THE VARLAAM MONASTERY

In a small distance from the rock of the Great Meteoron Monastery there is the smaller, yet very imposing rock of the Monastery of Varlaam. According to the tradition the first inhabitant went there 600 years ago an the 14th century. He was contemporary of Saint Athanasios, the ascete-anchorite Varlaam who also gave his name to the monastery.

The present magnificent Katholikon that is honoured in memory of All Saints was erected in 1541/42 by the two brothers priest-monks from Ioannina T h e o p h a n i s (+ 17th May 1544) and N e k t a r i o s (+ 17th April 1550) Apsaras, as it is written in the inscriptions and the archive. Actually, it seems that the main construction of the katholikon had finished in 1541/42, while the rest of the works in the church and the narthex continued until May 1544, as we conclude from the memorandum of the priest-monk Cassianos ex-Abbot of the Simonos-Petra Monastery, which is refered to the death of the priest-monk Theophanis. According to the text Theophanis died on 17th May 1544 on Saturday, just before the Sunday of the Blind man.

During his last moments summoning up all his energy, he went out of his cell with a lot of difficulty supporting himself to his stick and eagerly went to the newly constructed church. Fascinated by its beauty and glamour, he glorified God and All Saints to whom he had devoted the church. Then he blessed all the monks who had worked very hard in the monastery as quarrymen, builders, woodcarvers, for the completion and the illustration of the church and finally deeply satisfied and stirred, he returned to his cell where he died in peace consigning his soul to his Creator:

« Επί έτους ζνβ’ [7052-5508 = 1544], κατά τον μηνα Μαιον, τη αυτου ιζ’, Σαββατου λαχουσης της ημερας, ωρα δε ενατη, ετελειωθη ο πανσεπτος και περικαλλης ναος συν τω ναρθηκι, επανω της ιερας πετρας του Βαρλααμ, δια συνδρομης κοπων τε και εξοδων των πανοσιωτατων και αιδεσιμωτατων πατερων, των και αυταδελφων, κυρου Νεκταριου και κυρου Θεοφανους, των μακαριων ανδρων. Εν τωδε τω καιρω ησθενησεν ωσει μηνας δεκα ο μακαριος Θεοφανης και τοσουτω δαμασθεις υπο της πολλης ασθενειας, οτι σχεδος εγγισας εως των πυλων του θανατου΄απο δε του ποθου, ουπερ ειχε προς τον ναον, εγερθεις προθυμως και περιχαρης, οια και ην ασθενης στηριζομενος υπο της ραβδου αυτου, ενδον εισελθων και ιδων την τελειωσιν του ιερου ναου και υψωσας τας χειρας εις τον ουρανον και το ‘δοξα σοι ο Θεος’ επειπων, τους δε Αγιους Παντας ευχαριστησας εκ ποθου – ουτω γαρ τω ναω τω καινω ουτος προσηγορευσατο-, ομοιως ουν ευχομενος και ευλογων και παντας τους αδελφους, λατομους, οικοδομους, κτιστας τε και τους λεπτουργους, επισης εδεξιωσατο και υπερηυχησατο η ηγιασμενη ψυχη. Ειτα παλιν εστραφη τοις ιδιοις ποσι πορευομενος εν τω κελλιω αυτου και, σχηματισαμενος εαυτον τω τυπω του ζωοποιου σταυρου, κατεθετο το ιερον σκηνος επι την στρωμνην αυτου, ορων προς ανατολας...» (κωδ. 180 και 275 Μ. Βαρλααμ).

“In the year ζνβ΄[7052-5508=1544] during the month of May the 17 on Saturday at the ninth hour the most venerable and beautiful church and the narthex finished on the holy rock of Varlaam with the efforts and at the expenses of the most Saintly and Revenered Fathers Nektarios and Theophanis, who were physical brothers. At that time, the blessed Theophanis had become ill for ten months and he was so exhausted by the serious illness that he almost died. But so eagerly did he want to see the church, that he left his bed willfully and joyfully, despite he was ill and being supported by his stick he went into the church where he saw its completion. Then he raised his hands glorifying God and All Saints (to whom he had dedicated the church) and he blessed and prayed for the whole brotherhood the builders, quarrymen, woodcarvers. After that he went back to his cell making the sign of the cross, he lay down looking at the East… (cod. 180 and 275 Mon. of Varlaam).

The Katholikon of the Monastery has typical, elegant, Athonite style and its main church is two columned, cruciform, inscribed with the two typical conches of Mount Athos (the choirs). The nave is preceded by an ample esonarthex (lite) with a nice dome in its center, equivalent to the one of the nave, supported by four columns.

The nave, as the inscription on the south wall declares, was decorated in 1548. The name of the painter is not mentioned, yet the style, the colour, the movements, the arrangement of the figures and the scenes and generally the manner of these wall-paintings that look alike with those of the chapel of St Nicholaos in the Monastery of Megisti Lavra (in Mount Athos), which was painted (according to the inscription) in 1560 by the Theban painter F r a n g o s  K a t e l a n o s, lead us to attribute the illustration of the nave of Varlaam Monastery to the same famous artist. On this account, the painting of the katholikon of the Monastery of St. Nikanor in Zavorda of Grevena is attributed to the same artist.

On the dome, there is the representation of Pantokrator (the All-Mighty) as the Fair Judge, in the tympanum there is the honorary chorus of the prophets and angels, on the pendentives the four Evangelists, of whom Luke is depicted to paint an icon of Virgin Mary. On the two lateral conches of the nave, the choirs, there are full-bodied military saints, while on the upper surfaces of the walls there are many-figured compositions inspired by the life and passion of our Lord and the church calendar in general. On the west wall above the entrance is the established representation of the Assumption the center of which is predominated by her lifeless body on the death bed, while Lord is holding gently her pure soul flanked by angels, apostles and hierarchs. Remarkable is the performance of single figures of saints such as of the two melodists of our church, Ioannis Damaskinos and Kosmas Maioumas.

On the east columns of the sides of the iconostasis are depicted full-bodied Virgin Mary on the right and Jesus Christ on the left with richly decorated aureoles over their heads reminiscent of portable icons which happens to the icons of other single figures of saints and archangels (St. John the Baptist, Archangel Michael etc.). On the west columns, below the Virgin Mary, to the left, there is Theophanis and below the Christ, to the right, Nektarios, the two founders of the monastery in monastic frocks looking humble and venerable, offering an exquisite model of their church.

On the sanctuary apse the imposing representation of Platitera (the Virgin Mary) impresses with the glamour of the gold and the rest of its colours as well as with the sweetness in the expression of her face. Below, there is the illustration of the angels as ministers of God full of devoutness.

The marvelous illustration of the nave of the Katholikon of the Varlaam Monastery contains all the characteristics of Frangos Katelanos’ paintings, that is the narrative details and the analysis of the historical events in the compositions on the one hand and the distinct realism on the other, borrowed elements and influences perhaps of the Italian art. Frangos Katelanos couldn’t avoid completely the influence of the Cretan painter Theophanis, yet, as A. Xygopoulos remarked, “his work can be characterized as a reaction to the general admiration and in a way the subjugation to the art of the great Cretan artist.

Eighteen years after the painting of the nave, in 1566, according to official inscriptions, the narthex (lite) of the katholikon was painted by two famous hagiographers from Thebes, the priest and sakellarios of Thebes Georgios together with his brother Frangos at the expenses of the bishop of Vella Ioannina Antonios Apsaras. The two brothers bore the surname Kontaris as it is mentioned by building inscriptions of the churches at the villages Krapsi and Klimatia in Epirus. The church of St. Nicholas in Krapsi was decorated by both brothers in 1563 while the church of the Transfiguration of the Saviour in Klimatia was decorated by Frangos Kontaris alone in 1568.

On the dome predominates the representation of Pantokrator, on the east wall the many figured composition of the Second Coming with all the characteristic scenes of the unbiased judgement, while on the west wall the impressive allegorical painting of the saintly hermit Sisoes, lamenting on the open tomb which has skeleton of the glorious Alexander the Great the conquerer of the world, symbolizes the vanity of the worldly life and the cruel inevitable destiny of every human being without exception which is death: “All the things that the human have, things that do not exist after death are futile. Wealth is not eternal, glory is not permanently a part of man. Thatis, whendeathcomes, allthesedisappear…”. (Πάντα ματαιότης τά ανθρώπινα όσα ουχ υπάρχει μετά θάνατον’ ου παραμένει ο πλούτος, ου συνοδεύει η δοξα’ επελθών γαρ ο θάνατος, πάντα ταύτα εξηφάνισται...)……………………………………………

On the east part of the south wall there is the representation of the two founders Nektarios and Theophanis before their tomps, holding together a model of the church. There is a supernatural peace on their austere and ascetic faces. On the east columns, there is on the left Virgin Mary the Mesitria and Protector of the Christians and on the right Jesus Christ. All around, the walls are illustrated with martyrdoms, full-bodied saints and ascetes etc.

An inscription above the painting of Virgin Mary on the left of the narthex informs us that “in the year of the Lord 1780 and 1782 all the painting of the sanctuary of the Katholikon and the narthex was restored with the help and at the expenses of the modest bishop of Stagoi Parthenios for the salvation of his soul”.

Parthenios was a well-known scholar and energetic bishop (March 1751- +26 March 1784), who had also been a monk of this monastery and great donator and benefactor. Among others, he donated to the monastery his remarkable personal archive and all his library. At his own expenses he built the exonarthex of the katholikon, which was a colonnade with a double row of arches, as it is described in the rhymes of the priest-monk Gabriel Agiamonitis (1786). By the inscription it is known that this narthex remained until 1857 when it was renovated or rebuilt and finally replaced by the present exonarthex with the guest’s quarters on the upper floor, when Polycarpos [Thomas] was the Metropolitan of Trikke and Stagoi and Christophoros Maes the Superior of the monastery, as it is mentioned on the inscribed marble plaque in the year 1930.  

Remarkable for their fine and elaborated art are the woodcarved gilded iconostasis of the nave of the katholikon, the throne of the Superior and two lecterns with rich decoration of ivory; the inscription in one of them informs that they were made during the bishopric of Paisios [Kleinovitis, 1784-1808] of Stagoi and the abbacy of Anatolios.

Today the Varlaam Monastery has a rich and admirable collection of 290 manuscripts. Some of them are of particular interest for their artistic and colourful decorations(a few miniatures, a lot of decorative initials and headpieces). It must be noticed that at the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century functioned here the best organized bibliographical workshop of the Meteora monasteries, where calligraphers and scribe-illuminators worked systematically. At the beginning of the 17th century a considerable number of calligraphers, masters and apprentices, who all belonged to the artistic set of Vlachia worked here intensively. We merely mention certain names: the well-known calligrapher Luke from Cyprus, bishop of Bozeos (1583-1603) and later Metropolitan of Hungarovlachia (1603-1628), Mathew from Myrea (+1624) and two priest-monks from the Varlaam Monastery Arsenios and Ioannikios.

Among the manuscripts exposed in the museum of the monastery there is a remarkable codex of high quality and palaeographic value containing the four Gospel on parchment considered as the personal vade-mecum of the Byzantine emperor Constantinos VII Porphyrogenitos (912-959). Yet this codex comes from the monastery of Dousikon (St. Vissarion) and it must have been written centuries later, as it is clearly shown by the script by the end of the 13th century. Very rare are the palaeotypes of the library of the monastery. Here, besides the illustrated manuscripts, there are other ecclesiastical heirlooms such as metabyzantine portable icons, gold-embroidered vestments and epitaphioi as well as other small silver pieces of art.

A portable icon of particular artistic value is Theotokos Vrefokratousa (Virgin Mary holding the Child in her arms) surrounded by two angels and many saints made in 1668, by the famous Cretan painter Emmanuel Jahne. Of great importance, besides its artistic value, is the gold-embroidered epitaphios on green velvet tissue, a work of 1609 which proves that the Monastery of Varlaam had a specialized workshop of gold-embroidery something that is confirmed by the inscription that says: “The present ex voto was completed at the stylos of Varlaam at the expenses of the Monastery”. On the border of this epitaphios there is the well-known rhyme: “Your amazing Second Coming my Lord, this I believe and wait and long for”.

On the northwest edge of the rock is situated the single nave chapel of the Three Hierarchs, which, according to its inscription, was built in 1627 and decorated in 1637 by Ioannis the priest from Kalambaka and his children. The paintings are very well preserved of the first half of the 17th century. Very interesting is the presentation of the 24 “Oikoi” of the Virgin Mary (Akathistos Hymnos) and very impressive, on the west wall are two many figured compositions, on the right the Dormition of St. Ioannis Chrysostomos and on the left Dormition of Ephraim from Syria. The modern chapel replaced the old humble chapel which had originally built by the first inhabitant of the rock, the anchorite Varlaam and later had been renovated by the brothers Nektarios and Theophanis Apsaras.

Other important buildings in the monastery from an architectural point of view are: the old refectory that today is used as a sacristy museum, the “hestia” or Kitchen one of the most elegant and beautiful constructions of its kind, vaulted with a symmetrical eight-sided cupola used as a chimney (today its interior has been rearranged and it is used as an exhibition room) and finally the infirmary presenting a certain interest as well.

The saintly founders of the Monastery of Varlaam Nektarios and Theophanis, at a tender age in the year 1495, were received into holy orders by their spiritual father Savvas under whose guidance remained at the island of Ioannina for a decade until his death (+ 9 Apr. 1505). Probably the same year they left the island of Ioannina and went to Mount Athos in Dionysios Monastery near the ex-ecumenical Patriarch Nephon (+ 12 Aug. 1508). A few years later they returned to the island of Ioannina, where they erected the Monastery of St. John the Baptist at their own expenses around 1506/1507. But consecutive interventions of the ecclesiastical and political power forced them to leave definitely their cell in 1510/11 and ended up on the rocks of Meteora searching for heavenly serenity and ascetic completion. At first they were allotted the stylos of “Prodromos” where they remained for seven years (1510/11-1517/18). Finally in 1517/18 they settled in their permanent hermitage, the jagged rock of Varlaam. There with great pain and effort, continuous prayers and leading a strict ascetic life they culture the tree of virtue.

The founders in their autobiographic texts (autobiography, will letter of the year 1541/42, memoirs codex 127 M. Varlaam) inform us about their life and deeds, especially about the constructural and spiritual activity on the Meteora rocks. Here are some characteristic extracts:

“The fact that we remained in our constructed cell of St. John the Baptist for some time could not be bearable by the devil, watching us living peacefully according to the will of God… Since we remembered this we left our homeland and came to the Holy Church of Meteora, where we sought for peace and solitude. We were given the hermitage, that is the stylos of St. John the Baptist by the fathers and on it only the two of us lived for seven years but we were thinking of descending it and live somewhere else because the stylos of St. John the Baptist was too narrow and the blowing winds were harmful, causing us illness, so they did not let us live there. Thus we found the broad airy spacious hermitage on the rock which we liked and was called Varlaam after the name of a monk who had lived there in the past. Since it was completely abandoned and deserted for a very long time in the year, ζκς’[7026-5509/8 = 1517/18] we started to build on it without having anything at first except only some traces of the old constructions and a part of the sanctuary. There was noone among the near-by monks or the laics that could remember anyone having lived here. After too much labour only by us and with God’s help, we renovated the church of the Three Hierarchs. Later with God’s help and grace more brothers came and when we became 30 we decided to erect a bigger church for the needs of the bigger brotherhood. All the brothers willingly worked very hard with us we built this big church dedicated to All Saints. It has been built and finished in the year, ζν’ [7050-5509 = 1541/42] within 20 days, from its foundations…” (autobiography).

Intheirwilllettertheyremark (1541/42):

« Ενθεν τη βουλη και γνωμη του πανιερωτατου Λαρισης και του τοτε οσιωτατου καθηγουμενου της σεβασμιας και βασιλικης μονης του Μετεωρου τον του Βαρλααμ λιθον ελαβομεν και κατα δεσποτειαν εχειν τουτον συνεχωρηθημεν.

Επει δε και προτερον καν τουτω σεβασμιος ναος ωκοδομητο, επι τω των αγιων μεγαλων διδασκαλων και ιεραρχων Βασιλειου, Γρηγοριου και Χρυσοστομου ονοματι τιμωμενος, τη πολυετια δε φθαρεις ηδη και τη των ανθρωπων ερημωσει παντελει αφανισμω εκδοθεις, ως ιχνος και μονον εκ τουτου σωζεσθαι, και ανεγειραμεν τουτον εκ βαθρων και ανεκτισαμεν προς το βελτιον. Εφουλομεθα δε ποιησαι και εις κτειττον καλλος και σχημα και μεγεθος, δια δε τον των κρατουντων φοβον ουκ ετολμησαμεν το παραπαν αυξησαι το συνολον.

Συνεβη γαρ τοτε εν τοις καιροις εκεινοις ορισμος εξελθειν υπο του σουλτανου, ινα τα καινουργια ολα χαλνουσιν οσα τε ανεκαινισθησαν νεωστι εοι ταις των χριστιανων εκκλησιαις, και δια τουτου του φοβου ουκ εποιησαμεν  αυτον καθωσπερ η εφεσις και η βουλη ημων ητον,αλλα μικρον τι μονυδριον χαριν του ψαλλειν και εκτελειν τας ακολουθιας ημων. Εν τουτω δε τω ρηθεντι ναω ουκ ολιγω καιρω διατριψαντες, ειτα Θεου συναρσει και ετερον εκ βαθρων εγερειν εβουληθημεν΄ον και ανηγειραμεν δια δυο τρουλλων σταυροθολιν ωραιον και ποικιλοτατον, κοπους τε και ιδρωτας και εξοδους εν τουτω ου τους τυχοντας ενδειξαντες. Συναντιλαμβανομενου δε ημιν και του τα παντα τελειουντος παντοδυναμου Θεου, εν τουτω και κελλας επηξαμεν προς αναπαυσιν των ενασκουμενων μοναχων και των αλλων πως παρατυγχανοντων, και λοιπας οικοδομας και ανακτισεις εβελτιωσαμεν εν αυτη τη μονη και ανεκτισαμεν. Ετι δε και σκευη και βιβλια και ιερα παντοια και ιερεων και διακονων αλλαγας κατεπλουτησαμεν αυτην εις αινον και δοξαν Θεου.

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“With the will and the opinion  of the Most Saintly Metropolitan of Larisa and the then Reverend Superior of the royal Meteoron Monastery, we were allowed to take the rock of Varlaam in our possession.

On this rock, it was built, in the past, a church dedicated to the Three Hierarchs, Vassilios, Gregorios and Chrysostomos. With the passage of time, this church was completely abandoned, so we built it from its foundations and better. We wanted to build it better, larger and more beautiful but under the fears of the conquerors we did not dare to do so.

At that time happened the Sultan to give the order for all Christian churches to be destroyed. On account of this fear we did not build our church exactly as we wanted, but we erected a small single-nave church for our services. This church has been used for quite a long time and then with God’s help we erected another with a nice cross-vault through the two domes, with great effort and labour and at our expenses. The omnipotent God helped us to build cells for the residence of the monks and other constructions in order to improve the monastery. More over we enriched it with holy vessels, books and sacred vestments for the glorification of God.

In addition we dedicated to the monastery property of land, fields, vineyards, gardens, monastery dependencies, mills, olive groves… Then we arranged the monastery be a coenubium pure and sincere and to keep all the appropriate orders…”.  ……………………………….

The Apsaras brothers were coming from an old noble Byzantine family with a considerable property and real estate heritage. Both their parents were known as the nun Katafigi (17 November 1506) and the monk Iov (1523/24). Their three sisters were also nuns Athanasia (+ 11 Nov. 1512), Eugenia (+ 1513/14), and the third one whose name is unknown.

In memory of the members of their family the two brothers Theophanis and Nektarios erected a hermitage next to the Monastery of St. John the Baptist on the island of Ioannina: Μετα τουτο και το πλησιον του χωριου κελλιον εκτισθη παρημων, εις οπερ αι κατα σαρκα και κατα πνευμα ημων αδελφαι κατωκουν, τον μονηρη βιον προελομεναιτρεις γαρ ησαν αυται και συν αυταις και ο πατηρ και η μητηρ ημων, τω ιερω και ουτοι των μοναχων σχηματι τελειωθεντες» (αυτοβιογραφια). “Later we built the nearby cell, where our physical and spiritual sisters lived since they had chosen the monastic life. Along with these three were our father and our mother, who died being a monk and a nun accordingly” (Autobiography).

We can find interesting points about the life and the activities of the two brothers priest-monks in the manuscripts of Varlaam Monastery (127, 134, 180, 275, 281) and also in the manuscript 172 of the Panteleimon Monastery in Mount Athos that used to belong to the Monastery of Varlaam.    


Δημιουργία ιστοτόπου ΑΔΑΜ ΠΛΗΡΟΦΟΡΙΚΗ