Holy Monastery of Rousanou
QUESTIONS & ANSWERS:
1) What is the peculiarity of the rock on the top of which the Rousanou Monastery is built and what does the monastery consist of?
The rock, on the top of which the monastery is built, is vertical, steep and narrow. Visitors are impressed when they see it from a distance. The monastery spreads all over the surface of the peak of the rock and it gives the impression of a single construction. The present construction shape was formed during the third decade of the 16th century. The monastery has three floors. The katholikon and the cells are on the ground floor and on the other floors there are reception halls, the “archontariki” (=guest quarters), the exhibition room, other cells and subsidiary rooms. On the base of the rock, rooms for other use (workrooms, library etc) are built.
2) What is the historical evolution of the monastery?
The history of the monastery goes back to the old tradition. The date 1288 has not been proved historically. According to other unverified information the monastery was founded in 1388 by the priest-monks Nikodemus and Benedict. But it is certain that between 1527 and 1529 the priest-monks brothers Ioasaph and Maximus from Ioanina were granted permission by the vicar of the diocese of Stagoi, the Metropolitan of Larisa named Visarionas and by the abbot of the Great Meteoron Monastery to settle and to become monks on the Rousanou rock. When they climbed up the rock, they found only ruins. So, they started to construct buildings. In 1530 they built the katholikon on the ruins of the even older church of the Transfiguration and they renovated the monastery. We don’t know about the monastery evolution in the following years. But in the two last centuries it fell into gradual decline up to 1940. The monks and recently the nuns tried to keep the monastery open. During the German Occupation it was plundered. During the eighties the Rousanou Monastery was restored and totally renovated by the responsible Archeological Service of the region. Today it operates as a convent.
3) Why was the monastery named “Rousanou”?
We don’t know why the monastery was named “Rousanou” despite the fact that the katholikon is dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ and the monastery is known as the St. Barbara Monastery. It is possible that it was named after an old ascetic called Rousanos who had lived on the rock. According to another theory it was named after two Russian monks who built it.
4) How could someone have access to the peak of the rock in the old days? How was the monastery reached the following years and nowadays?
The first monks climbed. Afterwards ascent was made by rope-ladders and nets. Ascent made by nets lasted about 30′ and it was very difficult. Nowadays it is easy to reach the monastery. You have to ascend stairs of cement and cross two little, solid bridges that were made in 1930 and replaced the wooden bridge made in 1868.
5) How many monks lived in the Rousanou Monastery in the old days and how many nowadays?
We don’t know how many monks lived in the monastery in the old days. Women had no access to it and it remained closed for a long time. The monastery was open thanks to venerable nun Efsevia from Kastraki for 20 years up to the nun’s death in 1971. With the help of faithful people she repaired the monastery and she cared about water supply. The present community of nuns reached the monastery in 1988. There are 13 nuns and their abbess is Filothei Kosvira.
6) What are the architectural features of the katholikon of the Rousanou Monastery?
The katholikon is dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ but honoured to St. Barbara. Her memory is devoutly celebrated on 4th December. The church is little and elegant. Because of the peculiarity of the rock the sanctuary looks to the north instead of looking to the east according to custom. It is in the Athonite type. It belongs to the cruciform distyle type with a dome in the centre and two conches (for the chanters) on the right and on the left side. The dome is polygonal, it bears a single-lobed window on each side and it dominates due to its height. The narthex is covered by a vault and it is fully decorated with well maintained Byzantine frescoes.
7) Who decorated with frescoes the katholikon and when? Could you mention any characteristic frescoes?
According to an inscription found on the nave, the donor of the church decoration, in 1560, was the abbot of the monastery, Arsenius. The painter’s name is not mentioned in the inscription but he must have been a major painter as his frescoes are one of the most brilliant works of the post-Byzantine painting after 1550. These frescoes present the technique of the Cretan School. According to specialists the painter is Tzortzes, a pupil of Theophanes Strelitzas from Crete but his work doesn’t bear his signature.
On the narthex the many-faced compositions of the Second Coming and the Judgment are very impressive. Depictions of stylites, hermits and scenes of Saints’ martyrdom are also very impressive. In the nave the many-faced composition of the Assumption of the Virgin, the depictions of Saint Barbara, the Christ’s Resurrection and Transfiguration, the great hymnographers of the church, Saint Cosmas and Saint John Damascene are distinguished.
8) In the church there is an egg of ostrich. What does it symbolize?
The ostrich is the only bird that doesn’t hatch its eggs but it takes care of them from a distance until the little birds get out of the egg and grow up near it. Like this bird, God takes care of the faithful until they are born and they follow Him. We can also find eggs of ostrich in the katholikon of the Monastery of Varlaam.
9) Are there any manuscripts in the monastery? What is the role of the monastery in the production and the preservation of the manuscripts?
In the 16th century a workroom for copying manuscripts must have operated in the Rousanou monastery. Its most known writer of codices around 1565 was the Rousanitis priest-monk Parthenius. A lot of manuscripts have been destroyed because the monastery was plundered a lot of times by invaders of another religion and unknown criminals. About 50 manuscripts are preserved and they are in the St. Stephen Monastery.
10) What are the factors that threatened the existence of the monastery?
The first factor was the period of the Turkish domination and of the two World Wars. At that time pillages, destructions and plunders of relics took place. Half the Saint Barbara’s skull that had been kept for centuries in the monastery was saved. The other half skull was kept in Mistra. Today the whole Saint Barbara’s skull is in St. Episkepsy in Trikala.
The second factor affects the frescoes of the katholikon negatively. It is the moisture produced by the breath of the people that visit the monastery every day. On the dome moisture ruins the depictions of the Pantocrator.
11) How did the monastery help the local society?
From time to time the monastery was used as refuge and shelter for the persecuted people during the difficult period of the Greek history. So, in 1757 a lot of people from Trikala took refuge in the monastery in order to survive from the pursuit by the Turkish pasha of the region. But also after the Greek-Turkish war in 1897 a lot of families from Kalampaka and Kastraki took refuge in the hospitable monastery where they could be safe.
12) We are on the veranda where we can admire the magic of the landscape of the Meteora. What does the really faithful Christian feel at this moment?
The really faithful Christian feels at this moment that he goes up to heaven where there are the souls of the Holy anachorites and hermits. Their ascetic lives and deeds blessed these rocks. That’s why the region is called the Holy Meteora.