The monastery of Hosios Lukas
The monastery of Hosios Lukas
From most ancient times Boiotia has held an especial place in the history and culture of Greece. Important ruins from all periods are scattered throughout its territory. Thebes, the city of Kadmos, Oedipus and Epameinondas and numerous other heroes is as renowned as Athens, Sparta and Corinth. Indeed, during the years of the Empire of Byzantium it occupied a more important position than many other cities in Greece since it was the seat of a General and had a thriving craft industry. This explains why some of the most significant Byzantine monuments exist in Boiotia: the church of Panaghia e Skripou at Orchomenos, the monastery of Hosios Loukas at Steiri, Aghios Nikolaos at Kambia, the monastery of Sagmatas on Mt. Hypatos, the monastery of Elosios Meletios at Kithaironaetal.
However, the best known of the Byzantine monasteries is that of Hosios Loukas, built on the slopes of Mt. Elikon on an echanting site between Boiotia and Phokis.
The family of Hosios Loukas, founder of the monastery, originated from Aegina. Afraid of the Saracens, his ancestors settled on the shore of Phokis near the foothills of Mt. Ioannes or Ioannitzes or, as it is known nowadays, Desphiniotes Yannimaki. However, for the very same reason they left there and went to Kastorion, present-day Kastri. As is well-known, this was the site of Delphi, that is the hallowed land of the god Apollo with the famous Oracle of the Pythia. It was there that Loukas was born in July 896 A.D. He was the third of seven children of Stephanos and Euphrosyne. From a tender age he showed a marked inclination towards the ascetic life and passed his days in continual prayer.
In 910 at the age of 14, he followed two monks to Athens. He became a monk in the church of Panaghia Atheniotissa, which was then up on the Acropolis, or as others claim, in the monastery of Megale Panaghia, present-day Monasteraki. He probably lived for some time in a hermitage on the slopes of Hymmetos where the monastery of Asterios stands today, Hermitage of Loukas of Steirios-Asterios according to one version. However, after the repeated entreaties of his mother, he returned to Kastorion. A few months later he went as a hermit to Yannimaki where he remained for seven years, near the tiny chapel of the Aghioi Anargyroi, Kosmas and Damianos.
To avoid the barbarian incursions he went to Zemenos in Corinthia where he stayed with a hermit-stylite for ten years. In 927, 31 years old, he returned once again to Yannimaki where he remained for 12 years. From there he went to Kalami; a lovely cool place with water, east of Antikyra. Today it is called Zaltsa. Three years later, however, he escaped to Ambelona to avoid Turkish raids.
He was buried in his cell by his pupil Gregorios. Two years later, in 955 A.D. his fellow hermits and disciples celebrated his Dormition for the first time.
The holy relic of Hosios Loukas is nowadays in the Vatican, a fragment of his skull is in the monastery of Philotheos on Mount Athos and others are dispersed here and there.
The monk Meletios from Athos gathered together other monks and gave the monastery a new lease of life. During the revolution of the Greek nation in 1821 it was the launching place of the guerilla leaders and freedom fighters of Boiotia, Lokris and Phokis.
The monastery nowadays consists of the two large churches with the crypt, refectory, bell-tower and cells with ancillary rooms. The main, original gateway stands in the NE corner of the east courtyard. Today the visitor enters through a small arched gate which opens into the south wall of the enclosure, underneath the clock-tower.
Scant remains of the old cells have survived in the lower storey of the west and north side. They are small, arch-roofed with a low wooden door and single small window on the fa§ade. On top of these, as on the other sides of the monastery area, other two and three-storeyed buildings were built later. At various points, especially at the corners, there were towers for the protection of the monks. Nowadays only one has survived, a tall square tower in the SW corner, above the arched entrance. It acquired its present form in about 1877 or 1888 when the “clock-tower” was also added. There was initially a two-storeyed building there. On the ground floor, which is roofed by a cross-vault, there was a water conduit. The upper storey was an octagonal church, that is of the same order as the large church of Hosios Loukas. On the east side was the semi-hexagonal apse of the Iero which was destroyed in the 19th century. Its remains were found in the 1960 excavations. Wall-paintings are preserved on its interior with scenes of the miracles of Christ and particularly his healing of the sick. This little church is contemporary with the large one, that is it was built at the beginning of the 11th century.
Between the large church and the refectory is the cistern for water. It is one of the earliest structures of the monastery.
In about the centre of the site of the monastery stand the two churches, of the Virgin on the left and of Hosios Loukas on the right. These churches are connected in a peculiar way. The SW corner of the church of Panaghia intrudes into the NE corner of the church of Hosios Loukas. Even though the church of Panaghia is older we begin with a description of the large church to facilitate the visitor.
The church’s exterior makes a most pleasant impression. In the lower parts material from the buildings of ancient Steirion has been used while in the upper sections well-dressed square poros stone blocks surrounded by red bricks according to the so-called enclosed-brick system.
Inside a free impressive space is created beneath the enormous dome which is 9 metres in diameter. This is the principal diagnostic feature of the octagonal type of church to which it belongs. The huge vault with its circular tympanum, which has 16 sides externally and 16 windows, is supported at 8 points which are formed by the four pointed arches of the roof and the four squinches at the corners. The bilobe and trilobe openings on the inside walls and the many large windows on the external ones with their numerous panes of Byzantine type and carved surrounds impart a lightness to the building and perceptibly reduce its mass internally and externally. Almost until the end of the last century the exonarthex also existed on the west side of the church to which it had been added during the 12th century.
However, that which endows the church of Hosios Loukas with its especial significance is its decoration, that is the mosaics and wall-paintings.
On the upper parts of the walls, in the arches, the cross-vaults etc. there are mosaics. In the side-chapels, the dome and Gynaikonites there are wall-paintings. On the other surfaces of the walls there is a dado of large marble slabs of various hues.
The arrangement of the subjects in the different sections of the church follows the order which prevailed during the 11th century.
As the visitor enters the west portal he faces on the arched tympanum the severe but serene figure of Christ who, with the open Gospel, preaches that he is the light of the world. In the four triangles above Christ are depicted: the Virgin (Panaghia), John the Baptist and two Archangels (ill. 9). Opposite Christ are 5 martyrs: A- nembodistos, Pegasios, Akindynos, Aphthonios and Elpidophoros (ill. 16).
In the four triangles of the north cross-vault are depicted the doctor saints: Kosmas, Damianos, Kyros and Ioannes, the Aghioi Anargyroi.
On the east tympanum is the Crucifixion (ill. 14), on the north the Nipter (ill. 18) (Washing of the Feet) and on the west six saints: Eirene, Aikaterine, Barbara, Euphemia, Marina and Jouliane.
The Crucifixion is simple but dramatic (ill. 14). It constitutes the only example in mosaic of the type which was devised at the end of the 9th or beginning of the 10th century. That is only the 3 main characters of the drama: Christ, the Virgin and John.
The scene “behind barred doors” is the Pselaphesis, the Doubting of Thomas. On the arches which separate the three cross vaults of the narthex are depicted the 12 Apostles. Eight of them are full figures: Peter, Paul, Andrew, Matthew, Luke, John the Theologian, Thomas and Philip, the other 4 are in medallions: Mark, Simon, James and Bartholomew (ill. 17).
Therefore, in the narthex we have four scenes from the Gospels and 43 separate figures.
Naos and Iero
They are very few, only 5, and here also they are scenes from the Gospels. The Annunciation (Evangelismos) in the NE squinch beneath the tympanum of the dome, nowadays destroyed, the Nativity in the SE (ill. 25) squinch, the Presentation (Ypapantes) in the NW (ill. 28), the Baptism in the SW (ill. 26) and Pentecost in the low small dome above the Bema. The Nativity of Christ has here acquired its final format.
All the persons and all the elements are present: the Virgin, the infant Christ in the manger, the 2 animals, on the right the scene of the bath with the 2 women, 4 shepherds with their flocks, the 2 angels, Joseph sitting on the left, the 3 Magi and a further 3 angels higher up. A symmetrical scene with movement and colourful harmony. The scene of the Presentation is simpler. Simon beneath the Canopy (Kiborion) his hands covered out of respect, prepares to take Christ from the Virgin while Joseph, on the right, with the pair of doves and Anna, on the left, follow the scene with affection.
Equally symmetrical is the Baptism of Christ. One should notice how the artist has covered the naked body of the Lord with wavy lines. The old man in the bottom right is the personification of the River Jordan.
Pentecost, above the Iero is, unfortunately, partially destroyed.
In the middle of the golden vault the “preparation of the throne” is depicted. That is an empty throne with the Gospel which symbolises Christ’s Second Coming. The groups of “races”, “tongues” et al., those who gathered in Jerusalem during Pentecost, are considerably damaged.
In the quarter domes of the apse of the Iero is depicted the Virgin (Platytera) enthroned within a vast golden Heaven with the infant Christ on her knees (ill. 27).
In the small quarter domes beneath the squinches are depicted the bishops (Hierarches): Basil the Great, Ioannes Chrysostomos (ill. 38), Nikolaos of Myra (ill. 37) and Gregorios the Miracle- worker.
In the Diakonikon, to the right of the Holy Bema, 2 interesting representations are preserved: Daniel in the Lions’ (ill. 35) Den and the Three Children in the Furnace (ill. 36). Both are symbolic of the Passion, Burial and Resurrection of Christ.
The Saints, hosioi, martyrs and bishops etc. which are portrayed entire or as busts in medallions on all surfaces of the upper structure are estimated at 150. The monks and soldier-saints outnumber them. This is due to the fact that during the period when the church was decorated the Byzantine Empire was involved in many struggles against its enemies.
The decoration of the interior of this great church is completed, as we have said, by wall-paintings which cover the side-chapels, Gynaikonites and dome.
The wall-paintings in the SW side-chapel are of interest. They show 10 busts of saints in medallions, 7 full figures, the Hand of God blessing, the Virgin and child of the Odegetria type and Christ in discussion with John the Baptist just before the Baptism.
The wall-paintings depict: The Pantocrator in the low vault, the Transfiguration (Metamorphosis) on the east wall, the Assumption of Prophetes Elias (Analepsis) on the west wall and, just below Christ as Emmanuel, the Archangels Michael and Gabriel and 20 saints, busts or full figures, with Hosios Loukas, founder of the monastery. Very few wall-paintings have survived in the NE side-chapel, that is the long narrow area which connects the two churches. The sick passed through here in order to pay homage at the Reliquary of the Hosios which is below the Kiborion. On its westernmost edge are depicted the Virgin and child, Aghios Kyriakos, Aghios Nikolaos, Hosios Loukas on the west wall above the reliquary and once again on the south wall with the Abbot Philotheos who is offering him a replica of the church.
These mosaics were destroyed by the earthquake of 1593 A.D. and because mosaics are expensive to make, the dome was embellished with wall-paintings shortly after 1593 A.D. These imitated the mosaics and the immense curvature of the dome was painted gold. So, in the past, many who saw the gold background from below thought that the mosaics had survived even until 1820.
The Pantocrator seems to be enormous within the sphere which is 3.92 metres in diameter in a straight line. The Gospel he holds is 1.10 metres high. His expression is not severe as in others created in the 11th-12th century but benevolent. In the lower zone which is 2.50 metres high are portrayed: the Virgin, John the Baptist with wings and 4 Archangels – Generals of the Heavenly Powers, each one is 2.54 metres high. In the third zone further down, which is 2.54 metres high, the 16 Prophets are illustrated between the 16 windows: the 4 “Major” and 12 “Minor” ones. They are the ones who prepare mankind for the Advent of Christ (ill. 24).
Until their theft in 1980 there were four icons on the templo (iconostasis) by the 16th century Cretan painter Michael Damaski- nos. 1. Christ Pantocrator, 2. Virgin and Child (“Hope of All”), 3. St. John the Baptist, 4. St. Luke “of Steirios in Greece”.
The large church just described was built by the Abbot Philotheos and is joined to the antecedent church of Panaghia at its SW corner. So the wall-painting of Joshua of Nave, to the left of the Kiborion and Reliquary of Hosios Loukas belongs to the painted decoration of the church of Panaghia which was originally on the inner face of the west wall which was free and visible before the second church was built.
The Church of Panaghia
Building began whilst Hosios Loukas was still alive (946 A.D.) with economic support from General Krenites who was stationed in Thebes. It was completed, however, two years after his death in 955 A.D. Therefore, it is the church of Aghia Barbara which, after the completion of the great church of Hosios Loukas, was dedicated to the Virgin. It belongs to the composite four-columned cruciform church with dome. The south cross-vault of the exonarthex was incorporated in the large church of Hosios Loukas.
Only the wall-paintings in the right arched passage of the Iero have survived: Aghios Ignatios о Theophoros and Aghios Polykarpos; on the north half of the arch of the Diakonikon, Aghios Charalambos, Aghios Leon о Katanes and Aghios Sophronios.
The marble inlays in the floor are particularly interesting.
The exterior of the Panaghia church is one of the finest examples of Byzantine erchitecture with elaborate ornamental brick work (ceramoplastic decoration)
The Crypt beneath the church of Hosios Loukas was constructed first in order to protect the original tomb of the Hosios and subsequently constituted a strong base for the great church. It is cruciform with 4 corner compartments and Sanctuary apse with marble templo.
The wall-paintings which have been cleaned recently exhibit especial interest. The themes are as follows: 11 scenes from the Gospels, 12 Apostles and 28 Saints and Hosioi in the cross-vaults of the roof, 1 group of monks-abbots on the left of the entrance, 2 busts of Christ and Hosios Loukas twice. The scenes on the jambs of the arch of the entrance are of interest: on the right Hosios Loukas blesses with his right hand and holds a rotulus in his left one on which would have been written the orders of the canon for the life of the monks, in the middle is Christ who blesses with both hands and on the left a group of 18 – 20 monks. The three in the front row, full figures, with reverent faces are Philotheos, founder of the great church and the new tomb of the Hosios and his fellow hermits Athanasios and Theodosios.
The Refectory to the south of the large church has been restored in the last few years. It had been damaged by bombardment in 1943.
It is two-storeyed. The monks ate in the upper one. During restoration works the following wall-paintings were revealed: the Virgin and infant Christ, Hosios Loukas, the sacrifice of Abraham and an imperial figure which, according to the monks, was the Emperor Romanos II.
To the south of the Refectory the ruins of the hospital, which was built in the 17th century, have been revealed.