THE MONASTERY OF THE GREAT METEORON

A’ THE HISTORY AND THE CHRONICLE OF THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE MONASTERY

The foundation of the monastery of the Great Meteoron or the Transfiguration is the starting point of the organized monastic life at Meteora. This monastery is the oldest, largest and most formal of the extant Meteora Monasteries as its name “Great Meteoron” implies. Perched on the most imposing rock, it occupies a commanding position among the monastic complex of Meteora.

The Meteoron was founded shortly before the middle of the 14th century by Saintly Athanasios the Meteoran who was also its first founder and the first to organize a systematic monastic community. St. Athanasios, the son of eminent parents was born at Hypati the well-known medieval town of Neai Patrai or Nea Patra, in 1302 and was christened Andronikos. Due to his remarkable literary aptitude and love of learning he was very well educated.

After the untimely death of both his father and mother and the capture of his home town by  the Catalans in 1318/19 he and his uncle went into retreat in Thessaloniki and then to Mount Athos where the fathers refuse to allow the boy to stay since he was still a minor.

Andronikos, a restless and dynamic character set forth on new wanderings and adventures. These brought him to Constantinople where he made the acquaintance of erudite ecclesiastical men of letters such as Gregorios Sinaitis, the future Ecumenical Patriarch Isidoros (1347-1350), Daniel the Hesychast and other eminent persons of the monastic community. With their help he was initiated into the secrets of the hesychastic life and “like a bee he gathered what was ripe” «ωςμελιττασυλλέγειτακαίρια».

Then he travelled to Crete where he stayed for a certain period and finally returned to Mount Athos in around 1332 by which time he was about 30 years old. At Milea on the Holy Mountain he was accepted as a novice by two virtuous anchorites “Who heid attained the heights of virtuousness” «ειςακροναρετηςεληλακοτας», Gregorios and Moses and subsequently received into holy orders by the priest-monk Gregorios taking the name Antonios. He quickly distinguished himself and took his new and permanent monastic name Athanasios.

However the predatory incursions of the Turks and the inimical circumstances prevailing at that age forced Athanasios to leave Mount Athos together with his spiritual father Gregorios. In Thessaloniki and Veria a lot of important men were willing to keep them even providing systenation but the two monks did not consent to stay because Athanasios had a great aversion to the failties of the world and the noise of the city.

So on the advice of the then bishop of Servia Iakovos they went to the Thessalian rocks of Stagoi on which the biographer of Athanasios remarks characteristically “the largest and highest rocks created by God since the beginning of the world”. “Following His Grace’s advice we found the rocks as we had heard but there was noone living on them but vultures and crows.” «Λίθοι υψικομοι και ευμεγεθεις απο κτισεως κοσμου, οθτω παρα του δημιουργου ιδρυθεντες». «Ον και λαβοντες και προς τον τοπον παραγενομενοι, τους μεν λιθους ευρον καθως ηκουσαν, αλλουκ ην τις ο κατοικων εν αυτοις πλην γυπων και κορακων».

On the rock of Stylos that today is called the rock of Holy Spirit the priest-monk Gregorios and Saint Athanasios were settled. Gregorios remained there an entire decade and this was the reason he was called Stylite. The recluse Athanasios after a certain period of time withdrew with his mentor’s permission to a cave in the rock. There in prayer and solitude, he spent his free time weaving baskets so that he was never idle and thus safe from the danger of falling into temptation.

Yet seeking more seclusion and serenity always with Gregorios’ permission he selected another rock “a place for anchorites, a rock which rose high into the skies” where he installed himself in around 1340 this time permanently. The rock is the so-called Platylithos (Wide Rock) which Athanasios himself called M e t e o r o n, a name that was going to establish and to be preserved through the centuries to be applied in general to the whole complex of the surrounding monasteries and crags and become renown for beyond the borders of Greece.

Equipped with the wings of the Holy Spirit and with his unwavering will and faith Athanasios, the humble monk, almost flew and at last stepped this sun-trodden rock hither to touched only by the sun beams, as it is mentioned in a sigillion (Apr. 1580) of the Ecumenical Patriarch Metrophanis III “… Actuated by the divine love the saintly monk Athanasios taking the wings of the Holy Spirit first flew to this sun-trodden rock which dominated in Stagoi and justifiably called Meteoron being the highest of all. There he found a holy place, a real paradise containing, instead of fruitbearing trues, men who had the divine fruit of the holy spirit… οοσιωτατοςενμοναχοιςΑθανασιος, πτερυγαςτεαναλαβωνταςτουαγιουπνεευματος, πρωτοςανεπτηειςτηνηλιβατονταυτηνπετραν, τηνπροκαθημενηντων... Σταγων και ευλογως κεκλημενην Μετεωρον, οια των αλλων υπερκειμενην... και κορυφης υπερθεν τοιαυτης τοπον θειον ευρετο, παραδεισον αλλον εδειξεν, αντι δενδρων διαφορων ανδρας θειως ενασκουμενους αποδειξας και αντι ωραιων και ετησιων καρπων τους του αγιου πνευματος, παντας αλλους νικωντας».

There Athanasios built his ascetic refuge and organized the first systematic monastic community which had strict coenobiotic religious observances formulated by himself. The brotherhood under Athanasios had already 14 members. Initially the saintly anchorite built the church of the Theometor (Mother of God, the Virgin of the Rock of Meteoron) to whom he also dedicated the monastery as he himself said to his fellow ascetes and acolytes shortly before his death: “And first I leave you under the protection of our blessed H o l y M o t h e r , V i r g i n M o t h e r , V I r g i n M a r y to whom this monastery is dedicated”. «Και πρωτον μεν παρατίθημι υμας εν τη σκέπη της υπερευλογημένης Θ ε ο τ ό κ ο υ καί αειπαρθένου Μαρίας, καθά και η μ ο ν ή   κ ε κ λ ή ρ ω τ α ι». Later he built another church in honor of the Transfiguration of Christ which finally became the katholikon of the monastery and gave its final name of “Transfiguration” which is preserved until nowadays.

Athanasios converted this steep and inaccessible rock to an easy going way to our Lord who is the corner stone of our Church: “This hard stone, father, you worked hard to be converted to a way to the corner stone”. «Τόν λίθον, πάτερ, τόν τραχύν καί ανάντη πρός λίθον ακρόγωνον τρίβον ειργάσω».

Today as one climbs up the rock-hewn stairway to the monastery on the left just before the entrance one can see the hermitage of Saint Athanasios within the natural crevice in the rock arranged as a humble and basic dwelling with the essential tiny chapel. Here according to tradition the saintly hermit first lived alone after he had scaled the Broad Stone and before he built a church on the rocky ledge and cells for the monks who very early started to gather here.

Extremely humble as Athanasios had been in all his life he remained an ordinary monk. Perhaps due to his extreme humility he did not leave any written texts although he was very knowledgeable and well educated.

According to his biographer he died peacefully after a brief illness of the gallbladder at the age of 78 probably in the year 1380 (not in 1382/83 as it was up to now accepted). “It happened to our father to become ill with melancholic humour”. Already in November 1381 the synodic letter of the Metropolitan of Larissa Neilos, for the benefit of the Theotokos Monastery of the Great Gates (Porta Panagia) which is kept in the archive of Doussiko Monastery (St. Vissarion), is signed by “Makarios, priest-monk and s p i r i t u a l  f a t h e r  of Meteoron”. We know that Saint Athanasios while still alive, shortly before his death, selected priest-monk Makarios to be spiritual father of Meteoron after his death: “Priest-monk Makarios was rated first by me to lead and be responsible for the needs of the cells and to regulate your life s p i r i t u a l l y”. «τόν εν ιερομονάχοις κυριν Μακάριον πρωτον γάρ ζωντος εμου έταξα τουτον άρχειν εις τας χρείας του κελλίου΄ άρτι δέ καί εις τάς πνευματικάς διαγωγάς οφείλει οδηγείν και ρυθμίζειν υμας».

Yet the real successor of Athanasios and second founder of the Monastery was the saintly monk I o a s a p h  the ex-king I o a n n i s  U r e s i s (Uros) Angelos Komninos Palaeologos. He was appointed to take Athanasio’s place: “By consensus of opinion and the common wish of all the fathers and the brothers he hands over all authority and administration to size Ioasaph the King”. «Κοινη γνώμη καί βουλη πάντων των πατέρων καί αδελφων πασαν την εξουσίαν καί αρχήν εγχειρίζει τω κυρω Ιωάσαφ τω βασιλει».

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Ioannis – Ioasaph was son of the Greek-Serbian King of Thessaly and Epirus Symeon Uresis Palaelogos (1359-1370) whose seat was at Trikala. He was born around 1349/50. His mother Thomais was daughter of the Despot of Epirus Nikiphoros II (+ 1359). From his father’s side he was related to the byzantine imperial family of the Palaeologos whose surname he was proud to bear. Maria Palaeologina great-granddaughter of the byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaeologos (1259-1982) from her father’s side (Ioannis Palaeologos) and granddaughter from her mother’s side (Irini) of the great logothetis Theodoros Metochites founder of the famous Chora Monastery at Constantinople, was married to Ioannis – Ioasaph’s grandfather, the Serbian King Stephen Uresis III, (1321-1331). Ioasaph had a younger brother called Stephen. His sister M a r i a  A n g e l i n a  Komnini Doukaina Palaeologina (+ 28 Dec. 1394) great benefactress and donatrix of the Meteoron Monastery had married the Despot of Ioannina Thomas Preliubovic (+ 23 Dec. 1384).

Symeon Uresis Palaeologos, Ioannis’ father, died in around 1370 and his son succeeded him to the throne. Since 1359/60 he had already been proclaimed to reign jointly with his father at the age of 10. However the young king infused with divine love quickly rejected temporal power and the din of the world and exchanged the royal purple for a monk’s habit.

He relinquished the administration to Caesar Alexios Angelos Philanthropinos and thus the last scion of the glorious Serbian dynasty of Nemanija came to the Great Meteoron where he was received as a monk taking the name Ioasaph at the age of 22 sometime between November 1372 and June 1373.

His last (and perhaps the only) official actions as a king were two decrees issued in November 1372 for the benefit of Neilos the Prior of the skete of Stagoi. Copies of the two documents are found in a unified folio in the museum of the monastery of Transfiguration.

In a letter written in June 1373 by sister Theodouli Koteanitzaina to the Monastery og Great Meteoron is mentioned the “respectable Caesar” Alexios Angelos Philanthropinos, successor of Ioannis Uresis which means that at that time Ioannis was already renounced the world to become a monk.

It is proved that Ioasaph left his monastery and went to Thessaloniki and Mount Athos twice for unknown reasons. When Athanasios, shortly before his death, according to his biography, wishing perhaps to relieve himself of administrative and other responsibility onerous at his age, granted to the King-monk Ioasaph  “every power and authority”, Iosaph, after a while, left his monastery and his dignity and migrated to Thessaloniki “Having remained in his dignity for a short time he migrated to Thessaloniki”. This event must have happened around 1379/80.

However shortly after Athanasio’s death around 1380, Ioasaph returned to the monastery of Meteoron to assume his duties as successor of his spiritual father. Already in November 1381 in the ecclesiastical letter of the Metropolitan of Larisa Neilos he signs –together with many others- right below the Metropolitan “Ioannis Uresis Palaeologos renamed Ioasaph monk through the divine orders”. «Ιωάνν(ης) Ούρεσης ο Παλαιολόγος ο διά του θείου καί αγγελικου σχήματος μετονομασθης Ιωάσαφ (μον)αχ(ός)». In May 1386 the “Despina” of Ioannina, Maria Angelina Palaeologina sends a letter to her brother about her donations to the Meteoron Monastery. This letter is also found in the museum of the monastery.

According to official papers in October and November 1394 Ioasaph along with three other monks Serapion, Gerasimos amd Philotheos left the monastery and settled in the monastery of Vatopedion in Mount Athos. This probably happened because of Vayazit’s invasion in Thessaly and the final conquest of the whole region by the Turks (end of 1393/beginning 1394). In 1936, as concluded by a letter of the Superior Neophytos (Jan. 1400) of the Monastery of Dionisios in Mount Athos, Ioasaph had already returned permanently to his Monastery of which he had earlier been renovator and second founder (after Athanasios).

Ioasaph also migrated temporarily to Ioannina for family reasons at the end of December 1384 and the beginning of January 1385 after the assassination of the Despot of Ioannina Thomas Preliubocic (+ 23 Dec. 1384) husband of his sister Maria Angelina who got married again, this time Esau Buondelmonti, “brother of the duchess of Kefallinia” on 31 Jan. 1385.

Ioasaph, according to official inscriptions of the monastery, in the year 6896 since the creation of the world which corresponds to the year of our Lord 1387/88, that is six hundred years ago, enlarged and rebuilt the original church erected by Athanasios, transforming it into a magnificent edifice: “And then… a very beautiful church was built in honor of the Savior Christ, part of which later demolished by him who received the cell from (Athanasios) himself, the illustrious Ioasaph who built it anew to the height and length you see now” (Athanasio’s Biography). «Ειτα ... ανεγειρεται ναός τω Σωτηρι Χριστω ωραιότατος, ουπερ μέρος καθελών ύστερον ο αναδεξάμενος παραυτου τό κελλίον κλεινός Ιωάσαφ εις μηκος καί ύψος καθώς νυν οραται ανήγειρεν» (Βίος Αθανασίου). This is the church-shaped sanctuary of the present katholikon of the monastery which is embellished with exquisite wall-paintings of the year 1483.

In 1385/86 Ioasaph financed the copy of the codex 555 of the Transfiguration Monastery (the Acts of the Apostles) by the archivist of the diocese of Trikala Thomas Xeros. His personal vademecum, a wonderful vellum with the four Gospels of small size (12x9,5 cm) written calligraphically on a very fine parchment of excellent quality and with an exquisite luxurious silver binding is kept today in the National Library in Athens (manuscripts no 58) where it was transferred in 1882 along with other manuscripts from Meteora. In the inner side of the front binded cover it bears the signature: “I o a s a p h”.

In 1389/90 Ioasaph contributed to the foundation and promotion of Hypsilotera Monastery the so-called “of the Calligraphers” on the inaccessible steep rock opposite to the Great Meteoron.

Ioasaph “the evergreen and high-haired tree… which warms everyone the saintly, the sweet, the meek, the quiet, the clever, the scion of the royal stock” «τοαειθαλέςδένδρονκαίυψίκομον... όπερθάλπειπάντας, όάγιος, ογλυκυς, οπραος, οησυχος, οαγχινους», «τοεκπιζηςβασιλικηςβλαστημα», as he is described by the homonymous Ioasaph the Metropolitan of Larisa in his letters of the years 1401/2, died probably around 1422/23.

Athanasios and Ioasaph “the inhabitants of Meteora and the builders of the Holy Church” are ranked among the chorus of saints and are honored at 20 April. An anonymous hymnographer (codex 354 of Great Meteoron) magnifying and praising the virtuousness of the saintly founders remarks: “Ascending on a high rock, saintly Ioasaph and wise Athanasios, you ascended on the heights of virtuousness and from there up to the heights of heaven”. «Πέτραν αναβάντες εις υψηλήν,/θείε ΙωάσαφΑθανάσιε τε σοφέ,/ αρετής εις ύψος ανήλθετε, καντευθεν/των ουρανών εις ύψη μετεβιβάσθητε».

The monastery flourished in the middle of the 16th century. In October 1540 the Ecumenical Patriarch Ieremias I visited Great Meteoron as it is concluded by testimonies of official ecclesiastical documents and in his sigillion of that year –no longer in existence- he acknowledged and guaranteed the privileges and the absolute autonomy of the Great Meteoron Monastery after the model of those in Athos.

According to the inscription on a marble plaque incorporated in the church’s exterior the magnificent nave and the lite of the present impressive katholikon was erected in 1544/45. Architecturally the church is of the Athonite type that is inscribed, cruciform, four columned with two lateral conches to the left and right the so-called choirs: The nave, as it is attested by another inscription, was painted in 1552 when S y m e o n  was the Superior. It is one of the most splendid and notable assemblages of post-byzantine wall - paintings.

In 1557 the same energetic Superior built the refectory, an interesting and important structure divided into two aisles by five columns down its length and with technically remarkable brick-built arches, cross-vaults and barrel vaults on the roof. On account of all these activities the Epirote Superior Symeon is considered as the third founder of the monastery.

Alongside the north wall of the refectory, as it is used in these cases, stands the h e s t i a  that is the monastery kitchen. It is built according to the established monastic architectural type comprising by a spacious square room entirely roofed by a calotte topped by a small dome. The windows in the drim of the cupola served as vents through which the smoke escaped. Nowadays the well-maintained and clean kitchen apart from its architectural interest has also a large collection of copper, pottery and wooden cooking and other vessels, formerly used by the monks and now displayed here.

In July 1572, according to a clay inscription incorporated in the outside wall the monastery i n f i r m a r y  and g e n I a t r i c  f a c i l i t y was built. It is a noteworthy architectural structure with an elegant brick-built ceiling on the ground floor, the central vault of which rests on four columns and has eight lateral cross-vaults.

During the second decade of the 16th century, when Neagos Basarab was Voevode of Vlachia (1512-1521), this dynamic and pious prince constructed at his own expenses a tower and escalate up to the monastery (not the rock-cut steps in use today, which were made in 1922, but a wooden ladder affixed vertically to the rock). This benefaction is known from a letter of the Holy Superior of the Meteoron, Dionisios: “And the late Sire John Neagoe himself constructed for us on the rock and improved the ladder and increased the number of clamps and made many improvements to the monastery and donated many heirlooms”. «αυτός δέ ο μακαρίτης κύρ Ιωάννης ο Νεάγγος εκατάρτισεν ημιν πύργον άνω εν τω λίθω καί τήν κλίμακα εκαλλιέργησεν καί τάς ζευκτήριας αύξησεν καί πολλά αγαθά προτερήματα εν τω μοναστηρίω πεποίηκε καί κειμήλια εδωρήσατο».

Among the former Superiors who left their indelible mark on the monastery, an outstanding figure is Parthenios Orphides the “most musical” and “cantor” in the late of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century. He is repeatedly mentioned in inscriptions as renovator and donor of icons in the chapel of St. John the Baptist (1784), in the iconostasis of the katholikon of the monastery (1790) and in the chapel of Sts. Constantine and Helen. He also donated in old elegant prie-dieu with a beautiful ivory decoration inlaid which is in the nave and bears the inscription:

“This was made when Parthenios Orphides was Superior of the Great Meteoron along with Kallinikos who gave the victory to the muses with the distinguished masterpieces”.

ΕΠΙ ΠΡΟΕΔΡΟΥ ΠΑΡΘΕ/ΝΙΟΥ ΟΡΦΙΔΟΥ ΗΓΟΥΜΕ/ΝΟΥ ΤΕ ΤΗΣ ΜΟΝΗΣ/ΜΕΤΕΩΡΟΥ ΣΥΝ ΚΑΛ/ΛΙΝΙΚΩ ΤΩ ΝΙΚΗΝ/ΜΟΥΣΑΙΣ [ΔΙΔ]ΟΝΤΙ/ΠΕΡΙΦΑ[ΝΕΣΙ] ΚΑΛΛ/ΕΣΙΝ ΤΑΔ ΥΦΑΝΘΗ.

In his days (1789) the chapel of Sts. Constantine and Helen was erected and the magnificent wood carved iconostasis of the nave of the Katholikon was made. Finally on his initiative and at his own expenses a new wing of cells was built whose marble inscription is kept in the museum nowadays because these cells were demolished and rebuilt.

Parthenios accomplished all these works although he took the monastery “in penury and deeply in debt” «ειςεσχατηνπενιανκαιειςχρεοςβαρυτατονκαιφορτιονδυσβαστακτον», as he himself truly confessed. Already in April (8-25) 1779, when the Swede anatolist Jacob J. Bjornstahl visited the Great meteoron Monastery, Parthenios was the Superior and he offered him warm hospitality and facilitated his research. His musical chants are included in the codex 329 of the monastery.

In 1809 after the legendary Papa-Thymios Vlachavas had been cruelly tortured to death by the monstrous Ali-Pasha at Ioannina, the Superior Parthenios Orphides was held captive in the Epirote capital. He had been incarcerated in the Pasha’s dungeons obviously because the Great Meteoron Monastery, like all the other monasteries had encouraged and supported the patriotic movement of the fiery priest. For this reason not only the monastery of St. Dimitrios, which literally razed to the ground by the canons of the Turkish- Albanian army, but all the Monasteries in Meteora suffered from the vengeful wrath of the heinous tyrant of Ioannina. These events are laconically yet eloquently described in the moving memorandum of the simplicit and barely literate Papa-Chrysanthos of Trikala (codex 106 of the Varlaam Monastery): “1809…The Pasha captured Papa-Thymios Vlachavas and sent him to Ioannina to the Vizier and he cut him to pieces. As the war finished the Vizier closed down all the monasteries and took the Superior to Ioannina where he is up to now”.

          «1809... επιασαι ω καπιταν πασιας των Παπαθημιο Πλαχαβα και αιστηλαι υς τα Ιωανηνα στω βιζιρι και τον αικαμι ζτηραικυα ταισιρια... και τελυωνοντας ω πολμος αιστηλαι ω βεζιρης και εβουλωσε τα μοναστηρια και επιρε κε του γουμενος απωνι [= οπούναι], ης τα Ειωανηνα εος την σημαιρον ημαιραν».

Finally we must mention the Scholar Superior of the Monastery of Meteora the meddlesome priest-monk P o l y k a r p o s  R a m m i d e s  at the end of the 19th century writer of the first general history of the Monasteries in Meteora (1882).

The monastery has two old chapels. The c h a p e l  of  St. J o h n  the B a p t i s t (Timios Prodromos) with vaulted interior and saddle roof, nowadays has the form of a small single aisle church of the end of the 18th century indicative of other functions, possibly dating back to the days of the saintly founders Athanasios and Ioasaph. It was probably arranged as a chapel at the beginning of the 17th century. It stands at the east edge of the south side of the katholikon beside the sanctuary with which it communicates.

The chapel of the S t s  C o n s t a n t i n e  a n d  H e l e n  is also a small single aisle church of the end of the 18th century with a lovely dome of the katholikon. According to the outer inscription it was erected in March 1789 when Parthenios Orphides was the Superior at the expenses of the monk Dionisios and his son priest-monk Zacharias from Konitsa. It stands on the west of the katholikon and very close to it.

There is also a new third c h a p e l  of S t.  N e k t a r i o s  on the ground floor of the renovated north west wing of cells which is illustrated with modern paintings of fine artistry.

A lot of catastrophies hit the Great Meteoron Monastery throughout the centuries such as incursions of the impious and ungodly who stole looted and set on fire: “in the year 1609 the monastery was looted by the Turks. It was completely devastated and we write it for the subsequent brothers to remember” (a note written on the painted part of the exonarthex, on the east edge). The Swede traveler J. Bjornstahl in his itinerary (1779, first edition in1783) preserves interesting information about the history of the monastery which he had read in a scripted Gospel that does not exist nowadays. According to these memoirs in1616 on Good Friday the Monastey was cruelly looted by the Pasha of Ioannina Arslan-Bei (+ 1618) who “under the pretence of seeing the monastery together with this retinue, tricked the monks and as soon as they pulled him up, he and his soldiers sterted to shoot at them. He killed three or four of them and then looted everything”. A few years later on 26 October 1633 the grand fire completed the catastrophy.

Yet the Great Meteoron through endless adventures and persecutions during the last six centuries continued uninterruptedly its monastic presence and radiance and kept an important part of its treasures and its priceless national and religious heirlooms. But the most important of all is that during the past six hundred years it remains a true bastion of the orthodox monasticism, a real bulwark of Christianity and a holy ark of our national and religious tradition.


Δημιουργία ιστοτόπου ΑΔΑΜ ΠΛΗΡΟΦΟΡΙΚΗ