THE MONASTERIES OF MYRIOKEFALA AND ROUSTIKA IN CRETE …

AND THEIR CHAPELS

 

by George B. Antourakis

 

Contribution to the study of Christian monuments

Summary

In order to recapitulate all the facts stated at length in both parts of our Thesis we consider it expedient to underscore here only some main points, which we're summarizing in the following eight paragraphs.

A. The territory near the actual political boundaries of Chania and Rethymnon prefectures is the site of the ancient city of “Lappa” or “Lambi”, which since the early Christian years until the 10th century was the See of the bishop of “Lappa” or “Lambi”. After the decline of Lappa and the transfer of the homonymous diocese away from there, three intellectual and artistic centres were gradually developed nearby, Myriokefala, Episkopi of Rethymnon and Roustika (see also the relevant diagrams & maps, p.12, 28, 185-186 etc).

Just after the end of the Arab rule (961) came the time when the Cretan Saint John “the Stranger” who, originated from Sivas in Messara, appears in the area. This scholar Saint must have had extensive knowledge of the history of ancient Lappa, the glorious city-diocese the ruins of which were still well preserved at the time and the historic memory of which must have still been vivid enough. Obviously Saint John had the intention of carrying on the cultural tradition of Lappa through his intensive activity around the once-thriving city and paleochristian diocese, the presence of which is also registered in the Ecumenical Synods. It is noticeable though that the periphery of that See, and especially the surroundings of Myriokefala, was the main area where the Saint focused his thought, his attention and his whole interest, as is proven by his important autobiography Life and Conduct-Testament, written towards the end of his life (1027).

B. The first chapter of the present study was dedicated to the personality and the activity of Saint John “the Stranger”. In that specific chapter we closely examined, based on the above mentioned autobiography and on a long-standing and close research of his tours all the establishments (more than ten) which he left in Crete. The Saint bequeathed these buildings through his Will to the monastery of Myriokefala, which he established as a “Patriarchical Stavropigion” (i.e. as a monastery put under the direct jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople). Ιn the present study we're publishing a representative of the above mentioned Life and Conduct-Testament for the first time (according to a photograph from a codex of the Oxford Bodleian Library: see diagram … 3 and tables).

Saint John “the Stranger” was really a great personality. Realistic perceptive, vigorous, competent and faithful to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. He can also be characterized, among other things, as a votary of Aristotle's, extremely wise, a great luminary, judicious etc. It is not an accidental fact that his activity is mainly focused almost always — around the ancient cities — dioceses of western Crete, such as: Eleftherna-Arion and Lappa-Lambi in Rethymnon, Phoenix, Siia, Kydonia, Kissamos in Chania etc. (see also the cited diagrams-maps). Ιn the vicinity of these old Christian dioceses — which during the Arab rule had fallen into decline — Sain John “the Stranger” regarded as a great obligation of his, or even as a “divine order” addressed to him, to establish (since c. 980 and until 1030) many important edifices (monasteries-churches). As a pragmatic, perceptive and pious “Μan of God”, he thoroughly organized and constantly supervised his beloved establishments. Moreover he entrusted capable collaborators, priests and monks with the continuation of his divine work all over Crete. It is a very characteristic fact that St John was allowing his fellow-workers to take a great deal of initiative and was constantly moving to different places in order to avoid the attention of the people, as it is mentioned in his Life and Conduct-Testament. This means that the Saint knew well of when he had to withdraw, keeping in that way the proper distance of the people, whom he loved tremendously.

C. It is a fact, though, that the cardinal edifice of St. John “the Stranger”, the monastery of Myriokefala, as well as the l7th century glorious monastery of Prophet Elijah in Roustika, were the most significant intellectual, artistic and national luminaries of the area, two centres of intense Byzantine life (during the Venetian and Turkish occupation), two centres of radiation of Byzantine art. Ιn this way, thanks to the presence of the prosperous city-diocese Lambi and the two monasteries mentioned above, the area in question never ceased to be a notable cultural centre since very ancient times up to this day. The “Stavropigian” monasteries of Myriokefala and Roustika in Crete present — since their foundation and up to this day — continuous life. Even today they constitute the most important pilgrimage destinations in the area. The study of these holy monasteries, and their chapels as well, is undertaken here for the first time mainly from a historical, architectural and painting point of view. In that way we believe that the present Thesis makes a considerable contribution to the study of the Christian monuments of Crete and of Greece in general.

In the area around Myriokefala and Roustika a lot of muraled Byzantine churches (dated from the 11th to the 15th century) can be found. The most significant are those located in the villages of: Myriokefala, Argyroupolis, Kournas, Karidi — Maza-Alikampos — Sfakia, Roustika, Zouridi-Artos, Saitoures, Moudros, Malakia, Kato Valsamonero and all the more so in the neighbouring provinces of Apokoronas, Sfakia, Aghios Vasilios (see diagrams 1 and 2). These small churches present an architectural and iconographic resemblance, a fact which leads us to the conclusion that the monasteries of Myriokefala and Roustika were a significant local centre of Byzantine Art, a long time before the appearance of the well-known Cretan “School” of painting. It should also be noted that the most important muraled churches of western Crete are examined in other treatises of ours, which are also included in the present volume (see also the detailed table of contents).

D. The church of the Myriokefala Monastery, which was founded at the end of the l0th or the beginning of the 11th century by Saint John “the Stranger”, is of special importance. It is the longest-standing and the most important monument in the area. It has the shape of a slightly free cross with a dome, while all the subsequent small churches of the area in question are usually covered with a roof in the shape of an arch, built mostly by plain rectangular stones with a strong roughcast without any particular decoration. This constructional style is internationally known by the Greek name of “argolithodomi”. These small churches are architectural monuments of extremely unpropitious circumstances, like, for example, the continuous insurrections of the Cretan people against their conquerors (Venetians and Turks), the feudal system which prevailed at the time, the great economic recession, the intense propaganda of the heterodox, the lack of educated Orthodox clergy etc. Nevertheless their mural paintings are orthodox-byzantine with a pronounced liturgical and theological nature. Despite the poverty of the times, these churches were built by the hard work of devoted people with deep religious life which centered around the church. The Orthodox painters of Holy Icons — usually anonymous monks — were men of humility and spirituality. Since the l3th century we also have iconographers, who were clergymen and at the same time conscious of the fact that their hearts and minds were guided by God's Grace. Their works were the results of faith, prayer and fasting. That is the meaning of the unpretentious phrase “by the hand of … whomever”.

From what has been said so far, the great importance of the Myriokefala Monastery mural paintings in all their successive painting phases (dated between the l0th and the l5th century) becomes self-evident. Hence these mural paintings are the subject of a specific and detailed chapter, which can be enlarged upon as the theme of a special monograph or even a Thesis.

Thus: a) the mural paintings of the first phase (10th- 11th century) are influenced by the dogmatic and artistic trends of the period during the reign of the Greek by origin Macedonian and Komnenian Emperors who were in power (867-1056 & 1081-1185 respectively).

For example, the depictions of the dome — with the enthroned Pantocrator and His escort, consisting of divine powers, the Virgin Mary, figures of the Old Testament — as well as the busts of the Saints, the Evangelists, the Virgin Mary of the apse etc are of extreme importance. b) The anonymous iconographer of the second phase (l2th century) has chosen some excellent painting patterns of both the liturgical (divine Mass, Prelates of the apse) and the historical circle, with an emphasis on the Twelve Feasts and the Passion of Christ. c) Finally, only two worn-out depictions of the third phase (l4th- l5th century) are fairly preserved, the Prayer and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, which are apparently influenced by the Paleologian Art. Unfortunately, of all the buildings founded by Saint John “the Stranger”, only the church of Myriokefala is preserved almost as a whole, as well as its mural paintings. Representative icons — of all three phases — of Myriokefala can be found in the end of the present Thesis' First Part (fig. 24-49).

E. It is also noteworthy that the anonymous iconographers — of all three phases — not only had an exceptional knowledge of the theological (dogmatic, liturgical and historical) importance of their work, but they also had a sufficient artistic culture, which is influenced by the great Byzantine artistic centres of Asia Minor, Constantinople, Sinai, Greek Macedonia etc. Moreover their obvious ability of space plannings enables them to both follow older artistic patterns at some places and create new ones at many others, which is something that grants energy and impulse to their work. Ιn that way they are setting the scene for the appearance or even the domination of a rising artistic style, which in due course (l5th-l6th century and up to this day) would spread in almost every part of the Orthodox East under the well-known name of “Pro-Cretian and Cretian School of Painting”.

On account of the facts mentioned above the great importance of the Byzantine Myriokefala monastery mural paintings is fully evident. It is an unquestionable fact that the monastery of Myriokefala has had an unremitting historical life and a continuous cultural contribution for almost a millennium. This very important monument of Crete is the cradle where the keystones and the distant threshold of the Cretan “School” of Painting can be traced from, as we have asserted on other occasions.

Based, therefore, on that ancient and very important monument of Crete, we are making the somehow audacious assumption about the existence of a “School” named after Saint John “the Stranger” and consisting of him and the persons who carried on his work after the 11th century. Traces of that “School” can be found mainly in the western part of Crete where many anonymous and eponymous iconographers have made their marks, like, for example, Pagomenos, the Venerides family etc. It is a fact that the great Cretan Saint John “the Stranger”, along with his fellow-workers and his successors, is ushering in a new and very long period right after the end of the Arabian rule (961). All the activity of Saint John “the Stranger” can be very well considered as an extremely positive influence to the Byzantine history of Crete. That very prolific period can be also characterized as a “Creto-Byzantine Renaissance”, which surely generated prodigious results in due course (10th-l5th century). The eminent results of that Cretan “Renaissance” are the numerous muraled Byzantine temples in Crete (a reference of which is made in many chapters of the First Part, see table of contexts).

The Cretan iconographers after Saint John “the Stranger” — mostly clergymen, anonymous and eponymous — can definitely be considered as the forerunners of the great theological and artistic movement of devotional Art (l5th-l6th century), which is known under the name of “Cretan School of Painting”. This eminent “School” — originating from the “Creto — Byzantine” tradition initiated by St. John “the Stranger” — has reigned ever since in the Orthodox East, and all the more so after the fateful Fall of Constantinople (1453). As it is very well-known, this “School” has been the cradle of some great iconographers — like: Theofanis, the Damaskinos family, the Astrapa family, the famous Kyriakos or Dominicos Theotokopoulos (widely known as “El Greco”) and so many others- who have contributed the most to the elaboration of the great artistic movement under the name of “Renaissance-Mannerismo” (dated between the l4th and the l6th century). The contribution of St. John “the Stranger” and so many other iconographers is surely of immeasurable importance, not only for the “Cretan School” of Painting, but for the History of Religious Art in general as well.

F. Oddly enough the monasteries of Myriokefala and Roustika are closely related to one another. Thus (since the start of the l7th century) the prosperity of the fιrst one coincides with the simultaneous decline of the second one. That is, the older monastery of Myriokefala (11th century) comes under and is administered by the more recent monastery of Prophet Elijah in Roustika (l7th century). The peak of the Prophet Elijah's monastery in Roustika can be placed during the years of the Venetian and the Turkish rule, although its possible preexistence during the second period of Cretan History (961-1210) cannot be completely excluded. Very characteristic is the fact that the activity and the brilliance of that prosperous Monastery are not only responsible for the decline and the following classification of the Myriokefala monastery under the monastery of Prophet Elijah — which has also been named “Roustikios” —, but also for the ranking under it of four other monuments in Roustika as well, which are also being subjected to research in the present Thesis. It is also notable that two of these monuments, the churches of St. John and Virgin Mary “the Matron”, were monastic churches dependent on the central Monastery of Prophet Elijah. This prosperous monastery has been — after the decline of the Myriokefala monastery — a very important national and intellectual centre of Byzantine tradition and art in that specific area. The reliability of this statement is verified not only by documents which are kept in the monastery, but also by the large number of byzantine churches around Roustika as well, as it has already been mentioned above.

Unquestionably the three muraled byzantine churches of Roustika, that is, the churches of the Virgin Mary, St. Photini and St. Antonios are very important while the churches of St. John and Virgin Mary “the Matron” are of limited artistic significance, owing to the fact that both have been left without any wall paintings. The first three churches can be dated between the 11th and the 13th century, while the last two can be chronologically placed between the l6th and the l7th century. These five churches are all being closely examined — for the first time — in the Second Part of our study, due to the fact that they are related — directly or indirectly — to the central monastery of Prophet Elijah in Roustika. Thus the originality of the Second Part of our Thesis is evident as well. Our Thesis examines thus a lot of Cretan monasteries, Byzantine and Post-Byzantine (dated between the 10th and the l7th century) and successfully places them among the unified Christian and Byzantine Art (fig. 1-43).

G. Among all the chapels at the Roustika region, the dilapidated churches of St. Photini and St.Antonios are particularly important. These two churches maintain only tτaces of mural paintings, such as: frontal Saints-Hierarchs of large build, auras of Saints, traces of colours on the preserved walls etc. The whole style and the technique of these worn-out figures present significant similarities to the first phase of the mural paintings in the churches of Myriokefala (11th century). It is a fact, though, that the churches in , question are among the most ancient and the most important monuments in the area from an iconographic as well as an architectural point of view, and can be chronologically placed in the 10th or the 11th century.

We should very much like to underline once again the great architectural importance of the twin-apsed St. Antonios church in Roustika, which is one of the rare samples of its kind (single-spaced with two apses over the Sanctuary) in Crete, where almost all the orders of Paleochristian, Byzantine and Post-Byzantine architecture can be found. The single-spaced, twin-apsed church in question probably belongs to an order of non-Cretan but Eastern origin. As it is widely known, this order emerged during the 9th century (or even before that time). Thus, St. Antonios in Roustika is not related to the Venetian occupation of the island, since the church precedes it by far (10th-11th century). It was obviously influenced by Asia Minor (after the 9th century). Nevertheless it is not possible to rule out the assumption that the church may be either of Paleochristian influence or local-Cretan constructional inspiration and use. That is the church must have been contrived to solve urgent liturgical needs of the area. This church — consecrated only to one Saint and placed near the old cemetery of Roustika — must have been used in the old days for mortuary purposes (burial and memorial services).

Thus, one of its apses — in which the Altar is placed — must have been the Sanctuary of the church, where Holy Communion must have taken place. The second of its apses — the one without an altar — was probably used for burial and memorial services. The antiquated temple in Roustika — despite its interpretative difficulties — is surely the most important Christian monument in the area, mostly because of the rarity of its use and all the more so because of its specific architectural style order. Thus the ruined single-spaced, twin-apsed church in question (and in particular the well-maintained church of the Myriokefala Byzantine Monastery) gives lustre to the area, since it is one of the most important and original monuments of Crete-Byzantine tradition.

H. Noteworthy is also the presence of the well-known “Byzantine Gentlefolk”, which right after 961 settled down in almost every province of Crete. These Byzantine families — known also as “twelve young lords” — must have sustained in a positive manner the charitable work of the Cretan Saint John “the Stranger” all over Crete against any eventual hardships. This Byzantine peerage, bearing the title of “feudal lords”, controlled or ruled Crete financially and administratively, before and after the Venetian rule. These families have been the nurturing element for many clergymen, lawmen, doctors, military men, painters of Holy Icons, founders and consecrators of churches and Monasteries etc. As noblemen, they had a preference for the so-called “noble occupations”. It is also remarkable that the descendants of these Byzantine Families can still be found in many parts of Crete. Such families are: the Gabalades, the Kallergides, the Skordilides, the Vlasti etc. Many of the families in question are found in western Crete, as well as in the provinces of Rethimnon, Apokoronas, Sfakia etc., where the luminosity of the historic monasteries under examination was already established by 11th century.

Unfortunately the written tradition has not salvaged a lot of facts regarding long periods of Cretan history. This mantle of silence also shields the Cretan Byzantine Monuments under examination. The ravages of time have contributed to the silence of these same buildings as well, due to the destruction of their mural painting and the distortions in their architectural order. Nevertheless thorough research of the direct and indirect sources has yielded extremely important results. Therefore we are hopeful that the present study has contributed to the better knowledge of the Monuments and the History of the island of Crete.

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