Mystras (World Heritage)

By | August 16, 2021

The ruined city northwest of Sparta was an important outpost of the Byzantine emperors on the Peloponnese until the 15th century. Starting in the 13th century, monasteries and churches became an important center of Byzantine intellectual life around the fortress.

Mystras: facts

Official title: Mystras
Cultural monument: Byzantine upper and lower town, called »the ruler«, home of scholars such as the Neoplatonic philosopher Georgios Gemistos Plethon; outstanding structures such as the Church of St. Demetrios, a three-aisled basilica with remarkable wall paintings depicting the life of St. Demetrios, the Perivléptos monastery with paintings of the so-called »Cretan School« of the 16th century, the Pantanássa monastery, the Vrontóchion monastery with the graves of the despots of Mystrás, the Agía Sophia with interesting frescoes such as the »Resurrection« and the »Death of Mary«, the L-shaped despot’s palace and the Franconian fortress at an altitude of 612 m
Continent: Europe
Country: Greece, Peloponnese
Location: Mystrás, west of Sparta
Appointment: 1989
Meaning: an outstanding example of the architecture and art of the middle and late Byzantine period

Mystras: history

1249 at the behest of Guillaume de Villehardouin castle complex in the Eurotas valley
1263 Takeover of Mystrás by the Byzantines
1265 Victory of the Franks over the Byzantines
1309 Construction of the Church of St. Demetrios
1347-54 under John VI. Katakousinos award of the title of Despot of Mystrás
1350 Agía Sophia Foundation
1428 Establishment of the Pantanássa monastery
1459 Conquest by the Turks
1687-1715 Rule of Venice over the city
1770 Invasion of the Albanians and destruction of the city
1834 final abandonment of the city
2013 extensive restoration of the despot’s palace

From the splendor of Byzantine urban architecture

Although the famous German poet prince Johann Wolfgang von Goethe never visited Mystrás, he made this place the setting for one of his works and, presumably inspired by studying medieval sources, relocated Faust’s connection with Helena here in “Faust II”. Obviously, this city seemed to him to be a suitable place to establish a link between the intellectual history of antiquity and the Middle Ages. Another famous thinker had tried this before him, the philosopher Georgios Gemistos Plethon, who founded an academy around 1400 in which the ancient authors were re-studied. His influence reached as far as Florence, where he inspired the Medici to a not inconsiderable extent with his ideas.

After Mystrás, located at the foot of the Taigetos Mountains, was largely destroyed by Egyptian troops in 1825, only one ruined city remained. Despite the destruction and the ongoing reconstruction, seven churches, remains of palaces, monasteries and houses as well as the castle high above have been preserved, so that the appearance of a lively medieval town can quickly be put together in the mind of the beholder. Hardly any other place conveys such an impressive and comprehensible picture of a large city from the epoch of the Byzantine Empire.

It was founded in the first half of the 13th century by building a fortress high up on the mountain top, which was initiated by Guillaume de Villehardouin and was intended to secure the conquests of Frankish crusaders. But byzantine governors soon moved in here, and a city developed around the fortress, in which the Spartans settled in search of a safe refuge.

According to pharmacylib, the city quickly developed into a cultural center of the Byzantine Empire; Monasteries and churches were built, and a library and school of scholars were set up. Especially during the rule of the paleologists, the last ruling family of the Byzantine Empire to reside in Constantinople, the spiritual life of Mystrás developed particularly well. In the 19th century, the art historian Ferdinand Gregorovius compared the court of Mystrás with the royal courts of the Italian Renaissance, and even spoke of the »hearth of a Greek Renaissance«.

Despots appointed by Constantinople ruled the city for life, although the Frankish influence always remained significant. The Byzantine Empire was forced to maintain close contacts with the neighboring “Latins”. The marriage with Franconian princesses also served to strengthen this connection.

The middle position between Byzantine culture and Western influence explains the peculiarities that can be seen in some of Mystrás’ works of art. The palace complex, which has been rebuilt several times, shows late Gothic details on the door and window frames, so still bears the visible traces of the adoption of western architectural forms in the Byzantine palace architecture. This becomes even clearer in the church dedicated to the soldier saint Demetrios, also known as Metrópolis. It was built as a three-aisled basilica at the beginning of the 14th century under the influence of the Latin West. Although it is not at all common in Orthodoxy, since a form once revealed did not require any further change, it was rebuilt twice. In the 15. In the 19th century, it was redesigned – in keeping with the Eastern architectural tradition – into a cross-domed church with four domes over the cross arms. A similar development also took place in other sacred buildings such as the Panagía Odigítria in the Vrontóchion monastery, the official church of the despots. The same applies to the church of the Pantanássa monastery, in which the Byzantine brick ornamentation has been combined with Gothic pointed arch elements and the frescoes have a rich color range, which for the first time also includes lemon yellow. The wall paintings in the monastery church of Perivléptos are among the best preserved and most impressive by Mystrás, not least because of the successful individualization of the painted people, for example the depiction of the Ascension of Christ.

Mystras (World Heritage)