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Monasteries in the Aegean

      Μοναστήρια στο Αιγαίο (5/3/2006 v.1) Monasteries in the Aegean (5/4/2006 v.1)

Author(s) : Pallis Georgios (8/3/2005)
Translation : Panourgia Klio (3/23/2007)

For citation: Pallis Georgios, "Monasteries in the Aegean", 2007,
Cultural Portal of the Aegean Archipelago

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1. Emergence of Christianity in the Aegean

As a crossroad of goods, people and ideas, the Aegean came into early contact with the teachings of the new religion of Christianity. Already from the 1st century AD the first Christian communities must have been formed in the busy island ports, such as Rhodes. During the 3rd century we have the first recorded names of bishops, such as Foteinos of Rhodes, evidence which suggests that these Christian communities were organized. It is uncertain if the catacombs on Milos, which began being used possibly from the 3rd century, are connected to persecution against the island’s Christians or were established simply because the area’s soft rock formations encouraged the creation of such subterranean constructions.

The bishops of Rhodes and Kos took part in the 1st Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325. Only a few years earlier, in 313, the right of religious freedom had been recognized, so the Christians could, among other things, extend and upgrade the administrative organization of their church. The records of subsequent ecumenical synods, register the existence of bishops on many Aegean islands, such as Andros, Naxos, Paros with Sifnos and Amorgos, Thira and Leros. According to the earliest (1st half of the 7th century) of the surviving bishop registers – the so-called Taktika – central position in the ecclesiastical organization of the Aegean was held by Rhodes, which is considered the oldest church in the area. Twelve bishoprics came under the jurisdiction of the diocese of Rhodes, which covered the areas of the Cyclades, the Dodecanese and the islands of the eastern Aegean. Later, the ecclesiastical division of the islands became more complex, as certain bishoprics rose to dioceses, new bishoprics were established and historical events which effected ecclesiastical issues took place.

2. Monasticism during the Byzantine period

2. 1. Early Byzantine period. Emergence and spread of monasticism

Monasticism, as a method of spiritual exercise and union with God, emerged in Egypt and other areas of the East in the 4th century. Antonios the Great, saint Pachomios, saint Theodosios the Κοινοβιοάρχης and saint Ioannis of the Ladder, are among the founders of the movement. In periods during which heresies and dogmatic disputes still dominated peoples’ daily life, monks emerged as the guardians and defenders of the true faith, particularly during the long dispute of Iconoclasm (726-843). With the restoration of the icons and the consolidation of Orthodoxy, monasticism flourished throughout the empire.

Although few facts are known, monasticism in the Aegean can be placed chronologically in the Early Christian period. Continuous communication with Egypt and the Eastern provinces where monastic life in all its forms (anachoritism, stylitism, coenobiums), flourished, seems to have brought the large islands of the eastern Aegean in contact with the movement. There are indications that during this period monasteries functioned on Lesvos and Thasos, but also on Delos. This picture probably does not correspond to reality – there were possibly more monasteries – but existing evidence is extremely sparse.

The ferocity of Arab incursions and Saracen pirates after the middle of the 7th century brought massive upheaval to the insular world for over three centuries and it is not known what affect these conditions had on monasticism. Moreover, during the Iconoclasm, iconophil monks suffered harsh persecution from the central church administration which was trying to impose the official state position which forbade the worship of icons. The restoration of icons in 843 was also a victory for monasticism which entered a new period of flourishing.

2. 2. Middle Byzantine Period. Establishment of large monastic centres

The restoration of Byzantine dominance in the Aegean, a century or so after the end of Iconoclasm, allowed monasticism to develop freely on the islands. Their secure countryside offered itself for the founding of monasteries while central administration favoured such initiatives, which strengthened the presence of the state in the provinces in many ways and functioned as linchpins for the improvement and growth of local economies. Relevant historical evidence however on the insular world remains extremely limited.

A landmark in the history of monasticism in the Aegean was the 11th century at which time magnificent monastic centres were founded. Mid-century, after 1042, Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos established the New Monastery on Chios (Nea Moni), as a reward to three monks who had foreseen his accession to the throne. The monastery’s katholikon, which is one of the most magnificent surviving Byzantine monuments, equal to the great churches of Constantinople, bears witness with its opulence and the quality of its decoration, to the size of the imperial gift.

The monastery of Agios Ioannis Theologos on Patmos, the island on which, according to tradition, the saint wrote the Apocalypse, achieved even greater brilliance. In 1088, the emperor Alexios I Komnenos granted Latrinos, Patmos’ uninhabited island to hosios Christodoulos in order to build a monastery, as well as the small islands Arkoi and Leipsoi, and land on Leros. Apart from land, Alexios endowed the monastery with many privileges, amongst which were the tax exemption of its ships, something which helped establish it amongst the largest ship-owners in the Aegean for many years. Christodoulos began building the monastery as a fortress, for safety reasons – the Asia Minor coast was at the time largely under the control of the Seljuks. The monastery quickly gained huge riches and great scholarly brilliance, and was recognized for many centuries as the greatest in the Aegean area.

Alexios also supported another monastery on an Aegean island, the Panagia Hozoviotissa on Amorgos. Built on a precipitous rock on the island, the monastery received from Alexios the privilege of the patriarchic stavropigio – it was, in other words, directly dependent on the Patriarchate of Constantinople and not the local bishop – as well as other benefits. Hozoviotissa became one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the Cyclades and held on to its special privileges for many centuries.

2. 3. Late Byzantine Periods

The decline of the Byzantine state, which gained momentum during the second half of the 12th century, did not particularly affect monasteries. Support and financial help to monasteries from imperial sources was now replaced by rich local families. The monastery on Patmos was flourishing, as is evident from additions to its building complex and the beautifully skilled wall-paintings executed in the chapel of the Panagia. Historical developments however, which reached their culmination with the conquest of Constantinople by the crusaders in 1204, signaled a great juncture in the course of monasticism in the Aegean.

3. Monasticism and Frankish rule

Frankish conquest deeply altered the conditions within which orthodox monasteries functioned and became a suspending factor for the establishment of new ones. With few exceptions, western rulers were hostile towards the Orthodox Church and imposed oppressive measures against its representatives, aiming to subordinate the people to Catholicism. The chasm between Orthodox and Catholics was unbridgeable already after the Schism of 1054 and the behavior of the Catholic conquerors intensified the conflict which tinged the acrimony between Byzantines and Franks.

Within this framework, orthodox monasteries faced serious survival problems and a number of them fell into decline and perished. Severance from the Byzantine state and the absence of a local orthodox ruling class deprived monastic communities of necessary financial support and political protection. Moreover, the hardship suffered by insular communities from piracy and Turkish raids, especially after the 14th century, also hit many of the monasteries which continued to function irreparably. An exception to this negative picture was the monastery on Patmos, which thanks to its wealth and influence managed to achieve some sort of arrangement with each conqueror, while its strong fortifications offered resistance to the constant pirate incursions; thus, it managed to ensure its survival without major problems.

4. Monasticism during the Ottoman period

4. 1. General

The ottoman conquest of the Aegean, which was achieved gradually up to the 17th century, released orthodox monasteries from the Catholics’ oppression. The privileges which had been offered by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the institutions of autonomy and self-rule which certain islands gained and favourable financial conditions, created, together with other circumstances, the conditions which brought about a new flourishing of monasticism in the Aegean. Vicious pirate incursions and the sporadic demands by the Ottomans did not hinder the booming of the monasteries. The extortionate measure imposed by sultan Selim II in 1567, when he confiscated the monasteries’ wealth and forced them to buy it back, was overcome thanks to contributions by the faithful. The 16th century in particular was a period of true flourishing which saw the revival of several old monasteries and the establishment of numerous new ones. The Ecumenical Patriarchate systematically supported this development, restoring the stavropigiaka privileges with which some monasteries had been honoured in the past and extending them to some of the newly founded ones.

4. 2. Monasteries’ activities

Monasteries became, once again, educational centres, many of which were run by learned abbots, while schools were also established such as that of Patmos, on the island of Agios Ioannis Theologos. Their precious libraries gradually become centres of attraction for European travelers searching for manuscripts by ancient Greek authors. At the same time, monasteries also functioned as places for the nurturing of ecclesiastical art. Many katholika were decorated with wall-paintings while through their commissions for icons monasteries played an important role in the flourishing of the workshops and artists of the Cretan school. Through their need for liturgical vessels, vestments embroidered with gold and other church equipment, monasteries helped support the arts of metalwork and embroidery.

Building activity was also great, as new monastic complexes were being constructed and old ones were being refurbished or extended. On the islands of the Aegean church building was influenced by the architectural rhythms used in the construction of new churches in Constantinople and the Asia Minor coast. The generally plain exteriors of churches and other buildings were, in some areas, adorned by folk stone-reliefs which became wide-spread after the 17th century. The churches’ interiors were dominated by ornate, wood carved icon screens, which also increase after the 17th century.

Several of the pre-existing, large, byzantine monasteries continued to flourish during the Ottoman period, although they faced intense reverberations, particularly at times of conflict in the Aegean. The monastery on Patmos collected during this period a large part of the precious items of post Byzantine art which it keeps in its vestry. Its katholikon was decorated with high-quality wall-paintings and a wood-carved icon screen, while the monastic complex itself took the form it has until this day. Also thriving were Nea Moni on Chios and Hozoviotissa on Amorgos. It is worth noting that on several islands existed dependencies of large monasteries from Mount Athos, the monastery of Sinai and of the Holy Grave.

Many monasteries were important pilgrimage sites, with brilliance which surmounted strict local boundaries. Renowned throughout the Aegean were those which were established on occasion of miracles or findings of miraculous icons, such as the Panagia tou Kastrou on Leros. The monastery of the Taxiarchis tou Panormiti on Symi, which owned great property on the islands, was established as an important pilgrimage site. On Mytilini, the Taxiarchis of Mantamadou gain a great reputation centered on the peculiar icon of the saint and the legend which accompanies it. To these important pilgrimage site flocked not only islanders but also hundreds of Christians from the Asia Minor coast, which remained, through the ages, the islands’ natural hinterland.

Orthodox monks were the spirited defenders of Orthodoxy against the – mainly indirect – pressures of islamization. Within the framework of these efforts they helped and supported numerous islamisized Christians who paid the price of capital punishment by the Ottomans for returning to their old religion. The Orthodox monasteries of the Aegean also played a vital role in fighting off the attempts for proselyticism by the Catholic Church which stemmed mainly from the Order of the Jesuits, particularly in the Cyclades during the 17th century.




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