01 May 2021

Praying in Lent and Easter 2021:
74, Monastery of Arkadi, Crete

The Monastery of Arkadi has a special place in the heart of all Cretans (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During the Season of Easter this year, I am continuing my theme from Lent, taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship that has been significant in my spiritual life;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

This week is Holy Week in the Orthodox Church, tomorrow (2 May) is Easter Day, and this year also (2021) marks the 200th anniversary of Greek War of Independence. My photographs this morning (1 May 2021) are from the Monastery of Arkadia in Crete, which is closely identified by people in Crete with the struggle for Greek Independence.

Arkadi stands on a fertile plateau in the foothills of Psilorítis, 23 km south-east of Rethymnon. I regularly visit this monastery when I am staying in Rethymnon, and it is a pleasant journey from Platanes up through the bright mountain villages of Adele, Pigi, Loutra, Pigi and Kirianna, taking about half an hour through olive groves and vineyards, and along the side of the Arkadi Gorge.

The main church or katholikon dates back to the 16th century but shows Roman, Venetian, Renaissance and Baroque elements in its architecture. This church is unusual with its two aisles, and is dedicated to both the Transfiguration and to Saint Constantine and Saint Helen.

Since the 16th century, the monastery has been a centre for the sciences, art and learning. The church was built in 1587, replacing a smaller church dating from the 13th century. The façade, which was designed in renaissance style, was influenced by the work of the architects Sebastiano Serlio and Andrea Palladio.

The monastery has a special place in the heart of all Cretans because of its role in the Cretan resistance against Ottoman rule. During the Cretan revolt in 1866, 943 Greek people, mostly women and children, sought refuge in the besieged monastery. After a three-day battle, they blew up barrels of gunpowder, choosing to death rather than surrender.

Today there only three monks living in the monastery. But despite the constant arrival of tourists and visitors and the dwindling number of monks, this remains a working monastery.

A new museum opened in Arkadi in 2016. Although most visitors want to see display items that tell the story of the horrific events over a century and a half ago, the museum includes books from the monastery library, icons, the liturgical items, vestments, stoles, patens, chalices and crosses.

Most of the items come from smaller monastic houses (metochia) and chapels that were once dependencies of Arkadi. They date from 1629 to the mid-19th century, and the earliest are fine examples of the Late Cretan School.

Arkadi once had a rich monastic library, but only a fragment of this collection have survived. Some of the volumes on display have elaborate covers, and many were produced on printing presses in Venice, which shows how the connection between Crete and Venice continued long after the Ottoman Turks captured Crete in the 17th century.

Embroidered inscriptions on the liturgical vestments include the names of abbots, priests and deacons. They show an interesting mixture of western and eastern traditions: the monks used purple silk textiles as the background for Byzantine-style flat embroidery and western-style relief embroidery created with gold and silver wire and thread and gold or silver-wrapped cord. The iconography followed the Byzantine tradition, while the decorative motifs and details were inspired by western art.

The new museum is housed on the ground floor of the south-west wing of the monastery. This is one of the oldest parts of the monastery buildings, and was originally used for storing wine and olive oil.

Arkadi once featured on the Greek 100 Drachmai banknote, and the monastery’s image has been restored to popular currency with the issue of 750,000 new €2 coins in Greece in 2016 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the destruction of Arkadi in 1866.

One side of the coin shows the monastery with inscriptions bearing its name and the name of Greece in Greek, along with the monogram of the artist George Stamatopoulos.

The journey back down from Arkadi has taken me through the villages of Roupes and Nea Magnisia, which takes its name from the classical Greek city near Ephesus in western Anatolia. The village was founded by Greek-speaking refugees, expelled from present-day Manisa, about 65 km north-east of Smyrna in Turkey in the 1920s – a reminder that the conflicts that almost destroyed Arkadia in 1866 continued for decades after.

The main church in Arkadi is unusual for its double-aisled interior (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 14: 1-14 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said,] 1 ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ 5 Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ 6 Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

8 Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ 9 Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.’

In the monastic cloisters in Arkadi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (1 May 2021, Saint Philip and Saint James) invites us to pray:

Let us give thanks for the life and works of the apostles Philip and James.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Skulls in the ossuary in Arkadi Monastery from a battle in 1866 during the Turkish occupation of Crete, when hundreds of people died (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The garden in the cloisters in Arkadi Monastery in the mountains above Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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