Kastoria is one of the most beautiful towns in all Greece. It is located on Lake Orestiada in the northwestern part of the country. Its position on a narrow hilly peninsula that widens dramatically as it projects into the lake provides a natural fortification, which was recognised from early on by its inhabitants and potential attackers.
The history of Kastoria goes back to the antiquity. It was fortified some time in the Early Christian period and by the end of the 9th century it had grown into a major centre in Western Macedonia. The city belonged to the Byzantine Empire, but its ownership was contested around the end of the first millennium. Kastoria was occupied by the Bulgarians for several decades in the 10th and early 11th centuries, and the Normans briefly held it in the 1080s. It enjoyed a stable peace under the rule of Komnenian dynasty in the 12th century, but in the subsequent centuries it fell continuously from one local or regional power to another. It was captured conclusively by the Ottomans in around 1385.
When it comes to architecture, Kastoria is, first and foremost, famous for its churches. There are around 70 churches from the 9th to the 19th centuries in its historical centre, which is a large number considering the small size of the city. The most important of these churches are from the Middle Byzantine period. The city is also notable for its well-preserved Ottoman mansions.
Below I will introduce seven churches of Kastoria from the 9th to the 12th centuries. These are all small structures, as they were built as private churches or the katholika of small monasteries. They are either aisleless churches or three-aisled basilicas, and there is even one domed triconch in the city. On their façades we can admire rich cloisonné masonry (i.e., natural stones in the frames of bricks), with decorative letters, geometrical patterns, bands of dentils and occasional sun motifs. The churches also have outstanding fresco decorations with diverse iconographic programmes, showing their donors’ and painters’ familiarity with the artistic trends of Constantinople and Thessaloniki, the centres of the Byzantine Empire. The churches were in continuous use over the centuries, as shown by the different layers of frescoes in all of them.
My list includes the most important Middle Byzantine churches in Kastoria, but it is no way complete. It does not include the churches from the Late Byzantine period in the city. Also, it is worth to note that under the Ottoman rule, church building and fresco painting continued unabated in Kastoria, as shown by the presence of many ‘Post-Byzantine’ churches here. The continuation of the trends of Byzantine architecture and painting under the Ottoman rule in Kastoria deserves a separate portfolio.
One should not forget the Byzantine Museum of Kastoria when talking about the Byzantine heritage of the city. It is, in my opinion, one of the best Byzantine museums in Greece, exhibiting wonderful pieces of religious art from the 12th to the 17th century. I express my gratitude to the employees of the museum who were kind enough to open for me the doors of many of the city’s churches and share with me materials about them. The museum also has a good website with an interactive map of heritage sites.
In the compilation of this portfolio I also consulted the following publication: Eugenia Drakopoulou, ‘Kastoria. Art, Patronage and Society’, Heaven and Earth, Cities and Countryside in Byzantine Greece, Athens: 2013, pp. 114-125. This article is highly recommended for those who are interested in more contextual information about the Byzantine heritage of Kastoria.
The following websites were also of great help:
I took all the photos in February 2019.
You will find the locations of the churches on the map below.
1. Church of Agios Stefanos
South end of Palaiologou Street
Mid-9th to early 10th century
This is the oldest surviving church in Kastoria, estimated to have been constructed between the mid-9th and the early 10th century. Its dedication to Saint Stephen is from the 14th century. It is not known who the church was originally dedicated to. In her Alexiad, Anna Komnene mentions the Church of Saint George, located at the east edge of Kastoria, outside the walls. It has been hypothesised that that church is identical with the later Church of Saint Stephen.
The church is a three-aisled basilica with a narthex on the west and a gynaikonitis (a women’s prayer room) above it. The exterior shows rich cloisonné masonry, friezes made of clay tiles, bands of dentils, and some sun motifs. Porticoes on the north and west side of the church are later additions.
Inside, in the sanctuary niche, we find rare remains of a synthronon with a bishop’s throne, indicating that it was a metropolitan church.
The walls of the church are covered with frescoes from three different periods.
The oldest frescoes are contemporary with the construction of the church, i.e., from the late 9th or the early 10th century. They can be found on the lower levels of the church and in the narthex. The most important on them is the large fresco in the narthex showing the Second Coming of Christ. It is one of the oldest Byzantine wall paintings showing that subject. It was left partly incomplete, possibly because of an attack by the Bulgarians.
Frescoes in the clerestory of the nave are from the late 12th or the early 13th century. The barrel vault of the nave shows the three ages of Jesus Christ, while on the clerestory walls we see scenes from his life.
The third layer of frescoes is from the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. Some frescoes are dated more precisely to 1338. These are mostly votive paintings and they can be found in different parts of the church.
The Church of Saint Stephen has the only Byzantine gynaikonitis in Kastoria. It houses a chapel dedicated to Saint Anne. There are rare frescoes here, including one showing Saint Anne breastfeeding her daughter, Virgin Mary. Some of these frescoes here are from the first period.
2. Church of Panagia Koumpelidiki
South end of Karavaggeli Street
Mid- 9th to first half of 11th century
This church was built some time between the mid-9th and the first half of the 11th century. Its most probable dates of construction are around the turn of the 10th century or in 1020-1025, after the expulsion of the Bulgarians by Emperor Basil II Porphyrogenitus, nicknamed the Bulgar Slayer.
The church, dedicated to Virgin Mary, stands on the highest point of Kastoria, near the walls of the Byzantine citadel. Its original name, Kastriotissa, comes from that citadel. In the Ottoman era the church was known as Koumpelidiki, after the Turkish word for ‘dome’, since it is the only domed church from the Byzantine era in Kastoria. The origins of the third name of the church, Skoutariotissa, are unclear to me.
The church is a triconch with a narthex. The three apses meet in the square bay in the middle, where four arches support the dome. The dome is disproportionately high in relation to the volume of the building.
The exterior shows cloisonné masonry with decorative letters and various bands of dentils.
In the church there are frescoes with scenes from the life of Jesus Christ and figures of saints. Episodes from the life of Virgin Mary are depicted on the walls of the narthex. Notable is the fresco of the Holy Trinity on the vault of the narthex, showing God the Father with Christ the Son in his lap, the latter holding the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove in a halo. The fresco is large, stretching, unusually, over the entire vault. It deviates from the iconography established in the Orthodox Church and shows, instead, the influence of the Catholic doctrine of filioque. These frescoes date back to around 1260-1280.
In the late 15th century, an exonarthex and a porch were added to the structure. The frescoes on the west wall on the outside are from 1495-1496. They show the Deësis and scenes from the life of Saint John the Forerunner.
Some frescoes in the exonarthex, such as the figures of Saint Nicholas and Saint Menas, are also from 1495-1496. The other frescoes here are from the 17th century.
The church was bombed by the Italian forces in 1940. This destroyed the dome, which was restored in 1949.
3. Church of Taxiarchis Mitropoleos
South end of Mitropoleos Street
9th, 10th or 11th century
This church, located near the metropolitan church of Kastoria, is dedicated to Archangel Michael. Sources date it variously from the 9th to the 11th century, although the early 10th century is the most probable date of its construction.
It is a three-aisled basilica with a narthex. Just like the other Middle Byzantine basilicas in Kastoria, its walls show the use of cloisonné masonry. The church was probably built on the site of an Early Christian basilica, as indicated by the presence of the reused columns between the nave and the aisles. The north aisle was later expanded and doubled in width, and it now terminates in two niches in the east wall instead of the usual one. The south aisle is supported by buttresses from 1937.
The oldest frescoes of the church are contemporary with its foundation. They can be found in the north and south aisles and in the narthex. Most frescoes in the nave are from 1359-1360. These include the depictions of Our Lady of the Sign and the Holy Communion in the sanctuary apse, scenes from the Twelve Great Feasts and the Passion of Christ on the walls of the nave, and the figures of saints on the lower levels.
There are frescoes on the outside as well. On the west wall we see the Bulgarian king Michael Asen with a female figure, who is either his wife Anna or his mother Irene Komnene Doukaina, praying to the Archangel Michael under the protection of Panagia Hodegetria. This composition is from the second half of the 13th century.
On the south wall of the church there are depictions of local officials and inscriptions from the 15th century. These indicate that it was a cemetery church served for the burial of nobles and dignitaries.
The remains of Pavlos Melas, a fighter in the Greek Struggle for Macedonia, are kept in the church.
4. Church of Taxiarchis Oikonomou or Gymnasiou
Junction of Karavaggeli & Mitropoleos Streets
This is another church in the old town of Kastoria dedicated to the archangels. It is located near the old treasury and high school. It is an aisleless church with a wooden roof and a large semicircular apse in the east. A lower narthex was added to the west in a later period. Just like the other Middle Byzantine churches of Kastoria, its walls are adorned with patterns of cloisonné masonry. On the inside we find remains of frescoes, some of which date back to the 10th century, while others are newer.
5. Church of Agioi Anargyroi
East end of Agion Anargyron Street
10th to early 11th century
This church stands a scenic spot with Lake Orestiada in the background. It is a three-aisled basilica with a narthex. Its façades show cloisonné masonry, with decorative letters and geometric shapes, as well as bifora windows framed by dentils and some sun motifs.
This church has the richest Byzantine sculptural decoration in Kastoria. Its portals, both outside and inside, show various animal, floral and geometric motifs carved in stone.
The walls of church are covered with frescoes from two different periods.
The oldest frescoes are from the late 10th or the early 11th century. These can be found in the narthex. Among them is probably the oldest surviving donor fresco in Kastoria, showing a local nobleman named Konstantinos in simple garments with his patron Saint Constantine.
The frescoes of the nave and the aisles are from the second half of the 12th century, most probably from the 1170s or the 1180s. Members of the Limniotis family renovated the church back then and dedicated it to the Saints Cosmas and Damian, known as the Holy Unmercenaries. The frescoes were painted by two different artists, one more skilful than the other.
The 12th-century donors are depicted in the aisles of the church. The donor fresco, which can be found in the north aisle, shows Theodoros (Theofilos) Limniotis holding a model of the church and praying, together with his wife Anna Radini and their son Ioannis, to Baby Jesus, who is held by Virgin Mary. The fresco is very similar to the mosaic showing Emperor John II Komnenos, Empress Irene and their son Alexios in Hagia Sophia, created only some decades before (1122). It highlights the connection of its donors to the high society of Constantinople.
The frescoes on the outside of the church are also from the second half of the 12th century.
6. Monastery of Panagia Mavriotissa
Mavriotissis Street, 3 km southeast of town centre
Late 11th or early 12th century
The Monastery of Panagia Mavriotissa is located on the lakeside some kilometers southeast of Kastoria. It is commonly believed to have been established by Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118), to commemorate the victory over the Normans by the troops of General Georgios Palaiologos, which took place around here in 1083. Some suggest that a monastery existed here already before that, possibly since around 1000.
The monastery was initially named Mesonesiotissa, referring to its location on the peninsula in the middle of Lake Orestiada. In the 17th century it was renamed after the villages on the east coast of the lake, first to Krepenitissa (after Krepeni) and then to Mavriotissa (after Mavrovo, or Mavrochori).
The katholikon of the monastery is a single-nave church with a timber roof and a spacious narthex, or a lite.
Various frescoes survive on the walls of the nave and the lite as well as on the south wall on the outside. The are most probably dated to the first decades and the second part of the 13th century.
On the outside wall we find the representation of the Tree of Jesse, the figures of Saint Demetrius and Saint George, as well as two imperial figures, Michael VIII Palaiologos (1261-1282) and Alexios I Komnenos. Highlighting the continuity of the Byzantine Empire, the fresco must have been painted right after the reconquest of Constantinople from the Latin Empire in 1261.
A chapel dedicated to Saint John the Theologian was added to the south of the church in the middle of the 16th century. Its walls are covered with wonderful paintings from 1552.
7. Church of Agios Nikolaos of Kasnitzis
Second half of 12th century
This is an aisleless church with an apse in the east and a narthex in the west. It is covered by a wooden roof. On the façades we see cloisonné masonry and rich brick decoration. Notable is a frieze on the upper side of the church, made of rectangular clay tiles with engraved diagonal lines. Decorative motifs include the letters N and K, which stand for Saint Nicholas, its patron saint, and Nikoforos Kasnitzis, its donor.
The walls of the church are adorned with frescoes from two different periods. The oldest of them are from the second half of the 12th century, while the rest are from the 14th and 15th centuries. Since many authors do not mention the later layers at all, we can assume that most of the frescoes that we see here are from the older layer.
In the nave we see scenes from the life and death of Jesus Christ on the upper level, busts of saints on the middle level and full-length saints on the lower level. On the east side of the south wall there is a blind arch with the figure of Saint Nicholas. Scenes from his life can be seen in the narthex, together with the donor fresco and many other figures. The most unusual fresco, located on the west wall of the nave, shows the Dormition of Theotokos, with her head drawn to the right instead of the usual left for some reason.