A pilgrimage to the Byzantine monastery of Osios Loukas – part 3: the Church of the Panagia and a look around the grounds

This is the third and final post in my series on this monastery. You can find the first post here and the second one here.

The Panagia is the oldest of the two main churches, built in the second half of the 10th century. It was probably decorated with frescoes, but hardly anything remains and with its plain stone walls it feels a bit of an anticlimax after the magnificence of the katholikon.

In the exhibition room next to the Panagia Church in addition to Osios Loukas’s cell there is a space between the floors that was used either as a ‘hidden school’ to teach children to read and write Greek or to hide them from the Paidomazoma (Tur: Devshirme) during Ottoman rule in Greece. Paidomazoma was the Ottoman practice of kidnapping Christian boys to recruit soldiers and bureaucrats to the Sultan’s service.

Here are some more views of the monastery’s buildings:

These wonderful arches form a series of flying buttresses between the katholikon and the old refectory:

Here’s the rear of the katholikon (on the left) and the rear of the Church of the Panagia (right):

The dome of the katholikon behind the drum of the Panagia:

Drum of the Panagia:

The original monastery entrance gate:

Exterior of the Panagia church:

An old outbuilding:

The monastery’s ancient cistern:

A quite corner in the grounds:

Cannot resist a good door:

Finally on the terrace in front of the monastery there is a monument to Archbishop Isaïas Salomon who with his brother Gaga-Giannis died fighting the Turks at Khalomata on 23 April 1821 (ie at the start of the Greek Revolution against Ottoman rule). In this monastery, which the monument refers to as the base of the Revolution, he also blessed the weapons of the revolutionary fighters.

Osios Loukas is a beautiful place: it has an aura of calm and peace from the concentrated prayers and meditation of all the monks who have lived and worshipped here over the past 1,000 years.

A pilgrimage to the Byzantine monastery of Osios Loukas: part 2 – the Crypt and main church

This is the second of my posts on this monastery – you can find the first part here.

On his death, Osios Loukas was buried in his stone cell which is visible today as part of an exhibition room next to the Church of the Panagia.

At some point in the 11th century though his remains were transferred to the Crypt in what is now St Barbara’s church.

Later still his remains were transferred to a glass case in the connecting space between the katholikon and the Church of the Panagia:

The Crypt is decorated with frescoes, some restored. but others in a poor state of repair, including some with gouged out eyes and bullet holes in them. They feature a mix of scenes from Christ’s life and roundels of saints.

The Descent from the Cross:

The Deposition in the Tomb and the two Marys:

The Last Supper:

St Filotheos, a companion of Osios Loukas:

Another companion of Osios Loukas, St Theodoros:

St Andreas (Andrew):

Unidentified saint (possibly St Pantaleimon?):

St Peter:

St Paul:

St Vartholomeos (Batholomew):

The oldest of the two churches, is the Panagia, built in the second half of the 10th century. The largest of the two churches is the katholikon built in the early 11th century.

In the narthex over the main entrance is a fine mosaic of the Pantokrator:

Also in the narthex is this Crucifixion:

and Christ washing the disciples’ feet:

Inside, the katholikon is overwhelming. It was clearly built and decorated by craftsmen and artists from Constantinople. You can see and feel the influence of Aghia Sofia: in the quality of the mosaics and frescoes as well as in the grey, green and red marble revetments and floors.

Perhaps the most striking of all is this depiction in the semi-dome of the apse of the enthroned Mother of God with Christ which reminds me of the one in the Great Church in Constantinople:

In the dome above the apse a fresco shows the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles:

In the main dome is a fresco of Christ Pantokrator (Almighty) surrounded by the Virgin Mary and Archangels, and by Apostles on the side of the drum. Originally this must have been done in mosaic, but the dome was damaged in an earthquake and replaced by a fresco rather than the much more expensive mosaic.

A beautiful mosaic Pantokrator in a squinch (sorry about the focus)

An Archangel (Rafael?):

A superb mosaic of St Pantaleimon (one of my favourite saints):

Baptism of Christ in the Jordan, with a superb stylised depiction of the water:

St Theodoros ?

St Demetrios:

Alongside these excellent works are frescoes of a completely different quality, executed in a more naïf style, eg St Nestor:

St Demetrios:

As at Aghia Sofia in Constantinople, the upper gallery of the church is very richly decorated:

A pilgrimage to the Byzantine monastery of Osios Loukas: part 1

I have written a little about this monastery before when I translated a poem by Sikelianos set there during the Easter Vigil service. I visited it about three years ago and though I took a lot of pictures I was disappointed by the quality of some of them, especially the ones of mosaics and frescoes inside the churches. So I put them on one side until just recently, when looking through them again, I thought there was something I could do to rescue some of them. Perhaps my processing skills have improved a bit in the meantime.

We stopped off at Osios Loukas on our way from Delphoi to Nauplio, a long day’s drive of about 300km. I wrote about my trip to Delphoi and its museum in previous posts. Osios Loukas is an 8km detour off the main road between Delphoi and Livadia through the villages of Distomo and Steiri (which gets a mention in the Sikelianos poem). Distomo though is famous for a more tragic reason, a terrible atrocity it suffered in the Second World War. On 10 June 1944 the Nazis shot 232 inhabitants and burned the village down as a reprisal for an attack on a German convoy. Today a modernist monument in the village commemorates the dead and the Greece is still trying to get reparations for this war crime from the German government.

This walled monastery is in a beautiful setting on the side of Mount Helikon overlooking an uninhabited valley. The road from Distomo and Steiri just runs out at this point in the large car park, but on the day we were there there were few visitors. The monastery is dedicated to Venerable Luke (Osios is a monk who has been made a saint; and Loukas is a 10th century Greek saint, not the Evangelist). The terrace in front of what is the modern entrance to the monastery is planted with tall pine trees offering some very welcome shade, and set with tables and benches for visitors. All very tastefully done. There is still a small monastic community here, but in the course of our visit we only come across one monk in the katholikon (central church).

The old refectory in the foreground and behind it the katholikon dedicated to Osios Loukas
The old refectory and below, the entrance to the crypt beneath the katholikon dedicated to St Barbara where Osios Loukas’s tomb is located
Old monastic buildings and the continuation of the monastery’s defensive walls

A low arch surmounted by a depiction of the saint leads into the main courtyard.

The monks’ cells are in the building facing you as you enter the main courtyard. The old refectory – off to the right in this picture and the location of the ticket office – has been beautifully renovated in a modern, but sympathetic style and turned into a museum. Well laid out displays recount the monastery’s restoration and display some fine examples of old stonework from different periods of its history.

Who was Osios Loukas and why is there a monastery here? He was born in the early 10th century in Kastorion near the Bay of Corinth, about 80 miles west of Athens and became a monk at a monastery in Athens. In 946 he moved out to this area of Greece, living as a hermit in a small stone cell that still exits as part of the monastery complex. This period seems to have seen a renewal of monasticism in Byzantium, as a contemporary of Osios Loukas, St Athanasios, initiated the formation of the first monasteries on Mt Athos. Attracting others monks to the area and gaining the support of the local people, Osios Loukas started the building of a church dedicated to St Barbara before his death in 953. There are now two churches on the site the katholikon, dedicated to Osios Loukas, and a smaller and older church dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Panagia).

The fame of the monastery grew as miracles were associated with its founder. It is claimed that he had the gift of foresight, predicting various historical events, including the liberation of Crete from Arab control in 96. The monastery became a site of pilgrimage and attracted donations from Byzantine emperors and local wealthy families. Over the centuries it also acquired more land locally from gifts and bequests, helping it to become more self-sufficient and enabling it to earn money from land rented out to tenant farmers.

Looking out over the valley from the monastery

It is a strange coincidence that the saint was credited with the gift of prophecy within such a short distance (30km at most) of Delphoi, the most famous prophetic centre in the ancient world. I wonder whether this was a deliberate attempt by the Church to counterbalance pagan beliefs associated with Delphoi which may have lingered in folklore in the area long after the Delphic Oracle fell silent.

Another curious pagan parallel concerns the method by which pilgrims sought healing from the saint. They would sleep next to the tomb of Osios Loukas for days at a time in the hope of having a dream of the saint curing them. This practice recalls what happened at cult centres of the Ancient Greek god of healing, Askleipios. After purification practices and sacrifices, people seeking a cure would spend the night sleeping in the abaton (a sanctuary within the temple) hoping for dreams, inspired by Askleipios that would then be interpreted by priests to prescribe a cure. It seems that these ancient pagan practices had a very long after-life by being absorbed into Christianity!

Ravenna miscellany

I will end this series of posts on Ravenna with a selection of pictures of things that grabbed my attention during our visit.

I really liked the city and was pleasantly surprised by its human scale, its quiet central area and by the relatively few tourist we encountered (we were there in June 2019), most of whom were Italian. I suppose It’s a bit of a stretch for tourists to Venice or on cruise ships to make the detour to Ravenna. Perhaps it only attracts people who are keen to see the mosaics and/ or have an interest in things Byzantine.

All of the main churches, apart from Sant’ Apollinare in Classe are within easy reach of each other. Walking is a pleasure here as the central part of the city is car free, making the air cleaner. It was a pleasure to sit out in the courtyard of our hotel in the stillness and quiet of the evening, without a constant hum of traffic in the background. Bicycles are a popular way of getting around for the local people. Even the streets are discreetly marked into lanes for pedestrians and bikes.

The Piazza del Popolo, the 13th century square and heart of the city:

Ravenna is the final resting place of Dante who died here in 1321 from malaria. It just so happens that 2021 is the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. Much to the annoyance of the Florentines, Ravenna refused to part with his remains, though Florence continues to provide an annual supply of oil for the lamp over his tomb. It’s quite easy to miss the late 18th century tomb tucked in the angle of a street and a park.

During the last war Dante’s remain were moved to a tumulus in the nearly park for safe keeping and the spot is still marked:

Nearby is the Basilica of San Francesco, originally built by Bishop Neon in 450, but later demolished and rebuilt, then remodelled several times subsequently. Before Dante’s tomb was built he was buried in this church and in fact his funeral service was held here. A curious feature of the basilica is that the crypt constantly fills with water: putting a coin into a machine illuminates the area and you can see the mosaic floor, complete with goldfish motifs. Once a year (in January I think) the local fire service pumps the water out of the crypt. Bishop Neon’s tomb is here too and looking at the watermark on his sarcophagus, it’s clear that the water level must sometimes rise higher than the crypt.

Several items drew my attention in the National Museum. For example these 12th century Byzantine ivory carvings from Constantinople:

Deposition from the Cross
Dormition of the Mother of God (left) and Christ in Glory (right)

And this ivory from Egypt, capturing the moment when pursued by Apollo, Daphne is rescued by her father Peneus by being turned into a laurel tree:

Apollo and Daphne

I loved this Russian icon showing St Vladimir flagged by SS Boris and Gleb:

These two striking marble reliefs display great skill:

Entered via the 18th century church of Sant’ Eufemia, is a museum called the Domus dei Tappeti di Pietra which preserves the mosaics of a lost Byzantine palace. It has two particularly interesting mosaics. The first shows a group, led by a dancer dressed in a costume that may indicate ‘spring,’ dancing to a pipe player:

The second depicts the Good Shepherd:

On the outskirts of Ravenna are the remains of a Venetian fort, the Rocca Brancaleone, built in the mid 15th century:

A bicycle advertising a local restaurant:

And finally, I can’t resist including this one again:

The Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna

The Basilica is set on a flat plain about 8 km outside Ravenna. For some reason a modern hotel has been plonked right next door to it. Funded by the same rich banker that funded San Vitale, the basilica was built in the mid 6th century and dedicated in 549 to Saint Apollinaris, the first bishop of Classe, by Bishop Maximianus. The separate bell tower,a feature of many of the churches in Ravenna, was added in the 10th century.

The entrance is through a portico that has been rebuilt: the archaeology suggests is may have had a pyramidal shape originally:

The main body of the basilica is very impressive with its tall, veined, Greek marble columns and high clerestory windows which add to its light and sense of spaciousness. They also focus the attention on the only part of the basilica that still retains its mosaics, the apse.

The semi-dome of the apse features St Apollinaris tending his sheep in a green landscape while above him a jewelled golden cross in a roundel represents Christ in glory.

Just above the cross the hand of God appears in the clouds signifying Christ’s transfiguration and the revelation of his divine nature on Mt Tabor:

Aove the arch over the apse is a depiction of the Pantokrator, flanked by the Evangelists:

and beneath them on either side of the arch 12 sheep (symbolising the Apostles) are emerging from Jerusalem and Bethlehem, climbing towards Christ.

On the left wall of the apse is a depiction of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV granting privileges to the Ravenna Exarchate:

and on the right hand wall is Melchizedek, a Jewish High Priest (‘the King of Righteousness’) believed to be a prediction from the Old Testament of the reign of Christ.

One of the two Archangels (Michael) on either side of the apse arch:

There are also depictions of bishops of Ravenna at the back wall of the apse:

Finally the side aisles have some magnificent sarcophagi from different periods of the basilica’s history:

The Baptistry of Neon in Ravenna

Dating from the late 4th to early 5th century, the Baptistry of Neon is claimed to be one of the oldest monuments in Ravenna. One again from the outside this small octagonal structure, built in the familiar red brick common to all of the Ravenna churches, is underwhelming. But inside the variety and richness of the mosaics is stunning.

The centre piece is the dome, very similar to that of the Arian Baptistry, which depicts Christ’s baptism in the Jordan.

On this occasion the figure of Christ is closer to the standard iconographic portrayal, with long hair, beard and moustache. To Christ’s left stands the pagan symbol of the River Jordan, an old man holding a cloth for Christ to dry himself on and a reed. Around this central scene is a procession of Apostles carrying martyrs’ crowns:

On the next level down are a series of almost tromp l’oeil structures featuring altars:

There is an incredibly rich variety of vegetal motifs throughout the mosaics:

I was fascinated to see the use of marble revetments, similar to those found in San Vitale:

In the squinches are simple depictions of saints on richly gilded backgrounds:

At ground level are a series of alcoves with richly decorated arches:

At the level of the windows are another series of depictions of saints and prophets, executed in a limited range of styles in marble relief:

The floor of the Baptistry is occupied by a large but simple marble font:

Visiting Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna

Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo was built by Theodoric in the early 6th century as a church for his nearby palace. Originally dedicated to St Martin of Tours, it changed its names several times, before being dedicated to St Apollinaris when his remains were moved here from Classe in the 9th century.

Apart from its bell tower it is externally an ugly church. But inside it is quite a different story, the clerestory windows and high Greek marble columns give it a sense of spaciousness and airiness. Unfortunately, when we visited it was the day for dusting the mosaics, making it a challenge at times to avoid the men at work.

The mosaics are high up on the walls on either side of the nave and consist of three levels. The first level depicts female martyrs on the left of the nave and male martyrs on the the right. The clerestory level depicts saints and Apostles, and the top layer illustrates scenes from the life of Christ.

The female martyrs on the left hand side are shown leaving Classe (Ravenna’s port on the Adriatic), depicted as a fortified imperial city.

Each holding a martyr’s crown and separated from each other by a date palm, the martyrs form a long procession heading in the direction of the altar. Curiously, their faces look look almost identical:

The processions culminates with the Three Magi carrying their gifts: their figures, bending in hommage, a dramatic contrast to the static procession of martyrs:

The Magi are clearly differentiated in their features and their clothing, as well as by their gifts. I have read somewhere that this may be the first time they are named in Christian art. One curious aspect is the bright Phrygian bonnets they are wearing. Drawings over 300 years ago show them wearing crowns and it is thought that for some reason these were replaced when the mosaics were renovated in the 19th century.

The focus of the procession is the enthroned Mother of God with an infant Christ, flanked on either side by two Archangels. Her hand is raised in blessing.

Paralleling this scene on the opposite wall is an enthroned Christ, also flanked on either side by two Archangels:

The procession of male martyrs making its way towards Christ is headed by St Martin, highlighted by his purple robe:

Interestingly, the male martyrs are much more clearly differentiated in their facial features and not just in terms of whether they are bearded or clean shaven:

The starting point for this procession is not Classe, but what was originally Theodoric’s Palace. Originally the mosaic probably showed Theodoric’s court, but some time after the Byzantine capture of the city in 540 this was covered over:

Bizarrely you can still see various hands and arms that were part of the original mosaic reaching round the columns :

Here are some examples of the mosaics on the 2nd and 3rd levels:

<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">Finally, on the west wall an excellent depiction of Justinian:Finally, on the west wall an excellent depiction of Justinian:

The Arian Baptistry in Ravenna

The Arian Baptistry is a small building in a courtyard near the Church of the Holy Spirit in Ravenna. It was built in the early 6th century by Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths who made Ravenna his capital after conquering much of Italy.

At one time the the whole of the interior must have been decorated with mosaics and frescoes. Many tons of tesserae were found underneath the baptistry after damage to the building during the last war. Today though the only part of the interior that is decorated is the dome and it is truly magnificent.

The central roundel of the dome mosaic depicts a beardless Christ standing naked in the River Jordan. On the right, standing on a rock is John the Baptist, holding a shepherd’s crook in his left hand and touching Christ’s head in blessing with his right hand. Over Christ’s head is a dove releasing a spray of water or pouring out the Holy Spirit on him.

Seated on the left of Christ is an old man, holding a reed (?) in his right hand, personifying the River Jordan. Next to him is an upturned water vessel and a pair of red crab claws pop out rather incongruously from behind the top of his head. He is a very pagan looking figure in an otherwise Christian iconographic setting.

Surrounding the roundel of Christ’s baptism is a procession of the Apostles, six moving clockwise and six anticlockwise. Both sets of Apostles are processing towards the throne of God, not occupied by a figure, but draped with a white garment (possibly a symbol of Christ’s suffering). On the throne lies a purple cushion surmounted by a cross also hung with a purple cloth.

All but two of the Apostles carry a crown of martyrdom in their cloth-covered hands, a sign of reverence.It is also a reference to the Byzantine court when servants used cloths to cover their hands as a sign of respect to the Emperors when presenting them with things.

The Apostles are separated by date palms, each slightly different from each other in design.

At the head of the two processions are St Paul on the left (not one of the original Apostles, but considered by the Church to be an equal of the Apostles) holding not a crown but two scrolls representing his epistles. On the right stands St Peter holding the keys of the Kingdom.

As I looked at the dome, I wondered how this mosaic expressed an Arian view of Christianity. Before the elaboration of the theology of the Trinity, Arius a 3rd -4th century priest in Alexandria developed the idea that Christ had been created by the Father and was therefore not co-eternal with him. Although it was condemned as heresy by the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, Arianism had a strong hold over the church and it was this sect of the church into which Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths was baptised.

I still cannot see how this belief is translated into the iconography.

To illustrate the lengths to which I go to get the right shots for this blog, I had to lay down on the floor of the baptistry to try and get the dome into my camera’s frame. This caused much amusement to some Italian visitors who passed me their cameras to take photos for them while I was down there. Jumping up unaided, I made a little bow of appreciation when they cheered me spontaneously.

Archbishop’s Chapel in Ravenna

Mosaic of Christ in the Chapel of the Archbishop’s Palace in Ravenna

The small chapel in the Archbuishop’s Palace, built in the early 6th century, is dedicated to St Andrew and has some exquisite mosaics. The picture above is an unusual depiction of Christ, beardless, and dressed as a Roman soldier. In his left hand he holds an open Gospel showing the words ‘ I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’; in his right, a martyr’s cross balanced across his right shoulder. Standing in a mountainous area, he is subduing a lion (pride) and a snake (the devil / evil). It is unusual because it is so unlike the standard depictions of Christ in iconography. The vault of the narthex is richly decorated with a mosaic of birds and lilies.

The simple, marble altar table in the apse has a wonderful golden cross over it on a rich blue background studded with gold stars:

Roundels feature the apostles and some female saints:

It also features the Evangelists:

The floor has some beautiful marble decorations which may well date from a later era:

The adjoining museum has many stone stele and inscriptions excavated in the city, but one of its most stunning exhibits is the throne of Maximianus. He is the person standing next to Justinian in the imperial mosaic in St Vitale who was bishop at the time of the building and consecration of the church. The thrione is covered in ivory panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament and from the life and Passion of Christ:

The magic of mist in the woods

Last Sunday was the first really misty day we’ve had round here this year. Feeling the need to get out of Coronavirus confinement we decided to go for a walk to get some fresh air and enjoy the woodlands. I took my camera with me in hope rather than expectation of getting anything particularly interesting, though sometimes you can never tell what the conditions will be like. I remember going up to Beacon Wood on the Mendips on a misty autumn afternoon five years ago, only to find that the sun suddenly broke through and created some wonderful effects with the mist that I captured here.

At first it didn’t look promising. The mist was thick and the trees were the regimented stands of Forestry Commision conifers. As we walked on though, my eye started to get used to the conditions and I found scenes that pulled me in. Often these days, I have to feel some kind of pull from the landscape, something that attracts my attention subconsciously, something that says ‘There’s something here worth paying attention to’. When that happens I then have to work out more consciously what that ‘something’ is. It’s by no means infallible and it’s not a guarantee that it will be worth photographing, but for me it is a different way of connecting with the landscape through my photography.

The effect of the mist is quite strange. It conceals unnecessary detail and renders everything slightly mysterious and eery, like something in a fairy tale set in northern European woods. The atmospheric conditions, perhaps the concentration of water droplets in the mist, saturate the colours a bit more and blur the edges of everything. There is a sense of something just beyond the veil of the mist, nearby but ungraspable, a bit primeval and fantastical, perhaps not altogether welcoming

In some scenes, it feels like a stage set for Siegfried or Parsifal waiting for the hero to emerge from the forests and fulfil his destiny.

In places, almost a bit Impressionistic:

Late on in the walk I discovered these cobwebs: the first a dense web holding water droplets in a complex network of filaments; the second a double web hung with fine pearls.