11 July 2017

A morning in Arkadi Monastery,
Crete’s national monument

The Monastery of Arkadi in the morning sunshine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Each year, during my visits to Greece, I spend some of my time in a monastery. At the end of this holiday, I spent this morning [11 July 2017] in the Monastery of Arkadi, which stands on a fertile plateau in the foothills of Psilorítis, 23 km south-east of Rethymnon.

It was a pleasant early morning journey from Platanes up through the bright and welcoming 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 in Arkadi is unusual for its double-aisled interior (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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.

Inside the new museum in Arkadi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

I have been in Arkadi many times before, and 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.

This morning I wanted to see the new museum, which opened in Arkadi last year. Although most of the visitors today wanted to see display items that tell the story of the horrific events over a century and a half ago, I was interested in the surviving books from the monastery library, the collection of icons, and the liturgical items, vestments, stoles, patens, chalices and crosses.

An icon of Saint John Chrysostom in the new museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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.

Saint Matthew’s Gospel … printed in Venice in 1833 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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.

Episcopal robes on display in the new museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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 last November to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the destruction of Arkadi in November 1866.

One side of the new 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.

Previous Greek commemorative €2 coins celebrated the marathon winner Spyros Louis, Greece’s 150th anniversary of the Union of the Ionian Islands and the 400th anniversary of the death of El Greco.

We came down from Arkadi this afternoon 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.

We were soon at Stavromenos, and travelled west along the old coast road back to Platanes.

In the monastic cloisters in Arkadi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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