Nea Moni and Aghii Pateras

A little more than half a kilometre further along the principal road is a left turn for * Nea Moni (3km) which, for its mosaics and architectural design, is one of most significant Byzantine churches of the Greek world. (Currently undergoing far-reaching restoration (2009). Normally open daily 8—1, 4–7. Appropriate dress required.) From the approaching road, the beauty of the setting is immediately visible—amongst ancient trees in a verdant fold of the mountains, superbly hidden yet panoramic, solitary yet surrounded by a cluster of ruined buildings that huddle under the general mantle of its protection. In an illustration from the Travels of Basil Grigorovich Barsky in the Holy Places of the East, from 1723 to 1747 (in the Korai―s Library) the monastery is pictured as a small city teeming with buildings and people; prominent in the depiction are the enceinte of walls, and the fortified guard-tower at the western extremity. Today the out-buildings are mostly abandoned shells; the arcaded aqueduct no longer brings water from the north into the magnificent, 11th century cisterns. The monastery never recovered fully from the two catastrophes of the 19th century—the Turkish destruction of 1822 which was visited with particular severity on those who sought to take refuge here, and the earthquake almost 60 years later in 1881. The chapel of the Holy Cross, immediately to the left of the gate on entering, functions as an ossuary and memorial to those killed here in 1822. The main catholicon sits in the open space at the heart of the buildings, just ahead.

The foundation

The name is curious: the monastery is in fact dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin in commemoration of the finding of a miraculous icon of the Virgin on the mountainside in the early 11th century; but it has been universally known as ‘Nea Moni’, or the ‘New Monastery’, ever since it received its endowment from the Emperor of Byzantium in 1042 and was renewed as a grander complex at the site of a pre-existing hermitage, founded by three hermits. The remains of this marginally earlier monastery are being uncovered by excavations a few metres further to the east of the present catholicon. The Imperial gifts of money, land and materials, as well as the providing of the architects and artesans who constructed the ‘Nea Moni’, were the fulfillment of a vow made by Constantine IX Monomachos, when the three hermits living on this site predicted his return from exile in Lesbos to Constantinople to become Emperor. His consort, and co-founder, was the remarkable Empress Zoi«, through whom the line of Imperial succession passed—a virgin apparently until she was 50 years old, after which age she enjoyed three nuptials to successive ruling Emperors, the last of which was to Constantine. Their portraits may still be seen in one of the few mosaics to have survived in the Gallery of Santa Sophia in Istanbul. Building and decoration were both largely completed by 1056.

The architecture

Great Byzantine painting of the 11th century is profoundly stylised—and the architecture of this building, no less so. Viewed both from the east or from the side, the width and height of the megalocephalic drum and cupola of the catholicon dominate the profile of the building inordinately. There are highly ‘stylised’ proportions also in the floor-plan of the church: for example, the narrow transverse exonarthex is wider than any other part of the church; and the four-square plan of the naos evolves into eight, unequal conches as it rises, which subsequently dissolve into the circle of the dome, by an architectural sleight of hand.
   This is not stylisation for the sake of stylisation: it is part of a conscious intention on the part of the architects to give spiritual meaning to the progression of the worshipper through the spaces of the church—from the narrow, dark areas of the narthex and exonarthex, to the magnificently luminous, high space of the naos . It is this that creates the dramatic effects of the interior. This is further enhanced in the naos by the complex vertical passage from square plan to circular cupola, through an octagonal intermediary; this has the practical effect of leaving the central space free of supporting piers, as well as giving a rhythm of alternating narrow and wide conches or niches. In all these ways, Nea Moni (1042) contrasts interestingly with its near contemporary, the Monastery of St John on Patmos (1088): the church of the latter is a humble structure, modestly decorated with painting, and completely un-ambitious in design; here, at Nea Moni, costly mosaics and the full power of architectural sophistication and innovation from the Imperial capital have been brought to bear.

The exterior

In addition to the intriguing and complex grouping of roofs and cupolas in the profile of the catholicon, the material from which the building is made, and the decorative effects to which it is put, are unusual. Brick is not generally a common material in the Greek Islands, even though on Chios there are several notable examples of its use in ecclesiastical buildings. There is no evidence of brick kilns near to Nea Moni, and the material must have been transported laboriously from the area of Chalkeio or from Kambos, far below. The walls are composed of mixed stone and bricktiles. The tiles are used extensively for the work of defining arches, framing windows, and forming a varying entablature of decoration; they erupt exuberantly in places as a sunburst design (north side) or as a heart (south side) between two blind arches—apparently for the sheer joy of decoration.

The interior

The interior is a dramatic procession of spaces of different forms, heights, colours and kinds of decoration: a rectangular atrium next to the belfry, which is entered first, precedes an exonarthex, which precedes a narthex, which precedes the naos —each stage more finely decorated than the previous. Such a succession of spaces at Santa Sophia in Constantinople was linked to the demands of processional ceremony—related principally to the entry of the Emperor into the building, who symbolically transformed himself from temporal to religious monarch as he progressed from one vestibule to the next: here at Nea Moni, however, the complexity of design is more an expression of the Imperial interest that lay behind the building’s creation. The atrium or vestibule is floored with plain slabs and fragments of ancient marble, and the posts of the doorway between the atrium and the exonarthex are of Chios’s native portasanta marble (from Latomi, north of Chora) surmounted by grey limestone capitals. In the next area—the exonarthex—the floor is magnificently inlaid with polychrome marbles in a design of five interlocked rings. The space has apses both to north and south, making it the widest element of the complex. It was decorated with paintings on plaster of which only fragments now remain: best preserved is the complex figuration of the Last Judgement in the south apse. As a kind of decoration, wall-painting was considered very much a ‘second-best’ alternative to the much more costly work in mosaic: here it functions as a kind of ‘appetiser’ for the mosaics which follow.
   The display of * mosaics begins in the yet darker and more confined space of the narthex: in this area their designs were set off by the low, flickering light of candles and lamps, rather than by steady daylight. Together with those at Hosios Loukas (near Delphi) and Dafni (near Athens), the cycle here and in the naos —though fragmentary—is one of the three most important still surviving in Greece. The mosaics are of the highest quality technically and stylistically, and are closely related to those (the Imperial portraits, mentioned above) in the Gallery of Santa Sophia in Constantinople— if not actually by the same workshop of artists. They are contemporaneous with the construction of the building itself between 1042 and 1056. The balance of empty space and design, the clarity of the figures and the dignified richness of the colour, make them works of Byzantine Art of the highest order, wholly at one with the architecture of their setting. Nothing is superfluous to their illustrative purpose; nowhere are the scenes overcrowded.
   They are executed in a combination of different materials: tesserae of both coloured stone and glass-paste create the colours of the figurative and decorative designs, and tesserae made in the ancient technique of fusing gold-leaf in clear glass form the glittering, celestial background. The colours are particularly delicate and subdued; the prevailing mutedgreens and browns are always contrasted and set off in each image by small elements of a rich red colour—the figure in a red robe to the side of the magnificent Baptism of Christ, or the red slippers of the Virgin Mary as she stands beside the solemn Crucifixion. The ample and spacious gold backgrounds unify the whole cycle. Gold is used here, as it is in the backgrounds of icons, as a symbol of the unchanging and eternal context in which these scenes are placed, because gold, too is unchanging and eternal—never forming compounds, never oxidising or rusting as the baser metals do. The scenes are to be read as icons of eternal truths, rather than naturalistic depictions of scenes set against a worldly background.
   The images of the ceiling of the narthex are principally of Saints, Martyrs and Prophets grouped protectively around the central presence of the Virgin in the cupola (now damaged), with the beautifully conceived figures in the pendentives below of her parents, Joachim and Anna, and of Saints Panteleimon and Stephen. On the eastern wall are figurative scenes of the Raising of Lazarus, and of the Ascension, witnessed by a magnificent group of robed spectators; on the north wall is the Washing of the Disciples’ Feet—anenious polyphony of different gestures of dismay and reticence.
   The culmination of the architectural progression of modulating spaces comes as you are ‘released’ from the cramped darkness of the narthex and emerge into the resplendent space and luminousness of the naos. The architecture defines a space that is no longer earthbound and enclosed, but vertical in thrust and uplifting in feel, towards the crownlike cupola which is pierced with tall windows letting in the light from above. Today the light passes through clear glass. In the 11th century the windows were perhaps of translucent alabaster or a golden coloured glass—giving a quite different and warmer quality of light. The technology for the creation of clear glass was only mastered several centuries later in Venice.
   The decorative plan of the naos is far more wide-ranging, and is seen in a space whose light is wholly different. The Pantocrator and Angels of the cupola were lost in the earthquake of 1881, but the important scenes in the conches have mostly survived—the Baptism (south), the Crucifixion (west), and the Harrowing of Hell (north). These are the finest scenes of all—each balanced, in similar pattern, around the central, axial figure of Christ. In the Crucifixion, the solitary and tragic dignity of Mary and St John to either side, is delicately underscored by the presence of the two women and the Roman centurion, placed to the side of each respectively. The culminating image of the Virgin in the central apse behind the templon has only survived in the lower portions, flanked by the Archangels Michael and Gabriel in the two lateral apse conches. The weightless shimmer of the mosaics overhead, especially when illuminated in the dark, is balanced by the coloured marbles underfoot and around the walls: the polished, dark-red glow of the local poros stone, relieved with variegated portasanta, predominates and links the interior colour to the overall red hue of the brick exterior. Some areas, where the original marble revetment has been lost (especially in the west wall of the naos ), have been painted with faux marbre instead. In the north wall of the sanctuary behind the templon is a small carved holy water-stoup inside the prothesis niche.

Of the surrounding monastery buildings, many of those which originally housed the cells of the monastic community are now in ruins. The original refectory (restored and re-roofed) survives to the southwest of the catholicon; it is a long, luminous hall, with an apse to the east, down the central axis of which runs the original 11th century stone refectory-table inlaid with large designs in polychrome marbles. A cobbled street to the west leads past the chapel of St Panteleimon (1889) towards the ruined, four-square tower at the western extremity of the enceinte which used to house the library. The books and the treasury of the monastery mostly disappeared when the monastery was torched during the 1822 massacres; for this reason the small museum, on the upper floor of the building across the courtyard to the northwest of the bell-tower, contains a limited collection of largely 19th century liturgical items and icons, except for some fine, embroidered 18th century pieces—amongst them a fine epigonation with a depiction of the Last Supper, and a girdle with intricately carved, silver buckle.
   Behind the museum building and slightly to the northwest is an arch elaborately framed with tiles which gives onto the magnificent 11th century cistern building, whose deep rectangular form is roofed with 15 vaults supported on marble columns. Once again, its design is Constantinopolitan—a recollection of the elaborate and spacious cisterns of the capital city.
   Today only one frail and elderly nun, followed in her peregrinations around the buildings by a flock of chickens, doves and cats, still inhabits Nea Moni. Costly and far-reaching restoration-works are underway in the complex, involving the re-pointing of the brick-work with modern mortar, and the renewing of the window-frames and templon screen with machine-cut marble. The new generation of monks or nuns—if there should be one— will inherit a church whose once crepuscular interior, darkened with smoke and animated by the sounds of guttering candles and a ticking grandfather clock, will now be crisp and clean as never before.
   The nearby monastery of the Aghii Pateras, built in the late 19th century on a scale that dwarfs the size of Nea Moni, lies higher up the mountain and a little less than a kilometre to the west. (Reached by a path directly from Nea Moni, or by road—returning to the island’s main east/ west road (3.3km) from Nea Moni, continuing 1.2km west, and taking a panoramic road left (1.6km) for the monastery.) The large complex of buildings—now home to four monks—has grown up around a hermit’s cave, which was first closed by a church (lower level) in the 17th century. The main catholicon, on the upper level, has unusual wall-paintings of the 1890s that cover all the wall space of its chancel, showing the massed ranks of the Holy Fathers, to whom the church is dedicated.


Chios Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island group
Central Chios and Nea Moni. Nea Moni and Aghii Pateras.

Random information you might what to know about Chios Island
The Anavatos village
Portasanta marble-quarries


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