A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 6 – end of my stay at Iviron

I took this shot of the daily monastic service programme displayed on the notice board of the Guest House at Iviron. Here’s my translation:

Programme of services
Monday-Saturday                              Time      Sundays / feast days                    Time
(excluding feast days)

a. Midnight service (main church)           3.30    a. Midnight service (main church)         3.30
b. Matins (main church)                          4.00    b. Matins (main church)                       4.00
c. Divine Liturgy (Chapel)                        5.30    c. Hours (main church)                        6.00
d. Tea (in the refectory after the Divine Liturgy)   d. Divine Liturgy (main church)            6.30  e. Meal (refectory)                                 10.30    e. Meal (in the refectory after the                                                                                             Divine Liturgy)
f. Vespers (main church)                         5.00     f. Vespers (main church)                     5.00
Prayers (Virgin Portaitissa)                  6.00     g. Prayers (Virgin Portaitissa)              5.45
h. Dinner (refectory)                                6.30     h. Dinner (refectory)                            6.15
i. Compline (Virgin Portaitissa)                7.00     i. Compline (Virgin Portaitissa)             6.45
On Saturdays dinner and Compline take place immediately after Great Vespers.

It is amazing to think that this daily programme of worship has been followed for hundreds of years, perhaps since Byzantine times. In fact Athos feels like a Byzantine time capsule: not just in terms of the liturgical progamme, but the buildings, the unspoilt landscape unmarked for the most part by signs of modernity, and the fact that Athos still follows the Byzantine Calendar and measurement of time. It also makes you aware of how much you are intruding on their daily programme and in some ways how much of a burden it is for the monasteries to have to provide accommodation and food to a constant flow of pilgrims.

It’s Sunday today and I wake at about 5.20am and can’t get back to sleep. I hear people getting up in the other dorms between 5.30-600 to prepare for the Liturgy at 6.30. I eventually manage to get up at about 6.00 and by the time I’m back from my ablutions my room mates are up and dressed with their bags packed. As I’m in the loo I hear the bells ringing to mark the imminent start of the service: once again I’m too late to record them.

Much of the service is conducted in the dark with minimal candles for the choirs, of which there are two singing antiphonally on either side of the nave, one often acting as the drone while the other chants the words. The choir leader cross and recrosses the nave as he moves from one choir to the other to conduct them. Nikolaos points out that the arrangement is cross shaped:


Choir 1                                             Choir 2


I manage to record most of the service though I keep thinking that at any moment I will be stopped. At one point a twinkly-eyed monk stands next to me looking at my recorder and pulls out a small torch to examine it. I wait anxiously for his reaction, but he just smiles and nods once he understands what it is.

Photography is forbidden in the church, but there is one shot I wish I could have taken. It is of a seated monk with a white flowing beard chanting, seen in three quarter profile and beautifully lit by a candle that is hidden by the music stand.

There is much censing of the icons and the faithful and there’s a lot of coming and going all the time. After a while it has a very hypnotic quality to it. Argyrios tells me that he had a remarkable experience once during the morning Liturgy at Dionysiou (the next monastery we are due to visit) and he promises to tell me what happened when we’re there.

I find one of the most moving moments of the service occurs when the monks take it in turns to stand in the middle of the church, crossing themselves and bowing to the altar and then continuing to make the sign of the cross and bow as they turn clockwise in all directions and then back round to the altar again. As they do so they ask all present to forgive them. Those in the congregation who are so moved go up and do the same thing.

Sunday is joyful, like a feast day. In the refectory I have managed to get a seat at the top of one of the long tables. With my back to the wall I have an excellent view of the whole refectory and the senior monks’ top table. As we pilgrims stand waiting for prayers a group of 6-8 monks process in to a joyful chant. Breakfast is a bowl of thin noodles topped with small pieces of flaked tuna in a tomato sauce, with feta, boiled egg, bread, an apple and a glass of red wine.

Today I can see the reader very clearly, as he seems to hang half way up the wall like a static talking icon. I watch the Abbot who seems to be taking in everything that’s going on in the Refectory. At the end of the meal a monk comes round to all the tables putting into our outstretched palms a small teaspoon of ‘kolyva’ ( a mixture of wheat grains pine nuts and sultanas).Traditionally this is something that is eaten at funerals. I am intrigued by the monk doing this as he is quite young and active (he’s been around shusshing us at various points during the meal when the volume of noise rose too much) and even more by the fact that he is Japanese. I wonder what journey he has been on to fetch up on the Holy Mountain. At the end of the meal, the monks process out again chanting. The Abbot to our right blesses us we emerge, while the cooks to our left bow deeply, and the remaining monks form a short tunnel to greet us.

Time for us to collect our things from the guest house and make our way down to the arsenas for the next stage of our trip. I feel quite sad to be leaving Iviron this morning.



Paris in the autumn – La Sainte Chappelle

La Sainte Chappelle_

La Sainte Chappelle on the Ile de la Cite is hemmed in by buildings on all sides which adds to the sense of a pinched structure that is being forced upwards. Its external appearance however gives no clue to the magnificence of its internal decoration.

It was built in 1248 by Louis IX (Saint Louis) to house two relics that he had bought from the Emperor of Byzantium, the Crown of Thorns and fragments of the True Cross.

La Sainte Chappelle 1

The 15 recently restored, soaring Gothic stained glass windows depict over 1,000 religious scenes and the light filtering through the rich colours in the glass creates an atmosphere of enchantment.

La Sainte Chappelle

La Sainte Chappelle 2

The strong colours and detail of the individual images is very impressive, but there are so many images and most of them not easily seen, that it almost discourages looking at the detail. Again and again you are forced back to try and absorb the cumulative effect of this extravagant decoration:

La Sainte Chappelle - stained glass La Sainte Chappelle - stained glass 2


The rose window over the main royal entrance, for example, is quite breathtaking, but it’s impossible to see the detail:

La Sainte Chappelle - rose window

La Sainte Chappelle is very beautiful but all a bit overwhelming to take in at one go. I liked focusing in on some of the detail:

La Sainte Chappelle -angel La Sainte Chappelle - crown of thorns 2

La Sainte Chappelle - crown of thorns

My favourite detail is these two angels on the central column between the royal entrance doors. Why are they smiling?

La Sainte Chappelle - angels on main doors

Finally, right next door to La Sainte Chappelle is a site familiar to fans of the French TV series Les Engrenages (Spiral), the Palais de Justice.

Palais de Justice

Islamic art and the mosques of Istanbul

Istanbul was my first introduction to Islam and the world of Islamic art. The most obvious sign of being in an Islamic culture was the call to pray five times a day. Initially this was quite a culture shock, particularly at 5.30am. But it soon became a familiar punctuation point in the day and, when in an area where we were surrounded by mosques, a thrilling and beautiful sound.

The main mosques in Istanbul are of course popular with tourists, but we were struck by how calm and peaceful even the Blue Mosque was inside and how reverently the mosques are treated. They are living buildings, with people constantly coming and going, dropping in to pray as part of their day, as naturally as they might go and do their shopping. Removing shoes at the door and walking on beautifully patterned carpets certainly contributes to the creation of this calm atmosphere.

But perhaps the most overwhelming aspect of the mosques is the extraordinary beauty of the decoration. Islam forbids the depiction of the human form and so Islamic art focuses on geometric designs, designs based on natural forms such as plants and flowers and quotations from the Quran in elaborate Arabic calligraphy. The combination of the peacefulness of the mosques and the richness of the decor is unique.

Here are some examples of Islamic art from the mosque interiors:

Mosque doors are often very old and made of wood with beautiful carved panels on them. This is usually not evident when you go in because they are frequently obscured by a leather cover to protect them from the elements. The mosque attendants are usually happy to let you look underneath to admire the decoration.

Probably one of the most distinctive features of Islamic religious art are the tiles used to decorate the interiors of the mosques. These often use floral patterns, particularly in arabesquse (repeating designs of interlacing or scrolling floral and foliage patterns) in distinctive colours, particularly deep blues and rich reds. Many of the finest tiles in the mosques of Istanbul were made at Iznik (Nicaea) – a major centre of porcelain and tile manufacture from the seventeenth century onwards.

Looking at these tiles close up I was reminded of the floral patterns on William Morris wallpaper and wonder whether he was actually influenced by Ottoman designs. Clearly Ottoman design in turn is influenced by Chinese vegetal and floral design that came into this part of Europe from the sixteenth century onwards.

Here is the cemetery to the side of the Little Aya Sofia. The original church on this site was built as a smallscale model of the main Haghia Sofia in Byzantine times, but converted into a mosque at the fall of Byzantium.

Cemetery at Little Aya Sofia

One essential element of worship in Islam is the preparatory ritual ablutions required

Worshippers gathered inside the New Mosque for Friday prayers:

In preparation for Friday prayer a mosque official puts out carpets in the courtyard for the faithful:

Domes of the Blue Mosque

The interior of the domes though are among my favourite decorated items in the mosques. Added to the peaceful atmosphere and the soft light filtering through stained glass windows, the richness of the colours and variety of the repeating patterns on the domes and walls have an almost hypnotic and calming effect.

Interior view of the Blue Mosque

Dome in the Blue Mosque

Arches in the Blue Mosque

Dome in the Blue Mosque

Domes in the Blue Mosque

Domes in the Blue Mosque

Dome in the Blue Mosque

I was impressed in one mosque how even the underside of a balcony was richly decorated;

Arch, balcony and dome

Domes of the Blue Mosque