The Monastery of the Chozoviotissa

A half-hour’s walk by the road south of Chora, which rises to the watershed and then drops dramatically down the eastern side above the sea, brings you to one of the most extraordinary sights in the Aegean—the * Monastery of the Panaghia Chozoviotissa (7.7km), dedicated to the Presentation of the Virgin. (Generally open daily 8.30–1, 4–sunset.) The monastery hangs on an almost vertical cliff-face like an icon on a wall. Originally there would have been no whitewash to pick the monastery out from its improbable setting, and it would have receded almost invisibly into the rock-face from which it grew. The cliff at this point is almost 400m high, and the monastery is situated at about 260m above sea level.

The monastery structure

The buildings are in parts constructed, and in parts cut out from the rock-face. The botanist, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, who visited in 1718, described the monastery as an ‘armoire’—a wardrobe or hanging cupboard—accurately describing how it consists of narrow shelves, one on top of another, closed by a façade, ‘appliquee vers le bas d’un rocher effroyable’. It is a model often used in Buddhist monasteries, less frequently with Orthodox monasteries. Its improbability as a structure and the imposing rock-face behind, evoke the world of the Desert Fathers, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the first monks who took refuge here were from the Syrian desert. Chozoviotissa has always been prone to damage from falling rocks; today it is strengthened by two massive buttresses on the front façade which have been added in the last century. In the summer of 1933, the Swiss French architect, Le Corbusier visited Amorgos on a Mediterranean cruise: the flat white expanse of the monastery’s façade, perforated with small windows, and the building’s modular structure clearly left an impression on him whose influence can be seen in his work, especially the church of the Virgin at Ronchamp, begun in 1950.

Evolution of the Monastic community

Documentary evidence for the foundation is lacking; but a strong oral tradition maintains that the monastery received a charter from the Emperor in Byzantium, Alexios I Comnenus, in 1088—the same year in which the Monastery of St John on Patmos was founded. The tradition holds that the two were to be sister foundations with a formalised ex change of abbots, even though today the two monasteries are not bound by any special links. All the written documentation relating to Chozoviotissa dates from the 17th century or later; but all of it reinforces the oral tradition. The first monastic presence in small anchorites’ caves on this cliff face was probably during the 9th century when monks, flee from Arab incursions into Palestine, sought refuge here; such persecutions by Arab raiders are referred to by The ophanes. These monks probably brought with them their Holy Icon of the Virgin. If they and the holy icon were originally from the monastery in Khoziba, near Jericho, as tradition tells, this would explain the epithet ‘Khoziviissa’ (as it should be), or ‘Chozoviotissa’ in modern usage. Between the 9th and the 11th century the community must have expanded rapidly, resulting in the Imperial chrysobull granting the monastery lands and rights, and initiating a building and renovation programme which brought into being the main monastery buildings. The structure underwent considerable restoration in the late 15th century, and has undergone small alterations since that time. The monastery was home in the 18th century to a hundred monks; the narrow terraces below the buildings were cultivated to produce beans, pulses, vegetables and pasture for goats, to sustain the community. Today there are three monks left.

Visiting the monastery

Entry is through a low narrow doorway with a marble frame, artlessly decorated with fig and vine motifs. Above it is a blind arch in poros stone, surrounded on the outside with decorative phialostomia; its pointed form—of clearly western influence—also suggests that this outer doorway was constructed during the period of Venetian occupation, perhaps as late as the 1480s. Immediately inside is a water stoup set in a painted niche; opposite it, the fine 19th century strong-box of the monastery now contains spare clothing for visitors. Steps lead up through the rock to the upper level of the sacristy and to the narrow vaulted space of the catholicon which hugs the precipice—the living rock forming its north side and a wall, its south side. The original icon of the Virgin of Khoziba is on the south wall, so darkened and covered with silver revetment that nothing can be said of its age other than it is believed to date from the early 9th century—the period immediately after the iconoclastic debate. The icons which currently adorn the iconostasis are all of the 17th century or later, but of particularly high quality nonetheless; the same is true of those, such as the beautiful Christ in Majesty, displayed along the north wall of the catholicon.
   The Sacristy at Chozoviotissa is of particular interest for its important collection of Byzantine manuscripts. Much of the monastery’s library has perished, but the twenty-three Byzantine codices on parchment still in its possession date from the 10th to the 19th centuries. Only a few are exhibited at any one time: two items customarily on show are the exquisitely illuminated Evangelistaries of the 11th and 13th centuries respectively. Some of the monastery’s plate and a section of fine liturgical embroideries of the 18th century are also on show.

To acquire a keener sense of the landscape which the founding monks of Chozoviotissa inhabited, a foot-path east from the monastery can be taken, leading to two of its hermitic dependencies on the southern slope of Mount Prophitis Elias which rises 700m from the sea below. The path lies across an impressive landscape whose gradients are not for the faint-hearted. The ruined hermitage church of Aghios Ioannis Chrysostomos (c. 290m a.s.l.) which conserves areas of damaged 18th century wall-painting is reached in 35 minutes’ walk by the lower branch from the junction you encounter after 20 minutes; and the rock hewn chapel of Panaghia Theoskepasti­ (c. 450m a.s.l.) in 55 minutes by the upper branch. The * walk can be fol lowed beyond along the ridge of the island, passing via Asfondiliis after 2 hours, and finally descending through Apano Potamos to Aigiali in c. 4 hours.

Amorgos Island is part of the Cyclades Island Group, Greece.

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