06 May 2012

A refreshing monastic retreat on ‘the balcony of Thessaloniki’

The cloisters at Vlatádon ... a quiet and undisturbed corner in the hills above Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

High in the hills above Thessaloniki, standing on the site of the acropolis of the ancient Greek city and on a rocky, sloping outcrop where the Apostle Paul first preached to the Thessalonian people, is the “Holy Royal Patriarchal and Stravropegic Monastery of the Vlatades,” better known to everyone in Greece as Vlatádon.

Of all places in Thessaloniki, this is my favourite, with its cool, shaded courtyard, its breathtaking views, its beautiful churches and cloisters, its open hospitality and its reputation for scholarship and learning, particularly in the field of Patristic studies or the writings of the early Fathers of the Church.

The main church in Vlatádon is said to the stand on the site where the Apostle Paul preached (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The monastery stands on a rocky slope, sometimes with apparently precarious balance. The modern city of Thessaloniki spreads below like a horseshoe curving around the Gulf of Thermaikos. The climb up is through narrow streets, cobbled alleyways, steep steps and laneways with overhanging Ottoman balconies. In the distance, on a sunny day, you can see as far as Mount Olympus. It is no wonder that this place is often called the “Balcony of Thessaloniki.”

The climb up to Vlatádon gives breath-taking views over the city of Thessaloniki and out to the Thermaic Gulf (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Constant and continuous witness

Vlatádon is the only monastery in Thessaloniki with a continuous life from its foundation – around the year 1351 – until today. It has been a constant and continuous Christian witness in this region for over 650 years, reaching out in mission through the religious, spiritual, scholarly and social life of the monastic community, which has made an impact at an international level too.

‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone’ ... a cross cut into a cornerstone in the main church in Vlatádon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The monastery has survived the Ottoman occupation of Thessaloniki from 1430, the Greek war of independence in the 1820s, the wars that led to the incorporation of Thessaloniki into the modern Greek state in 1912, two world wars, successive fires and earthquakes that levelled much of the city in the last century, military coups, invasions and the current political and economic woes in Greece.

Over those centuries, Vlatádon has been caught between decline and prosperity, and has often damaged severely by fires. But its monastic life continued without interruption.

Byzantine imperial links

Vlatádon also hosts the Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, founded in 1965 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The monastery stands on Acropolis Street, by the gate to the ancient Acropolis of Thessaloniki and close to a tower built by the Palaiologos imperial family of Byzantium. In Byzantine times, there was a quarry on this site, so that Ossios David, a neighbouring monastery a little down the hill, is known affectionately to this day as ‘The Quarrier.’

The monastery bells calling the monks to prayer throughout the day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This is the site of the original water supply system for the city below, and two early water tanks can still be seen in the grounds, close to the katholikón or main church in the monastery. Tradition says the Apostle Paul preached on this site when he visited the city on his second missionary journey during the year 51 AD. These people received two of his epistles (1 and 2 Thessalonians), although Christianity did not take root in the city until the late third or early fourth century, before the martyrdom of the city’s patron, Saint Dimitrios, in the year 303.

In that same year, the Emperor Galerius built his triumphal arch in Thessaloniki to commemorate yet another Greek defeat of the Persian Empire. But the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Early Church, as Tertullian wrote, and the persecuted citizens of the Eastern Roman Empire eventually became the majority in this elegant city that served at times as the second city of Byzantium.

Modern buildings

Despite its ancient appearance, Vlatádon is a relatively modern monastery by Byzantine standards. It was probably established in 1351, 13 centuries after Saint Paul’s visits and just 80 years before Thessaloniki fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1430.

Saint Paul preaching in Thessaloniki ... a fresco in the Cathedral Church of Saint Gregory Palamas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The founders of the monastery were two brothers and monks, Dorotheos and Markos, who had the family name Vlatis or Vlattis. An inscription in the wall above the lintel of the katholikón says the monastery was established “by the founders Vlateon, men of Crete.” However, the inscription dates only from 1801, and most sources say these brother monks did not come from Crete but were born in Thessaloniki and grew up in the city.

They were firm friends of Saint Gregory Palamas by the time he had become Archbishop of Thessaloniki in 1347. Dorotheos and Markos accompanied the saintly prelate when he was called to Constantinople to explain to the Emperor and the Ecumenical Patriarch his theological views about what is now known as the “Hesychast Controversy.”

The shrine of Saint Gregory Palamas in the Metropolitan Cathedral Church in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Dorotheos returned with Saint Gregory to live in Thessaloniki around 1350, while Markos left Constantinople for the monastic mountain of Mount Athos, where he became a monk in the Monastery of the Great Lavra.

Then in 1351, the brothers founded their monastery in the hills looking over Thessaloniki, and dedicated it to Christ the Pantokrator and to the Transfiguration of Christ, important images of Christ for those who agreed with Saint Gregory Palamas in the hesychast controversy and his defining concepts of the uncreated light of God.

Patriarchal protection

The White Tower is a symbol of Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The new monastery was supported by the widowed Empress Anna Palaiologos, who retired to Thessaloniki in 1351 and gave the monastery its royal status. When the Patriarch Neilos placed his patriarchal cross here, he gave the monastery its “stavropegic” status, placing it directly under the authority and protection of the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Saint Gregory Palamas died in 1359, and the co-founder of Vlatádon, Saint Dorotheos, eventually succeeded him as Metropolitan or Archbishop of Thessaloniki (1371-1376).

The Turks first occupied Thessaloniki in 1387-1403 and set up a garrison in the old city or acropolis. A unit of Turkish troops was billeted in Vlatádon and the main church was sequestered as a mosque for the citadel garrison. A niche facing Mecca was hollowed out in the centre of the sanctuary, and the interior walls were hammered roughly and plastered over, destroying the original Byzantine frescoes and icons. However, the monastic community remained together, and the “royal,” “patriarchal” and “stravropegic” statuses were reaffirmed in 1401, saving the monastery for future generations.

When the Ottoman Turks returned and captured the city for a second and more lasting time in 1430, Vlatádon was left unmolested and continued to work as a monastery through the generations that followed.

When the newly-arrived Turks made a mosque of the cathedral or metropolitan Church of Aghia Sophia in Thessaloniki – modelled on the great church in Constantinople – the relics of Saint Gregory Palamas were transferred for safekeeping to the monastery founded by his friends. Later, when a new cathedral was built and named after the city’s two great patrons, Saint Dimitrios and Saint Gregory, the relics were moved there from Vlatádon.

Recovery and restructure

The old and the new come together in harmony in Vlatádon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the past, Vlatádon had a number of dependent churches and convents in Thessaloniki and the surrounding area, including the Church of Saint Nicholas Orphanos, the Church of the Mother of God Laodigítria (“Guide of the People”) and the Church of Saint Athanasios in central Thessaloniki. Saint Athanasios, which was associated with the monastery from at least the 15th century, once included a complex with a wine shop, a bakery, and candle-makers’ and coppersmiths’ workshops.

Vlatádon once had a number of dependent churches and convents in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Over time, with the support of successive Patriarchs in Constantinople, the monks of Vlatádon tried to recover and to restructure their possessions and property throughout Thessaloniki. But their moves were hampered when Vlatádon lost its sovereignty briefly and was made subject to the Monastery of Ivrion on Mount Athos for 15 years. As the Ottoman rulers tightened their grip, the monastery came under the increasing influence of lay figures. The decay continued until the Patriarchate eventually intervened, ordering the restoration of canonical order and the regular election of abbots.

Despite this intervention, the first newly-elected abbot, Nieforos Demetriades, found it impossible to recover monastic property in Thessaloniki, including the Church of Saint Athanasios. Much of the monastery – apart from the central church – was destroyed by a fire in 1869, a year before his death.

His successor, Abbot Kallinikos Theoloides (1870-1892), saw the income from monastic landholdings transferred by the Patriarch to the Theological School in Halki. By then, the monastery buildings were in decay and in urgent need of repair. Yet another fire caused further damage in 1896 during the time of the next abbot, Abbot Kallinikos Georgiades (1892-1923).

Thessaloniki was liberated in 1912 and incorporated in the modern Greek state, bringing new hope to the monks of Vlatádon, and new housing for the abbot and new chapels were built. However, as Greek-speaking refugees poured in from Anatolia, monastic lands were appropriated for housing homeless and landless people. The monastery lands eventually shrank down to three acres as the surrounding area in Ano Polis, the old city, and the monastic lands in nearby Kalamariá, near Thessaloniki, appropriated by Ottoman refugees from 1892 onwards, and then by Greek refugees fleeing Anatolia and the Asia Minor catastrophe from 1922 on.

Monastic treasures

A sign pointing to the abbot’s quarters, built by Abbot Ioakeim in 1926 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Abbot Ioakeim of Ivrion (1923-1940) built a new chapel, a new sacristy, new quarters for the abbot and other new buildings. In the mid-20th century, the monastery became a meeting place for scholars and academics, and the Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies was formed in 1965 as a centre for scholarly research.

The building housing the new museum, sacristy, reception hall and bookshop was completed twenty years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The institute organises annual conferences on the history of Byzantine Thessaloniki, and publishes the periodical Klernomia and the series Analekta Vlatádon. The institute works closely with the Aristotelean University of Thessaloniki and is involved cataloguing the manuscripts of the monasteries on Mount Athos.

Following a devastating earthquake in Thessaloniki in 1978, restoration and conservation work uncovered hidden frescoes from the final phase of the Palaiologan era.

The hostel was built for theology students studying at Patristic Institute and the University of Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The treasures in the monastery’s sacristy and museum include relics of Saint Gregory the Theologian (Saint Gregory of Nazianzus), what are said to be relics of the cups used at the Last Supper, including “the goblet from which Christ drank,” and icons over 600 years old.

The library holds over 500 ancient books, almost 100 codices, and ancient manuscripts, including 10th-12th century copies of works by Saint John of Damascus, Saint John Chrysostom and an early copy of The Ladder of Divine Ascent by Saint John Klimakos.

The peacocks in Vlatádon ... bred by the monks as a sign of the Resurrection (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The monastery courtyard is known for its friendly peacocks, bred by the monks because the peacock was seen as in classical and Byzantine times as a symbol of the resurrection. In recent years, Vlatádon has been renovated and expanded, and has lost much of its old feeling. But the charming, inner, tree-shaded courtyard is a cool and refreshing place to rest and contemplate, and to think on things eternal. I left the monastery encouraged by Saint Paul’s words to the early Christians in this city: “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we feel before God our Father because of you?” (I Thessalonians 3: 9).

Sunset on the Gulf of Thermaikos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay was first published in May 2012 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Diocese of Cashel and Ossory).

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