“Exploring the Peloponnese” is Peter Sommer Travels’ second scheduled tour in Greece in 2018. This year, to give an impression of the experience, we are providing a diary of sorts on our blog, following last year’s precedents in Crete and the Dodecanese. Rather than describing every day in detail (you can check our itineraries on www.petersommer.com for that), every day we will pick one image we took that day, accompanied by some explanations and thoughts.
We continued our exploration of Laconia, the southwestern region of the Peloponnese, today. Our itinerary took us to Sparta, where we visited the archaeological museum, containing remains from the great ancient past of that once dominant and now modest city, then went to Mystras and eventually to Areopolis in the Mani peninsula.
Mystras is not just a wayside stop, but a UNESCO-listed World Heritage site and one of the most important historic places in Greece. It is also extraordinarily beautiful. Its history is complex, and there is so much to see and so much to tell there that we, the Peter Sommer Travels experts, have to be selective, to choose the best possible way to show our guests the significance of this extraordinary place, both its general context and meaning and the specific monuments we take them to see.
The site is on the slope of a steep hill, crowned by a castle that was constructed by western crusaders after the redistribution of the Byzantine Empire’s Greek territories following the Fourth Crusade (in 1204). The castle is the nucleus of Mystras, the place where it all began. The most important period in the history of Mystras, however, are the 14th and 15th centuries, the final decades of fading Byzantium, which had regained control of the Peloponnese and of Mystras, and the site had turned into a city down the slope from the castle. In those years, Mystras served as a capital to the ‘despotate’ of the Morea (the medieval name for the Peloponnese), with a local ruler who was normally a member of the Byzantine imperial family. It was an important centre of power, culture and art. After the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the site was gradually abandoned, but its many painted churches remain and stand witness to past greatness.
A visit to Mystras is an unusual experience, mixing the beauty of the local topography, its exuberant greenery and fragrant flowers, with great views over the plain of the Eurotas River and the site of ancient and modern Sparta, and with a plethora of painted churches, bearing frescoes from the 13th to 15th centuries, most of them of extraordinarily high quality. In spite of its current location in a remote mountainside area of southern Greece, the architecture and art of the Mystras churches are of the highest quality, second only to what was happening in Constantinople itself, underlining the fact that the place was an intellectual hub of the Palaiologan Renaissance, the final flourish of thought and art during the last generations of the dying empire.
The place was thus home to great thinkers and artists. Most special among those was Georgios Gemistos Plethon, a Late Byzantine intellectual of towering importance. Plethon rediscovered the significance of ancient Greek philosophy, especially the works of Plato, and managed to communicate his interests to the Latin West, namely to Italy, where he contributed to planting the seed of what we know as the Renaissance, the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman scholarship and art that we now consider as the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern era.
The sights of Mystras are primarily churches, many of them of great architectural interest, as Mystras developed a distinctive architectural style in the 14th and 15th centuries. Beyond the complexity of the spaces they create and the details of their fine decorative brickwork, they bear extensive frescoes on their interiors, some of them well-preserved, some less so. Our image shows the late 13th or early 14th century paintings in the dome of the Metropolis, the cathedral of Mystras, with a stern-looking Christ Pantokrator (ruler of all) at the centre, surrounded by prophets. It is a tiny sample of the grandeur we showed our guests today. Such paintings are not just an expression of the art of their era, but of the intellectual, theological, philosophical and political trends that led to its creation. That is, of course, a whole story by itself, or a series of stories, all of them fascinating. To hear them, you should join us on Exploring the Peloponnese!
There is a lot more to say about Mystras, and for sure, we’ll come back to it on this blog.
Tomorrow, we are going to explore the Mani Peninsula.