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Monastery of st John the Divine
The monastery of St John (open Mon, Thur, Fri, Sat 8–1.30; Tues, Wed 8–1.30, 4–6; Sun 8–1, 4–6. N.B these hours may vary. T. 22470 31223 for information.)
More impregnable and imposing than almost any other monastery in the islands, the fortified appearance of the *Monastery of St John the Divine is eloquent both of the frightening insecurity of these scattered islands in the Middle Ages, and of the material and spiritual treasure that the walls were designed to protect. Though dedicated to St John the Divine, the monastery possessed no relics of him, which would have represented its greatest wealth had they existed. But from the time of its founding it possessed important manuscripts, icons, and documents, to which were added a library of valuable incunabula, gold and silver liturgical objects, antiquities and paintings. From the very moment of its inception, the monastery was on the frontier of Christianity with Islam and, only four years after building had begun, its founder was forced to flee from an attack by Seljuk Turks, never to re turn. It is in this context that the massive castellation of the religious buildings, begun in 1088 by Hosios Christodoulos of Latmos, must be seen.
Eleventh century autobiographical texts are rare, but Christodoulos has remarkably left us an integral ac count of his life in the preamble to the Rule he laid down for the monastic community he founded on Patmos. He wrote it in 1091, two years before he died; it recounts in the first person, without apparent embellishment, the course of his life, his encounters with the Emperor in Byzantium and his creation of this monastery. It makes fascinating reading (see ‘Further Reading’ below) and reveals a clear-headed and yet passionate man of great spiritual and physical energy—yet with a normality that speaks to us across the centuries. Born near Nicaea c. 1025, Christodoulos (whose secular name was Ioannis, and whose assumed name, Christodoulos, means ‘servant of Christ’) felt a calling to the monastic life at an early age. He appears to have visited Rome in 1054 and subsequently to have continued to Jerusalem where he withdrew to a monastery in the Palestinian desert. Forced to flee ahead of the advance of Seljuk Turkish incursions, he settled at the monastery of Stylos, near the large monastic community of Mount Latmos to the east of Miletus, of which he was soon appointed archimandrite. Once again he was constrained to flee by Turkish incursions, this time to the island of Kos, where he built the monastery of the Panaghia Kastriani (at today’s Palaio Pyli). He organised a mission to Mount Latmos to salvage whatever had been left of the valuables, manuscripts and books after the Turkish attacks. He had what was saved sent to Constantinople; most was retained at Haghia Sophia, but some of the items were gifted back to Christodoulos by the Patriarch. In this period he developed relations with the court of Byzantium, with the Emperor’s mother and with Alexios I Comnenus himself, of whom he requested official blessing for his project to leave Kos—because it was too ‘noisy’ for his ascetic life— and to settle on Patmos. The Emperor granted him the whole island as well as lands on neighbouring is lands, principally Leros and Lipsi, gave him a boat and dispensed the monastery from tax obligations in a signed and sealed chrysobull which is exhibited today in the Treasury. The monastery of St John was fortified to protect the monastic community as well as to safeguard the precious manuscripts that Christodoulos had salvaged. In 1092, almost four years after founding the monastery, he and his fellow monks were forced to flee once more by Turkish at tacks. They fled to Euboea where Christodoulos died in March 1093: the possessions—principally books and icons—which he left in his will to the monastery became the heart of its library and treasury. The monks returned with his remains in 1095 to complete the work they had begun under his guidance.
Already by the time of the Fourth Crusade the monastery had acquired wealth from its land revenues as well as a certain international, or rather pan-Christian, prestige. In the Deed of Partition of 1204, it was largely left free and independent by the Venetian victors; and then, after 1309, the Knights of Rhodes accorded it similar privileges since their presence on Patmos might only have served to attract Turkish reprisals. After Suleiman the Magnificent’s defeat of the Knights in 1523, the monastery wisely acknowledged Turkish suzerainty and in return was once again left largely to continue its life undisturbed. In 1713 an important Theo logical School was founded which continued to benefit from Ottoman tolerance until the Dodecanese passed under Italian occupation in 1912. The Italian authorities tried to im pose language and other restrictions on the Monastery, and in 1935 attempted to create an independent Dodecanesian Church which they hoped eventually to subsume into the Catholic Church. The school continued to function with difficulty in hiding. Today the monastery still preserves an independence within the Greek State. It must rank as one of the most successful and long-lived, independent and self governing monasteries of the Byzantine world.
It appears from ancient spolia (some inscribed) incorporated into the original fabric of the building, as well as other pieces and inscriptions from the surrounding area, that the monastery was built over the remains of a temple dedicated to Arte mis Patnia. An important inscription (now in the Treasury— see below) attests to the legend that Orestes brought the cult of Artemis to Patmos from Scythia and was cured of his post matricidal madness by the goddess as a result. Another clear but fragmentary inscription of the early 4th century ad refers to the founding of a church to St John during ‘the ministry of the venerable Bishop Epithymetos’. This may have been the first Christian building to be erected over the pagan temple, and would probably have been in ruins when Christodoulos began constructing the present buildings.
The enceinte of walls stand to between 16 and 18m in height all round, with only one protected entrance on the north side. These were constructed as an almost window less, crenellated curtain in the first building campaign of the 11th century, and then substantially strengthened in the 17th century by the addition of the impressive scarps or batters which are the exterior’s most visible characteristic today. This is seen best on the north and northeastern sides, where the batters project most massively. The whole complex was extended in the 16th and 17th centuries to the south; in this period the ramp of steps leading up to the north entrance was also added, including the projecting terrace supporting the beautifully proportioned chapel of the Holy Apostles, built in 1603. The (un-scarped) western wing was added, last of all, in the 20th century.
From the machicolated entrance-gate, a steep corridor leads up into the cobbled courtyard which is greater in depth than in width. Additions to the main church have encroached on its already intimate space, which now is like a well of light, unforgettably characterised by the high buttress-arches overhead, with their delicately pointed form. These date from the addition in 1698 of the double-storey arched gallery to the south in dressed ashlar stone, known as the ‘Tzafara’, which is principally a residential wing for the monks. Immediately to the left is the entrance into the original 11th century catholicon, preceded by a narthex and exonarthex, added in the 12th century. Much of the four-arched colonnade and balustrade which define the exonarthex is composed of spolia, both from the temple of Artemis and from the Early Christian church on the site—ancient columns in marble from Fourni (one with spiral fluting), and one balustrade pilaster in the unmistakable red jasper from Iasos on the coast of Asia Minor opposite Patmos. The narrative wall-paintings here, which mostly figure scenes and miracles from the Life of St John, date from the 19th century. Deco rated stone surrounds frame the beautifully carved 17th century wooden doors, with an image of the Annunciation, giving access to the narthex.
The Narthex and catholicon
Passing from exonarthex to narthex, one moves from light into dark, as if into a cave; the narrow space is given further significance by the Monastery’s principal *icon of St John the Divine; what we see today is principally a 15th century repainting of great beauty, over an original 12th century icon. The size is impressive (approximately 110 x 75 cm), but it is the finely-modelled robe and, above all, the eyes and brow of great dignity and compassion, which command attention. The Saint holds a book open at the first verses of his Gospel; behind is a small ink-well and pen. The whole is surrounded in a fine original metal frame. The 16th century wall-paintings all around have been blackened by candle smoke and also ‘re-touched’ in the 19th century; but where they are starting to be cleaned (on the south and north faces), rich colours (especially a cinnabar red) are emerging. The small chamber to the south of the narthex is a chapel containing the bones and relics of Hosios Christodoulos, brought back from Euboea by his followers after his death and kept in a repousse silver casket.
The dark and tiny domed space of the catholicon, on an inscribed-cross plan, is a refuge from the heat, the light and the winds. There is nothing grand or sophisticated in its cramped and overly tall proportions; this is part of Christo doulos’s original building campaign and reflects his simple and ascetic aspirations for the place. Today, the ornate, gilded iconostasis of 1820 dominates the space; just above the level of its rail are a number of minutely caved tableau scenes. Its richness contrasts markedly with the serene floor of marble slabs framed in a polychrome inlay of opus alexandrinum; once again, it is a plaque of the red jasper from Iasos that occupies the central place. The two icons to either side of the central door of the screen were the gift of Catherine the Great of Russia. The wall-paintings are early 17th century Cretan work, and include many beautifully executed images: amongst the finest, are the Pantocrator in the dome, the Dormition of the Virgin (west), and St John in the cave of the Apocalypse (north side). Two doors, one in the north wall (surmounted by a clear marble inscription attributing the construction to ‘Nikephoros Laodikeias, 1625’), the other hidden from view in the south east corner, lead into two former treasury-rooms, which occupy the secure and inaccessible spaces created between the catholicon and the fortification walls of the monastery.
The Parecclesion (Chapel of the Theotokos)
The doorway in the south wall of the catholicon leads into the parecclesion, or Chapel of the Theotokos (Mother of God); (at eye-level to the left side of the doorway as you leave the catholicon, is a slanting perforation through the wall, whose interior has been polished by the running of a rope which passed through it and once operated an opening mechanism for the door). It was one of Jesus’s last commands that St John should take care of his mother and be constantly with her to the end; for this reason her chapel is found here, contiguous with the main church. As a result of severe earthquake damage in 1956, a layer of 18th century paintings in the interior were removed to reveal the late 12th century works beneath. These represent the original wall decorations. The *Virgin and Child Enthroned with Archangels on the east wall is perhaps the finest work here (ask for light to be switched on for illumination). It has the rich costumes and vivid solemnity of much earlier Byzanine painting. Above it, on the same wall, the image is reflected formally in the depiction of the Hospitality of Abraham—always considered a symbolic prefiguring of the Trinity. The wall is flat because the pre-existing Refectory wall to the east did not give space for the construction of an apse; as one looks at the food prominently laid on the table before the three angels, it should be recalled that on the other side of this wall was the hall where the monks ate. The paintings here have a clarity and spaciousness which is lacking in the later works in the catholicon and narthex. On the opposite west wall of the chapel is the damaged but impressive scene of Christ healing the Bent Woman. The side walls are decorated mostly with figures of Saints and Patriarchs of Jerusalem (beside the south door)—these last, because the chapel and its decoration was probably the gift of Bishop Leontios, who had been abbot here and went on to become patriarch in Jerusalem in 1176. The wooden iconostasis is of the early 17th century.
The whole chapel has its original marble floor and is built over one of the monastery’s all-important cisterns. At the foot of the eastern side of the door into the chapel from the catholicon, a perforated, upturned Early Christian capital functions as the lid for the cistern. A number of other mar ble spolia are incorporated into the chapel, such as the Early Christian columns in the corners of the north wall, and the ancient inscription towards the right-hand end of the second step below the iconostasis, which probably comes from the pre-existing Temple of Artemis.
The Refectory area
On leaving through the south door of the parecclesion under a stone canopy, the early 12th century refectory lies behind the wall running along your left (southeast). Its form is that laid out by the founder, although it was completed after his death—at first with a simple timber roof, then modified a century later (possibly after a fire) by the substitution of a vaulted and domed stone roof. Running the length of the room’s long axis are the two original stone refectory tables, with small individual niches below the counter for each monk to store a bowl and knife. The room is now relatively bare, save for a few immured spolia from the pagan temple on this site, but it was originally completely painted. The remains of painting visible today are mostly on the wall by which you enter (west). There are three distinct phases of paintings here. The few that remain from the first campaign of c. 1180 (contemporary with the parecclesion), are on the flat wall of the blind arch to the north of the door in the west wall: the upper portion of four Saints can be seen, while above are sections of two scenes—the Appearance of Christ to the Disciples on Lake Tiberias, and the Multiplication of the Loaves. Note how these two scenes have been roughly cut in half by the added thickness of wall which has been built out when the roof was changed from timber to a stone-vaulted structure, and how subsequently, in the second campaign of painting, the artists have continued the same scenes above on the new wall surface. This second campaign of a century later (c. 1280) covers the rest of the wall in this northern half of the refectory and is characterised by dramatic, crowded, scenes of stylised and vigorously modelled figures; especially memorable is the scene of St Peter on Lake Tiberias failing to stay afloat as he attempts to walk across the water. The third campaign, executed also in the late 13th century, covers the same wall to the south of the doorway and has a quite different style with fewer modelling-lines and greater emphasis on pose and sentiment, as can be seen in the Crucifixion and Passion Scenes over the door of entry.
Beyond the refectory to the south are the kitchens and bakery, with ovens at one end and, at the other end, a (purportedly original) 11th century kneading-trough, carved like a primitive boat from a single piece of wood. From here a small doorway leads to the cells and living quarters of the monks along the monastery’s south side.
The Treasury (Museum) and roof terrace
There are a great many ecclesiastical museums in the Greek Islands—a lot of them not particularly special or interest: this monastery’s *museum is in a different category for the range and importance of items it displays, from pagan through to modern times. It consequently should not be missed. The exhibits are laid out clearly in a spacious environment, specially created for them after the earthquake damage of 1956, in a wing added to the west side of the monastery in appropriate materials and style. Manuscripts, icons and liturgical material are mostly to be seen on the lower floor, while ancient artefacts, wall-paintings and larger items are on the upper floor. This account has space only to indicate some of the more unusual items.
(Behind the ticket-desk can be seen the bulk of an 11th century brick baking-oven.) The first section (manuscripts) is dominated by two exhibits: the early *6th century Codex Purpureus with letters in gold and silver (which has oxidized) on a purple vellum, which (though only partial) is one of the earliest surviving manuscripts of the Gospel of St Mark; and the magnificent *Imperial Chrysobull of Alexios I Comnenus, donating title and lands to Christodoulos for the Monastery. It bears the Emperor’s signature in red cinnabar at the foot and is crowned by a heading as ornate as an Ottoman Imperial tugra. Among the other treasures on show from the library are an illuminated, 8th century manuscript of the Book of Job, complete with scholia, or learned annotations, and some 15th century texts of Aristotle and the Comedies of Aristophanes.
The icons are mostly of Cretan or Constantinopolitan workmanship and are from all periods—rarest of them all, though, is the *11th century micro-mosaic icon of St Nicholas (possibly brought by Christodoulos from Mount Latmos), set in a 13th century silver frame. Also worthy of note are: the exquisite 12th century icon of St Theodore Tyron; the mid-13th century icon of St James, the Brother of Jesus; and two later 16th century icons—an image of St John of great compassion (no. 20), and St John and Prochoros in the cave of the Apocalypse (no. 25), with a basket of scrolls hanging in the cave behind them. Virtually the last item in this section is a much damaged icon of Christ on the Way to Calvary, believed to be an early work by the Cretan, Domenikos Theotokopoulos, known more commonly in the West as ‘El Greco’. On this floor are a great many well-con served liturgical vestments, finely embroidered stoles and epigonatia, and a section of (mostly Venetian) metalwork and jewellery—often in the form of ships—which belonged to the wives of Patmian ship-owners.
The pride of the antiquities on the upper floor is a magnificent late *5th century head of Dionysos in Parian marble: the god’s beard and hair, held by a head-band delicately tied behind, is executed with particular fineness. There is also a beautifully carved, marble *Ionic acroterion which formed the corner of an altar—probably the work of a 5th century bc Milesian workshop: a partner to this piece is on show in the Nikephoreion Ecclesiastical Museum on Lispi (see pp. 158–9). The long 2nd century ad inscription from the temple of Artemis is of particular interest: it refers to Vera, 10th hydrophoros (or priestess) of Artemis, ‘daughter of the wise physician Glaukias’, who ‘crossed the perilous Aegean from glorious Argos [in the Peloponnese] where she grew up’ to take up her sacred office here on Patmos. It is this inscription which attests to the legend that Orestes, son of Agamemnon, brought the cult of the goddess to Patmos, on his return from Scythian Tauris. The last line of the inscription in large capitals is the one-word salutation ‘ΕΥΤΥΧΟΣ’—‘Good Fortune’.
From the upper floor of the museum a passage onto the roof-terrace emerges in front of the domed cube of the chapel of the Holy Cross, built in 1598—its rough-cut stone and decorated window frames pleasingly set off against the whitewashed walls all around. The terrace affords matchless -views over the whole island and surrounding seas.
The Library (not open for regular visits)
The most outstanding items of the monastery’s celebrated library are exhibited in the treasury, mentioned above. The library is generally closed, but access may be sought for re search purposes or academic interest. Its fame and richness is a reflection of the special value given to books and manuscripts by the monastery’s founder. An inventory made by Abbot Arsenios in 1200 (which copied an earlier catalogue of 1103) lists already 330 manuscripts—267 on parchment and 63 on paper; today there are nearer 1,000 manuscripts, in addition to all the early printed works and documents relating to the history of the foundation. They give a valu able picture of the spiritual and intellectual interests of the monastic community, which in addition to religious works embraced important classical texts by Aristophanes, Plato, Xenophon and others.
Patmos Island is part of the Dodecanese Island Group, Greece.