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Monasteries Beyond the Cloisters

Posted On June 08, 2022 | 15:51 pm | by kathys | Permalink
Justin Mann visualizes how Hosios Loukas and other Middle Byzantine monasteries shaped and controlled surrounding landscapes

Justin Mann, PhD candidate at the University of Virginia, is a junior fellow in Byzantine Studies. His research report, “Assembling a Monastic Landscape: Structures of Authority, Economy, and the Sacred,” presented a landscape-oriented approach to studying the authority, economy, and sanctity of Byzantine monasteries.


Q&A with Justin Mann

How did monasteries like Hosios Loukas use the landscape to project sanctity and authority?

We understand very well how monastic communities lived spiritually, but we haven’t studied much how they interacted with their environment. With this project, I’m looking beyond the Katholikon (the central church) to put monastic communities in dialogue with their surroundings.

I’m studying monasteries like and Daphni, which are well-known monasteries among Byzantinists. The existing scholarship on Hosios Loukas is almost entirely about the art and the life of the founder, St. Luke the Younger, and I am asking why the monastery is in that particular location: What choices went into placing it there, and what function did it serve by being there? The monastery sits in a massive valley protected by mountains only a few miles from the sea, yet this environment hasn’t really been discussed. My approach also extends into understanding how the monastic community at Hosios Loukas made the space its own.

Mountains and springs had some inherent sacredness to Byzantines—even in modern culture, we sometimes imbue certain natural features with somewhat spiritual aspects, like people who have spiritual experiences on mountains. The monastic community of Hosios Loukas ascribed meaning to the landscape by imbuing the natural landscape with the story of St. Luke the Younger, their founding saint. For example, according to the story of St. Luke, he lived in a cave for a time, and the monastery reconstructed that idea of the cave in the monastery through the crypt. The order at Hosios Loukas also built metochia (smaller dependencies in the surrounding area) to project the sacred image of the monastery throughout the valley. This projected sacredness from the monastery such that upon arriving in the valley, one is almost immediately embedded in the sacred landscape before even knowing it is a monastery. The monastery was made out of local materials, so the natural landscape was literally built into the actual monastery.

I’ve taken a visual approach to understanding how Hosios Loukas projected authority. The monastery owned most of the land in the immediate vicinity and also down by the Bay of Antikyra. Visual dominance was key to how the monastery projected authority over the landscape. It was interested in visual appearance and control over certain areas, specifically to control movement; they ensured the monastery or other monastic structures were visible from their port on the bay and a main road leading up to the monastery. The main monastery wasn’t necessarily the most visible, but their network was. Hosios Loukas wasn’t hiding in the mountains as we might think with a monastery; it was totally the opposite. The monastic community wanted to be seen and projected control throughout their landscape.

What analytical tools have you used to study this?

I use two staples of spatial analysis, least cost and viewshed. Viewshed analysis aims to visualize what can be seen from a certain geographic point, with the added data point of height factored in. If there’s a mountain, for example, nothing behind that mountain is visible from that point for obvious reasons. It’s particularly useful when visualizing whether multiple points together or in relation to other nearby features of the landscape like a possible road, which helps to understand how this network of visual control developed.

Least cost analysis helps understand the easiest way to move through a landscape. We don’t know where most ancient roads were, and the least cost pathway doesn’t guarantee there was a road there. But it does provide a layer of evidence, if, for example, there is a monastery close to the least cost path, we can say with more certainty than before that people might have used this path through the landscape.

Together, they might show that an entire possible pathway was visible, like in the case of Hosios Loukas. The community at the monastery had a view almost all the way from the bay up to the monastery, which you wouldn’t think would be possible with all the surrounding mountains.

How does this landscape-oriented approach modify our understanding of Middle Byzantine monasticism?

Most directly, it shows that monastic activity was not restricted to the monastery and that we need to start considering the monastic landscape as coequal with the art, architecture, and textual components of the monastery. Monastic communities were integrated, planned, smart groups that played strong roles in regional dynamics and were influential not just for religious reasons, as [fall 2021 Byzantine fellow] Molly Greene has shown with monasteries elsewhere. By taking monasticism out of the cloistered study of individual academic disciplines, we see these communities were integrated and influencing the landscape all over, interacting with villages, government, and society at large.


May Wang is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow. Photo by Emily Orr, humanities fellow.