Orthodox America

  Monasteries in the Air Some Impressions of Meteora

 by Seraphim F. Englehardt

The monasteries at Meteora are renowned for their combination of artistic treasures, long history of ascetic struggle, and striking location. The stormy weather that plagued Greece in late fall of 1998 made these difficult at first to appreciate, except, perhaps, for the ascetic struggle.

So when, on my second morning at Meteora, I threw open the curtain on the window of my hotel room expecting to see only the fog and rain of yesterday, what I did see left me momentarily breathless. Over the neighboring houses soared an enormous curved reddish-tan rock wall that filled most of the picture window. How far away it was, I could not tell: 200 yards or two miles. There was nothing to give it perspective. I had to stretch far out of the open window to be able to see the top of the cliff. At the top of the rock pillar to my right, I could see part of a white cross that I knew belonged to Holy Trinity Monastery and, farther to the right, parts of St. Stephan's Convent could just be seen on top of yet another pillar. Today at last I might be able to more fully appreciate the qualities that have so long attracted monks and pilgrims to Meteora. Exactly when monks first settled among the rocks of Meteora is unknown. We do know that monks were living there as hermits and in small groups by the eleventh century. The first cenobitic monastery at Meteora was founded in about 1340 by Saint Athanasios of Meteora. This was the Monastery of the Transfiguration, also known as the Great Meteoron, to this day the largest and most famous of the monasteries.

In the next 200 years, more than 20 monasteries and numerous smaller monastic establishments grew up on the rocks. Monastic settlement reached its high point in the sixteenth century. Most of the katholika of the surviving monasteries, as well as the most significant works of iconography in them, date from this period. Succeeding centuries witnessed a dwindling of the number of monks and a progressive deterioration of the monasteries' physical state. Only six of the monasteries are now inhabited. Ruins of other monasteries and hermitages can be seen on top of some rocks and in caves and clefts in the side of rocks.

The bizarre landscape is the first thing that draws your eye as you approach Meteora. Towering over the neighboring towns of Kalambaka and Kastraki, the rock formations astound by their mass and by their irregularity and variety of form-rock pillars, stubs, needles, and large mesa-like masses. New rock patterns tantalize the eye everywhere. In some places the rock looks like modeling clay that some modern sculptor has slashed with a knife in multiple parallel and crisscrossing strokes. Often the terrain seems somehow in motion, as if the rocks have just torn themselves free from the face of the mountain and are tumbling down into the plain, the rock cracking itself into succeeding pinnacles from sheer momentum. Even those rocks with fairly regular surfaces seem to shimmer from the horizontal and vertical undulation caused by erosion and, in some places, by a blackish mineral staining. The rocks vary in hue from terra cotta to light tan to gray.  Perhaps because it was early December and the preceding weeks had been rainy, green moss covered many of them like patina on an ancient bronze coin.

Over this crazy, turbulent landscape placidly preside the monasteries of Meteora.

The six inhabited monasteries of Meteora overwhelm you with their artistic riches and dramatic location. The katholika of most of these monasteries were painted in the 16th century by iconographers of the Cretan school of iconography, whose later works on Mount Athos made the 16th century the high point of Athonite painting. Theophanes the Cretan, the leader of this school famed for his later frescoes in the Great Lavra on the Holy Mountain, painted the katholikon of the monastery of Saint Nicholas Anapavsas. The anonymous painter of the katholikon of Docheiariou on Mt. Athos is thought to have painted those of Great Meteoron and Rousannou. How many other, now ruined monasteries held their work? We can only imagine --and sigh. A visit to the surviving monasteries, however, is enough to awe any pilgrim from a non-Orthodox country.

A visit to the katholikon of Great Meteoron is a moving experience. The church is fully frescoed, mostly with scenes in smallish panes. The painting is preserved (or restored) well, with good, strong colors. The narthex is devoted to the martyrs, with scenes from their martyrdoms that are sometimes quite graphic, sometimes showing several haloed, bloodied heads in a group as if they had just been cut off and heaped together, with the saints' headless bodies nearby, iconographic streams of blood spurting from them. Some not attuned to the Orthodox mindset might consider this to be grotesque or depressing. But contemplating these images brings home to us the sufferings and courage of the martyrs and encourages each of us to reflect seriously on the question: do I have the love for Christ that would enable me to undergo such a contest of faith? Doubtless they were purposely made so graphic to encourage us to reevaluate the depth of our faith and to remind us that monasticism is an equivalent of martyrdom.

The refectory of the monastery is open to the public and has been turned into a museum, displaying numerous liturgical and secular articles. Visitors may also peer through an opening in the door of the ossuary, where the skulls and bones of reposed monks are stacked, and visit the kitchen and the cellar, still equipped with barrels so huge that they are trussed with curved wooden braces. Downstairs is a very well arranged display room with uniforms and other memorabilia of the Greek struggles for liberation. The monastery has a good gift shop with a wide selection of high-quality mounted icon reproductions, ceramics and an amazingly wide variety of incense made at Meteora.

Varlaam, now inhabited by six monks, is close to Great Meteoron. Its katholikon was built in the middle of the 16th century in 20 days, after the building material had been collected on the top of the cliff for 20 years. Its refectory has been turned into a museum, displaying manuscripts dating from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries, vestments, and sacred vessels. The displays are, unfortunately, poorly lit and unskillfully presented. An egregious example is a pocket-sized manuscript Gospel, dated to 960, owned and signed by the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitos, lying seemingly neglected and forgotten in a case with items of a considerably less distinguished provenance.

Rousannou has eleven nuns. Its katholikon, built about 1530 and painted possibly by a pupil of Theophanes the Cretan, is very small. It is entered from a reception room through a doorway that will make most 20th-century people bend over as they enter.

Monastic life at St. Stephen's Convent began in 1192. The katholikon, built in 1798, was damaged during World War II but has since been renovated. Its walls have been covered with new murals, including images of St. Nektarios of Pentapolis and St. Seraphim of Sarov. The museum, in the former refectory, is small, but well arranged and lit, displaying vestments, sacred vessels, icons, crosses, and manuscripts. A liturgy book in Greek, hand copied by one Bishop Jacob in 1632, is opened to an icon of Saint Basil the Great with its inscription, surprisingly, in Church Slavonic. The convent gift shop sells incense, lace, and embroideries made by the nuns. The poorest monastery at Meteora but, at least in my experience, the one with the warmest welcome, is Ayia Triada  - Holy Trinity. It is also the most dramatically situated of the monasteries, perched upon a rock pillar quite removed from surrounding heights. To get to it, visitors must descend from the road a few hundred yards on a winding path to a doorway cut into the base of the rock, then climb 130 steps, first through a tunnel bored through the rock, then up a stairway cut into its face, to the metal door guarding the monastery.

A cable car, probably used only for carrying supplies, connects the monastery with the road that links all the monasteries. A ride in it over the chasm would probably be as terrifying as being hoisted up in a net often proved in olden times. I didn't mind taking the stairs.

A Greek pilgrim and I were met at the door by Fr. Ioannis, who invited us in and ushered us into the monastery's kitchen, where he showed us traditional monastic hospitality and more: loukoumi, a glass of water, a cup of mountain tea, cookies, ouzo - things not offered visitors to the more accessible monasteries owing to their sheer numbers.

Fr. Ioannis then took me to see the churches. The original church is very small. How the 40 monks that occupied the monastery in its heyday could have fit is hard to imagine. Across a hall is a new, much larger church where Sunday liturgies are celebrated; people from the local area come up to the monastery to attend.

Closely related to the Meteora complex, but not as dramatically situated, is the church of the Dormition in upper Kalambaka, not far from the out Monasteries in the Air (from page 12) let of a steep path leading down from Ayia Triada. This church, like most of the churches of Meteora, was frescoed in the mid-16th century by painters of the Cretan school. A wall inscription hints that Theophanes the Cretan himself may have been one of the painters.

A remarkable feature of this church is that it has its ambo positioned in the middle of the nave, as was customary in early Christian churches. This ambo is of the most common type, being a marble platform about six feet off the ground supported by columns and having two staircases on its east-west axis. Perhaps because the floor plans of so many other small Byzantine-era churches in Greece are broken up by various architectural features and church furnishings, the general effect of such an anachronism is not as jarring as you might expect. The ambo, together with the marble ciborium (canopy) over the holy table and the synthronon (tiers of seats for bishop and priests) surviving in the altar, probably belonged to an earlier church on whose foundations the present mid-12th century church is built. Among surviving ambos it is probably unique in that it has a canopy, a later addition.

Meteora is easy to get to from the neighboring towns. If you have a car you can drive up to within an easy walk to the entrance of each of the monasteries. Otherwise, you can take a taxi or, in the summer, a bus from downtown Kalambaka up a winding road through the smaller town of Kastraki. All of the inhabited monasteries are easily accessible - dramatic photos of monasteries perched on the edge of cliffs notwithstanding. The rocks making up Meteora lie at the foot of a mountain much like huge icebergs just fallen off the face of a glacier. The road curves along the mountainside behind and between the rocks and connects all the monasteries, which can easily be reached from this road by a combination of paths, bridges, and stairs. The three miles or so between Great Meteoron on the west and St. Stephen's on the east is a pleasant and picturesque walk in good weather, a dreadful one in bad.

The good order and cleanliness of the monasteries make a good impression. Considering the huge tourist traffic, everything is handled tastefully and with dignity. The flip side of this is that, like most other historical sites and museums throughout Greece, an admission fee is charged at most of the monasteries, a practice that pilgrims may find bothersome.

Also, you may not see any monastics other than the nuns staffing the gift shops in the two convents. Only a portion of each monastery is open to visitors and, with few exceptions, the monastics seem to keep behind closed doors during visiting hours, as at other functioning monasteries in Greece that are also historical sites. This was especially true at Great Meteoron and Varlaam, probably the two most touristed of the monasteries. Here laymen perform all duties involving contact with the massive numbers of tourists, students, and pilgrims that visit the monasteries.

Nevertheless, the general feeling for me was one of pilgrimage rather than of museum-hopping. Indeed, my visit to Meteora at last brought home to me the beautiful but once-remote words of the prayer:

Save, O Lord, and have mercy . . . on all living . . . in monasteries, in deserts, in caves, on mountains, on pillars, in hermitages, in the clefts of rocks. . . . (Daily Commemoration of the Living)

Those wishing to learn more about this fascinating complex of monasteries are recommended to read The Lives of the Monastery Builders of Meteora, Pamphlet #3, Holy Apostles Convent, Buena Vista, CO, 1991.

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