27 August 2019
Varlaam and Rousanou,
two monasteries perched
on the pinnacles of Meteora
I spent much of Sunday visiting the unique monasteries of Meteora in central Greece. Once there were 24 monasteries in this area, but only six of the original 24 function as monasteries today.
In the Orthodox world, these monasteries are second in importance only to Mount Athos. But they differ in many ways from the monasteries of Mount Athos. Visitors need no permits issued in advance, women as well as men are welcome as visitors, and all the monasteries display notices outside advising when they are open and when the Divine Liturgy is served.
The monasteries stand precariously on top of immense natural pillars and hill-like rounded boulders that dominate the area. But, because of their openness and their reputation for hospitality and welcome, I was not surprised on Sunday to find that many of the visitors were Russian and Romanian tourists, who seemed to find pilgrimage and tourism a quite relaxed combination.
The Monastery of Great Meteoron is the largest of the monasteries at Meteora, although only three monks live there. It was founded in the mid-14th century and was restored and embellished in 1483 and again in 1552.
The Katholikon or main church Great Meteoron is consecrated in honour of the Transfiguration of Christ. It was was built in the mid-14th century and 1387-1388 and decorated in 1483 and 1552. One building serves as the main museum for tourists.
However, the first monastery I visited on Sunday was the Monastery of Varlaam, which is the second largest monastery in the Meteora complex. Today, seven monks live here and it has the largest number of monks among the men’s monasteries.
Theophanes built the monastery of Varlaam was built by Theophanes in 1517, which was reputed to house the finger of Saint John and the shoulder blade of Saint Andrew.
The main church or katholikon in Varlaam is dedicated to All Saints. It is built in the Athonite style, in the shape of a cross-in-square with a dome and choirs, and spacious exonarthex is surrounded by a dome.
The church was built in 1541-1542 and decorated in 1548, while the exonarthex was decorated in 1566. The old refectory is used as a museum while north of the church is the parekklesion of the Three Hierarchs, built in 1627 and decorated in 1637.
My second monastery to visit on Sunday was the Holy Monastery of Rousanou or Saint Barbara. This was founded in the mid-16th century and was decorated in 1560.
The monastery went into decline after World War II, and was eventually abandoned. But a community of women were invited to move into Rousanou, and today, it is a flourishing nunnery with a community of 13 nuns living there.
I had expected to visit the Holy Monastery of Saint Stephen, but our plans were changed. This monastery has a small church that was built in the 16th century and decorated in 1545. This monastery is unusual because it stands on the plain rather than on a cliff.
The monastery was shelled by the Nazis during World War II, who claimed it was harbouring Greek resistance fighter. It was abandoned after World War II. The monastery was given over to nuns in 1961 and they have rebuilt it, so that today it is a flourishing nunnery, with 28 nuns living there.
As we drove around Meteora, we also saw the two other monasteries that have survived into the 21st century.
The Monastery of the Holy Trinity was built on top of the cliffs in 1475 and was remodelled in 1684, 1689, 1692 and again in 1741. There were four monks living in this monastery today.
The Monastery of Saint Nicholas Anapausas was built in the 16th century. It has a small church that was decorated in 1527 by the noted Cretan painter, Theophanis Strelitzas. Today, there is only one monk living in this monastery.
But more about Meteora and its monasteries at a later date … perhaps in a feature in an edition of the Church Review before the end of the year.