DIMITRIOS Z. SOPHIANOS
Professor Emeritus, University of Ionia

 

After Mt. Athos, Meteora – the Thebaid of Stagoi, as it has been aptly called – is the most important grouping of monasteries in one small location to be found anywhere in the Greek world.


   
The original monks climbed the steep and rugged stone pillars and nested in the hollows and cavities, on the rough plateaux, like wild birds. These were proud and brave men who turned their back on the world, devoting themselves to the ‘kingdom of God, in imitation of the angels’. ‘For wherever God so wishes, the order of nature may be vanquished’. But in that remarkable, ecstatic landscape ‘the men of God did not adore the creation, but the Creator’.

The first traces of Meteorite monasticism are shrouded in the mists of time, legend and pious tradition. It is probable that the first beginnings of a monastic community here date back to the 11th century.

From the end of the 11th century, then, and the beginning of the 12th century, it would appear that a small group of ascetics had already come together at Meteora, forming what was known as the Skete of Doupiani or Stagoi, their worship centred on the Church of the Virgin Zoodochos Pigis, which was the kyriakon or protaton, the main focal point of the monastic community, following the pattern familiar on Mt. Athos.

The head of the Skete alone was granted the title of ‘protos’ [first] and abbot of the Monastery of Theotokos Doupianis. In the middle of the 14th century we encounter the dominant figure of Neilos, protos of the Skete, abbot of the Doupiani Monastery, founder, in the years 1357-67, of the Ypapanti Monastery (originally known as the Monastery of the Ascension), which has now been beautifully restored in traditional style by the Monastery of Megalo Meteoro, of which it is a dependency. The small and elegant katholikon of the Ypapanti was painted in 1366/67 and is one of the most important and impressive examples of religious painting from the Palaeologan period.

More than twenty monasteries, built high among the rocks in the 14th century, made up the holy stone city of the Meteorite anchorites. With the passage of time and the ravages of wind and rain, many of the original buildings are now abandoned and derelict.

There are now just six monasteries still functioning on the rocks of Meteora. Now well organised and renovated with respect for their traditions, for six hundred years and more they have continued their work without ceasing or deviating from their founding principles, loyal to the authentic and austere rule of Orthodox monasticism, a bulwark of Greek religious and national feeling.

 

Holy Monastery of Megalo Meteoro

Also known as the Monastery of the Transfiguration, the Megalo Meteoro was founded in the middle of the 14th century by the Blessed Athanasios, who was also the first founder or ktitoras of the monastery and laid down the rule by which the monastic community was to live. This is why the founding of Megalo Meteoro was to prove an important milestone, in fact the starting point in which organized monastic life at Meteora had its beginnings.

The Blessed Athanasios (named Andronicus by his parents) was born in around 1302 in the mediaeval city of Nea Patra, the modern Ypati, where the monastery founded a splendid monastic church as a dependency in his honour, on a plot of land owned by his father.

In around 1340 Athanasios made his permanent home at the so-called Platy Litho, to which he himself gave the name Meteoro, a name which came in time to embrace all the rocks and monasteries of the surrounding area.

Here the holy anchorite tells us he built the Church of the Panayia Meteoritissa Petra, intended for the use of his fellow ascetics: ‘I place you under the roof of the Blessed Virgin Mary, …which is the purpose of this monastery’ Later, at some time after 1348, he built another church in honour of the Transfigured Saviour.

His immediate successor and the second founder of the monastery was the Blessed Ioasaph, the former ‘king’ Ioannis Ouresis Palaiologos, son of the Greek-Serbian king of Epirus and Thessaly, whose palace was at Trikala, Simeon Ouresis Palaiologos.

According to the evidence of local inscriptions, in 1387/88 Ioasaph extended and rebuilt in more magnificent style the original church built by Athanasios in honour of the Transfiguration of Christ. This is the sanctuary in the form of a church of the katholikon of the monastery as it is today, much of the wall surface decorated with interesting post- Palaeologan wall paintings dating from 1483. Ioasaph died in around 1422/23.

Our church has placed both Athanasios and Ioasaph among the ranks of the Blessed and honours their memory on 20 April. The skulls of both founders are preserved and displayed for veneration in the narthex of the katholikon, invaluable relics and treasures of the monastery.

In 1544/45 the splendid main church was erected, as was the narthex of the imposing katholikon of the monastery, under the rule of the abbot Simeon of Yiannena (named Spyridon by his parents). The church, built to the familiar Athonite pattern, was painted in 1552, while Simeon was still abbot. This wall painting, Cretan in style, is according to M. Hatzidakis the work of students of Theophanes the Cretan, but according to L. Deriziotis should be attributed to the painter of the katholikon of the Dousiko Monastery (in 1557) Tziortzis of Constantinople or his workshop. However this may be, it is one of the most remarkable groups of paintings from the post-Byzantine period.

The monastery has six chapels: three old ones: a) of the Blessed Athanasios, set in a cave-like recess on the stairway up to the monastery, where according to tradition Athanasios first made his home; b) of John the Baptist (built perhaps in the time of the first founders) and c) of the Isapostoloi (equal-to-apostles) Konstantinos and Eleni (18th cent.). There are also the three modern chapels of Aghios Nektarios, Aghios Ioannis Klimakos and Aghia Olga, and the Aghioi Anargyroi.

Under the abbot Simeon (as we learn from the inscription) the old refectory of the monastery was built (1557), one of the most characteristic and attractive buildings of its kind. The visitor can both admire the monumental architecture of the building and learn more about the form and function of an old monastery refectory.

The old refectory houses the Georgios Tsioulakis Gallery of Religious Art, with paintings by the young and very talented painter from Kalabaka, Kostas Adamos, their subjects taken from ecclesiastical and monastic life and from the liturgy. It offers the pilgrim or visitor an opportunity to savour moments of calm and devotion, while initiating him into the fundamental elements of the Orthodox faith.

The old two-story infirmary and ward for elderly monks, built in 1575, probably under the rule of abbot Simeon, is one of the finest and most characteristic examples of monastic architecture and one of only two monastery infirmaries to have survived to the present day (the second is at the Barlaam Monastery); it is the only example of a two-story infirmary structure. Sensitively renovated, reinforced, conserved and restored to its original form (1998) by the monastic brothers, it now serves as the sacristy where the various unique and valuable treasures of the monastery are stored. The first floor of the infirmary building houses the gallery containing the manuscripts, documents and early printed books of the monastery, and is dedicated to Professor Dimitrios Z. Sophianos, while the adjacent gallery is dedicated to the neomartyrs, those who gave their own lives to lay the foundations for our faith and our nation, paving the way for liberation and national resurgence. What was originally the ward for elderly monks now houses the sacred and liturgical treasures of the monastery (portable icons, wood carvings, gold-embroidered vestments, etc.) and is dedicated to the archaeologist Lazaros Deriziotis. The same area also houses the Chapel of the Aghioi Anargyroi.

Of special interest is the History and Folklore Museum, beneath the old refectory (1557), dedicated to Kostas Mantzanas, and the Nicephorus Cominus historic lithographs room (1912-1913 and 1940-41) with unique and valuable exhibits illustrating the history of the Greek people (ancient Greece, Byzantine era, the Macedonian Struggle, the Balkan Wars, World War II, traditional costumes, documents from the era of Capodistria and Othon, folk art, etc.).

Both the History and Folklore Museum and the Nicephorus Cominus Gallery present a continuous account of the progress of the Greek people from ancient times to the present day. This is a place to study our history and the Orthodox faith, which promotes the values, ideals and heroes of the faith and the nation. It revives historical memories and glorious pages of our past, acquainting the numerous foreign visitors with the magnificent and inestimable contribution of our people to the world’s civilization. At the same time it helps to consolidate the national awareness and sense of identity of our own people, especially the younger generation.

The monastery has also preserved in excellent condition the old traditional kitchen, contemporaneous with the adjacent refectory (1557), one of the finest architectural examples of its kind. Fully equipped, the old kitchen allows visitors to familiarize themselves with the way of life of the monastic family, preserving and showcasing popular customs and memories.

Of equal importance and interest is the old cellar of the monastery, where old hand-made vessels and utensils are kept, with a variety of farming instruments and tools (barrels, ploughs, milk churns, etc.).

The old carpenter’s shop is also to be seen, with a collection of traditional tools of the craft (planes, saws, etc.).

Visitors can also see and marvel at the lifting tower and the net in which monks were hauled up to the monastery before the stairs were built, the rainwater cistern and the ossuary. They can enjoy the breathtaking view over the landscape of Meteora and the picturesque village of Kastraki, with all sorts of charming perspectives inspired by the beauty of the monastic architectural tradition.

Through the many trials, tribulations and persecutions of six centuries, the Megalo Meteoro managed to retain its monastic presence and influence uninterrupted, and to preserve most of its invaluable treasures and precious relics of our religious and national history. Most important of all, however, is that for six hundred years and more it has been a living bastion of Orthodox monasticism, a true bulwark of Christian faith and a sacred repository of the ethnic and ecclesiastical traditions of the Greek people.

 

Holy Barlaam Monastery

The Barlaam Monastery was also founded in the mid-14th century, by a contemporary of the Blessed Athanasios, the ascetic Barlaam. The splendid katholikon we see today, dedicated to All Saints, was built in 1541/42 by the Apsarades brothers, Theophanes (1544) and Nektarios (1550) from Yiannena. The katholikon was painted in 1548 by the talented Theban artist Franco Catelano, whose hand is clearly to be seen in the technique, execution and artistic style of the paintings.

At the north-western edge of the rock is the Chapel of the Three Hierarchs, a small, single-aisle church built in 1627 and decorated with fine wall paintings in 1637 by the priest Ioannis from Kalabaka. The chapel we see today replaced an earlier chapel of the same name, originally built by the first man to settle on the rock, the anchorite Barlaam, and then renovated by the Apsarades brothers, Theophanes and Nektarios.

Among the more notable of the monastery’s buildings, of particular architectural interest and renovated with exemplary sensitivity for traditional forms, are the old refectory, the kitchen – one of the finest examples of its kind, with a vaulted ceiling and regular octagonal dome serving as a chimney – and finally the infirmary.

The sacristy of the monastery, recently renovated and reorganized, has a rich collection of relics, manuscripts, portable icons, items in silver and other metals, gold-embroidered vestments, etc.

 

Holy Monastery of Aghios Stephanos

Traditionally a female retreat, this has functioned as a convent since 1961, with a numerous and active sisterhood of nuns who not only do much and varied spiritual and charitable work but have also initiated some remarkable renovation and construction – all of it done with the greatest respect for the traditional architectural style of the buildings – overseen by the local architect, highly experienced in working with traditional buildings, Sotirios Tzimas. The sources refer to two founders, the archimandrite the Blessed Antonios, in around the first half of the 15th century, and the monk from Sklataina (now Rizoma, near Trikala) the Blessed Philotheos, in the middle of the 16th century.

Just before 1545 the Blessed Philotheos renovated, or rather rebuilt, the old, small but elegant katholikon of the monastery, the Church of Aghios Stephanos, which is decorated with fine wall paintings of the period.

In 1798, under the rule of the Bishop of Stagoi, Paisios Kleinovitis, abbot of the Amvrosio Monastery, the imposing katholikon of Aghios Haralambos, as we see it today, was built. The venerable skull of the saint is preserved here, an inestimable gift from the ruler of Vlachia, Vladislav.

The new katholikon of the monastery imitates the familiar Athonite model and was decorated recently with brilliant paintings, in the Cretan style, by the traditional artist Vlasis Tsotsonis.

The old refectory of the monastery, an impressive piece of – probably – 16th century architecture, has now been superbly renovated to house the monastery’s rich collection of manuscripts, documents, ecclesiastical treasures and liturgical vessels.

 

Holy Monastery of Aghia Triada


The monastery is referred to as early as 1362 in a decree by the Greek-Serbian ruler of Trikala Simeon Ouresis Palaiologos. The main church of the katholikon we see today was erected, in its original form, in 1475/76. The wall paintings, dated 1741, continue the tradition of fine post-Byzantine painting. Of particular interest is the Chapel of John the Baptist, a small circular church with vaulted ceiling, carved into the rock and decorated with fine wall paintings dating from 1682.

The monastery has two dependencies, both remarkable examples of Meteorite monydria (habitations): the Holy Monastery of Aghios Nikolaos Bandovas, and the Holy Monastery of Aghios Antonios. In recent years the parent monastery has shown commendable interest in the two dependencies, renovating them with great taste and sensitivity, and thereby reviving one of the most charming and picturesque ‘corners’ of Meteora.

 

Holy Monastery of Aghios Nikolaos Anapausas

The monastery probably owes its name to one of its founders; it can be dated to the 14th century, at the time when monastic life was beginning on this rock.

However, the monastery was radically renovated in the first decade of the 16th century, by the Metropolitan of Larisa, Aghios Dionysios Eleimonas (28 March 1510) and the exarch of Stagoi, the deacon Nikanoras (1521/22). Both are represented as monks in the narthex of the monastery.

In October 1527, according to the founding inscription, the celebrated Cretan artist Theophanes Strelitzas completed the wall paintings in the katholikon of the monastery. This is the earliest known work of the great artist and leader of the Cretan School and demonstrates all the virtues and high quality of his inimitable style.

The Monastery of Aghios Nikolaos Anapausas, renovated in traditional style and beautifully cared for, functions as a monastery for men.

Holy Monastery of Rousanos

The Rousanos Monastery probably owes its name to the first founder of a monastic community on the rock (14th/15th century). It assumed its current form in the mid-16th century.

Between 1527 and 1529 the two monks from Yiannena, the brothers Ioasaph and Maximos, ascended the Rousanos pillar to renovate and rebuild the old and derelict katholikon of the Monastery of the Transfiguration. The fine wall paintings, in the Cretan style, were executed in 1560, under the rule of the abbot Arsenios. On 4 December solemn and splendid celebrations are held to honour the feast day of the martyr Barbara.

The monastery is now a convent for nuns, distinguished for their piety and active missionary work, who have renovated and reorganized the monastery with taste and sensitivity, producing highly impressive results and creating an ideal refuge for spiritual rest, a place where body and soul alike can come to be healed.

 

Within these six monasteries of Meteora, charged with the memories of the trials and glories of the Byzantine past and more recent history, amid the evocative silence and mysterious peace of continual devotion and prayer, past and present, history and strict ecclesiastical tradition combine with the living presence of the faith in their own rich and unique harmony.