Past vs. Present or a Spring Visit to Greece

 by Rossitza Schroeder (CARE/PSR Associate Professor of Arts & Religion)

This past Spring break my husband and I travelled to Greece in search of Byzantine monosandali—military saints with one shoe on and one shoe off. We found none. In spite of this our experience was full and completely rejuvenating. Touched by the beauty of an exuberant yet gentle Balkan spring and the unmatched thrill of being so close to the past, I regained not only my intellectual and spiritual equilibrium but also and strangely enough my willingness to more fully engage with the here and now.

We travelled to the Peloponnese to see the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century frescoed churches in Mystra, attempted to visit monuments in and around the small town of Geraki which in a typical Greek fashion were all closed, spent two days in the Byzantine-Veneto-Ottoman-modern Greek melting pot of Monemvasia, and ended up in Athens trying to remember the city which we both left in 2003.

My vague memory that Mystra was beautiful was confirmed a hundredfold.

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Mystra looking up toward the Pantanassa church and the Crusader castle
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Looking down at Mystra from the Crusader castle

Founded in the second half of the thirteenth century on the top of a steep hill as a Crusader outpost, Mystra became one of the most important late Byzantine cities. The heir to the Byzantine throne resided here and some of the most influential Byzantine intellectuals like cardinal Bessarion and Gemistus Plethon would have walked its streets at one point or another.

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Walking in Mystra

The site was continuously occupied until the nineteenth century but today only a small village right below the kastro is still inhabited, the rest is a museum. Mystra contains some of the best preserved examples of Byzantine domestic architecture, including palatial structures; those are however in ruins, with the palace of the despot being rebuilt (the conservation practices are peculiar to say the least). For the most part, the only buildings that are roofed today are the churches, some of which display staggeringly complex iconographic programs painted with enviable skill and exquisite attention to detail. Of those only five are accessible and yet they provided us with long sought after aesthetic pleasure and sufficient number of intellectual puzzles.

The lack of monosandali surprised me, a little. Of the few examples that survive, two can be seen in a fourteenth-century church in Constantinople, and I thought, logically, that given the close ties of Mystra with the capital there are going to be some. Alas, that was not the case. In general, full length saints in the lower portion of church walls survive poorly; their feet frequently are destroyed being closest to human intervention and to mold and moisture seeping through the floor. The failure to locate monosandali did not prevent me from thoroughly engaging with the images that covered the upper portions of most churches. The Metropolis church, for example, surprised me with the ways in which the story of Christ’s ministry unfolded on its vaults. To the south it formed a continuous uninterrupted string of events, while to the north each miracle was framed with thick red line and was singled out as individual icon. The story is clearly related in two different ways, but why? This could be a new research project…

It turned out that the one monastic church of the Virgin Hodegetria contains a real iconographic treasure trove with scenes from the infancy of Christ and the last days of Virgin Mary’s life that, for the most part, have remained unknown to scholars.

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A mysterious scene from the life of Virgin Mary in the Hodegetria church

They were locked behind a thick glass door and my pleas to open it remained unanswered. I went to the church twice, craning my neck and taking picture hoping that I would be able to figure out the iconographic mystery. It is on my second visit to the complex that I recorded the sounds of the place—birds chirping, leaves rustling, and sheep bells sounding somewhere in the distance; I listen to them now and cannot believe I was part of this idyllic word. I wish I could have recorded the fragrance, only then will the picture be complete.

With its prominent porch and curvy profile, the church of the Virgin Pantanassa is easily the most photogenic building of all, and is still inhabited by nuns and their feline companions. It was built in the fifteenth-century and displays a clever synthesis of Byzantine and Gothic features. Its frescoes, famed for their pastel colors and sophisticated iconography, teem with delightful details that gladden the eye as much as they stir the mind.

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Detail from the Annunciation in the Pantanassa church

The arcade of the Pantanassa porch frames beautiful views toward the valley of Sparta with its rolling hills and intensely green citrus orchards and olive groves. I noticed actually that all churches we visited had porches that were oriented toward the valley, providing delightful opportunities to not only look out but also to meditate on the symbiotic relationship between humanity and nature.

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The view from the Pantanassa porch

I had never seen the monastic church of the Virgin Peribleptos, and I felt completely overwhelmed by it.

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The exterior of the Periblepotos church

I remember just sitting on its dusty floor and looking up until my neck and head started hurting. Tucked into the corner of the town and built in the late fourteenth century by a Cypriot lady of French origin the church is constructed into a living rock, which might have once provided a shelter for an ascetic elder who would occasionally peak through an arched opening into the north wall of the naos. It is here that I heard for the first time silence interrupted occasionally by the rustle of tall evergreens and distant bird song. With the exception of the gauged eyes of sainted figures the church preserves a legible decorative program that consists primarily of scenes from the life of Christ and Virgin Mary. Here I saw one of the most moving representations of the taking of Christ’s dead body from the cross

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Detail from the Deposition in the Peribleptos church

and the curious liturgical procession of angels with their heads covered. It was here also that I noticed a monosandalos but in a narrative context—while hurrying to catch up with Jesus one of the apostles in the Entry into Jerusalem had lost his shoe; he is also opportunistically revealing his upturned and vulnerable sole to us.

Elated by the views, textures, and fragrances of spring and fortified by the best yogurt with honey and freshly squeezed orange juice we drove to the town on Monemvasia which is 90 kilometers south of Sparta on the coast of the Aegean. We were in for a surprise of the good kind—as we approached it we saw a bulky peninsula connected to the mainland with a narrow causeway; we had to leave our car in front of the city gate in order to enter a time capsule—we dragged our luggage on cobble stone streets to a hotel room with one of the most breathtaking views that revealed the cobalt blue of the Mediterranean and the jugged outline of the mainland.

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The view from our room in Monemvasia

It might as well have been a movie, only it was better, because we were in it and all of it was real. The town is small, littered with churches (all but one were locked) that reveal Italian influence and hefty stone houses whose facades form a colorful architectural cascade when looked from above or below.

 

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Monemvasia from below

 

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Monemvasia from above

The upper town, where most of the Byzantine remains are, was, of course, closed. It turned out that this was one of the main themes of the trip with most places I wanted to visit being locked, cordoned off, unavailable. This did not prevent the Greek archaeological service to charge full admission price. I do love the Balkans, but this is one of those senseless approaches to life to which I cannot relate anymore after having lived in the relatively law abiding USA.

Athens had changed since the time we were members of the American School of Classical Studies in 2002-2003. We came in a dust storm blown from the Sahara desert and that might have ‘clouded’ our perception of the city we both loved so much. Abandoned and burned down buildings, graffiti, and garbage littered the parts we used to walk every day on our way to the Acropolis or the Agora. We also stumbled on a metro strike and seemingly unjustified closures in the Archaeological and Byzantine museums.

 

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The installation in one of the few open galleries in the Byzantine Museum in Athens.

Oh, and the banks refused to exchange our money citing a law which in other parts of Greece did not seem to matter (I thought to myself, can you all get on the same page). Our experience in and of Athens was, however, dramatically improved by the hospitality and wonderful collection of the Benaki Museum, the views that the highest most hill of Lykavitos afforded of the city washed by a thunderstorm,

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Athens after a storm from the Lykavitos

and the dinner with a dear friend whom we had not seen for a few years. We were fortunate to experience the new Acropolis museum which was the only one opened on March 25, the day of Greek independence, and which revealed a thought-provoking engagement with the classical past of the city.

Even though Athens was not what we remembered, I still can say that the food there was just as delicious, that the blooms of the decorative citrus trees were just as fragrant, and that the mixture of past and present was just as enticing. I was as intrigued by the curious mixture of pagan and Christian in the Old Metropolis as I was in 2003,

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Detail from the exterior of the Old Metropolis showing pagan reliefs made Christian with the addition of crosses

and loved every moment of seeing the interior of the Byzantine Kapnikarea church where I had experienced one of the most moving Easter services thirteen years ago. As we landed at SFO, in the land of plenty, I realized that as much as I have been trying to care about the immediate present, it is the beauty of the past that animates and inspires me.

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