Mount Athos, Greece, November 1933

From a letter to Mildred Barnes Bliss of November 27, 1933

I’ve just had a great experience, dearest Mildred, and, as usual, must tell you about it. “Usual” isn’t quite the word, for such experiences as this come rarely, but when they come, I want to run to you with them.

I’ve just spent 6 full days on Mt. Athos. [1] Avenol [2] asked me to go as observer to the Balkan Conference at Saloniki, [3] and as I felt very tired, eyes especially, when I left here, I took a bit of leave after the Conference was over, and went to the Holy Mountain.

Great Lavra Monastery, Mount Athos
Great Lavra Monastery, Mount Athos

It turned out to be quite different from the accounts I had heard of it. I had been told that the monasteries had masses of Byz. treasures, of the most magnificent quality, and that the frescoes in the Churches were a revelation, without having seen which one couldn’t hope to understand later Byz. art. I had also been told that one had better take one’s own food with one, as what one got there was filthily prepared and indeed dangerous, and that one would be devoured unless one slept in a bug-proof bag. Well – as to the material side, I decided to risk it, and took no food of any kind with me – and I found I fared quite tolerably well. In fact I’ve often fared worse in Hungary; for the Greek monks, at any rate, if they see one in difficulties, never press one to eat, whereas the hospitable provincial Hunk ladies, and sometimes even the Budapestians, make an awful fuss and are insulted unless one consumes large quantities of what they offer one. As for bugs, etc, I took various powders and fumigators, and tho’ it was very warm I didn’t have to use any of them – didn’t get so much as a flea bite. I’m sure the beds are often buggy, but there are, at any rate in the 3 monasteries I slept in, a few clean rooms, and if one gets one of them one is all right.

Then as to the art treasures. I hadn’t really expected much from the frescoes, but reality failed even to come up to that little. They are dark and murky, they sprawl all over the interior of the churches, very few of them are above the level of tolerable industrial bondieuseries [4] in the pre-machine age, and there isn’t one of them that I’d cross the street to look at again. There are a few at the Lavra, [5] dating perhaps from the XIVe, the most pretentious are of the XVIe – unless the Greeks are right in dating Panselinos [6] XIVe, which I don’t believe – and most of them have been gone over in the early XIXe. There is only one church which has preserved any wall-mosaic, the Catholikon of Vatopédi, [7] and there isn’t much of that, nor is it of the first quality.

Art treasures are few and far between. The whole contents of the Holy Mountain put together aren’t worth the least of the precious Byz. objects in the Treasury of San Marco, [8] or the Cabinet des Médailles, or the Louvre, or the V & A; or the Brit Mus. There are a few portable mosaics; [9] one of them, if it weren’t badly injured, would be rather better than Stoclet’s [10] and not as good as the one at Athens. [11]

Portable mosaic Icon of the Virgin Glykophilousa
Portable mosaic Icon of the Virgin Glykophilousa, late 13th century, Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens, 000990

There are 4 or 5 miniature mosaics, none of which touch the one in the V & A, [12] or those in the Opera del Duomo [13or the Bargello at Florence. [14] There is no enamel except at the Lavra, and there are two objects set with enamelled roundels, neither of them very good, and a book-cover with some little bits of enamel. [15] There isn’t a single ivory on Athos, [16] there is one good steatite, which has frequently been reproduced, at Vatopédi, [17] and a pretty good, late and over-elaborate one, at S. Panteléimon. [18] There are a very few metal objects, none earlier than the XIIe, and none very remarkable. There are some late embroideries, the earliest XIVe - XVe, and not a single woven textile of any importance. Except at the Lavra there are no capitals or carved slabs, and very few at the Lavra. There is no marble revêtement anywhere, and hardly any fine columns. The architecture of the churches is invariable, monotonous. That of the monasteries, or some of them, is interesting from the military point of view, as they are all, except the quite modern ones, built for defense. The most striking of them are superb seen from outside: almost Tibetan in fact.

The Annunciation
The Annunciation, miniature mosaic icon, ca. 1320, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 7231-1860

You will be wondering, as you read this, where my great experience comes in. It was two-fold, even three-fold. First, nature; second the survival to the present day of such a marvellous specimen of Eastern monastic life, unchanged in its essentials for a thousand years, and third the painted MSS in some of the Monasteries, particularly the Lavra, where there are 25 or so painted MSS, of which some 8 or 10 are of the first-rate importance, and 3 represent a school, dating in all probability from the Iconoclastic age, which Hayford [19] and I have felt sure existed but of which we have never before been able to find any first-rate representatives, and even humble representatives are very rare – so rare and humble that they have escaped attention so far.

But what a place Athos is! As you know, the Holy Mountain is an autonomous monkish State, depending for spiritual matters on the Patriarch of Constantinople, for temporal on the Greek Republic. It enjoys exemption from customs duties, and from the ordinary taxes. It comprises the whole of the eastern prong of the Chalcidian trident, which is some 50 miles long and only 3-5 broad. This promontory is very low at its base, so low that Xerxes cut a canal through it (I appreciated why Xerxes did this when I tried to go round the cape in a fishing boat); and thereafter develops a backbone which rises, in jagged masses, higher and higher as it proceeds towards the end of the peninsula, where it soars up to just short of 2000 metres in the Holy Mountain Athos itself: a most noble peak.

Miniature mosaic diptych with the Twelve Feast Days
Miniature mosaic diptych with the Twelve Feast Days, ca. 1300–1350, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence

The peninsula is scarred and seamed with ravines, in which torrents brawl over the granite. It is covered with maquis of dwarf thorny oak, arbousier, holly and such like evergreen growths. Here and there are pockets of earth, or even an expanse of hillside, on which big trees grow: chestnuts, oaks, asiatic plane-trees (with the very deeply cut leaves as on Persian miniatures). Near the monasteries, every bit of cultivable ground is taken advantage of: there are olive groves, vineyards, orchards with apple and cherry trees. Few oranges, except in the sheltered courts of the monasteries. Vegetable gardens, of course.

No women, no female animals (en principe) but one sees plenty of cats and kittens, not a few dogs, I saw sows and litters of piglets. There are hens and chickens, not in the monasteries but in farms depending on them. But no cows, sheep or goats. No mares or she-asses. No milk or yoghourt – the latter a very serious deprivation in those climes.

St. George
St. George, steatite, eleventh century, Vatopedi monastery.

There are no roads for vehicles: only bridle paths, and even those are in a shocking state: one doesn’t know whether they are worse paved or unpaved. And one can rarely seek smoother ground off them, for they are usually cut through maquis so close that one couldn’t advance a yard in an hour.

At this season the arbousiers [20] with which the maquis is studded are hung with their rather strawberry-like fruit, of all shades from canary-yellow to flaming scarlet, and also bear their waxy white flowers: the whole incredibly gay and sparkling in the sunlight. More brilliant in colour than the arbousiers I’ve seen in Spain, S. France or Italy. On the ground there are clumps of wild cyclamen, that most graceful and lovely of flowers. Also a big misty-blue campanula, rather coarse, and humbler flowers.

This is undoubtedly the time of year to go to Athos, for there are plenty of grapes, apples, tomatoes, cabbages and other vegetables to eat, and though the flowers in Spring must be marvellous I can’t believe that anything could be more intoxicating than those arbousiers, with their brilliantly coloured fruit, or more touching than the cyclamen. However, I was told I had great luck, for in Nov. there are often rains and fogs, and I had lovely weather, so warm that when I bathed in the sea I couldn't lie in the sun for more than 10 minutes at a time, though I’m a hardened sun-bather. Late October would perhaps be the safest season.

Such meat as one gets is old goat, and I didn’t even attempt to eat it. And there is hardly any fresh fish – apparently because the water off the shores of Athos is very deep, and there's nothing for fish to feed on. One does get some salt cod, not very good, but it’s better to stick to fruit and vegetables, and now and then an egg. The bread is good – whole wheat bread baked on the spot. The olives, unfortunately, aren’t very good, having huge stones and thick skins, but their flavour is all right.

It appears that holy men started living as anchorites on Athos as early as the IIIe cent., and that their number increased, and also the varieties of forms of association, until in the Xe cent. St. Athanasius the Athonite [21] induced Nikephoros Phocas [22] to clear out the lay population altogether, and unified the monastic organisation of the religious, which up to that time had no doubt been chaotic. It was St Atha­nasius himself who founded the Great Lavra as a model to be followed by the other houses, and to this day the Lavra is to the others – say as Harvard is to other American Universities: not the biggest, probably not the richest, but possessed of a tradition, a dignity which the others don’t have. The Lavra is most beautifully placed on the S.E. flank of the headland, about 200 metres above the sea, with the mountain Athos rising behind it to 1926 metres. The spot was chosen with care and great discernment by St. Athanasius himself, having all due regard to exposure, air-currents, soil and water supply, which is abundant, so much so that it is carried in pipes, by its own impetus, up to the top floor of the monastery and runs there night and day from taps that don’t shut. It turns the oil mill, and could perfectly well generate electricity, if the genius of the Lavra allowed it. As it is, there is only electricity at Vatopédi, which is the richest and most mundane of the monasteries, a regular Athenian Monte-Carlo, where they have an electric light plant worked by imported coal.

The Lavra is surrounded by olive-groves, and gardens on little terraces, and it has depending upon it many farms, little prieurés [23] occupied by from 2 or 3 to 30 or 40 monks who lead the life of Greek peasants.

Besides the Lavra, there are 19 other monasteries on the Holy Mountain, and each one has a greater or smaller number of dependencies, skites as they are called. The Lavra itself has about 200 monks, and Vatopédi about as many. The biggest monastery is the Russian, St. Panteléimon, where there were once 1500 and still are nearly 400. All are Greek except 3: St. Panteléimon (Russian), Chilandári (Serbian) and Zográphou (Bulgarian).

Originally, each monastery or foundation by Byz. Emperor, Serb Tsar or whoever the pious founder, received grants of lands, scattered all over the former Byz. empire, the Balkans including Rumania, and Russia, the whole orthodox world, in fact. The Turk respected these pious foundations, and under his rule – which lasted till 1912 – the Holy Mountain did pretty well. The World War laid a heavy tax on it: the Russian foundation, which at its zenith represented 1/3 of the whole population of Athos, lost all its property in Russia, and is now, apparently, doomed to disappear, as the Gk. Govt. (partly out of fear of Bolschevik propoganda) does not allow new arrivals from Russia to join the community. Then the various land-reform measures adopted in the various Balkan countries have resulted in the loss of most of the monasteries’ property outside Athos: without compensation in the case of Roumania, Serbia and Bulgaria, and with some compensation in that of Greece.

In these circumstances the Holy Mountain cannot support the numbers of monks it formerly nourished: estimated at some 5000 before the war, of which 30% Russians. At present the number seems (no one knows exactly) to be about 2500, and the total no. of Russians (about 30%=) 800: 400 at St. Panteléimon and 400 in the various skites belonging to it.

Assuming that the Russian community is reduced eventually to a couple of hundred, the monks might be stabilised round 2000, and I should think Athos would be able to support that number by its own resources. It grows all its food except wheat, and it exports enough wood to pay for that. Then there are the offerings of pilgrims and the private property of a certain number of the monks, which I dare say provide for their clothes and boots. They don’t spend anything on razors, shaving soap or shaving brushes, very little on soap and nothing on eau-de-cologne.

There are two types of monastic organisation, both under the general Basilian rule: a) the Cenobiac, each monastery being ruled by one Abbot, whom all have to obey, and b) the idiorythmic (from idios = own and rythmos = rule) ruled by a council of half a dozen members of the community. The Cenobiac rule is much the stricter: the monks are not allowed to keep any private property, whereas the idioryth­mic may. Also the rule of life is stricter with the Cenobiac, and the night offices have to be attended by all, except in cases where a dispensation is obtained for some special reason.

All the monasteries except the giddy Vatopédi have stuck to the Old Style Calendar, and all without exception keep the Byzantine time: i.e. the day begins at sunset: zero o’clock changes by a few minutes every day. Matins begin at 5 or 6 o’clock (i.e. our 1 or 2 a.m. at the time of year I was there) and last 3 hours, after which there is Mass. In practice this means that for most of the monks there are two periods of rest: one from after Mass, towards the end of the night, for a few hours, and one from soon after sunset until towards 1 a.m.

The affairs of the Holy Mountain as a whole are managed by a Synod of 20 members, one from each monastery, which resides at the little capital: Karyés, the only approach to a town on Athos, where there is no monastery, but shops, pharmacies and administrative offices, 2 filthy inns, a P.T.T. and a poste de gendarmerie grecque, [24] and another of the special gendarmerie of the Holy Mountain, under the orders of the Synod. Karyés is also the seat of the representative of the Greek Govt., who has the title of Governor but depends not on the Ministry of Interior but on that of For. Affairs, and is regarded by the Synod as a diplomatic agent. He seldom remains in office more than 5 or 6 months: the lack of female society, together with the incredible disputes that are continually going on between the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Synod, and between individual monasteries and the synod, and between one monastery and another, in which the Governor, Greek tho’ he be, always gets involved, making life so odious that by that time he’d rather lose all prospect of a job than continue to reside on the Holy mountain.

The distances between most of the monasteries look like nothing on the map, but as the Holy Mountain is so mountainous and ravined it takes a long time to cover the ground on mule back, or on foot. Much the best way to visit most of the monasteries, weather permitting, is to take a fishing-boat fitted up with a motor.

I landed, the journey from Saloniki taking one night, at the little port of the Holy Mountain, Daphni, at 4.30 a.m. one fine morning, long before sunrise, happily by a calm sea, for the steamer doesn’t even anchor and one climbs down a rickety ladder to a row-boat, carrying one’s own belongings. The only other visitor to Athos arriving by that boat was the Minister of For. Affairs of Abyssinia, [25] as black as one’s hat, who is a great theologian in his own land and was visiting places mentioned by St. Paul (e.g. Saloniki). His only European language was a little English. We made friends, waited together for dawn, and then set out on mules for Karyés, where every visitor to the Holy Mountain has first of all to present himself to the Synod, and obtain a pass-port which he must show at each Monastery – where he may then expect hospitality. We were sumptuously entertained by the Holy Synod at lunch, and afterwards rode on to Vatopédi, on the other (E) side of the peninsula. The holy men of Athos, seeing me arrive with the black Excellence, very naturally assumed that I was his little friend – a relationship not unknown on Athos – and I had a great time explain­ing, at each halt, in my Greek, that I did not belong to him. He left Athos next day.

From Vatopédi, where I spent 2 nights, I visited, by mule, Esphigménou [26] and Chilandári [27] (Ch = jota). Then I hired a fishing boat, and visited Ivíron, [28] Stavronikíti [29] and on to the Lavra, where I also stayed 2 nights, hoping to be able to double the cape and see a lot of monasteries on the W. coast by boat. However, a big wind came up, and my monkish sailors gave up the attempt to double the cape, wisely I expect. I returned to Ivíron and went from there by mule to St. Panteléimon, [30] the Russian monastery, which is very near the landing place (Daphni) where I took boat again for Saloniki.

I was tolerably comfortably at Vatopédi, which however is too bristling and mundane: travelling salesmen and touts [31] and all sorts of queer people are there in numbers, and one has to have meals with them. At Lavra I was the only guest, and I adored the place: such sweetness and gentleness, and such incredible beauty of surroundings. Another time I’d make straight for Lavra, hire the motor boat and keep it in attendance, visit other, monasteries by sea when it was fine, and stay there as long as I could. The journey to the Lavra by land is a terror – about 10 hours by mule from the landing-place.

At the Lavra my quarters were at the top of the guest house. I had the whole floor to myself, and there I was locked in for the night soon after my evening meal, which I took just after dark. Outside my windows a huge balcony, looking right over the Aegean, with Thasos in view, and Samothrace – such an incredible shape that one thinks it’s a cloud at first – and Lemnos, and in certain lights Imbros and Tenedos and the Bythinian mountains in Asia Minor. The beauty of the night was so entrancing that I stayed out on the balcony for a couple of hours, hearing the jackals howl round the monastery walls, and now and then the song of a monk from one of the little priory-farms that are dotted round the Lavra. The day-time I spent on the painted MSS in the Library, and in the Ch. treasure.

In my 6 days on Athos I only saw 8 of the 20 monasteries, but I saw the most important: indeed the Lavra is worth the lot rolled into one, and far more.

2 Dec.

This letter has had to be interrupted several times, but that hasn’t prevented it from growing to an inordinate size. About Athos, I’ll only add this little detail that gives a spice of adventure to one’s journeyings there: there is only one entrance to each monastery, the Great Gate, which is closed every night soon after sunset, and is not opened again until dawn. If one doesn’t reach the monastery where one expects to spend the night before the Great Gate is closed, one is out of luck, and one has to spend the night either in some farm – if one can find one – or with the jackals, who don’t attack human beings, I’m told, unless there happens to be a mad one among them...

But think of the joy of roaming over the Holy Mountain without being assailed by the hoot or the smell of any motor, without even the noise of wheels! And the place is safe, as far as I can see. It would be extremely expensive to build roads, so broken is the country, and the roads wouldn’t pay. There’s no even ground where a plane could land – but of course sea-planes might amarrer [32] off its coast.


[1] Mount Athos, a mountain on a peninsula in Macedonia, Greece, that is known as the “Holy Mountain” due to the twenty Eastern Orthodox monasteries located there.

[2] Joseph Louis Anne Avenol (1879–1952), a French diplomat who served as the second general secretary of the League of Nations between 1933 and 1940.

[3] The fourth Balkan Conference (Conference Balkanique) was held in Thessaloniki on November 5–12, 1933.

[4] Devotional church ornaments, especially those having little artistic value.

[5] The Monastery of Great Lavra, the first monastery built on Mount Athos and founded in 963 by Athanasius the Athonite.

[6] Manuel Panselinos, a painter that has been associated with frescoes and icons of ca. 1300, but from sources that are no earlier than the seventeenth century. See Anthony Cutler, “Panselinos, Manuel,” in The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium: http://www.oxford-byzantium.com/entry?entry=t174.e4064&srn=1&ssid=728352016#FIRSTHIT (accessed April 12, 2011). At Mount Athos, his work has been associated with the artist or artists who painted the Church of the Protaton of Karyes, the katholikon of Vatopedi, including two icons of St Demetrios and St George, and the katholikon of the Great Lavra, including a portable icon of St Demetrios. See also Dimitrios Salpistis, Euthymios Tsigardas, et al., Manuel Panselinos from the Holy Church of the Protaton (Athens: Hagioritiki Estia, 2003).

[7] The Holy and Great Monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos, Greece, was founded in the latter tenth century.  The Katholikon has mosaics dated to the eleventh or twelfth century.

[8] The Treasury of the church of St. Mark’s in Venice houses many objects from the churches and palaces of Constantinople brought to Venice following the 1204 conquest of Byzantium by the Crusaders.

[9] These include portable mosaic icons of St. Demetrius, late twelfth century, Xenophontos; the Crucifixion, ca. 1300, Vatopedi monastery; and St. Nicholas, fourteenth century, Stavronikita monastery.

[10] Adolphe Stoclet (1871–1949), a wealthy Belgian engineer, financier, and noted collector, who was married to the daughter of the art critic, historian, collector, and dealer Arthur Stevens (1825–1909) and niece of the painter Alfred Stevens (1823–1906). Through her father and uncle, the Stoclets were connected with avant-garde art circles in Paris. They lived in Italy and especially in Vienna, where they met Josef Hoffmann (1870–1956), who designed Stoclet’s famous house in Brussels. Gustav Klimt (1862–1916) painted the murals in the dining room. The Palais Stoclet was the lavish setting for an eclectic art collection that appealed to the latest avant-garde tastes. This included Egyptian and Chinese sculpture, late medieval Italian painting, medieval metalwork, enamels, and relics, Byzantine art, Pre-Columbian art, and Japanese, Cambodian, and Tibetan art.

[11] See http://www.byzantinemuseum.gr/en/collections/icons/?bxm=990 (accessed March 11, 2013)

[12] See http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O93208/the-annunciation-mosaic-unknown/ (accessed March 11, 2013)

[13] See http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Opera_del_duomo_(FI),_arte_bizantina,_le_docici_festivit%C3%A0_cristiane,_mosaici_portatili_montati_su_argento_dorato_e_samltato,_1310_circa_01.JPG (accessed March 11, 2013)

[14] Miniature mosaic of the Christ Pantocrator, twelfth century, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, inv. mosaic 3.

[15] What he saw is not clear. The bookcover probably was the lectionary kept in the skeuphylakion of the Lavra Monastery. See S. M. Pelekanides, ed., Hoi Thēsauroi tou Hagiou Orous: eikonographēmena cheirographa, parastaseis, epititla, archika grammata 3 (Athens” Ekdotikē Athēnōn, 1979): 24.

[16] There is an ivory plaque of the Crucifixion at the Dionysiou Monastery: Katia Loverdou-Tsigarida in Athanasios A. Karakatsanis, ed., Treasures of Mount Athos (Thessaloniki: Ministry of Culture, Museum of Byzantine Culture, 1997), 338. If Royall Tyler had been shown this ivory, he would have recognized the resemblance to the Bliss Crucifixion, BZ.1929.2.  It does not appear in the corpus of Goldschmidt and Weitzmann, published a few years later: Adolph Goldschmidt und Kurt Weitzmann, Die byzantinischen Elfenbeinskulpturen des X-XIII Jahrhunderts 2 (Berlin: Cassirer, 1934).

[17] See Ioli Kalavrezou-Maxeiner, Byzantine Icons in Steatite (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1985), 101–02.  Also at Vatopedi, there is an icon of the Twelve Feast Days in steatite, fourteenth century (ibid., 217–18). http://protostrator.blogspot.com/2013/01/soapstone-warriors-military-saints-in.html

[18] Panagiarion, steatite, fourteenth century, formerly at the Panteleimon monastery, Mount Athos, now lost. Ioli Kalavrezou-Maxeiner, Byzantine Icons in Steatite (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1985), 206–08.

[19] Hayford Peirce (1883–1946) was born in 1883 in Bangor, Maine. After graduating from Harvard College in 1906, he spent considerable time in Europe, especially in Paris. He met Royall Tyler in 1918 in Paris, where, as a captain in the United States Army, he joined Tyler’s intelligence unit. Like Tyler, Peirce was part of the American delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference after the First World War. Royall Tyler influenced Peirce’s interest in Byzantine art, and Peirce became not only an amateur scholar but also a collector, especially of Byzantine coins. He collaborated with Royall Tyler on various books and articles about Byzantine art for the remainder of his life; these included Byzantine Art and L’art byzantin.

[20] The arbousier (Arbutus unedo), a tree with strawberry-like fruit.

[21] Athanasius the Athonite (also known as Athanasios of Trebizond, ca. 920–ca. 1000), a monk who went to Mount Athos in 958 and organized the hermits  there into what would become the monastic community of the Great Lavra, which Athanasius built with the financial assistance of the emperor Nikephoros Phocas (ca. 912–969). The monastery was dedicated in 963.

[22] Nikephoros II Phocas (ca. 912-969), Byzantine emperor between 963 and 969. Very devout, he helped the monk Athanasios found the Great Lavra monastery on Mount Athos.

[23] “Priories.”

[24] “Greek police station.”

[25] Heruy Welde Sellase (1878–1938), the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia (known often as Abyssinia) between 1930 and 1937 and a prolific writer.

[26] The Esphigmenou monastery, the northernmost of the Mount Athos monasteries, dates to the late tenth century.

[27] Hilandar monastery, a Serbian Orthodox monastery on Mount Athos founded in 1198 by the Archbishop Saint Sava and his father Prince Stefan Nemanja.

[28] The Holy Monastery of Iviron on Mount Athose was built under the supervision of Ioannes the Iberian and Tornikios between 980 and 983 for Iberian clergy.

[29] The Stavronikita monastery on Mount Athose, dedicated to Saint Nicholas.  It was built on a site first used by monks as early as the tenth century, although the monastery was not consecrated until 1536.

[30] St. Panteleimon monastery, a Russian Orthodox monastery founded on the southwest side of Mount Athos by monks from Kiev Rus in the eleventh century.

[31] In British English, a tout is a person who solicits business in an importune manner.

[32] “Moor.”

 

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Mount Athos, Greece, November 1933