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!

2 thoughts on “A pilgrimage to the Byzantine monastery of Osios Loukas: part 1

  1. Pingback: A pilgrimage to the Byzantine monastery of Osios Loukas: part 2 – the Crypt and main church | wordscene

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

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