Holy Monastery of Saint Stephen
QUESTIONS & ANSWERS:
1) What is the historical evolution of the St. Stephen monastery?
The history of the first years of the monastery is lost in the depths of centuries and is full of traditions. According to early evidence, its foundation is dated to the end of the 12th century, approximately in 1191 or in 1192. Probably the name of the first holy hermit who settled on a cave of the rock was Jeremy. However, there is ascertained evidence since the 14th century. According to this evidence, the St. Stephen Monastery was an organized coenobium. So, the following persons are mentioned as founders of the monastery: firstly, archimandrite Saint Anthony (in the first half of the 15th century), whose father was a Serb sovereign and his mother was offspring of the Byzantine Kantakouzenos family; secondly, the priest-monk Saint Philotheus from Rizoma of Trikala (in the mid-16th century).
Saint Philotheus rebuilt the old small katholikon of the monastery (the church of St. Stephen) approximately in 1545. He also built cells for the monks and other useful buildings. During its history, the monastery enjoyed noble protection and help of noblemen from Byzantium, Principalities bordering on the Danube and Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. In 1798, when Amvrosios was abbot of the monastery, the present imposing katholikon honoured to St. Charalambus was built. However, unfavourable events during the first half of the 20th century almost led to the dissolution of the monastery. Since 1961, it became convent and so, a new glorious period began.
2) How many monks lived in the monastery during old years and how many today?
According to an old tradition, this monastery is connected with female monasticism. Later, it was desolated and abandoned, until it was inhabited again by monks. The abbot of the monastery, Constantios from Kakambaka, was very active (in spiritual, social matters, matters of building etc.) in the mid-19th century. During these hard times, his contribution to education was particularly important. About 100 years ago, more than 30 monks lived in the monastery, but in 1960 it was almost desolated. In 1961, the monastery became a convent. The first nuns who settled here managed, with the help of God, to organize the monastery in a coenobitic way and to ameliorate its buildings despite the particularly difficult conditions. The present community consists of 28 nuns and its abbess is Agathi Antoniou.
3) What are the architectural features of the old katholikon, when was it decorated with frescoes and which are its most characteristic frescoes?
A) The old katholikon, honoured to St. Stephen, was probably built around the 14th century or the 15th century. In 1545, it was rebuilt (as we have already mentioned) by Saint Philotheus, second founder of the monastery. The church is a small, low, timber-roofed, single-naved basilica with narthex.
B) The church was decorated with frescoes a little after 1545 when abbot of the monastery was Metrophanes. Damages caused for about five centuries were less than the damages caused during the last war: the faces and especially the eyes of all the Saints were damaged. However, despite this fact, in view of these holy depictions, pilgrims are filled with a feeling of devoutness.
C) The frescoes of the church, retouched and restored today, constitute an interesting painting ensemble of post-Byzantine religious painting. On the sanctuary, the frescoes of Platytera (the Virgin Blachernitissa) and of the Communion of the Apostles are distinguished. On the nave, full-length figures of Saints, Jesus with its disciples on the Eleon Mountain and the depiction of 24 stanzas of the Akathistos Hymn are distinguished. Finally, on the narthex, the depictions of holy founders Anthony and Philotheus and the Dormition of the Virgin Mary are distinguished. The painter and priest Nicholas from Kalampaka had later restored this fresco.
4) What are the architectural features of the new katholikon of the monastery and what could you tell us about its decoration with frescoes?
A) The new katholikon of the monastery was built in 1798 (it is the newest of meteorite katholika) when abbot was Amvrosios. It is honoured to St. Charalambus whose holy skull is kept here. It is of the known Athonite architectural type, namely inscribed-cross tetrastyle with two conches, one on the right and one on the left. There is also a spacious esonarthex, with 4 columns in the middle which support its roof. The vaults are characteristic and impressive: the big and central one of the nave and two smaller of the sanctuary. On the northern exterior side of the church a porch-exonarthex with stone arches has been added. During the German occupation, the building was damaged. In the general repair of 1972 the interior of the church was covered with new plasters.
B) Nowadays, the katholikon is decorated by the recognized painter Vlassios Tsotsonis, who follows in a creative way the models of other meteorite katholika and the tradition of Cretan School of religious painting. On the nave, Christ Pantocrator and the four Evangelists are distinguished. Mr. Tsotsonis is painting at present the narthex with the help of his mate. These frescoes are original, that means they don’t exist anywhere else. After the narthex, the sanctuary will be decorated and then, the decoration of the new katholikon will be completed.
5) Apart from the two katholika, what other remarkable buildings are there in the monastery?
There are the old refectory, which has changed into museum (sacristy), the “hestia” or kitchen, the guest house and other buildings with rooms for many uses (library-guest quarters, workrooms of religious painting, of calligraphy and decoration of manuscripts, of needlework, of embroidery with gold, of making incenses, candles and different needlework). All the buildings are renovated.
6) Are there any manuscripts in the St. Stephen monastery?
Of course. 154 manuscripts, which are dated from the 11th century till the 19th century, are kept here today. A lot of these are decorated with beautiful and artistic miniatures, various titles and multi-coloured decorative first letters (of the texts). Well- known calligraphers and decorators of manuscripts of the mid-17th century were priest-monk Anthimos from Ioannina and priest-monk Eshaias. The manuscripts were recorded by the professor of Ionian University, Mr. Dimitrios Sofianos. There are liturgical books, texts written by the Fathers of the Church, hymnography, hagiologic, interpretative texts etc. Moreover, there are manuscripts of legal and musical content as well as manuscripts of general content. Among the manuscripts which are exhibited in the museum (sacristy), four unadorned parchments dated to the 16th and 17th century are remarkable thanks to their paleographic value. These parchments include citations from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, written in capital letters.
7) What could you tell us about the old books that exist here?
The collection of rare old books is rich, as well. The nuns of the monastery recorded them. There are 852 old books in all. The basic categories are the following: theology, philology, literature, history, philosophy, law etc. The preservation of the old books came after the recording. Three of the most important and oldest books are in the show-cases of the museum. They are works of Aristotle, printed in 1498 and the Dictionaries of Souida (Souda) and of Varinou Phavorinous since 1411.
8) Apart from the manuscripts and the old books, what else is on display in the museum (sacristy) of the monastery?
In the museum of the monastery, works of great artistic value are also on display. These are:
- Portable post-Byzantine icons: Among them, the icons of Christ the life-giver (17th century), Virgin Paraclesis (17th century) and the Deposition from the cross (work of the great Cretan painter Emmanuel Tzantes dated to 1670) are distinguished.
- Gold-embroidered vestments and other textiles. The gold-embroidered epitaphios dated from 1857 with many-faced main composition and other complementary depictions on the frame.
- Silverware, such as liturgical vessels (Holy Communion Cups, pyxes, spears, forcepses, censers etc.), clasps made of ivory and reliquaries.
- Wood carved and silver crosses: they symbolize passion, sacrifice, modesty and patience. Among them, there are several elaborate crosses worn around the neck, crosses used for benediction, blessing and litany.
- Finally, the Episcopal throne and the gate of the sanctuary of the iconostasis of the St. Stephen church with the depiction of the Annunciation at its top according to custom.
9) Could you talk us about the works of wood-carving that exist in the monastery?
In the monastery, there are excellent works of wood-carving. Among them, the following impress:
- The iconostasis of the new katholikon of Saint Charalambus, which was constructed in 1814, with elaborate decoration with plants, animals and men. It is one of the most beautiful iconostases preserved in Greece.
- The baldachin which covers the Altar, on which there is the holy skull of Saint Charalambus.
- The Episcopal throne, 4 icon-stands and 2 lecterns of the nave are decorated with ivory and marble.
- The two icon-stands of the narthex are elegant and elaborate. They were constructed in 1836.
- Finally, the gold-embroidered iconostasis of the Saint Stephen Church with artistic depictions of plants and animals which ends up at its top on the form of a cross. It is decorated with portable icons among which the icon of protomartyr and Archdeacon Stephen is distinguished.
10) Which factors threatened the existence of the St. Stephen monastery?
The existence of the monastery was mainly threatened by the unfavourable national events of the first half of the 20th century: repeated expropriations of monastery property in order to rehabilitate the refugees, the two World Wars, the miserable period of German occupation and the civil war. All these led up the monastery to the brink of dissolution, looting of relics and decay of its buildings.
11). Finally, could you tell us a few words about the contribution of the monastery to the local society in matters of education?
The contribution of the monastery to the local society in matters of education is very important. The abbot Constantios from Kalampaka built (in 1850) “Constantios Primary School” at his expense and offered large amounts of money for the erection of school in Trikala. The well-known bishop and instructor of ancient Greek language, Dorotheos Scolarios (1812-1888) from Amarantos of Kalampaka, took refuge in this monastery in order to be educated. But also recently, in the seventies, an orphanage-primary school operated here with success. Teachers were the nuns of the monastery.