Zarnata - the south walls with Kambos below and the 18th century tower - now used to shelter goats
The castle of Zarnata dominates the northern approaches to Mani from Kalamata and is most impressive when viewed from the small and fertile plain of Kambos to the north and east. To the south it is less impressive as a defensive position with a number of hills on the same level as itself which would have made it susceptible to artillery fire in later centuries. The masonry walls which almost completely surround the northern and eastern flanks of the hill are a mixture of ancient, Byzantine, probably Frankish and definitely Turkish fortifications. The site is thought to be that of the ancient city of Gerenia or possibly Alagonia (the archaeologists argue about it) and if the former then it is reported by Pausanius, the 2nd Century version of Baedecker or the Blue Guides, that Nestor spent his childhood here. The first mention of the present name (which may or may not be of Slavic derivation) is from Venetian chronicles of the 13th century which describe the place as being the home of pirates.
In the late Byzantine era there is mention of Zarnata being passed from the Despot Theodoros Palaeologos to the eventual last Emperor of Constantinople, Constantine. In 1461 when they should really have been fending off the Turkish invasion Thomas Palaeologos seized Zarnata from his brother Demetrios. The enciente walls show a steady development from ancient times and it is thought by some to have Frankish remains but Bon claims to have found no reference to the fortress in Frankish sources - though it seems unlikely that any occupying power would leave such a dominating position vacant.
According to the 17th century Turkish writer, Evliya Celebi, the fortress was seized by Sultan Mehmet II and his commander Khotsa Mahmud Pasha at about the same time as Corinth and Mistra - in other words around 1460. Celebi wrote, "Then the kastro had been thrown down in particular places and all the infidels of Mani had been subdued." He continues, "Later the Maniates, who had connections with the Europeans revolted and fortified the kastro by land and sea. They took a hundred thousand Muslim prisoners put them in chains, seized thousands of ships and pulled down thousands of villages, small towns and kastra." Even allowing for Celebi's numerical exaggerations it is obvious that the Zarnata area changed hands a number of times in the 16th century and Celebi reports that in the reign of Murad III (1574-1595) the Admiral Kilitz Ali Pasha had used the tribute from the Maniates to expand the size of the castle but that after time these outer walls had fallen into disrepair.
The castle is known to have been occupied by the the Turks in 1671 just after one of their most concerted attempts to subdue Mani. The Turkish traveller and sometime civil servant Evliya Celebi, who wrote extensively on the Ottoman territories in his 'Seyahatname' or 'Book of Travels' accompanied the Turkish troops and gives details of the siege of Zarnata, which he describes as "the key kastro of the Mani", by the Ottomans in the spring of 1670. The fortress seems to have surrendered without much of a fight, probably due to the sheer numbers of Ottoman troops which had surrounded Zarnata.
Evliya Celebi was entrusted by the Ottoman general Ali Pasha, with the task of procuring troops and workmen from Albania to rebuild Zarnata from scratch. The defenses were not so much against the threat of the Maniates, who had been soundly crushed in the 1670 campaign as evidenced by the widespread emigrations from many locations in Mani in the following years, but against the Venetians who still harboured Peloponnesian ambitions. The fort was obviously well repaired and its walls were one thousand and seventy paces in perimeter, were four architectural pikhs wide and twelve high (a mason's pik is 0.75 metres - therefore the walls were 9 metres high and 3 metres wide). The castle had nine strong towers or bastions and Evliya boasted, rather rashly, that "It is an unconquerable stronghold".
Zarnata in the 1680s as engraved by Coronelli. There's another coloured version above. The village below is Kambos though the view (from the east) is somewhat lacking in verisimilitude.
Zarnata obviously had many buildings within its compass. In 1670 the Turks found five hundred houses with tile and slate roofs. They expelled many Christians and destroyed their houses replacing them with Turkish schools, hamman (baths) and administrative offices for the garrison commander. Seven churches were converted into mosques. Evliya describes these as "gleaming their minarets embellished with gold and ornaments". Today there is little trace of these buildings, the cisterns which had been constructed, "so that there was no house without its cistern", or of the minarets which once graced the skyline.
In 1685, Morosini, at the head of a Venetian force invaded the Morea laying siege to Koroni on other side of the Gulf of Messenia. When this had fallen he crossed to Mani where, aided, but hardly abetted, by the Maniates (they spent most of the time squabbling with one another) he laid siege to Zarnata in early September 1685. Although a large Turkish relief force was nearby Morosini intercepted their messengers and persuaded the Turkish garrison that they had no help at hand. The commander Hasan Pasha surrendered on 11 September and was allowed to withdraw with his troops and sailed away to Elaphonissos island off the easternmost finger of the Peloponnese, Cape Malea. Leake states that at that time it had a garrison of 600 and bristled with 51 cannon. When he was there in 1805 the place was reputedly in ruins.
Zarnata dominating Kambos from the time of the Turkish occupation, late 17th century - the topography is somewhat fanciful…
Plans from the time of the Venetians mostly engraved by Vincenzo Coronelli exist and are reproduced in Kevin Andrews' 'Castles of the Morea'. It is worth noting that many of the reproductions of the fortresses of the Morea which we can date to Venetian period of ascendancy (1685 - 1715) are ascribed to Coronelli but there is ample proof that the man himself rarely strayed from his studio and printing press near Venice - relying presumably on other artists sending him back sketches. There is also proof that he could change details to serve political ends (see Navari, Leonora. Vincenzo Coronelli and the iconography of the Venetian conquest of the Morea: a study in illustrative methods. British School at Athens.1995. vol.90 pp.505-519) therefore the veracity of the finished article has to be taken with some allowance for artistic license.
The castle fell to the Turks again in 1715 without a fight and it was, with Kelefa in the south, the Turkish bastions which attempted to keep the cork on the Maniate tribes during the late 17th century but doesn't appear to have been re-occupied by the Turks in the 18th century. The tower on the top of the hill, now used as a store for hay, is a mainly 18th century construction of the local kapetani who became Beys of the Mani. These were the Koutifaris and Koumoundouros families - one of the latter of whom, Alexandros, went on to be a late 19th century Greek Prime Minister and who sent in the troops to quell the last outbreak of inter family fighting in Kitta - deep Mani. His bust is to be found at the foot of the hill near his other family 'palace' and a Mycenaean Tholos tomb.
The Tower atop Zarnata and the church of the Zoodokos Pigi with a storm brewing over Kalamata
The castle was last used for its primary purpose as late as the Greek Civil War (1946 - 50) when the inhabitants of the local villages of Stavropigi and Malta moved into the site for safety from the violence between the communist guerrillas and the Nationalist troops - in some cases pulling down the old stone walls and replacing them with barbed wire defences, the remains of which can be found on the western slopes.
The church of the Zoodokos Pigi 'The Life Giving Spring' or Panagia Niameri
This church is easy to find just down the hill from the Tower to the north west in fact Drandakis calls it 'Panagia Kastrinis' or 'The Virgin of the Castle'. The church is fully painted with frescoes from 1787 by Anagnostes Kalliergaki of Proastio and Philippaki of Androuvitsa - these painters were active in a number of NW Mani churches at that time. They are in a reasonable condition with bright colours (possibly because the church has absolutely no external light except the doorway) and are almost complete. The church was unlocked when I visited in June 1999 though I have heard of visitors who were disappointed to find it firmly locked. In May 2000 the key was hooked over a nail just to the right of the top of the door but in September it was gone again. It's now clear that the keys are controlled by the 26th Ephorateof byzantine Monuments in Kalamata - though held by someone much closer at hand. If you are keen to visit churches in the area it's worth the effort of contacting them. There are details in my Introduction pages.
The church is similar in form to Ag. Paraskevi in Platsa (though much larger than that church and with none of the delightful medieval brickwork of that edifice) and has no cupola merely a barrel vaulted transept. This style of church architecture is relatively rare in Greece (less than 100 examples) and there are other, medieval variations nearby at Kambos and Kalianeika but this church is late 18th century - there is a stone above the closed north side door which is dated 1780 and alludes to the church being built by craftsmen from Androuvitsa (Exohori) with contributions from the population of the local villages. The iconostasis is an impressively carved wooden edifice with some fine painted icons on the panels.
The Christ in Majesty, Angels and signs of the Zodiac from the depiction of the 'Praises' (Ainoi) in the western barrel vault and St. George with his 'coffee bearer'. Zoodokos Pigi, Zarnata
However don't expect to see these now - the iconostasis was taken away by the local Ephorate of Byzantine recently and expertly restored - in other words stripped of its paint and icons. The result is stunning in that the full intricacy and craftmanship of the iconostasis is revealed (I'd guess that the iconostasis is late 18th - early 19th century). I also suspect that this is not as it was originally intended to look - it was meant to be painted and luridly so with gilt and silver and filigree fittings and cascades of ribboned tamata catching the flickering light of the ornate oil lamps. Like much restoration this is worthy and skilfull, but spiritually inauthentic. I checked on my photos of six years ago and strangely this iconostasis wasn't painted - most are - though it was covered with religious paraphenalia, garlands and votive offerings - I wonder where the icons (of the Virgin Mary, Christ in Majesty and John the Baptist (O Prodromos) are now? There are some modern day mass produced icons propped up below where the originals would have been.
The Expulsion of Adam & Eve from Paradise and detail of the restored iconostasis. Zoodokos Pigi - Zarnata
Due to the lack of windows the colours on the wallpaintings are extremely fresh and vivid and they cover a multitude of biblical themes and variations - and although not of any huge artistic worth they are involving and animated.
To get into Zarnata drive up the hill into Stavropigio, the present village - I used to think the name meant 'springs at the cross' but it has been pointed out to me recently that the term 'Stavropigion' is a technical term which refers to a monastery which is attached to the Patriach (head of the Orthodox Church) and not to the local Bishop. The word breaks into two parts 'stavro' or cross and 'pignimi' to fix in the ground and refers the marker which would announce a Stavropigion. This status gave such designated ecclesiastical institutions exemptions or immunity from taxes. As Zarnata is often referred to as a Bishopric there were presumably rivalries between the castle and its surrounding village. Stavropgio also has an alternate name of 'Varousi' which you'll hear older locals call it and which derives from the Turkish word varos (pronounced varosh) meaning a suburb - in other words the settlement outside the walls of the castle.
Evliya Celebi describes the Varusi of Zarnata in 1670 as being, "in the midst of vineyards, melon fields, two monasteries and attractive buildings, to describe which words do not exist." Pouqueville, the French traveller and later diplomat who was held captive in Tripolitza (modern day Tripolis), then capital of the Peloponnese, for some months around 1800 (though there are grave doubts as to whether he actually visited Mani) described it as "a lesser village" (to Doli) which, "abounds with churches and is inhabited by a number of clergy and Papas: of the latter it must be confessed that they do not bear a high character for probity."
There are signposts to Zarnata and the church of the Koimisis off the main Kalamata- Kardamili road. You will come across the largish 18th century church of the Koimisis Theotokou - depicted (above) in a print of a sketch by Otto Magnus von Stackelberg from the time of his visit with Charles Cockerell c.1812 - to the south west and below the hill of Zarnata. The photo', from 2005, shows the view from some 500 metres further south-west
Church of the Koimisis Theotokou, Stavropigio - from East and from Zarnata Castle
The church had a number of rubber hose ends sticking out of the stonework where concrete has been pumped in to strengthen the walls - though most of these have now been cut off and cemented over, some still remain. The inscription over the main door says 1906 but refers to the rather grand marble surrounds to the door not the building itself which is mid 18th century. The church is usually locked. We fortuitously found the south west side door open one day, as some local ladies were exhuming a body in the cemetery just below and had left the door open - I believe the local Papas has the key, but have never clapped eyes on him. Inside the church is a riot of decoration and additions. There is a gynaikonitis, a women's mezzanine floor, of some decoration at the west end of the naos dated 1907 - therefore one can surmise that the then Papas had money to spend on titivating his church, both outside and inside. The gynaikonitis unfortunately blocks off some of the paintings - which are extensive and were the work of Anagnosti Kalliergi of Proastio and Philippaki in 1786, a year before they decorated the Zoodokos Pigi church, above in Zarnata.
Frescoes - Koimisis church - Stavropigio
These follow a pretty common pattern of 18th century iconography but at the Koimisis church the artists had a far greater canvas on which to indulge their skills. There is a huge Taxiarch (archangel) Michail on the north wall of the naos - his frightening breastplate is now covered by a later framed piece of gaudy religiosity. Whether this is by accident or a bowdlerising move by the priest to pander to the sensibilities of the congregation I cannot tell - and here the painters had a cupola to decorate with a conventional Pantocrator. The depictions of the psalms in the upper west end of the naos have in part, unfortunately, been covered by the gynaikonitis but still show the western garbed figure talking to a Turk - this time his hair isn't powdered. Rather like a similar scene in Ag. Theodoroi in Kambos, just below, the Turk is shown holding a wand with a crescent on the tip and the westerner a wand with a cross on its end - though there is some 26 years difference between the two wallpaintings. There is a large and intricately carved and painted iconostasis and further embellishments of chandeliers make this a church almost oppressive in its over-decoration.
It wasn't until September 2003 that I, more by luck than good judgement or assiduous research, discovered the date of the church. I was driving up to Zarnata and stopped briefly by the steps to the Koimisis church. An old lady was sitting on her balcony adjacent to the steps and seeing me asked if I was German (a common question - not that I think I look particularly Teutonic) in fluent English. 'Milate Anglika?' I asked ('You speak English?') and this persuaded her that I spoke fluent Greek - so the conversation switched from English, which the old lady clearly spoke, to Greek, which I struggle in. I did however understand that I needed to look at something on the north side of the building - a side I'd never bothered to look at before as it abutts against houses and the slope of the hill. There, over a small door is a lintel with writing either side of a double headed eagle and the date of the building of the church, 1747.
To reach the south end of Zarnata pass the Church of the Koimisis in a south easterly direction and go to the southern end of the hill. Here a path skirts a modern house (you will think you are going into its front door let alone its garden and there may be a rather noisy but harmless dog in situ or a rather friendly off-white, one eyed cat who insisted on accompanying us on our explorations) and from there on a small path leads up through some scrub and the odd olive tree to the summit. To view the enciente walls you will need to scramble further down the hill. The view from the top over the Kambos plain is both expansive and also dramatically demonstrates the dominating position of the castle.
On the eastern slopes below the Tower just above the walls is a ruined building which looks like a cistern but on closer inspection reveals itself as a church. It is coincidentally, according to Andrews, also a cistern, which explains the large hole in the floor. This is Ag. Nikolaos (or Panagitsa) and was reputedly one of the "Secret Schools" run clandestinely by the Orthodox Church during the Ottoman period. (To see a depiction of a Secret School look at the defunct 200 Drachma note and for those whose memories only go as far as the new Euro notes there's a - probably illegal - scan below)
Why there was a Secret School in Zarnata is difficult to explain - the castle was really only under direct Turkish domination for relatively short periods of time and anyway the Orthodox Church was generally allowed freedom of worship under the Ottoman Rum Millet system and recent historical research has denounced the entire concept as a bit of latter day mythologising. Perhaps the cistern under the church - now only about a metre deep and clogged with rubble, was the inspiration for the story. The church is now in a desperate state, the roof covered in grass and the 15th century frescoes are damp ridden to the point of being practically indecipherable. The door is open, the roof has a large hole in it and the bema has collapsed. The melancholy aspect was heightened on our visit by an owl which was perched in the ruined doorway like something out of a Caspar David Friedrich painting.
Ag. Nikolaos Zarnata - view and zodiac and saints from the Ainoi paintings
The owl was, delightfully, still in residence some five years later and was disturbed by my entrance and the condition of the church has hardly improved. The paintings are according to Kassis by Christodolous Kallergis and at first sight the church's paintings are too far gone to make any sense of. However Eleni Delyianni-Doris wrote a long study of Ag, Nikolaos in the 1980s (H. Delyanni-Doris. Die Wandmalereien des 15. Jahrhunderts in Ajios Nikolaos in Zarnata in Festschrift für Klaus Wessel. Münchener Arbeiten Zur Kunstgeschichte und Archaologie Band 2. Editio Maris. 1988. ISBN 3925801022). According to her paper there are two sets of paintings. Kallergis painted merely the east wall in the early 1700s - there is a faded inscription stating so.
The Prothesis of Ag. Nikolaos with Kallergis' 'signature' just visible to the left of Christ in Sorrow and the creatures of the deep from the Ainoi - or depiction of the last Psalms.
He was from Mykonos and other paintings of his with inscriptions bearing his name are recorded locally at Lakedaemon (1701) and Milia - Ag. Iannis Prodromos - (1706).
There is a distinct similarity between his name and that of the painter of the Zoodokos Pigi- just over the rise and Panagia down the hill in Stavropigio. One can speculate that the later painter was a descendent of the earlier. The other paintings in the church are ascribed by Delyianni-Dori to a certain Xenos Digenis. This she works out by comparing the style and themes to other examples of his work from the end of the sixteenth century. The paintings follow the typical post-Byzantine iconography of the Saints and Psalms. If one can make head or tail of these damp ravaged paintings then it is an early example of the Psalm dominated ceiling of the naos. The depiction of the later Psalms (or Ainoi or 'Praises') really begins in the 15th century and this is one of the earliest Greek examples of the themes. For a more fulsome explanation of the Ainoi frescoes click here
On the north west slopes of the hill are two more churches worth investigation. One can scramble down the olive terraces to visit them from the Zoodokos Pigi church - there is a track but it does tend to wander hither and thither round the olive terraces. However you may wish to approach them from below. After the centre of Stavropigi the main road runs on through the village going north-east, before dropping down the side of the hill to Kambos. Just before the end of the village there are two turnings up onto the hill. If you take the earlier small right hand concreted turning you'll find a 'street' which winds around some houses. Turn left by a small woodworking workshop and follow the concreted path until you come out onto the hill. Here you are greeted by Ag. Charalambos. (I have to admit I followed my own, mental, directions in May 2006 and had to try twice to find the correct path - mind you a bunch of Greek workmen with a JCB, digging up most of the neighbourhood to put in pipes, made my passage a smidge difficult)
Ag. Charalambos - Stavropigio - View from the SW and detail of the Koimisis tos Theotokou (Going to Sleep of the Virgin Mary)
A single chambered church - I suspect the original barrel vault roof has collapsed at some time, has fragmentary frescos - and other, large, patches of whitewash. It's not locked and has a remarkable Ag. Georgios on its north wall. This diverges from the conventional and rather wooden post Byzantine Saint George in that it is a direct copy of a Renaissance painting and is a rare example of such overtly western influenced wall painting.
Saints George and Dimitrios - Ag. Charalmbos - Stavropigio
This was probably copied from a print* and the artist is eager to show off his knowledge of western art in other paintings in the single celled church, although none quite match the audacity of St. George. There is a possibilty that the painter came from outside Mani during the period of the Venetian occupation of Zarnata (1686-1715). There is a dedication to a certain Christodolous Malevri - the last name is both a prominent family in the Zarnata-Stavropigio area and an area of Mani between Areopolois and Githeon. The paintings are 18th century - though there is no date on the letterings.
*What I now realise, after spotting an article in a Greek archaeological journal (AAA), is that, in fact, the image comes from an icon - probably painted in Zakinthos in the 17th century which belongs to the Athens Metocheion (a sort of satellite) of the Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai. The details and an extremely rare example of St. George wielding a sword rather than a lance, match up the icon and this wallpainting rather conclusively. I suspect that the wallpainter copied the icon.
May 2007. Update on this. I sent my musings to Professor Maria Konstantoudaki of Athens University. She kindly showed me that in fact the original for this is an icon by the Cretan painter Michail Damaskinos from the late 16th century (see above). The orginal is in Kerkyra (Corfu) in the church of the Panagia Theotokos Spilaiotissas. Damaskinos was a quite remarkably adept artist who was obvious steeped in the western mannerist traditions, and somehow, in a version of artistic Chinese whispers, a copy of his original has turned up in this tiny church in Mani.
Above it on the hill is the Church of the Evangelistria. This is similar in size and form to Ag, Charalambos. It has a pitched roof which inside shows a barrel vault (in this case intact) and a single apse.
Church of the Evangelistria, Zarnata. View and Adam & Eve (plus serpent)
The paintings are in a good condition but are rather dull, both in colour and in inception and from comparison with the frescoes of Ag. Nikolaos at Kastania by the same artist or artists as that church. As it is dedicated to the Evangelists, not surprisingly it portrays a fair few of them on the walls and ceiling. In fact the entire church appears to be painted with full length portraits of Holy Blokes in Robes.
Paintings from the church of the Evangelistra - Zarnata
I'd guess by the rather naive style that the paintings are first part of the 19th century which ties in with the style of the Kastania church. Both of these churches have been unlocked on my visits (latest, September 2006).
Twin church of Ag. Iannis Prodromos & Ag. Nikolaos - Stavropigi
If you take the later road up onto the hill (it follows the contour line of the hill in a generally north earterly direction near a traffic mirror) you'll walk past a modern church before the path curves to the south. Here - to your left, in a garden next to a house, is the twin church of Ag. Iannis Prodromos and Ag. Nikolaos . Bob Barrow had visited before me (I went in June 2001) and declared it locked and in the interim had discovered that it was the family church of the parish priest in Stavropigi - a Koumoundouros. I entered the garden to be greeted by an exceedingly noisy dog attached to a chain which fortuitously restrained it from savaging my ankles. Any attempt to sneak into the church became futile and two young women appeared on the steps of the house bearing washing. They were quite unphased at my appearance in their garden and told me that I was welcome to look inside the church. I went for the door with a handle which was firmly locked - with complete logic the door without the handle was the unlocked one. (It has remained unlocked on various later visits).
The church is of a fascinating structure and I spent a happy half hour afterwards with a sketch book and pen attempting to work out how it was constructed (see inept architectural scribble below - I have in fact left out an archway linking the two naves).
From the front it has a unified facade with a high single arched bell tower integrated at the apex. The two doors point to there being two churches and each has its separate naos and bema but linking the two is a cross barrel vaulted section. I'm sure that in the original plan this was open but in the intervening centuries someone decided that it needed an iconostasis, a highly carved wooden baroque version of which has been jammed into the space surmounted by a large cross which almost touches the pantocrator in the centre of the ceiling of the cross vault. This and the lack of much daylight makes the church(es) extremely claustrophobic. This sensation is heighted by the generally dilapidated air - the iconostasis has lost any paint it once had (although some icons are still fresh) and is starting to crumble and the wall paintings - which covered every surface - are in a generally poor condition and in parts there is more damp than paint.
Externally the building points to the late-middle part of the Byzantine period (with the longlevity of the Byzantine Empire a term such as 'late-middle' is, I assure you, quite in order). The cross barrel vault echoes those at Ag.Paraskevi at Platsa and Ag. Nikolaos and Ag. Iannis at Kalieneika and Kambos respectively - all of which are late medieval. The stonework is rough but there are signs of inserted tiles in a crude attempt at cloisonné on the west facade. Inside the painting schemes and styles are rather hotchpotch and I suspect by a number of different hands and at different times. The northern church is dedicated to Ag. Iannis Prodromos (John the Baptist) and figures scenes from his and Christ's life.
The Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the Jordan - Ag. Iannis Prodromos - Stavropigi
The paintings in the first barrel vault are extremely difficult to identify because of damp and decay. There is a reasonably clear Crucifixion scene above the west door and below that an inscription which has defied my attempts to decipher it. From the style, which has quite sophisticated use of folds in the robes of the figures I would put the frescoes to the 15-16th century. In the Bema of this half of the church there is not the usual Panagia (Virgin) as there is in the southern bema but a large and impressive depiction of John the Baptist. His eyes have been vandalised - but the white patches seem to glow with a socketless power.
The Prodromos (The Forerunner) in his shaggy clothing and archangel's wings - in the bema of Ag. Iannis Prodromos - Stavropigi
In the southern church, dedicated to Ag. Nikolaos there is actually little evidence of that popular Saint, though it has to be admitted that the state of the frescoes is again rather poor. Above the door there may have been another crucifixion, though it was hard to read by torchlight and is equally gnomic in my photographs. On the immediate barrel vault of the western naos there is the familiar depiction of the last Psalms, the Ainoi or Praises. Here there is a Full length Christ with a surround of the signs of the zodiac. On the southern side there are many beasts and dragons of the deep and on the north side there are depictions of musicians and a clear interpretation of Psalm 149 lines 4-9. "For the Lord taketh pleasure in his people let the saints be joyful in glory Let the high praises of God be in their mouth and a twoedged sword in their hand: to execute vengeance upon the heathen and punishments upon their hand; To bind their kings with chains and their nobles with fetters of iron;" In the centre is the Temple. At an educated guess these paintings are also of the 15th or 16th century.
Ainoi paintings from Ag. Nikolaos - at the bottom of the left hand picture are the saints threatening the fettered kings with their two edged swords and the Temple. On the right Dancers and Musicians.
What is most interesting about this church is where the layers of plaster and paint have been chipped away to reveal earlier, Byzantine, frescoes underneath the general Post-Byzantine ones now showing. These are not only in a far more skilled hand but actually are human faces, the eyes and features animated with intelligence, rather than the blandly expressionless stereotypes that later painters promulgated.
Underlying Byzantine frescoes from Ag. Iannis Prodromos - Stavropigi. The difference in skill and animation in the left hand example even taking into account the defacing of the lower Post Byzantine painting is striking. The fleck marks are where the second plasterers gained purchase for their centuries later cover up job
The dates of these are as vague as the date of the churches' foundation but must be from around the 13th century (Drandakis reportedly puts the date between 1230 and 1260). According to local tradition this church was one of the rallying points on the march of the Maniate clans towards Kalamata in the early days of the Greek War of Independence in spring 1821 - although there is another twin church called Ag. Iannis and Nikolaos in the vicinity, which I haven't found, and I may have got them confused.
To the south of Zarnata on its own ridge is the small village of Malta. The name at first would seem obviously of foreign extraction and Charles Cockerell, visiting in 1813, speculated that the name came from the Venetian occupation when parts of the Morea were mortgaged to the Knights of St. John, whose headquarters were in the Maltese archipelago. I have no further proof of this assertion but earlier versions of the name from Venetian surveys tend to call the place Maltizza or Maltisa - and Pouqeville, writing in the early 19th century has it as 'Moultitza' which would point to a Slavic derivation - and there are other villages called Malta in the southern Peloponnese. The village (it's a mere stroll from the upper part of Stavropigi) has a large central church which is probably late 19th century (?) and usually locked. One Sunday I discovered the local Papas about to lock up and with his taciturn agreement nipped inside for a minute or so. Its interior and wallpaintings are certainly twentieth century and very similar to those in the main church in Proastio. As in most Mani villages Malta has any number of smaller chapels dotted around its lanes and in nearby fields.
The main parish church at Malta and a distant view of the Monastery (Nunnery) of Androubevitsas from the southern walls of Zarnata
To the south just off the main road there is a signpost to the "Ancient Monastery of Androubevitzias" (there are many variations on the spelling). I'd rung the bell on a number of occasions as had other church enthusiasts but no-one answered the call. The monastery is, reportedly, a convent with a small gaggle of nuns who will allegedly try and sell you their lace work. The domed Katholikon, dedicated to the Panagia, reportedly has frescoes from the 13th century, though there are later post Byzantine frescoes as well.
Well there's now a postcript to that last paragraph. In May 2003 I was idly browsing the bookstalls at Luton airport prior to a trip to Mani and spotted a recent paperback tome by Edward Enfield, father of the British comedian Harry Enfield. Enfield senior has, in his dotage, carved out a niche as a writer of humourous prose and journalism. His book 'Greece on My Wheels' tells the pleasantly agreeable, if undemanding, tale of how he pedalled around the Peloponnese on a bicycle. I flicked through the pages to see if he visited Mani, which he did, and to my intense annoyance read how he not only had a response to his ringing of the monastery doorbell but was whisked inside and allowed to photograph the frescos. On sending the nuns copies of his snaps he was even sent a Christmas card from the delighted acolytes.
The courtyard of the Monastery
Both Bob Barrow and I were somewhat miffed that some old codger on a bike had waltzed in to a location into which both of us had repeatedly failed to gain ingress. On a hot May day we strode purposefully up to the gates. There is a large sign in both Greek and English stating that the monastery is open in the mornings only and is completely closed on Fridays. We'd individually seen this before, heeded its message and still had had our tinkling of the bell ignored. This time (and it was a Wednesday, 10.30 a.m) we got exactly the same response. Nada, niente, nothing stirred. Or rather it did. One could hear movement and voices inside the monastery compound but frustratingly not ones which heralded the opening of its portals. We wondered if we had been spied upon and been deemed too disreputable a couple - but we are both reasonably turned out 50 somethings and at least were wearing the correct apparel for visiting a monastery, long trousers and shirts - which was more than wretched Enfield père had been - he'd had to put on the robes which await those who have the temerity to turn up in cycling shorts.
We decided to swing around to the back of the compound and luckily spotted, over a shoulder height wall, a novice nun tending the garden. She was, naturally, rather startled to see two disembodied English faces looming over the garden wall but a request to see the church in Bob's lucid Greek seemed to do the trick and we were ushered round to the front of the compound and the door opened. The courtyard is a delightful space with the smalll domed church in its centre. A series of balconied rooms to the south and other buildings built into the north walls. The katholikon is an inscribed cross design but interestingly it becomes clear that there are two churches - or rather the remains of the apse of an earlier medieval church attached to a more recent (17th century?) edifice.
The katholikon of the Monastery of Androubevitsas, dedicated to the Panagia Niameri (23 August) and the donors inscription
The paintings in the larger part of the church are from the early 18th century painted in 1704 by Anagiosti Makromallo during the latter part of the Venetian occupation of the Peloponnese. They are of a better artistic quality than most of the 18th century paintings in Exo Mani churches and cover many of the scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and Christ. There is a fine example of the Ainoi (interpretation of the last psalms) on the north wall which is oddly lacking the usual signs of the zodiac and as a central scene on the north wall, if anything, shows people making representation to church elders. In the northern transept is a depiction of the Virgin which has been covered by a glass plate - from what we could gather from the young nun who was showing us round it was to protect the painting from over zealous worshippers who might osculate the painting away. Opposite this is the dedicatory inscription - which we asked if we might photograph. We were given permission and two flash guns fired off. This, unfortunately, attracted the attention of an older (but not very much) nun who immediately told her junior to ask us to desist with our camera antics. We couldn't quite summon up the Greek for, "But you let that old git in cycle shorts, Edward Enfield, take pictures!". And little good it would have done us, even if we had, for the second nun was of far sterner stuff than the novice and I was somewhat surprised, if relieved, that she didn't insist on us tearing the films out of our cameras (difficult, as we both had little digital numbers). You'll just have to take my word for it that the frescos are well worth gazing at.
At the altar place of the main church it becomes apparent that something rather odd has gone on with the construction. Although it was impossible to enter the sanctuary with the now nervous novice present it was clear that there was an extra piece to the church beyond the altar which one could have crawled through to view. Taking us round the rear she showed us through a doorway on the north side into another apse in which there were traces of 13th century Byzantine period wall paintings. There is a recently published Greek tome on the history of the monastery which would presumably explain this odd mixture of 13th and 18th century building and painting - but I decided that the cost wouldn't have justified my inability to read the thing. There is a short English summary - which I can smugly assert merely repeats what I've written above and then goes into a long purple passage about how the Monastery is a vital part of the historical identity of the area lighting up the Mani with it's spirituality etc. etc.
To add final insult to injury as we made to depart we reached into our pockets for a few euros for the collection plate. I heard a slight moan and soto voce "Oh Bugger!" from Bob. Moral of the story is, never go looking round inhabited monasteries with nothing smaller than a twenty euro note in your possession.
On to Doli Villages and Kitries