1) Historical facts
The monastery, built on an imposing rock, is the oldest, the biggest and the most important among the monasteries of Meteora which are preserved today. It was founded little before the mid-14th century (around 1340) by a scholar monk of Mount Athos, Saint Athanasios Meteorites. In the beginning, he built on the rock a church to the Mother of God. He also dedicated the monastery (the Monastery of the Virgin Mary of Meteora rock-Petra-) to her. Besides, he built cells so that the monks who began to concentrate there could live. Then, he built another church honoured to the Transfiguration of Christ. This church constituted the monastery katholikon and the definitive name of the monastery attributes to this church.
An important person was also his successor and second founder of the monastery, monk Saint Iosaph (one-time king Ioannis Uresis Paleologos). During the 40 years of his monastic life, Saint Iosaph built cells, hospital, cistern, he renovated the church of the Transfiguration (it is the sanctuary which has today the form of a church) and he was among the first ones who built the monastery of Ypsilotera (of Kalligraphon) on a steep and inaccessible rock opposite the monastery of Great Meteoron.
The monastery flourished particularly in the mid-16th century. Thanks to imperial and royal donations it became the most powerful of all the monasteries of Meteora. In 1544/1545, today’s magnificent nave and narthex of the imposing katholikon (the old church turned into sanctuary) were built. Later, a refectory, a kitchen, a hospital-home for the aged, a tower, small chapels and joined ladders were built. On the other hand, the monastery suffered from destructions: incursions, thieving, looting and fires.
The monastery of Great Meteoron has already more than 600 years of existence. Its monastic presence and its fame have never ceased to exist. It is a real bastion of orthodox monasticism and Christendom.
2) The founders
Saint Athanasios Meteorites was born in Ypate (once New Patra) in 1302. Among the lofty and steep rocks, he chose a land of about 50000 m2 (named “Platys Lithos”- broad rock- or “Platylithos”) as his hermitage. He himself gave it the name of Great Meteoron. Since then, this name has been established, retained, generalized in the ensemble of the monasteries and rocks and has gone far beyond the borders of Greece. Besides, the coenobitic system and the oldest written Canon of the monasteries of Meteora owe their existence to this indefatigable intellectual man.
Athanasios’ holy personality was characterized by asceticism, quieting disposition, organizational ability, the gift of making miracles and prophesying and, above all, by modesty. Probably, because of his modesty, he didn’t write any texts, although he had the necessary education and knowledge. During his whole life he remained a plain monk until he died in peace in 1380 at the age of 78.
Saint Iosaph was born in 1349/1350 and he was son of the Greco-Serbian King of Thessaly and Epirus (with seat in Trikala) Symeon Uresis Paleologos, who died in 1370. So, Ioannis succeeded his father. However, he soon denied his power, his wealth and the royal luxury and became a poor monk. He settled in the monastery in the early 1373 and he became monk under the name of Iosaph. He was 22 years old at that time. Iosaph’s holy personality was characterized by gentleness, benevolence, quieting disposition and intelligence. He probably died in 1422/1423.
3) Monk and Abots of distinguished action
The two founders of the monastery (Athanasios and Iosaph) remained plain monks until their death. But, others joined them. In its prime (in the mid-16th century), the monastery had about 300 monks and therefore, it was a spiritual hive. Then, the number of monks decreased and unfortunately, nowadays, there are only 3 monks. Monastery abbot is Metropolitan Athanasios Athanasiou, who is very active in renovation, building and charity matters.
Apart from the two founders (whose great work was described above), the following abbots distinguished themselves by their actions:
A) Priest-monk Symeon; when he was abbot, in 1552 the nave was decorated with frescoes and icons and the monastery refectory was built.
B) Priest-monk Parthenios Orphidis (at the close of the 18th century- in the early 19th century); according to several inscriptions, he was renovator and icon-donator. When he was abbot (in 1789), the chapel to Saints Constantine end Helen was built and the famed carved wooden and gilded iconostasis of the nave of the monastery katholikon was created.
C) Last, but not least, the scholar and active priest monk Polykarpos Ramidis (at the close of the 19th century), who was the author of the first general history of the monasteries of Meteora.
4) The katholikon and its decoration
The monastery katholikon is dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ and it is the result of a combination of 3 construction stages.
- Firstly, the present katholikon sanctuary was in fact the first church of the monastery, built by Saint Athanasios Meteorites in the mid-14th century.
- Later, in 1387/1388 the second founder of the monastery, Saint Iosaph expanded and rebuilt it. So, because once it was a katholikon, now it has the form a small self-contained church, which is a typical example of an inscribed-cross distyle with dome. It was decorated in 1483 and its frescoes cover almost all the themes of decorative and dogmatic cycle has the form of a proper church. The most important frescoes are these of the Christ Pantocrator, the three Hierarchs, the Virgin enthroned, military saints, the founders of the monastery and scenes from the Dodekaorton and Passion (of Christ). They are all together an imposing painting ensemble, representative of the tendencies which were dominant little after the fall of Constantinople. They belong to the “Macedonian School”, because their model is the decoration of Macedonian churches of the 14th century.
- Finally, in 1544/1545, the magnificent nave and the narthex of the present imposing monastery katholikon were erected. The nave is of the known architectural athonite type; namely, it is of the inscribed-cross tetrastyle type with a twelve-sided dome and two characteristic conches, one on the left side and one on the right. The lite is spacious with four columns and nine cross-vaults. They were decorated with frescoes in 1552. The most characteristic frescoes of the nave are the following: the frescoes of the Christ Pantocrator, the Transfiguration, the Raising of Lazarus, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Descent to Hades, the appearances of Christ after the Resurrection, the Assumption of the Virgin, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and certainly the founders Athanasios and Iosaph. The following are the most distinguished frescoes of the narthex: the martyrdoms of Saints, full-length figures of the two founders of the monastery, Saint John the Baptist, the Baptism of Christ, the First and the Seventh Ecumenical Council and great figures of the asceticism. The painter of all these incomparable frescoes is anonymous. However, he probably belongs to the “Cretan School”. So, these frescoes are said to be painted by the great painter Theophanes or by some of his disciples or, finally, by the painter of the monastery in Dousiko (monastery of Saint Vissarion, 1557), Tzortzes. They impress with their light, their range of colours and the perfection of their designing.
5) Portable icons
The portable icons of the monastery are of great importance and excite the admiration of the visitors.
A) In the church, on the two carved wooden icon-stands, which are supported on the columns, there are the icon of the Virgin on the right and the icon of Saint Nicholas on the left (14th / 15th century). The iconostasis icons are more recent and date from different periods (from the 16th century until the 19th century). The icons of the Christ (dated to the 16th century), the Virgin with Child (dated to the 16th century), Saint John the Baptist, the Virgin with Christ (Rhodon Amaranton, 1790), the Annunciation of the Virgin and the Archangels are distinguished thanks to their art and their age. The icons of the two front carved wooden icon-stands (near the church entrance) are also interesting. The left icon is the one of the founders of the monastery and the right one is the icon of the Transfiguration of Christ.
B) The portable icons of the museum of the monastery are of great importance, as well. The two famous icons that Mary Paleologina (sister of Iosaph, second founder of the monastery) donated to the monastery are distinguished. On the first icon, the Virgin, surrounded by 14 busts of Saints, is depicted. The other icon depicts Doubting Thomas. Both icons have the face of Mary Paleologina. She probably donated these icons to the monastery between the years 1372-1384. Some others portable icons of great value are the following: a 14th-century diptych formed by the Lamentation of the Virgin and the Man of Sorrows, a series of twelve 16th-century icons which depicts the Saints of the menologion and finally the icons of the Dodecaorton (which are also dated to the 16th century). In view of all these icons, Christian pilgrims are filled with a feeling of devoutness, while those who are not interested or who are heterodoxies are stunned by their imposing presence.
6) Other buildings
Among the buildings of the monasteries (apart from the katholikon), the following are also distinguished:
- The hermitage of the first founder of the monastery, Saint Athanasios Meteorites. It is a small building carved into the rock, which the visitor can see shortly before the entrance of the monastery to the left of the staircase leading to it.
- The kitchen (hestia): it is a domed building with a huge trivet, where they used to put (with the help of a winch) a big dixie in order to cook their food.
- The old refectory (1557): it is a remarkable architectural erection, 35m. long and 12m. in width. Its roof (which has single and double vaults) is supported on five columns. The figure of Virgin between the archangels Gabriel and Michael dominates on the interior of the conch.
- The hospital-home for the aged (1572): it is a magnificent architectural building. The famous roof of its ground floor, made of brick, has a central dome supported on 4 columns, and 8 side cross-vaults.
- 3 old chapels:
- The chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1682). It is a small vaulted aisles church, next to the katholikon sanctuary.
- The Saints Constantine and Helen Chapel (1789). This is also a small aisless church with a beautiful vault, whose type is similar to the imposing vault of the katholikon. It is situated near the katholikon.
- The chapel of Virgin Mary. It is situated on the cave where Saint Athanasios, founder of the Monastery, led an ascetic’s life.
- Finally, a newer chapel: The Saint Nectarius chapel has masterly contemporary frescoes. It is situated on the ground floor of the renovated north-west wing of the cells.
7) The library
The library of the monastery is one of the richest and most remarkable monastery libraries. Despite the unfavourable historical junctures, the monks preserved with devoutness the fabulous treasures of the monastery up to the present day: codices (in manuscripts), documents and rare printed books. If we compare the systematic record of manuscripts and documents made by Nicholaos Veis (in 1908/1909) with the present facts, we can deduce that, fortunately, there are only a few and negligible losses.
- Manuscripts: Nowadays, 640 manuscripts of the 1200 ones that the monasteries of Meteora own belong to the Transfiguration monastery. These manuscripts have been produced during 10 centuries (from the 9th century until the 19th century). Their content varies. It is mainly theological and ecclesiastical: liturgical books, the Holy Writ, texts written by the Fathers of the Church, life and martyrdoms of saints, apologetic, ascetic, hortative texts and many others. There are also some manuscripts written by ancient authors, as well as several most recent philosophical, grammatical, alchemy texts, chronicles etc. We must mention that the importance of these manuscripts is distinguished for two more reasons:
- They have paleographic significance, as well; thanks to these manuscripts someone can observe and study the evolution of writing during the centuries. It looks like that during the 16th and 17th century a systematic bibliographical workroom operated in the monastery with experienced calligraphers and writers of codices.
- A lot of manuscripts are also remarkable works of art. They are richly decorated with impressive miniatures, multi-coloured titles, first letters of the texts and other decorative patterns.
- Documents (Byzantine, post-Byzantine and modern). They are golden bulls, metropolitan documents, patriarchal sigils etc. They constitute important relics and valuable historical documents. We mention characteristically the golden bull of the Byzantine emperor Andronicus III Paleologos (1336), the golden bull of Stephen Dousan (1348) and two golden bulls of the king Symeon Uresis Paleologos, father of the second founder of the monastery, Iosaph (1359 and 1366).
- Printed books. Like the manuscripts, a great part of the printed books is liturgical books, several of which are rare editions of Venice. There are also several archetypes of classic Greek authors (they are also edited in Venice) as well as grammatical works. Another book that belongs to the monastery is the rare edition of the Dictionary of Souida (Souda) written by Demetrios Chalkokondyles in 1499 in Milan.
8) Works of wood-carving
The following masterpieces of wood-carving excite the admiration of visitors:
- The wooden iconostasis of the katholikon nave (1791) and six icon-stands that exist on the nave and on the narthex. They are all gilded and they have various decorations: leaves, flowers, grapes, rosettes, angels, birds, lions, dragons etc.
- The wooden iconostasis of the Saints Constantine and Helen chapel and the one of the chapel of Saint John the Baptist. They are not gilded but they are richly decorated.
- An old wooden icon-stand and two wooden lecterns of the nave, which are richly decorated with inlaid depictions made of ivory.
- The Episcopal throne of the nave, which is also richly decorated like the iconostasis, with inlaid depictions made of ivory and marble. The dome roof depicts the sky and is full of ivory stars.
- Finally, three wooden crosses of Deacon Daniel (dated to the early 16th century), which is a wonder of patience and skill. The two crosses have the name of Daniel, while the third is attributed to him. All the crosses are finely worked, they have similar depictions and they are real masterpieces of wood-carving and miniature.
9) Cloths embroidered with gold
The collection of the gold-embroidered cloths which is kept on the monastery is rich and very remarkable. The following cloths are distinguished:
- a gold-embroidered cloth-cover of Altar (dated to the 14th century), a gold-embroidered purple cloth-cover of the Communion Cup, gold-embroidered crosses decorating Episcopal vestments, stoles (dated to the 14th century ant the 15th century) and an inscribed sash dated to 1794 and belonging to the Bishop of Stagoi Paishios from Klinos.
- The mitre of abbot Symeon (dated to the mid-16th century), inlaid and embroidered with gold on velvet, is of great importance for the history of the monastery.
- We must mention particularly two gold-embroidered epitaphioi. The first is dated from the 14th century embroidered on a purple cloth and it measures 1,70×1,16m. The second dates from 1620/1621, embroidered on a green cloth and measures 0,98×0,75m.
They are mainly reliquaries, since the monastery keeps with respect holy relics of many and great Saints of the Orthodox Church. The silverware dates from different periods (16th-19th century) and depicts various Saints and other decorative themes.
The skulls of its holy founders, which are kept in silver and richly decorated reliquaries, are of great importance for the monastery. They are situated on the katholikon narthex above their tombs. Among the other silver reliquaries, we mention the one of the skull of Saint John the Charitable (1614), the skull of Saint John from Klimakos (1760) and the reliquary of the hand of Basil the Great.