Thursday, 7 April 2016

Greece trip. Day 4

Day 4 started with a short drive up to the Gatehouse to the Akronauplia citadel overlooking the city of Nauplion. The purpose of our visit was to see the recently uncovered fresco paintings depicting Saints Anthony, George, Christopher, and James (Santiago) of Compostela. This unusual ensemble characterized by its Western iconography is a good example of Latin art in Frankish Greece. Unfortunately, the paintings are deteriorating rapidly and it was very difficult to study them.

A general view of the fresco decoration of the Akronauplia gate

Re-evaluating the Frankish paintings

The main dish of the day was the site of Mistra. The city of Mistra, originally a Frankish castle built by the Villehardouin princes of Achaea in the early 13th century, was the seat of the Byzantine possessions in the Peloponnese throughout the Palaiologan period. It is well known to Byzantinists as a major center for the last phases of Byzantine painting and architecture. There was time for only a few highlights, so we decided to focus on the Palace complex and on two of the churches. Suna Çağaptay talked to us about the Palace of the Kantakouzenos and Palaiologos despots. She pointed out the initial phase of the building constructed by the Franks and the successive Byzantine additions by drawing our attention to the decorative details that can be attributed to western influence. The rectangular plan and the way the structure dominates the plateau and the whole city are also important features. Suna also described the relationship between the study and restoration of the site and its use in shaping the modern Greek national narrative about the “Greekness” of Mistra. Based on a recent article by Konstantinos Kourelis, she criticized the restoration of the building complex and questioned its validity.

A general view of the palace complex of Mistra

Nicholas Melvani (co-author of this blog) selected two churches as representative examples that show Frankish presence in the Peloponnese. The church of the monastery of Pantanassa, a 15th-century monument following the so-called Mistra plan (a basilica on ground level with a cross-in-square gallery level), is decorated with paintings typical of the Late palaiologan period; its eastern façade displays rich ornamentation executed in poros limestone and brickwork, especially an arcade a of pointed arches and, above that, a series of garlands. The form of the belfry (the round windows and the pinnacles at the top) may also be seen as borrowings from the architectural language of Gothic. The second church Nicholas showed us, that of the monastery of the Peribleptos, is primarily a Byzantine church (a two-column cross in square with an extensive iconographic cycle executed in fresco painting) with a number of meaningful details referring to Frankish presence, mostly visible in the sculptural decoration: a monogram in the Byzantine manner supported by heraldic lions, slabs inserted into the south façade, also decorated with heraldic lions, a prominently carved fleur-de-lis on the east façade, relief fleurs-de-lis on an impost capital in the nave and on a templon epistyle, and round windows combined with pointed arches on the monastic tower. All these point to the patronage of the despot of Mistra Manuel Kantakouzenos and his wife Isabelle de Lusignan, cousin of the King of Armenian Cilicia Guy.The adaptation of western-inspired heraldic practices by a Byzantine ruler are of particular importance for our discussions.

The eastern façade of the Pantanassa church

Saint Nicholas and the Crusader scholars

Inside the Pantanassa church

Pseudo-kufic in the foreground
Discussing the hybrid emblem at the Peribleptos
Explaining Late Byzantine sculpture

The visit to Mistra was concluded with a note by Suna on the so-called house of Laskaris, a fine example of domestic architecture in the city, datable to the 14th century. The Mistra experience was followed by lunch and by a spectacular drive over the Taygetus mountain to the city of Kalamata. 

Suna posing as a real estate agent in front of the House of Laskaris

Soon after our arrival, we convened in the hotel’s conference room for the inaugural session of a series of joint presentations by two junior scholars from widely divergent fields focusing on a common general topic. The first pair, Michalis Olympios (a specialist in Gothic) and Heba Mostafa (an islamicist) treated the theme “Commemoration-Memory” from their different points of view. Heba’s talk ("Commemoration and Erasure at the Haram al-Sharif: The Transformation of the Umayyad Dome of the Chain under the Crusaders") described the history of the Dome of the Chain in Jerusalem, and traced its transformation through the Umayyad, Crusader, and Ayyubid periods. The most striking elements throughout this process were the general concept of commemorating the Kings of Judea and the explicit efforts of the Ayyubids to refer to the memory of the Umayyad phase of the monument after the Crusader interlude. Michalis (“Architecture and Commemoration: Historicist Fantasies, Dynastic Politics and Class Consciousness in the Architecture of Lusignan and Venetian Cyprus”) analysed the revival of historical styles and retrospective features in the Gothic architecture sponsored by the Greeks of Cyprus (e.g. in the 14th-century phases of the Greek cathedrals of Famagusta and Nicosia and in the 16th-century church of the Hodegetria in Nicosia). He thus showed that the visual references to older styles (e.g. to the Romanesque language of the churches in Jerusalem and Beirut) reveal a conscious appreciation of history as a means to convey political messages and to respond to changing realities. Michalis wittingly commented that both speakers mentioned Jerusalem, albeit in different contexts, thus reminding us of our Israel trip. 

At our hotel in Kalamata, we were joined by Cassie Mansfield, an art historian from the Getty. At the end of the day we celebrated Maria Georgopoulou’s birthday and Scott Redford treated the group to some champagne from Rhodes (incidentally, another Crusader land, which, unfortunately, we won't be visiting). Appropriately, the label on the champagne bottle proudly claimed that it was produced in Greece according to the French method (ad modum Franciae?).

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