The monastery of the Transfiguration

The monastery was founded by St. Athanasius of Meteora, when he and his spiritual father, Gregory, retreated to Meteora in around 1340 AD. The two monks settled at Megalo Meteoro, in a hermitage located to the left of the staircase leading to the monastery entrance. Brother Athanasius’ renown attracted an ever increasing number of monks, leading to the establishment of the first coenobium at Meteora, along the lines of Athonite monasticism.

The second founder was Joasaph, a disciple and successor of Athanasius.  He was the son of Symeon Uroš Palaeologus, despot of Epirus and descendant of the Serbian Nemanjić dynasty, who settled at Megalo Meteoro in 1373. Joasaph collected sizeable donations and fostered a marked increase in building activity, thus lending the monastery considerable prestige.

The monastery became independent and stavropegic in the 16th century under Jeremiah I, Patriarch of Constantinople. From that time on it flourished, especially under brother Simeon, who was the founder of the new catholicon, the refectory and other smaller buildings in the Megalo Meteoro complex.

Over the course of its 600 year history the monastery has been attacked and looted many times: by the Saracens in 1609 and by Arslan Pasha in 1616, while it was extensively damaged by fire in 1633.

The monastery catholicon, the Church of the Transfiguration, is perhaps the most impressive of the Meteroa catholica, and was built in three construction phases. The Church of St. Athanasius belongs to the first phase, and is a typical cross-in-square church, parts of which were incorporated into the masonry of the newer Bema. The triconch cross-in-square church erected by Athanasius’ successor Joasaph dates to the second phase, when rebuilding and expansion work was carried out in 1388. The new catholicon was built during the third construction phase, in 1545. Its cloisonne masonry is finely crafted and, though not bombastic, commands attention.

The wall paintings adorning the interior of the church were likewise completed in three phases. The scene of the Second Coming still visible on the exterior of the north wall belongs to the first phase, shortly after 1388. The paintings from the old catholicon - those on the present day Bema - date to 1483, with the exception of those in the dome and the apse, which come from the third decoration phase, in 1552. The dynamic, detailed, richly coloured decoration in the older catholicon, completed over a period of thirty years, remains true to Byzantine iconography and the composite designs of Palaeologan art, while also being enhanced by secondary iconographic details from western art, notably Italian Late Gothic painting. The entire composition of the old catholicon is attributed to a workshop from Kastoria which was active in the region of Thessaly, Western and Central Macedonia and the wider Balkan Peninsula (Serbia, Bulgaria, Moldova). The sumptuous iconography in the new church is influenced by Athonite models and Palaeologan traditions, with a modicum of fully assimilated loans from Western art. The style and artistic choices made by the anonymous artists attest their close relation to the Cretan School and Theophanes of Crete, who painted the Church of St. Nicholas Anapafsas in 1527, while still a young man. Furthermore, the new catholicon of the Transfiguration was quite possibly the work of the Cretan painter Tzortzis, a pupil of Theophanes, together with members of his workshop.

One remarkable feature of the interior is the carved wooden templon, lavishly decorated in a multitude of themes. The oldest surviving part of this lies over the sanctuary door; it dates back to 1634/5 and is signed “by the hand of Master John”.  However, most of the templon was replaced in 1791, being the work of a certain Constantine from Linotopi and Kostas from Metsovo.

Abbuting the south side of the sanctuary is the Chapel of St John the Baptist, a small domed building dating to the 18th century.

To the southwest of the catholicon lies the chapel of Saints Contantine and Helen, built in 1789 under Abbot Parthenios and financed by Dionysius the monk and his son priest-monk Zachariah.

The monastery refectory, founded by Αbbot Simeon, was built to the north of the church and inaugurated on August 10th 1557. It is a vaulted oblong building ending in a polygonal apse to the east, and divided internally into two aisles by a five columned colonnade. The building presently functions as a museum.

The monastery kitchen was built adjacent to the north side of the refectory. A spacious square room covered by a hemispherical vault and crowned by a small dome, it likewise serves as a museum open to visitors.

The monastery also had a hospital, located opposite the sanctuary of the catholicon. It was founded at  the same time as the nursing home, in 1572. In a previous phase this imposing domed structure stood two storeys high.

Glossary (10)

stavropegic monastery: Monastery that is a direct dependency of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
catholicon: the main church of a monastery. As a rule it was the most imposing one, located in the center of the courtyard
cross-in-square church: type of church where the central dome is supported by four arches covering the extremities of an equilateral cross. Lateral compartments, covered with small domes or barrel vaults, are formed at the four corners of the cross and thus the church forms a cross inscribed in a square or rectangular area. Externally the sign of the cross is also prominent because of this unique way of covering the roof.
bema (chancel or sanctuary): eastern part of the church forming an apse. Usually elevated in relation to the floor of the nave by one to three steps. The term derives from the verb "βαίνω (go)" and is also known as the sanctuary.
triconch: building with three apses.
cloisonne masonry: elaborate church masonry style, in which rectangular stones are framed by one or two plinths (bricks) laid horizontally and vertically in single or double rows within the mortar of joints.
wall paintings or murals: Painted scenes on a wall or ceiling surface.
apse or conch: Semicircular structure at the east end of a basilica. Internally covered by a semidome, while externally with a tiered roof; can be horseshoe shaped, rectangular or polygonal.
altarscreen or templon: screen separating the altar area from the rest of the church. This can be of marble or wood, adorned with wall paintings and icons depicting Christ, the Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist, the saint to whom the church is consecrated, the Apostles and other saints.
colonnade: sequence of columns placed in and around buildings.

Information Texts (1)

The monastery of Agios Nikolaos Anapausas: The Monastery of Agios Nikolaos (St. Nicholas) Anapausas lies on a hill a short distance from the village of Kastraki, and is built on one hundred and forty-three stepped levels. Visitors enter the monastery complex after climbing eighty-five rock-cut steps. Space limitations on the flat summit meant that the monastery had to be built upwards rather than outwards. Access to the main living area is gained via the small narthex in the catholicon; to the right of this, after ascending successive flights of steps, visitors see the refectory, the cells and other areas before reaching the rock plateau at the top, which commands a stunning view. Both the origin of the name, Anapausas, and the date of first habitation on the rock remain unclear. The name is at times attributed to the etymology of the word, from the verb “to rest”, and at times linked in an unsubstantiated way to the name of an original founder. The monastery is believed to have been founded in the 14th century, when the first catholicon was built. Scholars see it as contemporary with the Chapel of Agios Antonios (St. Anthony), where wall paintings dating to the same century still survive. The catholicon as it now stands was built in the early 16th century. It is an irregularly shaped building, tailored to fit the rock plateau: a compacted cross-in square church, with a dome supported by shallow pointed vaults. On the east side of the building is an irregular Bema with a low conch, and on the west a timber-roofed lite with a small niche. According to the inscription painted on the eastern wall of the lite, above the door leading to the nave, the paintings in St. Nicholas Anapafsas were commissioned in 1527 on the initiative of a deacon named Cyprianus, and are attributed to Brother Theophanes Strelitzas Bathas, a Cretan monk. The paintings in Agios Nikolaos are his first large-scale composition, and display consummate skill in dividing up what is a lavish iconographic programme on numerous themes, with individual scenes the size of portable icons. The artist’s gifts are evident in this monument, which further exhibits influences from Palaeologan art: a firm and confident hand; harmonious, balanced scenes free of anecdotal elements; an emphasis on doctrinal content; clarity of composition; soft colors in harmonious combinations; detailed rendition of faces deep in thought, with a profound humanism. The themes are mainly drawn from the Christological cycle, although some subjects previously unknown to monumental art are shown, such as the scene of Adam naming the animals. The paintings in the small church at St. Nicholas Anapafsas not only mark the inception of Theophanes’ career as an artist in mainland Greece, but also stand as the forerunner of the Cretan School, the formal artistic expression of the Orthodox Church during the Ottoman period.

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