lower arch, a western artistic influence is everywhere apparent. 

 It is generally true that the influence of the Franks on Byzantine architecture was not dramatic; Byzantine architecture was itself developing under the Palaiologoi, thank you very much.  But in the Pantanassa the Frankish influence on Byzantine design reached its apogee.  By happy coincidence, its donor’s name just happened to be Frankopoulos.

The name Frankopoulos means a ‘descendent or offspring of a Frank’. This name first entered Byzantine records in the 11th century both in Constantinople and the Peloponnese, indicating that some family member back then either had once had a very close relationship with the Franks in trade or diplomacy or was related to Franks by marriage.(2)

The Founder

Ioannis Frankopoulos  was  Mystras’ Prime Minister when his church was dedicated. The dedicatory verse inscription is still inscribed in the western dome of the gallery and the Frangopoulos monogram can be seen in various parts of the church.  

The Family monogram

Just as in Ancient Greece, wealthy Byzantines were expected to be generous  Χορηγοι  or  patrons and to finance monuments befitting  both their own exalted status and  that of the state. The donor of a church as large and elaborate as the Pantanassa would have to have been very wealthy indeed. 

As prime minister, John Frankopoulos was second only to the despot in rank. Extant records tell us that he was entitled to wear a strikingly shaped red hat embroidered with golden thread. Among other visible symbols of his rank were the gold threads in his embossed and embroidered cloak and a solid gold head on his cane.  In the clothes conscious Byzantine world, rank could be gauged at a glance.

For a moment, allow yourself to picture this church being blessed by a beautifully robed bishop with a dignified figure in a red brocade hat, shimmering cloak and sporting a gold cane standing a little apart admiring his new investment. It must have been a satisfying moment so I want to leave our sartorially splendid Prime Minister frozen in time for a bit while we fast forward into a future we know about, but he did not…

The Future brings the Frankopouloi Family an Unusual Letter

A mere 26 years later in 1454 - a year after the fall of Constantinople, this same family would receive an elegant and  politely worded letter from the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed ll  inviting them to abandon all allegiance to the despot of Mystras and to swear allegiance to the Porte. This letter was sent to all of the important Peloponnesian archons with the promise of continued wealth under future Ottoman rule and the retention of all their lands.  Mehmed ll assured them that they would be “better off than before” and, given that a civil war was raging between two Palaiologoi brothers at the time for the Despotat, many of the big landowners would prove amenable to the siren song of the Sultan’s letter written, remember, five years before Mystras actually fell. How subsequent defections affected the final outcome is a moot point. Records have been lost, so we will never be sure what the response was in the case of the Frankopouloi. If nothing else, it must have been a great temptation (as it was intended to be) when it arrived.

Back to 1428

 However, in 1428 that letter was still 26 years away and Mystras thirty two years away from defeat.  The dedication of the impressive   Pantanassa  is proof that even in its twilight years there was still significant wealth in Mystras, a keen appreciation of innovation, and possibly even a sense of optimism about the future.

Inside The Pantanassa

You enter from the colonnade on the north side. The first impression is of a medley of discordant styles. This is especially true of the apse area where an impressive 15th century Virgin Platytera hovers over a wooden iconostasis painted with the ‘eye’, a popular nineteenth century motif, at its apex just underneath the cross. This modern iconostasis is discordant in this setting and a far cry from the elaborate and carved stone one that would have been in place when the church was built. Fair enough for a church which has been in use over such a long period, but a bit disappointing if you have come primarily to see the famous mid fifteenth century wall paintings.

  All paintings on the ground floor level of the nave are from the eighteenth century or later.  To see what remains of the original wall paintings you have to look up to the arches, the galleries, the apses, and the arms of the cross.  Leave all that for a moment and look first at the narthex.
The Narthex

 It is easier to first see what is In the Narthex where most of what is there is both original and easier to examine.

The Portrait of Manuel Laskaris Xadzikis

On the south wall of the narthex is the funerary portrait of Manuel Lascares Xadzikes. An inscription tells us he died in 1445. As you lean over to look closely, you may be standing on his grave. Three burials were found under the narthex floor.  But take a close look anyway because this is the only portrait in existence of a Mystras aristocrat.
 It was meant to impress; sketches from life were no doubt commissioned by Laskaris before his death.  We see a man with an aristocratic long nose and trimmed beard wearing a luxurious fur-trimmed gown slightly open at the front. His hat, both in shape and colour would have indicated his high status, but today we do not know exactly what that status was. His eyes are turned towards a medallion of Christ who has His right hand raised in blessing. The eyes have been gouged out, a piece of vandalism suggesting an Ottoman reaction to the portrait. 

The vault of the narthex, busy but not too exiting

The wall paintings in the vault of the narthex are at least close enough to view in detail. 

Doodles, in this case geometric, are painted on the lower parts of walls in Byzantine churches in even the most sophisticated settings:

But such simplicity is not typical of the filler decorations in this church. The painters here preferred separating their scenes, not merely with one defining line, but with two or more together –ribbons of colour.  Zig  zags and other defining motifs, many vegetative, were interspersed between the iconic renderings as well. It is not so much that anything radically new was added as that the principle that more was better than less seemed to have been applied. These more extravagant design features are hard to see ‘way up there’ in the church but they are present.

The carved marble entrance way leading from the narthex to the nave is truly beautiful with leafy designs and cufic lettering.

From this doorway you can see the hodge-podge of column capitals so typical of Mystras churches


and the huge number of tamata that Mary’s icon still attracts today.

The Wall Paintings in the Nave

The iconic program in the nave echoes that of the Hodegetria-Aphentiko and the Peribleptos and experts tell us that they are among the most important creations in the last phase of Palaeologan painting. They are crowded with figures and background detail, a tendency that exists in all late Byzantine art, but these frescoes are also distinguished by a wide range of colour combinations unique in Byzantine art  and as one gloss puts it:  ‘by a tendency to reproduce a human form which corresponded physically to the setting in which it was placed’. That last bit is suggesting that the figures were both more in proportion and more realistically modelled, - in fact, moving away from the strict rather flat plane of Byzantine iconography and moving towards a more western model. (3) 


The south arm of the cross thanks to John Prebble

One of the most famous tableaux is the Raising of Lazarus with a grave attendant holding his nose because Lazarus had been buried for some time.

It is hard to see unless you brought binoculars, so try . It is a static shot but with nice mood music.
The entry into Jerusalem is another famous neck stretcher:

The Entry into Jerusalem by kind permission of Rolf Gross

The following, of Jesus healing the sick, is impressive too and easier to see:

Jesus Healing the Sick, thanks to John Prebble

Note the many ‘extras’ in the above scene and the very elaborate backdrop.
 The wall paintings here just beg the visitor to linger. Do bring opera glasses, at least.
 Before leaving these wall paintings I want to point out a unique detail which was drawn to my attention by Diana Wright (4).  It is the presence of ‘green men’.

The Green Men


The above beautifully modeled pastel portraits appear in the western gallery of the Pantanassa. They are lovely on their own but note on either side the faces in profile with leaves sprouting from their mouths. They are portrayals of the green man. (5) 

 The green man is a vegetative archetype whose origins can be traced back to Rome and even farther to Dionysian rites. He was was a popular motif in Frankish churches from earliest times. Perhaps their presence began as a nod to northern European tree worship but their exotic design ensured their incorporation into the developing  Gothic tradition. These green men make their iconic debut in Orthodoxy, at least as far as I am aware, in this church. 

 To me the above two  portraits, because of the green men, their colour, their realism, and elaborate filler designs – all defined and set apart by bold red bands, encapsulate and symbolize the blend of the eastern and western aesthetics that this church embodies, an aesthetic that makes taking a close look at the Pantanassa so worthwhile.

(1) In his History of Mystras Steven Runciman claimed that in Mystras there seemed to be more interest in decoration than in architecture. I think they were interested in both, but by the time they got around to building the Pantanassa, its unusual ‘form’ was already an established one and no donor wants an imitation of something already out there. If the Pantanassa had been a cake instead of a church, you might say that the pastry cook had decided to dazzle his audience with the icing.
(2) The origin and timing, in some cases, of last names is a fascinating study throughout Greek history.  Because of the homogeneity of Greek culture, anyone with ties to the relatively unknown and therefore exotic outside world would often take on the name of the outsider group to which he was connected. So you get surnames like Romanos, Bulgaros, Englezos, and Frankos. It does not necessarily denote ethnicity – just a strong connection. Remember in Nicholas Gage’s Eleni that Eleni was called the American simply because her husband was in the U.S.A.  A few people in my village in the early days, if not referring to me by my husband’s name, made do with calling me the Xeni (η ξενη), the foreigner. Not surprisingly, Xenos is a fairly common last name here too.
(3)  The Orthodox iconography displayed here could be called a transitional phase towards a future than never happened. These aesthetic trends were stopped in their tracks by the Ottoman occupation. At that point, artistic conservatism became the norm in order to preserve Orthodoxy.

(4)  See


(5) Green men have a long and interesting history.  For more see



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