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: