At the Monastery of Osios Loukas

Central Church (katholikon) of the Monastery of Osios Loukas

In my recent post about Sikelianos’s poem on renewing Greece after the second world war, I mentioned that I am hoping to do a post on the Byzantine Monastery of Osios Loukas in central Greece. Shortly after I wrote the post that I was introduced (again by my Greek tutor) to a poem that Sikelianos wrote that is set in the katholikon of Osios Loukas at Easter. So here’s my translation of it:

At the Monastery of Osios Loukas
At the monastery of Osios Loukas from among all
those women from Steiri who had gathered together
to decorate the Epitaphios, and all those
mourners who kept the vigil
until daybreak on Holy Saturday
which of them would have thought – so sweetly did they lament! –
that beneath the flowers, the faded enamel
of the dead Adonis was flesh
that suffered deeply.

Because the pain
amidst the roses and the Lamentations,
and the breaths of spring that came in
through the church door, gave hope
of the miracle of the resurrection
and Christ’s wounds on his hands and feet
seemed to them like anemones,
so many flowers covered him
and so intense and strong their scent!

But on that same Saturday evening,
when through the Holy Door a single candle
lit up all the others to the back of the church,
and from the Sanctuary the light spread out
like a wave to the outer door, everyone
shivered when they heard in the midst of
the acclamations of “Christ is Risen” an unexpected
voice yell: “Georgaina, it’s Vangelis!”

And there he was: the fine man from the village, Vangelis,
the admiration of the girls, Vangelis,
who everyone had thought lost
in the war; standing there
in the doorway of the church, with a wooden leg,
not crossing the threshold; and everyone,
with their candles in their hands,
was looking at him,
the dancer who shook the threshing floor
of Steiri, some looking at his face, some at his leg,
as if he was nailed to the doorstep,
and couldn’t come any further inside.

And then – may this verse be my witness,
this simple, true verse –
from the pew where I was standing
I saw the mother let
the veil fall from her head and rush
to bend down and hug the soldier’s wooden leg,
– as I saw it, so my verse describes it,
this simple, true verse –
and she drew from the depths of her heart
a scream: “My darling…Vangelis!”

And still – may this verse be my witness,
this simple, true verse –
behind her, all those who had gathered there
since the evening of Holy Thursday
lamenting quietly, as if singing a lullaby,
the dead Adonis, hidden
amidst the flowers, now burst out singing
as her frightened scream died away
while in the pew where I was standing
a veil covered my eyes!…

It’s a bit of a sentimental poem for my taste, but I like it for its play on the idea of a triple resurrection. The poem is set at Easter at the Monastery of Osios Loukas, the most complete Byzantine monastery in Greece (outside of Athos). The women from the local village of Steiri have strewn with flowers the Epitaphios (a cloth depicting an icon of the dead Christ being mourned by the Mother of God and some of the disciples).

Image result for epitaphios

The poet equates the Epitaphios and the dead Christ with the myth of Adonis, according which Adonis was gored by a wild boar and died in the arms of his lover, Aphrodite. From the mingling of her tears and his blood, anemones sprang up. In Ancient Greece this event was celebrated in spring with a two day festival: on the first day women lamented his death by strewing flowers on his death bed. On the second day they celebrated his resurrection with joyful chants.

Image result for Ἄδωνις

Very recently I came across this conflation of the two resurrections in an essay that Seferis wrote:

None of our traditions, Christian or pre-Christian, has truly died. Often when I go to the Good Friday service, it is difficult for me to decide whether the god who is being buried is Christ or Adonis. (Essays 2, 14: translated by Roderick Beaton)

To the idea of Christ’s and Adonis’s resurrection, the poet adds the idea of the soldier, believed to have been killed in the war, returning to his home village at the critical moment in the Easter celebrations. It’s a touching scene, but personally I would have cut the poet’s personal interventions and just let the story work its own magic.

I am looking for interesting poems about Agia Sofia in Constantinople and so far have drawn a bit of a blank. I have found a rather drab poem by Tyutchev and one focusing on its decay by Osip Mandelshtam. If you know of any better poems, I would love to hear about it!

 

 

 

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