Nov 11, 2010

Meteora Monasteries: The Great Meteoron

The Great Meteoron (a.k.a. Monastery of the Transfiguration of Christ) is the highest, largest and oldest of the six monasteries of the Meteora. Founded in the 14th century by a monk from Mount Athos, the Great Meteoron is still impressive and important today. If there is only time to visit one monastery in the Meteora, this is the one to choose.

The Great Meteoron was established around 1340 by St. Athanasios Meteorites, a scholarly monk from Mount Athos. He ascended the highest pinnacle - legend says he was carried up by an eagle - which he named Megalo Meteoro ("Great Place Suspended in the Air"). He first built a small church and modest lodgings for monks, dedicating them to the Virgin Mary. Later he added a larger church dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ, which became the primary dedication of the monastery.

Athanasios' successor was Saint Iosaph, a Serbian king formerly known as John Uros who abandoned worldly power to become a monk here in c.1373. Over the course of his 40-year life at Great Meteoron, he rebuilt the Church of the Transfiguration (1387-88) and added monastic buildings including monks' cells, a hospital, and a cistern. The Patriarch of Constantinople granted the monastery independence in c.1415, and its leader was officially designated an abbot (hegoumenos) in c.1482.

The Great Meteoron reached its peak in the 16th century, when it received significant imperial and royal donations. The nave and narthex of the Church of the Transfiguration were rebuilt in 1544-45 and the monastic complex was expanded later in the century with a new kitchen, a tower, a home for the aged, a refectory and several chapels. The church was repaired and enlarged after an earthquake in 1544.

Platýs Líthos ("Broad Rock"), the rock on which the Great Meteoron stands, rises over 2,000 feet (615m) above sea level. The original hermitage of St. Athanasios Meteorites, a simple building carved into the rock, can be seen on the left of the staircase leading to the monastery entrance. Within the monastery, a shady courtyard provides a pleasant place to rest after the ascent.

The Church of the Transfiguration consists of the katholikon built by Saint Ioasaph in 1388 and a nave and narthex added in 1544-45. The katholikon has a Greek-cross-in-square floor plan, with a 12-sided central dome resting on a drum. The icons adorning the iconostasis date from the 14th to 16th centuries.

The adjacent kitchen is still blackened with smoke and contains the original bread oven and soup-hearth. The wine cellar, full of wooden wine barrels and other agricultural supplies, can also be visited. For many visitors, one of the most interesting stops outside the church is the sacristy, where skulls and bones of previous residents are neatly stacked on shelves.

In a previous post, I mentioned the Meteora Monasteries. I am devoting a post to each of the six monasteries that are a part of this group in Greece.

If you want a satellite view of the area, click here.

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