A Greek church is a very different building to a western European affair. Even before the Gothic movement western churches strained upwards. Their architects' basic intention being to reach up to the heavens. Greek churches bring heaven to earth. They are generally small and the paintings (or mosaics) rather than lifting your eyes and spirit higher contain you in the space, surrounding you with familiar glowing representations of the faith and liturgy. Both western and eastern Christian traditions depend in some fashion or other on theatricality, smoke and mirrors. I defy the hardest hearted atheist (I'm one) to resist the appeal of organ music, incense and sheer baroque kitsch of an Easter day Catholic service in such a church as Vierzehnheiligen in Bavarian Frankonia. A Greek orthodox service is similarly full of effect - especially on a Saint's day or a festival. The service is ritualistically gnomic to the point of incomprehensibility and simultaneously strikes deep emotional chords.

A fine example of Byzantine church architecture - Charouda - Church of the Taxiarches. Showing the three apses and cupola.

Greek churches are small. This may seem slightly strange as one of the earliest and most famous of all Orthodox Christian buildings is Agia Sofia in Istanbul which is also one of the largest religious buildings in the world. It has the most breathtaking internal space of any building I have experienced - the few steps from the (in itself impressive) narthex into the sublime space of the nave are anywhere between life changing and, at the very least, jaw-dropping. Yet when you enter most Greek churches the impression is enclosing, even restricting, the lighting often poor* and the atmosphere is to some gloomy and slightly oppressive - the frescoes enfolding you with their symbolism in a type of religious claustrophobia.

*It should be pointed out that, in a service, candles both throw light on the frescoes and cast shadows - in very real sense 'animating' the pictures. Byzantine mosaics (there are none in Mani) were deliberately set into the plaster at angles so as to create this illusion of movement under candlelight.

Early Christian churches were generally of the basilica design - the pitched roof supported on two or more rows of pillars - few of these remain and the only ones in Mani are roofless ruins, usually showing only foundation level remains. The Slavic invasions put paid to any church building in the area for a number of centuries when Mani appears to have reverted to paganism. The reassertion of Byzantine rule from the eighth century onwards brings the first of the typical Greek church architecture - the domed cross in square design. However many simple barrel-vaulted churches can be found from all ages. Certain of these unsophisticated structures are described as megalithic from their use of large uncut stones hauled out of the locality.

The following sketches should give a simple guide to the most commonly found architectural styles in Mani.

Domed church


The classic Greek church architectural style has many variations but in essence is an east-west configuration with the altar/sanctuary at the eastern end. There is a nave (or naos) and above that supported by columns and the iconostasis is a circular dome. From the outside the dome or cupola may be many sided. The rear of the church has an apse or apses - curved niches or conches. Sometimes the exterior will only show one apse even though the interior has three. Two apsed churches are rare throughout Christendom but the Mani has a number of examples - mostly early - of which Ag. Panteleimon at Ano Boulari and Ag. Petros at Gardenitsa are the best preserved. Many churches are lacking a dome and instead may have a cross vault where the dome would be. Building domes takes a certain skill in architecture and construction and later medieval churches such as Ag. Paraskevi at Platsa have cross vaulting which points to a lack of skilled builders in the area in a time of upheaval. In a few cases the original roof has fallen in, usually due to a 'seismos' - earthquake (common in the area - I've felt a couple) - and a new pitched roof has been erected over the building.

The cross vaulted church is, I've recently discovered, rarer than I thought. Hanns Michael Küpper's research* on this form of church has only turned up 194 examples in the whole of Greece and there are in Mani a mere 10. In Exo Mani there are the churches of Ag. Nikoloas near Kallienieka, Ag. Iannis near Kambos and Ag. Nikoloas and Iannis Prodromos in Stavropigio - all late medieval. Just below the castle at Zarnata is a very much later version the Zoodokos Pigi which can be dated to 1780. At Kastania there are two examples, the medieval Ag. Nikolaos and the monastery church of Konstantinos and Eleni at the monastery of Ag. Konstantinos. At Platsa is the delightful Ag. Paraskevi of the middle ages and in the deep Mani there are just two examples. One at Gulas near Vathia, the medieval church of Ag Iannis (which also has some interesting old ossuaries) and one at Piontes, which I've never visited, the katholikon of the Metamorphoses. He also includes the clifftop church Agitria near the village of Ag. Kyriaki - which does have a cross vault but also a cupola ontop of that.

*Hanns Michael Küpper. Der Bautypus der Griechischen Dachtranseptkirche. Hakkert. Amsterdam. 1990.

The outside of the church in the Mani is usually constructed of the local limestone, the area is dotted with old quarries, some dating back to the ancient period. In many cases the stonework is uncut - the richer the patrons of the builders the better the surfacing. In mid- Byzantine churches exterior decoration in the form of tiled facings and cloisonné work can be seen. Cloisonné is a method of inserting layers of brick often laid in simple repetitive patterns. If a church has these decorations it usually signifies that the building is medieval as the practice seems to have died out after the fall of the Byzantine Empire. Occasionally glazed decorated ceramic bowls will also have been mortared into the walls of these early churches (good examples are Ag. Barbara, Erimos and Tourlotti, Kitta).

Cloisonné work - Erimos

The doorways and windows of churches are often surrounded by marble lintels and surrounds. These are difficult to date with much accuracy as later 17th and 18th century churches have these features those these may well be spolia (a term for material appropriated from earlier buildings) from earlier medieval edifices. Professor Drandakes has written a whole tome on these medieval marble carvings but as yet I haven't been able to study this in depth.

But carvings may again be contemporary with the church building- many local houses of the last few centuries sport crude if vivid folkloric reliefs and etchings. For example the facade of the Taxiarches church in Areopoli has some particularly fine 18th/19th century examples over the doorways and around the apse. The internal columns are in some cases (i.e. Ag. Iannis, Platsa) ancient columns reworked into a late building and some have reused ancient capitals. In the outer Mani a number of medieval churches in Platsa, Nomitsis and Kastania have early medieval carved marble capitals of striking naïve designs portraying animals and birds.

Marbles decorating the window of Ag. Spiridon - Kardamili. Although these could be spolia from an earlier medieval building these are possibly contemporaneous with the building i.e. early 18th century. The Byzantine double headed eagle motif at the apex of the window probably is a reference to the dominant Troupakis- Mourtzinos family's claims to be descended from the Byzantine Imperial family of the Paleaeologi. The shape of the window is slightly odd for Greece, in that it has gothic, i.e. western, overtones.

Bell towers are common. If they are integral arched ones then they can be assumed to be part of the original architectural plan. The tall square telescopic layered bell towers common in Mani churches are probably of Venetian inspiration and will be no earlier than the end of the 17th century and often of later 18th and early 19th century progeny. There are so many which have carved dates from the first decade of the 19th century that one cannot but think that some speculative itinerant builder was going from village to village sticking them up during this period. Whereas in the Outer Mani every village has such a bell tower the Inner Mani has relatively few. This is probably due to the relative poverty of the Inner Mani compared to the Outer. Also the kapetani dominated villages of Outer Mani were religiously corporate, they would join together for prayer. There are a number of examples of earlier Byzantine churches which have been considerably extended in the 17th/18th centuries. In Deep Mani, apart from the Mavromichalis dominated area around Areopoli, worship was, in general, in small family chapels. The commonality of these bell towers in Exo Mani is not reflected elsewhere in the Peloponnese. During the Turkokratia the Turks banned the erection of bell towers and the ringing of bells. Therefore the plethora of Mani campaniles can be seen as a strikingly visual symbol of the independence of the district.


Rather pedantically I use this word to describe some churches. This is the name given to the main church of a monastery. Monasteries can have either monks or nuns - there doesn't appear to be a common word for 'convent' - the usual shortened form for Monastery is 'Moni'. The difference between a church and a chapel is impossible to define and most are called 'ekklesia'. I've used the normal concept that a chapel is a small church but then most churches in Mani are small by western standards.

Good general guides to Byzantine/Greek church architecture are to be found in the following books. None of them, however, describe any Mani churches. For more specialised works on Mani churches see those in the bibliography pages by clicking here.


Richard Krautheimer

Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture. Yale/Pelican History of Art. 1956 (many later imprints).

Probably the best general survey.

Osbert Lancaster

Sailing to Byzantium: an Architectural Companion. John Murray. 1969.

A delightful book illustrated by Lancaster's inimitable pen and ink drawings and with a witty and perceptive text.

Cecil Stewart

Byzantine Legacy, George Allen Unwin. 1947. (various later imprints - now out of print but often to be found secondhand).

An entertaining account of a journey taken just before the Second World War by the author - an architectural historian. His own illustrations make the principles of Byzantine architecture clear.


On to church interiors


On to a description of Frescoes and Wall Paintings