Holy Monastery of Varlaam
QUESTIONS & ANSWERS:
1) What is the historical evolution of the Holy Monastery of Varlaam?
In 1350 a daring ascetic named Varlaam ascended to the rock. The monastery was named after him. He built three churches, a small cell and a water tank. After his death the rock remained abandoned for about 200 years. In 1517/1518 the two founders of the church, the priest-monks Theophanes and Nektarios Apsarades reached the rock. They were two rich brothers from Ioanina. They found the rock of Varlaam abandoned, so they started to construct the first buildings from the beginning. They renovated the little church of the Three Hierarchs and they erected the tower. They also built (in 1541/1542) the central church of the monastery (the katholikon) dedicated to All Saints. The transportation of the materials lasted 22 years and the building only 20 days. Up to the 16th century the presence of the monks was constant. From the early part of the 17th century onwards, only a few monks remained. Since then, the decline starts.
2) How could someone have access to the peak of the rock during the first years of the existence of the monastery? How was the monastery reached the following years and why are there steps nowadays?
Since 1350, the ascent to the monastery was made by wooden ladders, each of which had about 25 rungs. The ladders were hanging from the rock with the help of pegs on the north side of the church and a gap was created between them. The monks often had to jump from one ladder to another risking even their own lives. This difficulty was due to the peculiarity and the morphology of the rocks. There were about 4 or 5 ladders consisting of 95 rungs at maximum. In 1517/1518, the founders who built the tower of the monastery -as it is mentioned in the first question- reached the rock. Then, the monks and materials were hoisted by hand in a rope net. From the early part of the 19th century, they created steps carved in the rock with a bridge between them, which have been altered a lot of times. Nowadays, objects are hoisted electrically.
3) How many monks lived in the Holy Monastery of Varlaam in the old days and how many nowadays?
In the time of the Holy founders, Theophanes and Nektarios, and during the 16th century about 35 monks lived in the monastery. From the 17th century onwards the decline starts and it lasts up to 1961. At that time, a monastic community whose abbot was the present Metropolitan of Piraeus, Kalinikos reached the rock. He was accompanied by the present Metropolitan of Kitrus and Katerini, Agathonikos, the present archbishop of Athens and Greece, Christodoulos and the present abbot archimandrite Isidorus Tsiatas. Today the monastic community consists of 7 monks.
4) What are the architectural features of the Katholikon of the Holy Monastery of Varlaam? Did these features influence other buildings worldwide?
The magnificent Katholikon of the monastery that is dedicated to All Saints, is a typical elegant katholikon in the Athonite type. It is the simplest type of church regarding the ground plan. It belongs to the inscribed-cross tetrastyle type with 2 domes: one in the narthex (or lite) on the west of the church and the other in the nave on the east and there are two conches (for the chanters) on the right and left side.
The features of the katholikon of this monastery are similar to the ones of katholika in East Europe (in Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia etc)
5) Who decorated with frescoes the katholikon of the monastery and when?
The nave was painted in 1548 according to an inscription situated on its south wall. The painter’s name is not referred but the technique, the colours, the movement, the arrangement of the figures and the scenes and in general the style features of the frescoes lead us to attribute them to the painter Frango Katelano from Thebes. The lite was decorated eighteen years later, in 1566, by George and Frangos Kondares, two brothers from Thebes.
6) Could you mention some characteristic frescoes?
On the narthex, the depictions of “Christ in Glory”, of the “Last Judgement” and of the founders Theophanes and Nectarios are distinguished. In the nave there are the characteristic frescoes that depict the Virgin and Child, the Liturgy of Angels, the Crucified, the Pantocrator on the dome and scenes of Christ’s life, passions and action.
7) What are the present religious observances of the monastery (values, rules, customs etc)?
In the monastery, a proper attire is required. Women must wear skirts. Meat eating is forbidden. Women are also prohibited from staying overnight.
8) Are there any manuscripts in the monastery? What is the role of the monastery in the production and the preservation of the manuscripts-texts- of religious paintings and Byzantine music?
There is a rich and important collection of about 300 manuscripts. Some of them are exhibited in the sacristy of the monastery and the others are in special places for preservation and protection. Their multi-coloured artistic decoration attracts somebody’s attention. There are a few miniatures. The first letters of the texts and a lot of titles are decorated. At the end of the 16th century and at the beginning of the 17th century the most well-organized workroom for manuscripts production in Meteora ran in the monastery. There are handwritten liturgical pamphlets, the Acts of the Apostles, pamphlets about Byzantine music, texts written by the Fathers of the Church, religious services and other contents of manuscripts.
9) Are there other important buildings in the monastery?
Of course there are and they are of special architectural interest. These buildings are: the old refectory, the kitchen, one of the most elegant and beautiful buildings of its kind, a vaulted construction covered by an octagonal little dome that terminates in a chimney and the hospital. Finally, the chapel of Three Hierarchs is a small aisleless church with very beautiful frescoes and it was built in 1627.
10) Apart from illustrated manuscripts what other things are exhibited in the sacristy of the monastery?
In the sacristy of the monastery many other ecclesiastical relics such as post-byzantine portable icons, embroidered with gold epitaphios and sacerdotal vestments, various kinds of miniatures and silverware are also exhibited. Among the portable icons, the icon of the Virgin and Child painted in 1668 by the famous Cretan painter Emmanuel Tzane is of great artistic value. The impressive embroidered with gold epitaphios made in 1609 has also special importance apart from its artistic value. In the 16th century in the monastery there was an organized workroom where things were embroidered with gold. Its greatest figure was the monk Arsenius. A lot of works, mainly epitaphioi that can be found in several Greek monasteries have been made here.
11) All the exhibits are really impressive. There is also a big barrel in the storeroom that attracted our attention. Could you tell us a few words about it?
When the founders ascended on the rock, there was no water. The construction of a tank required hard work for many years. So, the monks made this big barrel in which they stored the rainwater. It has a capacity of 12 tons. They used to drink the water or they used it for the irrigation and for their constructions. It took them more than 18 years to make three tanks. So they dealt with the problem more efficiently.
12) Finally, what’s the contribution of the monastery to the preservation of the Orthodox tradition and Byzantine civilization?
The monastery contributes decisively to the preservation of the Orthodox tradition and Byzantine civilization. Several works are preserved, exhibited and kept in specially renovated places, in show-cases and under appropriate conditions of temperature and humidity. An example of preservation of a valuable Byzantine portable icon is quoted below: An icon has two sides. On the one side the Crucifixion of Christ that is depicted, dates back to the 14th century. On the other side the Assumption of the Virgin that is depicted, was painted in the 16th century by Theophanes from Crete. It was donated by the emperor of Byzantium, John Kadakouzinos, his wife, Theodora and their children. This holy relic belongs to the “Dormition of the Virgin” church in Kalampaka. In recent years it has been stolen twice. Fortunately, it was found, but it was divided in two icons. Today it is kept in the Monastery of Varlaam for safety reasons. Finally, a lot of relics of Saints that give off a sweet smell and delight the faithfuls, are kept as valuable treasure of Orthodoxy in the sanctuary of the All Saints church. There are the skulls of the holy founders and neomartyr Nicholas from Metsovo and pieces of the relic of Saint Chrysostom, John the Baptist, Saint Paraskevi and Saint Anastasia.