Monks, Monasteries and Motorbikes in May
A very happy Memorial Day Weekend to all of you state side. I hope there were sunny skies, BBQs, friends and family in your world.
A few of you have asked about more photos, beyond the handful that wind up in these posts. Your best bet for that is our Instagram account. I don't post a ton there, but I try to put up a few of the most interesting ones every week or so.
Our Greek Odyssey continues through the Aegean Sea. We are ferry hopping our way in a lazy, crisscross fashion from Santorini to Naxos, Koufonisia, Amorgos, Paros, Sifnos, Milos and Serifos. Each island is uniquely charming and full of beautiful sand beaches, crystal blue Mediterranean waters, cozy tavernas and incredible views from our hotels and dining tables. And cats. The living is easy as well as affordable. If it sounds like something you might be interested in doing yourself someday, check out the Cyclades Travel Guide over at the Ramble On Adventure Institute for more on the particulars.
Yesterday, we started with a full Greek Breakfast. I had the #8 at my favorite café in Katapola on the island of Amorgos. The #8 at The Mythos Cafe is a cappuccino, fresh orange juice, a basket of bread with butter, jam and honey, a ham and cheese omelet, and a large dish of Greek yogurt with nuts, fruit, Muesli, and more honey. My days are active and demanding. I don’t want to run short of fuel.
To wit: after breakfast we rented a small scooter for 10 Euro. The wheels were the size of dinner plates, so it was a little bit difficult to navigate the narrow, guardrail-less, hairpin corners on this vertiginous island. You couldn’t exactly lean into the turns.
But somehow, with a white knuckled former head-injury therapist on the rear of the motorbike, we ascended over 2000 feet from the harbor to the top of the island, and then right back down another 2000 to the other side and the Holy Monastery of Panagia Hozoviotissa.
Greece is renowned for the remoteness of some of its religious edifices. There may have been a safety reason to shield them from easy attack by pirates or invaders, but I also suspect that the Greek Orthodox Church felt that every religious visitation should involve at least a little bit of pilgrim-like hardship; as in walking up 500 steps in the hot sun or something. Pangia Hozoviotissa is built right into an imposing cliff with nearly vertical drops to the Aegean 1000’ below. It was built between the 9th and 12th centuries and was once home to 40 monks. There are now 3 remaining.
We slowly climbed up the stone steps from the tiny car park, past Byzantine artwork and small chapels, to the monastery proper. Before we could enter, we had to cover our legs so as not to offend God with our nakedness. Old skirts and trousers were draped on a fence in the tiny courtyard for this purpose.
Unsurprising to my wife, I managed to put on a skirt that I took to be loose fitting monk’s habit or some such thing. My spouse found this amusing, as she so often does.
Despite the imposing size of the structure from below, once inside you realize how incredibly narrow it is as it only extends about a dozen feet out from the cliff face. It’s also very low since monks rarely topped 4’10” in the 9th century, so you have to duck to get into every room if you are very tall, as I am.
Because it is a monastery, a big part of their calling is to safeguard their sacred religious relic (The Icon of Panagia in this case) and welcome the pilgrims who come from afar to see it and worship. We had come from America. By scooter. As such, we were given water and some extremely unappetizing jelly-candy like thing, which Lori ate and I did not, being still sated from the #8.
In this small room I was fascinated to see the images of all the abbotts throughout the centuries. The images began as beautiful hand drawn portraits and then evolved to black and white and ultimately color photographs.
Upstairs was the main chapel which housed the relic and a good deal of incredible Byzantine art from the period of the monastery’s founding.
While it is undeniably beautiful, the artists at the time portrayed people without any degree of realism. Bodies and necks were abnormally long in relation to heads. And Baby Jesus always looked like a 45-year old man, but baby size.
Incredibly, a mere 50 sea miles away, on the island of Milos, The Venus De Milo lay hidden. It would not be found for another 1000 years hence, yet it was already 1000 years old by the time the Byzantine art was being created for the monastery in the 9th century.
How did art evolve from such incredible realism to such “flat” unrealism? Some have speculated that the artistic study of true human form was simply lost to Northern Europeans after the Fall of Rome, and it was not rediscovered until the Crusades came to Constantinople, where the great libraries of Ancient Rome revealed their secrets and sparked The Renaissance.
Others suggest that artists of the Middle Ages certainly were capable of such realism, but the strict religious doctrine of the time insisted on depicting religious subjects and themes as other worldly. They should not resemble anything you would see during your mortal life. And certainly, they should not have even a hint of sexuality or desire – so bodies were flat and draped in heavy clothing.
In fairness, it was a pretty serious time the Middle Ages; what with the object lesson of the Fall of Rome (pride goeth before the fall), the Plague, and all of the mud.
But enough art history. If you want to know more about beaches, Greek food, ferries, and cats – please check out the Sailing in the Cyclades Guide.