I’ve been to Meteora several times over the years, but I wanted to take N. this summer because she’d never been. Before we stopped to get a room in Kalabaka, we drove up and took a look around. N. later said that this was the most impressive part of the trip.
If you look close enough at the rock, it looks like cement. The little mountains the monasteries are built on were formed by the sea, which covered the plain of Thessalia sixty million years ago.
The next day we went up to visit some of the monasteries. There were signs everywhere telling you not to take pictures, but this, I was sure, was not for religious reasons, but economic ones. They sell a lot of books and postcards up there. I turned the flash off and took as many pictures as I could. Because I did so furtively, a lot of them are blurry, since the shutter (or whatever it is digital cameras have) stays open for longer.
I don’t remember ever having gone to the monastery of St Stephanos before, which is a nunnery. In fact, I didn’t know until this summer that there was a nunnery up there. The main church inside was built in 1790, and the icons, as a result, are in much better condition than they are in other monasteries. There were actually one being painted still, and are unfinished.
N. and my parents left the church and I stayed behind to snap some more pictures. Just then, though, a nun came in. She was short and wore black-rimmed glasses, the kind all nuns seem to wear. I waited for her to leave, but she showed no signs of doing so. I held the camera behind my back and looked at two panels by the entrance. Both icons featured ladders, and they were what I wanted to photograph. I looked closely at them, waiting for her to leave. Instead she came up and asked me if I was Greek. I said I was, and she asked me from where. To keep things simple, I told her from Canada, and didn’t mentioned that I lived here.
The first icon, she told me, depicted the Heavenly Ladder of John Scholasticus or Climacus. She told me he had written a book explaining how one rises up the heavenly ladder to holiness. The icon showed angels helping along the men who were making their way up towards Christ. Several men were falling off towards a serpent-dragon, and one man had into its jaws.
She added, almost with embarrassment, that it was allegorical or symbolic. I suppose she wasn’t comfortable with the question of why they should suffer such damnation for failing to reach the top when they had been good enough to rise three quarters of the way.
On the other side of the door, was an icon of Jacob’s Ladder, with Jacob sleeping at the bottom.
(Again, the picture is not good. It doesn’t even show Jacob.)
The ladder, she said, symbolised the Virgin Mary, the second Eve who had come to reunite heaven and earth, which had split when the first Eve introduced original sin. There were only angels ascending this ladder.
Next she showed me the icon of the Second Coming, a particularly beautiful one on the wall behind us. On the upper left side of the river of fire were the damned being judged (notice the scales). On the right and at the top were the blessed. The river of fire led down to the jaws of another serpent-dragon. On the right near the bottom was a horizontal river and beneath them some chambers with dismembered limbs and severed heads in it. The nun told me that after the Second Coming, they would be restored, when the souls returned to their bodies.
It struck me as I looked at the medieval style of the painting that one tends to look at what it depicts as having taken place in the past, in biblical times, or at the latest in the Middle Ages, rather than something which is supposed to happen in the future. The visual arts, even with something as fantastic as Bosch, eventually lose their prophetic power.
The last icon she showed me was of St Stephanos or Charalambos, I can’t remember which, who when he knew his time had come (as it explains on the icon itself) lay down, crossed his hands on his chest, and died. It was in the middle of the day, but a star kept shining in the sky.
“Making icons is a good thing,” she said to me. “It keeps you close to God.”
On another wall there was an icon which had recently been started. It was to depict the martyrdom of St Charalambos. She took me and we left the narthex, or foyer, and went into the main part of the church, which had in the mean time filled with Italian tourists. She showed me a wooden case before the altar. She took out some keys and opened it and showed me a silver case with the saint’s head in it. At the top it seemed sealed with wax. The silver case was inside a glass case.
“Worship him,” she said [Προσκύνησέ τον]. It was an awkward moment. I don’t believe in God, but unfortunately people are sometimes offended when you don’t believe what they believe. I generally avoid confrontations and don’t feel it necessary to assert myself in such situations, although I suppose I should. To keep things simple (don’t forget that despite the interesting tour I was getting, I was looking forward eventually to having an opportunity to take some pictures), I made the cross, leaned forward and kissed the glass case.
Just then my mobile phone rang and I excused myself. It was N. I hadn’t told them anything when they left the church. I had just stayed behind, and she was wondering where I was. I told her I’d find her in a moment. I got off the phone and went back to thank the nun. She pointed out where the museum was and urged me to see it. Before I left, I snapped the pictures, which is why they didn’t turn out very well.
The above photograph shows how things and people are carried over to at least one of the monasteries today, which tourists are not allowed to visit. At one point, two monks went across on it, which alarmed many tourists who were watching from below.
N. was very displeased with me for taking this picture. “Those are dead people!” she said. Well, they’ve left the door open for tourists haven’t they? I saw the photo in one of the books they themselves sell, so I’m not bothered by it. I’ve used part of the photo for the masthead photo of this blog.
Although I’m not at all religious, I love Byzantine art. This was on the ceiling of a balcony outside a church.