Both in the imagination and in reality, Patmos is so dominated by the great Monastery of St John that it is easy to forget that there is a lot more to this beautiful island—not least, its beautiful and architecturally interesting Chora which, even without the monastery, would be worthy of attention. The island also possesses a remarkably varied shoreline—deeply indented and modulated at every point; often backed by dramatic hillsides; sometimes given character by shoals and banks just below the surface, or marked above water by offshore islets and eroded rock-stacks, such as the memorable KalikatsouRock; and, in some places, it is even lined with strands of agate pebbles, as at Lambi. The island is in effect the jagged tip of a volcanic caldera which extends under water to east and south, and for this reason its slopes are mostly bare with outcrops of eroded igneous boulders and its heights are dramatic and panoramic.
Though chic and well-organised today, the island appeared sufficiently windswept and remote to the Roman Imperial authorities for them to consider it a suitable place of banishment for the elderly patriarch of Ephesus, St John the Divine. Then, almost exactly 1,000 years later, an energetic and clear-sighted monk came here on his own spiritual exile, fleeing the noise and distraction that disturbed the brotherhood he had created in the mountains of Kos and intent on building a remoter monastery on Patmos in honour of St John. So great was Christodoulos’s desire for peace and spiritual integrity that he insisted on his builders and their families keeping to a separate area in the northern tip of the island, safely away from proximity to the new monastery. ‘The loneliness of the island made me leap for joy: I delighted in its tranquillity, rejoiced that it was untrodden. Its remoteness and dreariness were to me a treasure of cheerfulness’, he wrote.
But it is the perennial conundrum of great hermits and great monasteries that in time they become focuses of pressing crowds who come to look, either with the eyes of faith or, more recently, the gaze of a blanker sort of tourism. The Monastery of St John is a tiny and intimate space that can ill accommodate the pressing throngs of visitors today, who on occasions push relentlessly through its sanctuary. It is hard to know what the founder would have made of it all. St John himself might be less amazed; with the insight of the vision he received in the cave of the Apocalypse, he had again and again seen images of ‘great multitudes which no man could number ‘ of…all nations and “‘tongues”. The secret of a sympathetic visit to the monastery is to go, if possible, early in the morning or late in the afternoon, or else on a day when there are no ships in the port: otherwise it is unlikely that it will reveal its true identity. The presence of the monastery has inevitably conditioned many aspects of the island; one of the most rewarding for the visitor lies in the quality of devotional art that it has attracted, not only in the monastery itself, but in the icons to be found in the many rural ‘Holy Seats’, or scattered hermitages around the island—such as at the Panaghia Koumana, or in the Convent of the Zoodochos Pigi.
Patmos Island is part of the Dodecanese Island Group, Greece.