WHEN I first went to Greece, forty years ago, the few travellers one met in the country never thought of studying its mediæval remains. We were in search of classical art, we passed by Byzantine churches or Frankish towers with contemptuous ignorance. Mr. Finlay’s great book, indeed, was already written ; but those who knew German, and were bold enough to attack the eight volumes which Ersch and Gruber’s Encyclopaedia devote to the article on Greece, had been taught by Hopf’s Essay on Medieval Greece to fathom what depths dulness could attain. Whether the author, or the odious paper and type in its double columns, contributed to this result, was of little consequence. The subject itself seemed dreary beyond description. All the various peoples who invaded, swayed, ravaged, colonised in the Dark Ages, seemed but undistinguishable hordes of barbarians, of whom we knew nothing, about whom we cared nothing, beyond a general hatred of them, as those who had broken up and destroyed the splendid temples and fair statues that are now the world’s desire. Even the very thorough and learned scholars who produced Baedeker’s Greece, a very few years ago, never thought of putting in any information whatever, beyond their chronological table, upon the many centuries which intervened between the close of paganism and the recent regeneration of the country. The contempt for Byzantine work in the East was in our early days like the contempt of Renaissance work in the West. We were all Classical or Gothic in taste.
Now a great reaction is setting in. Instead of the dreadful Hog, we have the fascinating Gregorovius, whose Stadt Athen im Mittelalter clothes even dry details with the hue of fancy ; we have Sir Rennell Rodd’s two volumes on Frankish Greece ; the sober Murray’s Guide includes Mount Athos and its wonders as part of its task. Recent travellers, and the students at the Foreign Schools of Athens, tell us of curious churches and their frescoes, and now Mr. Schultz, of the British School, has undertaken to reproduce them with his pencil. Following the example of Pullen, whose pictures have secured for posterity some record of the churches of Salonica, so often threatened by fire, he has perpetuated the remnants of an architecture and an art which were rapidly perishing from neglect. When I was first at Athens men were seriously discussing the propriety of razing to the ground one of the most striking of all the Byzantine churches at Athens, because it stood in the thoroughfare which led from the palace to the railway station . Historians tell us the dreadful fact, that over seventy of these delicately quaint buildings were destroyed when the new cathedral, a vulgar compromise in style, was constructed. A few more years of Vandalism in Greece, a few more terrible fires at Salonica and at Athos, and the world had lost its best records of a very curious and distinctive civilisation.
There are indeed no mean traces of this art in Adriatic Italy ; the exarchate at Ravenna, the eastern traffic of Venice, have shown their influence on Italian art and architecture. The splendid mosaics of Ravenna, nay, even the seven domes of S. Antonio at Verona, the frescoes of the Giotto Chapel at Padua, above all, the great cathedral at Venice, are all strongly coloured those of Ravenna even producedby Byzantine art. This marriage of Eastern and Western styles may be seen in many beautiful churches in Sicily, in far south ItalyBari, Bitonto, Ruvo, Otranto, and a host of othersalso in those beautiful Dalmatian churches at Ragusa, Traü, Sebenico, etc., which maintained the Romanesque form even into Renaissance days. Yet most travellers who visit S. Mark’s at Venice have never seen a Byzantine church, and do not feel its Eastern parentage; still fewer visit the splendid basilica of Parenzo, which is a still more unmistakable example. But to those who have turned aside from Olympia and Parthenon to study the early Christian remains in Greece, all this art of Eastern Italy will acquire a new interest and a deeper meaning.
These are the reasons which have tempted me to say a few words on this side of Greek travel. But as yet even high authorities are very much in the dark about these things. What would a student of Gothic architecture say to a discussion whether an extant building belonged to the fourth century or the eleventh ? and yet such divergent views are still maintained concerning the origin of the Athenian churches.
Let us begin with the best and quaintest, the so-called Old Cathedral, which was fortunately allowed to stand beside its ugly and pretentious successor. The first thing that strikes us is the exceeding smallness of the dimensions,it is like one of the little chapels you find in Glendalough and elsewhere in Ireland. I do not know whether the Greeks contemplated a congregation kneeling in the open air, as was the case around these chapels in Ireland, but such edifices were certainly intended, in the first instance, as holy places for sacerdotal celebrations, not as houses of prayer for the people. I was told on Mount Athos that it was not the practice of the Greek Church to celebrate more than one service in any one church daily. Hence the monks, who are making prayer continually, have a crowd of chapels within the precincts of each monastery. Perhaps a similar motive may have led to the construction of a great number of small churches at Athens, where seventy have already been destroyed, and at Salonica, where remains of them are still being frequently discovered. Perhaps also that desire to consecrate to the religion of Christ the hallowed places of the heathen, which turned the Parthenon and the temple of Theseus into churches, also prompted the Byzantine bishops to set up chapels upon smaller heathen sanctuaries, where no stately temple existed, and mere consecration would have left no patent symbol of Christian occupation.
But if this Cathedral is small, it has the proper beauty of minute art ; it is covered with rich decoration. All its surfaces show carved fragments not only of classical, but of earlier Byzantine workfriezes, reliefs, inscriptions, capitalsall so disposed with a general correspondence or symmetry as to produce the effect of a real design. Moreover, this foreign ornament is set in a building strictly Byzantine in form, with its rich doorway, its tiny windows with their high semicircular arches supported on delicate capitals, and toned by the centuries of Attic dust to that rich gold-brown which has turned the Parthenon from marble almost to ruddy gold. Never was there greater harmony and unity attained by the most deliberate patch-work. In the earlier works on Byzantine art, this church was confidently assigned to the sixth century. Buchon said he found upon it the arms of La Roche and of Villehardouin, so that he assigned it to the thirteenth. The character of the other buildings of these knights makes me doubt that they and their friends could have constructed such a churchthe Western monks then built Latin churches in Greeceand I suppose that the arms, for which I have searched in vain, were only carved by the Franks upon the existing building. But I will not therefore subscribe to the sixth-century theory.
Of the remaining churches three only, the Kapnikarea, the Virgin of the Monastery, and S. Theodore, are worth studying, as specimens of the typical form of such buildings. The main plan is a square, surmounted by a cupola supported on four pillars, with a corridor or porch on the West side, and three polygonal apses on the East. Lesser cupolas often surround the central dome. The height and slenderness of this central dome is probably the clearest sign of comparative lateness in these buildings, which used to be attributed to the fourth and fifth centuries, but are now degraded to the eleventh. The earliest form is no doubt that of the massive S. George’s at Salonica a huge Rotunda covered with a flat dome, not unlike the Pantheon at Rome, with nothing but richly ornamented niches, and a splendid mosaic ceiling in the dome, to give relief to a very plain design. The successive complications and refinements added to this simple structure may be studied even in the later churches of Salonica.
The traveller who has whetted his taste for this peculiar form of mediaeval art, and desires to study it further, will find within reach of Athens two monasteries well worth a visit, that of the Phaeneromene on Salamis, a very fair specimen of an undisturbed Greek monastery, and that of Daphne, which may be ranked with the ruins of Mistra as showing clear traces of the conflict of East and West, of Latin with Greek Christianity. This sanctuary, with its now decaying walls, succeeded as usual to a pagan shrine with hardly altered name. The saints, still pictured in black and gold upon the walls, and worshipped upon their festivals, have become fantastic and unreal beings, well enough adapted to that mixture of superstition and nationalism which is the body of the Greek religion, and, despite a purer creed, not very far removed from the religious instincts of the old Hellenic race. Five or six wretched monks still occupy the dilapidated building, vegetating in sleepy idleness ; they do nothing but repeat daily their accustomed prayers, and receive dues for allowing the people of the neighbouring hamlets to kiss, once or twice a year, a dreadful-looking S. Elias, painted olive-brown on a gold background, or to light the nightly lamp at the wayside shrine of a saint black with smoke.
The structure, as we now see it, is chiefly the work of the Cistercians who accompanied Otho de la Roche from Champagne to his dukedom of Athens, and was established round a far older Byzantine church and monastery. Like all mediæval convents, it is fortified, and the whole settlement, courts and gardens included, is surrounded by a crenelated wall, originally about thirty feet high.
There are occasional towers in the wall, and remains of arches supporting a passage of sufficient altitude for the defenders to look over the battlements. The old church in the centre of the court has had a narthex or nave added in Gothic style by the Benedictines, and here again are battlements, from which the monks could send down stones or boiling liquid upon assailants who penetrated the outer walls.
Three sides of the court are surrounded by buildings ; beneath, there are massive arcades of stone for the kitchen, store-rooms, and refectory ; above, wooden galleries which supplied the monks with their cells. Most of this is now in ruins, occupied in part by peasants and their sheep. But the church, both in its external simplicity and its internal grandeur, is remarkable for the splendid decoration of its walls with mosaics, which, alas ! have been allowed to decay as much from the indolence of the Greeks as the intolerance of the Turks. In fact, while some care. and regard for classical remains have gradually been instilled into the minds of the inhabitantsof course money value is an easily understood testthe respect for their splendid mediaeval remains has only gained Western intellects within recent years, so that we may expect another generation to elapse before this new kind of interest will be disseminated among the possessors of so great a bequest from the Middle Ages.
The interior of the church at Daphne is a melancholy example. From the effects of damp the mortar has loosened, and great patches of the precious mosaic have fallen to the ground. You can pick up handfuls of glazed and gilded fragments of which the rich surfaces were composed. Here and there a Turkish bullet has defaced a solemn saint, while the fires lit by soldiers in days of war, and by shepherds in time of peace, have, in many places, blackened the roof beyond recognition. Within the central cupola a gigantic head of Christ on gold ground is still visible, or was so when I saw the place in 1889; but the whole roof was in danger of falling, and the Greek Government, at the instigation of Dr. Dorpfeld, had undertaken to stay the progress of decay, and so the building was filled with scaffolding. This however, enabled us to mount close to the figures, which in the short and high building are seen with difficulty from the ground, and so we distinguished clearly round the base of the cupola the twelve Apostles, in the bay arches the Prophets, in the transepts the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Baptism, and the Transfiguration of Christall according to the strict models laid down for such ornaments by the Greek Church. The drawings are indeed stiff and grotesque, but the gloom and mystery of the building hide all imperfections, and give to these imposing figures in black and gold a certain majesty, which must have been felt tenfold by simple worshippers not trained in habits of aesthetic criticism.
We have, unfortunately, no records of the history of these convents, as in the case of many Western abbeys, and the old chronicles of wars and pestilences seldom mention this quiet life. We should fain, says M. Henri Belle, have followed the fortunes of these monks who left some fair Abbey in Burgundy to catechise schismatics in this distant land, and bring their preaching to aid the sword of the Crusaders; but these Crusaders were generally intent on changing their cross for a crown, and were therefore not at all likely to favour the rigid proselytism of the Cistercians. It is very interesting to know that Innocent III., that great pope, who from the outset disapproved of the violent overthrow of the Christian Empire of the East, was the first to recommend, both to the conquerors and their clergy, such moderation as might serve to bring back the schismatic Greeks to the Roman fold. There are still extant several of
1 During my visit in 1905, I saw this interesting church, now restored, but I fancy by German workmen who were too clever, and who filled in the gaps of colour, even on figures, with restorations of very modern flavour, his letters to the Abbeys of the Morea, and to this abbey of the duchy of Athens, showing that even his authority and zeal in this matter were unable to restrain the bigotry of the Latin monks. There were frequent quarrels, too, between these monks of Daphne and their Duke, and frequent appeals to the sovran pontiff to regulate the relations between the civil authority, which claimed the right of suzerain, and the religious orders, which claimed absolute independence and immunity from all feudal obligations. Still, in spite of all disputes, the abbey was the last resting-place of the Frankish Dukes of Athens, and in a vault beneath the narthex were found several of their rude stone coffins without inscription or ornament. One only has carved upon it the arms of the second Guy de la Roche, third Duke of Athenstwo entwined serpents surmounted with two fleurs-de-lis. Guy II., says the Chronicle, behaved as a gallant lord, beloved of all, and attained great renown in every kingdom. He sleeps here, not in the darkness of oblivion, but obscured by greater monuments of the greater dead. Yet I cannot but dally over this interesting piece of mediaeval history, the more so, as it explains the strange title of Theseus, Duke of Athens, in Shakespeare’s immortal Mid-summer Night’s Dream, as well as the curious fact, at least to classical readers, that the poet should have chosen mediaeval Athens as a court of gracious manners, and suitable for the background of his fairy drama.
Neglecting geography, I shall carry the reader next to the very analogous ruins of Mistra, where, how-ever, it was rather the Greek that supplanted the Latin, than the Latin the Greek ecclesiastic.
When the Franks invaded Greece a very remarkable family, the Villehardouins, seized a part of the Morea, and presently built Mistra, above Sparta ; it was adorned with fair Gothic churches and palaces, and surmounted by a fortress. Sixty years after the conquest, William Villehardouin was captured by a new Byzantine emperor Palaeologus, who was recovering his dominion. The Frank was obliged to cede for his ransom the forts of Mistra and Monemvasia, which from that time were strongholds of the Byzantine power till the conquest of the Turks. Still the Villehardouins long kept hold of Kalamata and other forts ; and to the pen of one of the family, Geoffrey, we owe the famous old chronicle La Conquête de Constantinople, which is unique in its importance both as a specimen of old French and a piece of mediaeval history.
The architecture of Mistra, begun at a noble epoch by the Latins, was taken up by the Byzantine Greeks, so that we have both styles combined in curious relics of the now deserted stronghold. For, since 1850, when an earthquake shook down many houses, the population wandered to the revived Sparta, which is now a thriving town. But as the old Sparta in its greatest days was only a collection of shabby villages, showing no outward sign of its importance, so the new and vulgar Sparta has no attractions (save the lovely orange and lemon orchards round it) in comparison with the mediaeval Mistra. The houses are piled one above another till you reach the summit crowned by the citadel which, itself a mountain, is severed from the higher mountains at its back by a deep gorge with a tumbling river. ‘ The whole town is now nothing but ruined palaces, churches, and houses. You wander up rudely paved streets rising zigzag, and pass beneath arches on which are carved the escutcheons of French knights. You enter courts overgrown with grass, but full of memories of the Crusaders. It is the very home of the Middle Ages. Passing through these streets, now the resort of lizards and serpents, you come upon Frankish tombs, among others that of Theodora Tocco, wife of the Emperor Constantine Palaeologus, who died in 1430. The Panagia is the only church well preserveda Latin basilica, with a portico in the form of an Italian loggia, and a Byzantine tower added to it. This building is highly ornamented with delicate carving, and its walls are in alternate courses of brick and stone, while the gates, columns, and floor are of marble. The interior is adorned with Byzantine frescoes of scenes from the Old Testament. Higher up is the metropolitan church, built by the Greeks as soon as William Villehardouin had surrendered the fort in 1263. This great church is not so beautiful as that already described, but has many peculiarities of no less interest. The palace of the Frank princes was probably at the wide place on a higher level, where the ruined walls show the remains of many Gothic windows. The citadel was first rehandled by the Greek Palaeologi, then by the Turks, then by the Venetians, who in their turn seized this medieval “Fetter of Greece.” And now all the traces of all these conquerors are lying together confused in silence and decay. The heat of the sun in these narrow and stony streets, with their high walls, is intense. But you cannot but pause when you find in turn old Greek carving, Byzantine dedications, Roman inscriptions, Frankish devices, emblazoned on the walls. The Turkish baths alone are intact, and have resisted both weather and earthquake. But the churches occupy the chief place still, dropping now and then a stone, as it were a monumental tear for their glorious past ; the Greek Cross, the Latin Cross, the Crescent, have all ruled there in their turn. Even a pair of ruined minarets remain to show the traces of that slavery to which the people were subject for four hundred years.
The occupation of the Frankish knights had not found an adequate historian, since old Villehardouin, till ‘Finlay’s great work. Then Gregorovius wrote his Mediaeval Athens.’ The traveller still sees through-out Greece frequent traces of this short domination, but all of one sortthe ruins of castles which the knights had built to overawe their subjects, and of which Clarentzen in Ells was perhaps the most important. The same invaders built the great towers at Kalamata, and most picturesque of all is the keep over the town of Karytena in Arcadia, the stronghold of Hugo de Bruyères. But the Frankish devices which adorned these castles have been mostly torn down by Turks, or replaced by the Venetian lion, according as new invaders turned the fortifications of their predecessors to their own uses. Nor are any of these castles to be compared in size or splendour with those of northern Europe. The most famous of them, the palace at Thebes, was so completely destroyed by the Catalans, that all vestige of it has disappeared, and we owe our knowledge of it to the description of the Catalan annalist, Ramon Muntaner, who tells of the ravages of his fellows not without some stings of his aesthetic conscience.
But let us pass from these complex ruins, which speak of the conflict of the East and West, to the peculiar quiet homes of the Greek monk, who spends his time, not in works of charity, not in labours of erudition, not in the toil of education, like his Western brother, but simply in performing an arduous and exacting ritual, in praying, or rather in repeating prayers, so many hours in the day, in observing fasts and vigils, above all in maintaining the strict creed which has given the title of orthodox to his Church. These resting-places are of course settled in quiet regions, in the mountains, upon the islands, so that we cannot expect them near a stirring capital like Athens. Yet in the gorge of the defile which leads up to Phyle, there is a little skete (the house of ascetics) lonely and wild in site ; and by the sea on Salamis, nearly over against Megara, the traveller will find a small but very characteristic specimen of the Greek monastery, the Panagia Phaeneromene.
There he will see the tiny cells, and the library, almost as small as any of them, at the top of dark stairs, and containing some twenty volumes ; he will be received by the Hegoumenos with mastic and jam, and then with coffee, and strive to satisfy the simple curiosity of the old men, who seem so anxious to hear about the world, and yet have turned away their eyes from seeing it. Above all, he will find in the midst of the enclosure a little model Byzantine Church, built with the greatest neatness, of narrow bricks, in which string-courses and crosses are introduced by an altered setting of the bricks. Here too he will see the curious practice, which led to marble imitations at Venice, of ornamenting the walls by building in green and blue potteryapparently old Rhodian ware, for it is not now to be found in use. It is a simpler form of the decoration already described in the Cathedral of Athens, that of ornamenting a wall with foreign objects symmetrically disposed, and no one who sees it will call it inartistic. Within are the usual ornaments of the Byzantine Church, but not in mosaic ; for all the walls are covered with frescoes by a monk of the early eighteenth century, a genius in his way, though following strictly the traditions of the school of Athos. The traveller who ascends the pulpit will thence see himself surrounded by very strange picturesover the west door, as is prescribed, the Last Judgment, with the sins of men being weighed in a huge balance, and devils underneath trying to pull down the fatal scale. The condemned are escorted by demons to an enormous mouth breathing out flames the mouth of hell. Beatitudes and tortures supply the top and bottom of the composition. Even more quaint is the miracle of the swine of the Gadarenes running down a steep place into the sea. They are drowning in the waves, and on the head or back of each is a little black devil trying to save himself from sinking. Similar creatures are escaping from the statues of heathen gods which tumble from the walls as the infant Jesus passes by on his flight to Egypt. This points to the belief that the statues of heathen gods were inhabited by an evil spirit, and were actually bodies with souls within them !
These few details are sufficient to tempt the reader to visit this monastery, which is far better worth seeing than the beautifully situated and hospitable Vourkano described elsewhere in this work. There is an enchanting trip from Vostitza, on the coast of Achaia, to Megaspilion, to which I will devote a page at the end of this chapter. So also I will here pass by with a mere mention the eyries of Meteora in Thessaly, perched upon strange pinnacles of rock, like S. Simeon upon his pillar. The approach to, and descent from, these monasteries in a swinging net is indeed a strange adventure to undergo, and more pain-fully unpleasant than most such adventures, but at the top there is little of interest. The hoards of precious MSS. which Curzon describes in his delightful volume, over which the monks quarrelled when he offered gold, and would not sell them because none would allow his brother to enjoy the moneythese splendid illuminated books have either been cozened away by visitors, or are gathered in the University Library at Athens. They are there in their right place. I understand the peaks of Meteors, when the present occupants die out, are to receive not holy men, but criminals, who are to suffer their solitary confinement, not in dungeons beneath the earth, but far above the haunts of men.
But all these monastic settlements pale into insignificance when we turn to Mount Athos, the real Holy of Holies of the Greek Church, which is indeed far from the kingdom of Greece, and therefore beyond the scope of this work, and yet a chapter on the mediaevalism of Eastern Europe can hardly be written without some consideration of this strange promontory, in its beauty surpassing all description, in its history unique both for early progress and for subsequent unchangeableness, in its daily life a faithful mirror of long-past centuries, even as its buildings are now mediaeval castles inhabited by mediaeval men. I will here set down the impressions, from a visit made in 1889, not merely of the art, but of the life of this, the most distinctive as well as the largest example of Greek monasticism.
Velificatus Athos is an expression which has a meaning even now, though a very different one from that implied by Juvenal. The satirist would not believe that Xerxes turned it into an island, though the remains of the canal are plainly visible to the present day. But now the incompetence of the Turkish Government has turned Athos, for English travellers, into an island, for it may only be approached by sea. If you attempt to ride there from Salonica or Cavalla, you are at once warned that you do so at your own risk ; that the tariff now fixed by a joint commission of Turks, dragomans, and bandits for the release of an English captive is £15,000 ; that you will have to pay that sum yourself, etc. etc. This is enough to drive any respectable and responsible person from the enterprise of the land journey, and so he must wait for the rare and irregular chances of boat or steamer traffic. It was my good fortune to find one of H.M.’s ships going that way from Salonica, and with a captain gracious enough to drop me on the headland, or rather to throw me up on it, for we landed in a heavy sea, with considerable risk and danger lasted all day, and raged around the Holy Mountain. Yet this adventurous way of landing under the great western cliffs of the promontory, with the monasteries of S. Paul, Gregory, and Dionysius, each on their several peaks, looking down upon us from a dizzy height through the stormy mists, was doubtless far the most picturesque introduction we could have had to the long-promised land.
For this had been many years my desire not only to see the strangest and most perfect relic now extant of mediaeval superstition, but to find, if possible, in the early MSS. which throng the libraries of that famous retreat some cousin, if not some uncle or aunt of the great illuminated MSS. which are the glory of the early Irish Church. The other travellers who have reached this place have done so by arriving at some legitimate port on the tamer eastern side ; the latest, Mr. Riley)]. by landing at the gentlest and most humane spot of all, the bay of Vatopédi. We, on the contrary, crept into a little boat-harbour under the strictest, the most primitive, and far the most beautiful of the western eagles’ nests, whither English pickles, tinned lobster, and caviare have not yet penetrated. We were doing a very informal and unceremonious thing, for we were invading the outlying settlements, to demand shelter and hospitality, whereas we should have first of all proceeded to the capital, Karyes, to present pompous letters of introduction from Papas, Prime Ministers, Patriarchs, and to receive equally elaborate missives from the central committee, asking the several monasteries to entertain us.
But we took the place by storm, not by regular siege. We showed our letters, when we climbed up to Dionysiu, as they call it, and prayed them to fore-stall the hospitality which they would doubtless show us, if we returned with official sanction. The good monks were equal to the occasion ; they waived ceremony, though ceremony lords it in these conservative establishments probably the greatest sin that a monk can commit. At every step of our route this obstacle stood before us, and had we attempted to force our way past it, no doubt our dumb mules would have spoken, and reproved our madness. Yet when they had before them all the missives which were to be read at Karyes next day, to be followed up by a letter addressed to themselves, they actually antedated their hospitality, and made us feel at home and happy.
Nowhere have I seen more perfect and graceful hospitality in spirit, nowhere a more genuine attempt to feed the hungry and shelter the outcast, even though the means and materials for doing so were often very inadequate to Western notions. But let me first notice the extant comforts. We always had ample room in special strangers’ apartments, which occupy the highest and most picturesque place in every monastery. We always had clean beds to sleep in, nor were we disturbed by any unbidden bedfellows, these creatures having (as we were told) made it a rule of etiquette never to appear or molest any one till after Pascha, the Feast of the Resurrection. The feast was peculiarly late this year, and the weather perfect summer ; still the insects care-fully avoided any such towards us as to violate their Lenten fast. In addition to undisturbed nightsa great boon to weary travellerswe had always good black bread, and fresh every day ; we had also excellent Turkish coffee, and fortunately most wholesome, for the ceremony of the place requires you to drink it whenever you enter, and whenever you leave, any domicile whatever. Seven or eight times a day did we partake of this luxury, and without damage to digestion or nerves. There was sound red wine, and plenty of it, varying according to the makers, but mostly good, and only in one case slightly resinated. There were also excellent hazel-nuts, often served hot, roasted in a pan, and very palatable.
What else was there good ? There was jam of many kinds, all good, though unfortunately served neat, and to be eaten in spoonfuls, without any bread, till at last we committed the prosvolé of asking to have it brought back when there was bread on the table. There were also eggs in abundance, just imported to be ready for Easter, and therefore fresh, and served au plat. Nor had we anywhere to make the complaint so pathetic in Mr. Riley’s book, that the oil or butter used in cooking was rancid. This is the advantage of going in spring, or rather one of the many advantages, that both oil and butter (the latter is of course rare) were quite unobjectionable.
When I say that butter was rare and eggs imported, I assume that the reader knows of the singularity of Athos, which consists in the absence of the greatest feature of human lifewoman, and all inferior imitations of her in the animal world. Not a cow, not a hen, not a goat ; not a cat of that sex ! And this for centuries ! Three thousand monks, kept up by importation, three thousand labourers or servants, imported likewise, but no home production of animals that is considered odious and impious. And when, in this remote nook of extreme conservatism, this one refuge from the snares and wiles of Eve, a Russian monk seriously proposed to us the propriety of admitting the other sex, we felt a shock as of an earthquake, and began to understand the current feeling that the Russians were pushing their influence at Athos, in order to transform the Holy Mountain into a den of political thieves.
Nothing is more curious than to study the effects, upon a large society, of the total exclusion of the female sex. It is commonly thought that men by themselves must grow rude and savage ; that it is to women we owe all the graces and refinements of social intercourse. Nothing can be farther from the truth. I venture to say that in all the world there is not so perfectly polite and orderly a society as that of Athos. As regards hospitality and gracious manners, the monks and their servants put to shame the most polished Western people. Disorder, tumult, confusion, seem impossible in this land of peace. If they have differences, and squabble about rights of property, these things are referred to law courts, and determined by argument of advocates, not by disputing and high words among the claimants. While life and property are still unsafe on the mainland, and on the sister peninsulas of Cassandra and Longos, Athos has been for centuries as secure as any county in England. So far, then, all the evidence is in favour of the restriction. Many of the monks, being carried to the peninsula in early youth, have completely forgotten what a woman is like, except for the brown smoky pictures of the Panagia with her infant in all the churches, which the strict iconography of the Orthodox Church has . made as unlovely and non-human as it is possible for a picture to be. So far, so well.
But if the monks imagined they could simply expunge the other sex from their life without any but the obvious consequences, they were mistaken. What strikes the traveller is not the rudeness, the untidiness, the discomfort of a purely male society, it is rather its dulness and depression. Some of the older monks were indeed jolly enough ; they drank their wine, and cracked their jokes freely. But the novices who attended at table, the men and boys who had come from the mainland to work as servants, muleteers, labourers, seemed all suffering under a permanent silence and sadness. The town of Karyes is the most sombre and gloomy place I ever saw. There are no laughing groups, no singing, no games among the boys. Every one looked serious, solemn, listless, vacant, as the case might be, but devoid of keenness and interest in life. At first one might suspect that the monks were hard taskmasters, ruling their servants as slaves ; but this is not the real solution. It is that the main source of interest and cause of quarrel in all these animals, human and other, does not exist. For the dulness was not confined to the young monks or the laity ; it had invaded even the lower animals. The tom-cats, which were there in crowds, passed one another in moody silence along the roofs. They seemed permanently dumb. And if the cocks had not lost their voice, and crowed frequently in the small hours of the morning, their note seemed to me a wail, not a challengethe clear though un-conscious expression of a great want in their lives.
How different were the notes of the nightingales, the pigeons, the jays, whose wings emancipate them from monkish restrictions, and whose music fills with life all the enchanting glens, brakes, and forests in this earthly Paradise !
For if an exquisite situation in the midst of historic splendour, a marvellous variety of outline and climate, and a vegetation rich and undisturbed beyond comparison, can make a modern Eden possible, it is here. Nature might be imagined gradually improving in her work when she framed the three peninsulas of the Chalcidice. The westernmost, the old Pallene, once the site of the historic Olynthus, is broad and flat, with no recommendation but its fertility ; the second, Sithonia, makes some attempt at being picturesque, having an outline of gently serrated hills, which rise, perhaps, to 1000 feet, and are dotted with woods. Anywhere else, Sithonia might take some rank, but within sight of the mighty Olympus, and beside the giant Athos, it remains obscure and without a history. Athos runs out into the Aegean, with its outermost cone standing 6500 feet out of the sea, and as such is (I believe) far the most striking headland in Europe. You may see higher Alps, but from a height, and with intervening heights to lessen the effect ; you may see higher Carpathians, but from the dull plain of land in Hungary. Here you can enjoy the full splendour of the peak from the sea, from the fringe of white breakers round the base up to the pale-grey, snow-streaked dome, which reaches beyond torrent and forest into heaven. Within two or three hours you can ascend from gardens of oranges and lemons, figs and olives, through woods of arbutus, myrtle, cytisus, heath, and carpets of forget-me-not, anemone, iris, orchid, to the climate of primroses and violets, and to the stunted birch and gnarled fir which skirt the regions of perpetual snow. Moreover, the gradually increasing ridge which forms the backbone of the peninsula is seamed on both sides with constant glens and ravines, in each of which tumbling water gives movement to the view, and life to the vegetation which, even where it hides in its rich luxuriance the course of the stream, cannot hush the sounding voice. Here the nightingale sings all the day long, and the fair shrubs grow, unmolested by those herds of wandering goats, which are the real locusts of the wild lands of southern Europe.
Each side of the main ridge has its peculiarities of vegetation, that facing north-east being gentler in aspect, and showing brakes of Mediterranean heath ten or fifteen feet high, through which mule-paths are cut as through a forest. The coast facing south-west is far sterner, wilder, and more precipitous, but enjoys a temperature almost tropical ; for there the plants and fruits of southern Greece flourish without stint.
The site of, the western monasteries is generally on a precipitous rock at the mouth of one of the ravines, and commands a view up the glen to the great summit of the mountain. To pass from any one of these monasteries to the next, you must either clamber down a precipice to the sea, and pass round in a boat commanded by a skipper-monk, or you must mount the mules provided, and ride round the folds and seams of the precipices, on paths incredibly dangerous of aspect, and yet incredibly free from any real disasters. ‘When you come to a torrent you must descend by zigzag windings till you reach a practicable ford near the sea-level, and cross it at the foot of some sounding fall.
But the next projecting shoulder stands straight out of the sea, and you must climb again a similar breakneck ascent, till you reach a path along the edge of the dizzy cliff, where you pass with one foot in the air, over the sea 1000 feet beneath, while the other is nudged now and then by the wall of the rock within, so that the cautious mule chooses the outer ledge of the road, since a loss of balance means strictly a loss of life. It was our constant regret that none of the party could sketch the beautiful scenes which were perpetually before us, or even photograph them. But the efforts of photographers hitherto have been very disappointing. There are indeed pictures of most of the monasteries, taken at the instigation of the Russians, but all so wretchedly inadequate, so carefully taken from the wrong point, that we deliberately avoided accepting them, or carrying them home. Mr. Riley, too, a man of taste and feeling, had essayed the thing with leisure and experience in his art, and yet the cuts taken from the photographs, which are published in his . book, are also hopelessly inadequate. When, for example, approaching from the north, we suddenly came in view of Simopetrastanding close to us, across a yawning chasm, with the sea roaring I000 feet beneath, high in the air on its huge, lonely crag, holding on to the land by a mere viaduct, and behind it the great rocks and gorges and forests framed by the snowy dome of Athos in the far background,we felt that the world could produce no finer scene, and that the most riotous artistic imagination, such as Gustave Doré’s, would be tamed in its presence by the inability of human pencil to exceed it?. The plan of this monastery and its smaller brothers (I was going to call them sisters !) is that of a strong square keep, rising straight from the sheer cliffs, with but a single bridge of rock leading landwards, and when the wall has been carried to a height far more than sufficient against any attack save modern artillery, they begin to throw round it storeys of balconies, stayed out from the wall by very light wooden beams, each balcony sheltered by that above, till a deep-pitched roof overhangs the whole. The topmost and outermost corner of these balconies is always the guest-chamber or chambers, and from this lofty nook you not only look out upon the sea and land, but between the chinks of the floor of boards you see into air under your feet, and reflect that if a storm swept round the cliff your frail tenement might collapse like a house of cards, and wander into the sea far beneath. To me, at least, it was impossible to walk round these balconies without an occasional shudder, and yet we could not hear that the slender supports had ever given way, or that any of the monks had ever been launched into the air. On the divans running round these aerial guest-chambers are beautiful rugs from Macedonia and Bulgaria, the ancient gifts of pilgrims and of peasants, which were thrust aside in the rich and vulgar Russian establishments for the gaudy products of modern Constantinople and Athens, while the older and simpler monasteries were content with their soft and mellow colours. The wealth of Athos in these rugs is very great. There were constantly on the mules under us saddle-cloths which would be the glory of an aesthetic drawing-room.
But it is high time for us to take a closer view of the inside of these curious castles, some of which, Vatopédi, Iviron, Lavra, are almost towns surrounded by great fortifications, and which possess not only large properties, outlying farms, dependencies, but within them a whole population of monks and their retainer. Let us first speak of the treasures accumulated within them, relics of ancient art and industry in the way of books, pictures, and work in precious metals. The reader will doubtless appreciate that the estimate of some of these things depends largely on the taste and education of the visitor. Mr. Riley thinks it of importance, in his excellent work, to enumerate the exact number of chapels contained in, or attached to, each monastery, whereas to me the exact number, and the name of the patron saint, seems about the last detail with which I should trouble my readers. So also some sentimental travellers enumerate with care the alleged relics, and Mr. Riley lets it be seen plainly not only that he is disposed to believe in their genuineness, but that, if proven, it is of the highest religious importance. Seeing the gross ignorance of the monks on all really important matters of history, such as the real date and foundation of their several monasteries, the ascription of a relic to some companion of our Lord, or some worthy of the first four centuries, seems to me ridiculous.
With this preamble I turn first to the books. Every convent we visited had a library containing MSS. The larger had in addition many printed books ; in one, for example, which was not rich (Esphigménu), we found a fine bound set of Migne’s a Fathers.” The library room was generally a mere closet with very little light, and there was no sign that anybody ever read there. The contents indeed consisted of ecclesiastical books, prayer-books, lesson-books, rituals noted for chanting, of which they had working copies in their churches. Still they are so careless concerning the teaching of their old service-books that they have completely lost the meaning of the old musical notation, which appears in dots and commas (generally red) over their older texts, and they now follow a new tradition with a new notation. When one has seen some hundreds of these Gospels, and extracts from the Gospels, ranging over several centuries, some written in gold characters on, the title – page, with conventional pictures of the Evangelists on gold ground, one begins to wonder what could have possessed the good monks to occupy themselves with doing over and over again what had been done hundreds of times, and lay before them in multitudes of adequate copies. I suppose the nature of their religious worship suggests the true answer. As they count it religion to repeat over and over again prayers and lessons all through their nights of vigil and their days of somnolence, so they must have thought it acceptable to God, and a meritorious work, to keep copying out, in a fair hand, Gospels that nobody would read and that nobody would disturb for centuries on dusty shelves.
In the twelve libraries I examined I did not find more than half a dozen secular books, and these of late date, and copies of well-known texts. There may of course be some stray treasures still concealed in nooks and corners, though a good scholar, Mr. Lambros of Athens, has spent much labour in classifying and cataloguing these MSS. But I saw chests here and there in out-of-the-way lumber rooms, with a few books lying in them, and believe that in this way something valuable may still be concealed. In general the monks were friendly and ready to show their books, or at least their perfect manners made them appear so ; but in one monastery (Stavronikita) they were clearly anxious that none of these treasures should be studied. They had not only tossed together all their MSS. which had been recently set in order by Mr. Lambros, but had torn off the labels with which he had numbered them, without any attempt, or I believe intention, of replacing them with new ones.
As I am not now addressing learned readers, I need not go into details about the particular books which interested me. My main object had been to find, if possible, at Mount Athos some analogy, some parallel, to the splendid school of ornamentation which has left us the Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels, St. Chad’s Gospel at Lichfield, and other such masterpieces of Irish illumination. I have always thought it likely that some early Byzantine missionary found his way to Ireland, and gave the first impulse to a local school of art. That there is a family likeness between early Irish and Byzantine work seems to me undeniable. I can hardly say whether I was disappointed or not to find that, as far as Athos went, the Irish school was perfectly independent, and there was no early book which even remotely suggested the marvellous designs of the Book of Kells. The emblems of the Evangelists seemed unknown there before the eleventh century. There was ample use of gilding, and a good knowledge of colours. In one or two we found a dozen kinds of birds adequately portrayed in coloursthe peacock, pheasant, red-legged partridge, stork, etc., being at once recognisable. But all the capitals were upon the same design, all the bands of ornament were little more than blue diaper on gold ground. There were a good many books in slanting uncials, probably seventh to ninth century ; an occasional page or fragment of earlier date, but nothing that we could see of value for solving the difficulties of a Scripture text. Careful and beautiful handwritings on splendid vellum of the succeeding centuries were there in countless abundance. They are valuable as specimens of handwriting and as nothing else. In many of the libraries the monk in charge was quite intelligent about the dates of the MSS., and was able to read the often perplexing colophon in which the century and indiction were recorded.
But the number of dated MSS. was, alas ! very small.
I now turn to the treasures in precious metals and gems, which have often been described and belauded by travellers. Each visitor sees something to admire which the rest pass over in silence, or else he is shown something not noticed by the rest. So the reader must consult first Curzon, then Mr. Tozer, then Didron, then Mr. Riley, and even after that there remain many things to be noted by fresh observers. The fact is that the majority of these reliquaries, pictures, and ornaments of the screen are tawdry and vulgar, either made or renewed lately, and in bad taste. It is only here and there that a splendid piece of old work strikes us with its strange contrast. Far the most interesting of all the illustrations given by Mr. Riley is that of the nave of one of the Churches, which are all (except the old Church of Karyes) built on exactly the same plan, with small variations as regards the lighting, or the outer narthex, or the dimensions. An architect would find these variations highly interesting; to the amateur there seems a great sameness. But among the uniform, or nearly uniform, features is a huge candelabrum, not the central one hung from the middle of the dome, but one which encircles it, hung by brass chains from the inner edges of the dome, consisting of twelve (sometimes only ten) straight bands of open-worked brass, of excellent design, joined with hinges, which are set in double eagles (the Byzantine emblem) so that they form large decagons or duodecagons, in the upper edge of which candles are set all round. The design and work of these candelabra appeared to me old. But the monks affirmed that they were now made in Karyes. This I did not believe, and in any case my suspicions as to the antiquity of the design were confirmed by one I found in St. Paul’s (Agio Pavlo), which bears on one of the double eagles an inscription that the Hegoumenos had restored and beautified the church in 1850. But this eagle joined brass bands, on which was a clear German inscription, stating that they were made in Dresden in the year 1660.
By far the finest embroideries in silk were at the rich convent of Iviron, and indeed the main church there has many features worthy of note. The floor is of elaborate old mosaic, with an inscription of George the Founder, which the monks refer to the tenth century. There are quaint Rhodian plaques, both set in the outer wall, and also laid like carpets, with a border of fine design, on the walls of the transept domes. Beside them are remarkable old Byzantine capitals designed of rams’ heads. But the great piece of embroidery is a (or apron of the Panagia). The ground is gold and green silk, on which portraits of the three imperial founders are workedtheir crowns of pearls, their dressses of white silk, their beards of brown silk, and their faces painted most delicately in colours upon silk. Never in my life have I seen any embroidery so perfect and so precious. There were also occasional old crosses of great excellence, but to describe them here would be tedious and useless, unless it be to stimulate the reader to go out and see them for himself ; nor can I recommend this, if he be not a well-introduced traveller, ready to rough it, and to face with good temper many obstacles. Travelling in Turkey, where time has no value, and where restrictions upon liberty are both arbitrary and unjust, is a matter of great patience.
What shall we say of the services which go on most of the day and night in these monastic churches, and which seemed to Messrs. Riley and Owen so interesting and so in harmony with the Church of England, that they were never tired of regretting the separation of Anglican from Greek Christianity, and hoping for a union or reunion between them ? Mr. Owen went so far as to celebrate the Eucharist after the Anglican ritual in one or two of these churches before a crowd of monks, who could not understand his words, far less the spirit with which our Church regards the Holy Table.
Yet here are large companies of men, who have given up the world to live on hard fare and strict rule, spending days and nights in the service of God, and resigning the ordinary pleasures and distractions of the world. Surely here there must be some strong impulse, some living faith which sways so many lives. And yet after long and anxious searching for some spiritual life, after hours spent in watching the prayers and austerities of the monks, we could not but come to the conclusion that here was no real religion ; that it was a mountain, if not a valley, ‘ full of dry bones, and, behold, they were very dry.
It is of course very hazardous for a stranger to assert a negative ; there may be, even in this cold and barren ritual, some real breath of spiritual life, and some examples of men who serve God in spirit and in truth. But the general impression, as compared with that of any Western religionRoman Catholic, Protestant, Unitarianis not favourable. Very possibly no Western man will ever be in real sympathy with Orientals in spiritual matters, and Orientals these monks are in the strictest sense. They put a stress upon orthodoxy as such, which to most of us is incomprehensible. They regard idleness as not inconsistent with the highest and holiest life. They consider the particular kind of food which they eat of far more religious importance than to avoid excess in eating and drinking. How can we judge such people by our standards ? To them it seems to be religion to sit at service in a stall all night, perhaps keeping their eyes open, but in a vague trance, thinking of nothing, and not following one word that is being chaunted, while they ignore teaching, preaching, active charity, education of the young, as not worthy of the anchorite and the recluse. To us the which we attended seemed the most absolute misconception of the service of God ; to the monks this was the very acme of piety.
I have spoken unreservedly of these things, as I learned that these gentle and hospitable souls were impossible to please in one respectthey think all criticism of their life most rude and unjust. They complained to me bitterly of Mr. Riley’s book, which they had learned to know from extracts published in Greek papers, and yet could there be a more generous and sympathetic account than his ? If, then, I must in any case (though I deeply regret it) incur their resentment, it is better to do so for a candid judgment, than to endeavour to escape it by writing a mere panegyric, which would mislead the reader without satisfying the monks. Indeed, in one point I could not even satisfy myself. No panegyric could adequately describe their courteous and unstinted hospitality.
But there are many, to whom a visit to Mount Athos is impossible, who would yet gladly have the curious experience of spending a day, or a night, in a Greek monastery. I have already spoken of the Phaneromene at Salamisa house too small, and too near the world of men and of civilisation, to give an adequate idea of this curious life. For there is in these abodes of simplicity and asceticism not only the dignity of old standing, but of treasure, and not a little real, though barbaric, splendour. Strange it is, that any visitor to Greece from the West passes within two or three hours’ journey of a very perfect specimen, and one still untouched by the vulgarities of modern life. As the train takes us from Patras along the north coast of Peloponnesus (above, p. 30) we pass Vostitza, the ancient Aegion, the home of Aratus, and then reach a station called Diakophto, in the cutting, where a river descends from the interior through a great cleft or canon, affording a glimpse into a wild glen feathered with trees. Up this glen there is a little light railway, specially contrived for an Alpine ascent, which is, indeed, a triumph of engineering, and this carries the traveller in its single carriage (for the engine cannot drag up more) into the interior of Achaia. The gorge is too narrow to afford more than a peep up, and a peep down, from the train, till the country opens a little at the station of Megaspilion. Here there are mules ready, if ordered duly beforehand, and the astonished tourist tees far up in the sky over his head the goal of his journey plastered on to the lofty rock, like the mud nest of some swallows, save that some of the cells are unfortunately colored white and blue. The ascent seems at first sight well-nigh impossible; but by dint of patient zigzagging up a very steep and rocky slope, the mules gradually reach a belt of fruit trees, planted in terraces under the monastery, and then at last the rude level, where the cells of the monks are fastened to the rock, and where many windows in the face of the cliff show that all the settlement is attached to a great cave. The whole church, indeed, the centre of the monastery, is inside the rock, with a gallery outside it, and has of course hardly any light in the interior, where the dim glare of lamps and of torches makes all its rich ornaments and the rich vestments of the priests glow in their amber light. Under the church are huge cellars with vast stores of resined wine in colossal barrels, kept for the use of the flocks of pilgrims who fulfil their vows of visiting this holy place. Formerly the traveller had to trust to the lodging and fare provided by the monks, which, though generously bestowed, was not of the sort that the man from the West can relish. Now, by the pious bequest of a rich friend of the monastery, a neat little inn has been built on a projecting rock, with splendid views down into the valley and toward the south, and this house was both fresh and comfortable when a party of us occupied it. The host was an intelligent man, who understood some English, and the charges were not yet exorbitant. From this resting place it is but a few yards to the church in the rock, where there were services going on for most of the day and night, as it was Holy Week. I need not repeat what has already been said about the rich vestments, the jewelled relique cases, and the general wealth of color in which the church abounds. It is just like one of the churches at Mount Athos. Let the traveller to Greece not neglect to visit it. This is my parting advice.