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Monastery of Agios Nikolaos Varson

LISTED historical monument by Ministerial Decree 15904/24-11-1962 (Government Gazette 473/Β/17-12-1962)

 

LOCATION

Built on the northwest extreme of Mount Parthenio, on a slope dubbed Koutroufi by the locals, Agios Nikolaos ton Varson is the first monastery that one encounters upon entering Arcadia from the old national road and the Argive Achladokampos. Towards the Argolid in the northeast rise the Gortsouli, Strongylovouni, and Armenia mountains; beyond it lie the Milia plain and Mount Artemisio.

The monastery is located twelve kilometres from Tripoli, near the village of Neochori. On the right hand side of the road from Neochori to the monastery, Mount Samarades dominates the view. On the left stands Mount Agianni, at the foothills of which the remains of the church of Zoodochos Pigi, destroyed under the Ottomans, are still visible. Down the road is a saddle with a church dedicated to the Raising of the Holy Cross. A mountain dubbed Psili Rachi by the locals rises to the right, while Koutroufi, the foothill of Mount Parthenio on which the monastery was built, appears on the left.

 

NAME 

The name Varson is old, of possible Slavic origin, with a reference to water. The earliest reference to the monastery, under the name Agios Nikolaos tis Valtas, is found in an eleventh-century manuscript.

Later, after the fifteenth century, the monastery is mentioned under the name Vrason on a marble inscription, now in the Dimitsana library. It is uncertain whether Valta was the monastery’s original name (after the nearby marshes) or a variant with the same root as Varson. The marshes, known as Monastiriaki Limni (Monastic Lake) still have water throughout most of the summer. The monastery’s manuscript archives contain a small codex entitled ΚΟΝΔΗΚΑΣ ΤΗΣ ΑΓΙΑΣ ΜΟΝΗΣ ΤΑΥΤΗΣ ΤΟΥ ΑΓΙU ΝΙΚΟΛΟΟΥ ΔΑCΟN, (Codex of this Holy Monastery of Agios Nikolaos ton Dason) which demonstrates that the monastery was once also named Moni ton Dason, or Monastery of the Forests, after the large nearby forest that Ibrahim burnt down entirely, like those of the adjacent Mount Artemisio.

According to one theory, the name Varson dates from the Frankish period and comes from a misunderstanding of the word Dason, which the Franks turned into Vason only to end up as Va(r)son with an added r. A second hypothesis suggests that the word is a compound of the words bar (to have) and son (water), meaning ‘plentiful of water’. Indeed, still providing the monastery with water today, a water source springs from beneath the main church’s sanctuary. The source’s rock-hewn entrance and duct are located north of the main church, at a lower level. Particularly plentiful in earlier times, its water was used for the many orchards the monks tended below the monastery.

 

HISTORICAL FACTS

1700: According to a Venetian census, the monastery owned five buildings, forty disused vineyards, and three pastures.

1770: During the Greek uprising known as Orlofika, much of the monastery and several precious documents containing evidence on the monastery’s foundation and history were destroyed, as the abbot Sabbas reported in 1833.

1798: Patriarch Gregory V renewed the monastery’s stavropegial status.

1803: The neo-martyr Demetrios was beheaded in Tripoli on April 14 and buried in the monastery.

1819: Abbot Symeon contributed twenty-two gold coins to the Philiki Hetaireia on February 1.

1821: In a letter addressed to the Royal Prefecture of Arkadia and dated June 15, 1833, Abbot Sabbas, reports the monastery’s location and history. He mentions the monastery’s stavropegial status and that, according to tradition, it was built by the brotherhood of Saint Andreas and Theodore of Komitades in Constantinople and that the relevant documents were burnt during the first uprising of 1770.

August 1825: Following Favier’s failed attempt to conquer Tripoli, the parties of Tsokris and Lontos sought refuge in the monastery, using it as a base for operations against Ibrahim Pasha.

1932: The monastery had ten monks; it counted thirty-five twenty-five years earlier.

1944: Abbot Germanos Papadopoulos was slain by members of the Resistance near the village of Kardara.

Apart from Saint Nicholas, the monastery also celebrated, for an unknown reason, Saint Constantine. During this feast, in May, the inhabitants of nearby villages gathered at the monastery, and the unmarried men chose their bride-to-be.

 

PHASES / DATE

The monastery of Agios Nikolaos Varson is among the earliest in the Peloponnese. The earliest reference to the monastery (February 23, 1089) is found in Codex 180, folio 176r, of the National Library of Greece. According to tradition and to the inscription built into the entrance to the narthex, the monastery was founded “in 1030”. It must be noted, however, that the Byzantines did not use Christ’s birth for dating; this kind of dating is more recent.

If we accept Nikolaos Veis’s identification of the monastery of Agios Nikolaos ton Varson with that of Agios Nikolaos tis Valtas, mentioned in Codex 180 of the National Library of Greece, then the monastery existed in 1089. The later inscription in the narthex gives an even earlier foundation date (1030). Both documents suggest the existence of an eleventh-century monastery, of which nothing remains today.

The monastery is mentioned again in a fragmentary inscription on a colonnette, which mentions the properties of one of the monastery’s dependancies in the deme of Araklovo (the homonymous castle is located at Chrysouli, above the village of Minthi of the municipality of Zacharo in Ellis. This inscription may refer to the skete of Agios Nikolaos, still standing to this day, above the Alpheios River. It confirms a donation to the monastery of Vrason, probably an anagram of Varson. Veis considers the inscription earlier than the fifteenth century. Chrysobulls of Mystra and incised inscriptions contain similar types of confirmation of donations and acquisitions for the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. A fourteenth-fifteenth century reference to a dependency of the Varson monastery, and, indeed, beyond the monastery’s strict geographical boundaries, provides important evidence for the monastery’s operation during that period.

The monastery’s age is further confirmed by a sigillion of Jeremiah II, Patriarch of Constantinople, dated May 1594. The heavily worn original sigillion was later replaced by a new sigillion on parchment (0.352 x 0.275 metres), which is still in the monastery’s archives. According to the sigillion, the monastery always enjoyed the stavropegial status – a cross, given to its founders by the patriarch, was built into its foundations. The sigillion also reports that the monastery had been abandoned before it was rebuilt and reoccupied by seventeen monks, probably between 1460 and 1594.

When the eleventh-century Byzantine monastery was destroyed remains unknown. Did it fall into ruin gradually or was its church (if not entire monastery) suddenly destroyed? Some scholars believe that the rebuilding took place in the Byzantine period. Others point to the late sixteenth century on account of an inscription built into the church’s sanctuary wall and referring to the monastic cells. Nikolaos Moutsopoulos dated the church to the seventeenth century, whereas Tassos Gritsopoulos considered it contemporary with the monastic cells that were built in 1597.

It remains uncertain whether the monastery of Agion Nikolaos tis Valtas mentioned in the 1089 document and the Byzantine monastery of Agios Nikolaos Varson, both located more or less on the same spot and dedicated to the same saint, are the same monastery. Valta derives from the word valtos (swamp – still existing at the site), whereas Varses is the name of a mountain in the 1594 sigillion. Despite their different name, the two monasteries are probably related to one another and to the original monastery, which, after a period of abandonment during difficult times, reappeared at a later period, dedicated to the same saint, but with a slightly different name.

The different names may suggest the monastery’s dismantling and disuse over a long time period, during which the original name was forgotten. The inscription on the colonnette referring to the monastic dependency demonstrates that the monastery functioned under the name of Vrason until approximately the mid-fifteenth century. The re-naming, therefore, took place before that time. The new monastery was dedicated to the same saint, whose name was probably preserved in local tradition or as a local toponym. Whether the original monastery was located on the same spot as the later one or nearby is unknown.

 

ARCHITECTURE

1. THE MONASTERY

The monastery’s main gate, on its east side, leads through a vaulted passage into the courtyard. Built on several levels because of the sloping terrain, the monastery has a pronounced fortified character.

The courtyards are divided into three levels, or terraces. To the north (on the right as one enters) is a three-storey wing that houses the refectory, the reception hall, and guest quarters for the higher clergy. Another three-storey wing, containing the abbot’s quarters and monastic cells, rises to the west. The remaining buildings form a rectangle. Dedicated to Saint Nicholas, the katholikon (main church) occupies the middle terrace, standing parallel to the retaining wall.  Its masonry is covered by thick wall plastered.

2. THE KATHOLIKON

The monastery’s original katholikon was preserved until the fifteenth century inclusive. The church is mentioned in Codex 180 of the National Library of Greece (1089). After its destruction, it was replaced by the current complex tetrastyle cross-inscribed church. As mentioned above, Moutsopoulos dates the katholikon to the early seventeenth century, whereas Gritsopoulos considers it contemporary to the cells building, which dates from (1597). The church’s interior dimensions are 9.60 by 6.61 metres. A later addition, the barrel-vaulted narthex measures 3.00 by 5.90 metres.

The extension of the cross’s eastern barrel-vault covers the sanctuary. Barrel vaults that run parallel to the church’s main axis also cover the prothesis and diakonikon, on either side of the main apse. The sanctuary’s three apses are three-sided. Here the masonry points to a different construction phase.

Elliptical sail vaults on pendentives cover the four corner bays, which measure 1.35-1.40 by 1.93 metres each. Inscribed in an irregular rectangle, the dome was rebuilt in recent times. A mid-twentieth century photograph in the monastery’s archives shows the dome before it was thickly plastered and the west wing cells before they were reconstructed.

In a 1948 visit to the monastery, Moutsopoulos noted that the church had not been re-plastered and that the drum of the octagonal dome retained both its isodomic ashlar masonry and characteristic perimetrical dented band and slightly below the top of the rectangular windows. Two dented bands, the upper one protruding over the lower, decorated the dome’s cornice. By 1958, the church was covered entirely in thick wall plaster, which altered its appearance. Only the south façade, which is located closest to the overhanging rocks, retains its original makeup.

As customary in the Ottoman period, the two-pitched roof on the east-west axis also covers the corner bays. Only the north and south arms protrude covered by a two-pitched roof. The seventeenth or eighteenth century templon is in the vernacular style.

The Agios Nikolaos katholikon, greatly resembles the other complex tetrastyle cross-in-square churches of Gortynia in terms of interior dimensions. The katholikon of Nea Moni Philosophou, in particular, has almost the same interior dimensions (9.20 x 6.40 metres), but a different treatment of the east façade, with the prothesis and diakonikon carved in the east wall’s thickness. At Nea Moni Philosophou, the dome’s circular drum suggests a later date than the octagonal drum of Agios Nikolaos.

 

SCULPTURE

Several elements from an earlier, Byzantine or other, building were haphazardly imbedded in the masonry of the katholikon’s apses and other parts: chancel screens, colonnettes, and pilaster-capitals carved in sandstone, relief sculptures with figurative decoration, inscriptions, and dates, but also ceramic bowls. Both these elements and others, scattered in the cells and courtyard, date to the Middle and Late Byzantine periods (particularly the eleventh-thirteenth centuries). This confirms the existence of an earlier church on the same spot as the later one or nearby. Αncient sculptures were also used in the monastery. These include a limestone funerary stele built into the katholikon’s south wall and two Ionic capitals, one of which serves as a base for a church column.

 

INSCRIPTIONS 

An inscription consisting of five lines is carved on a sandstone block, 0.56 metres high, on the top left corner of the central apse’s window frame. The inscription reads:

†ετως/

,ζ Ρ Ε΄ (= 7105 = 1596 / 97)/

ΕΚΤΙΣΤΙ…

(ΤΑΚΕΛΛΙΑ)…..

Unfortunately, the end of the third and fifth lines cannot be read because of the way the block is imbedded in the masonry. The inscription’s vertical orientation suggests that the text was incised before the block was built into this or any other wall. This part of the sanctuary apse, therefore, post-dates 1597.

 

WALL PAINTINGS 

The iconographical program of the naos is divided horizontally into three registers. Full height hierarchs, prophets, apostles, ascetics, etc, occupy the lower register on the north, west, and south walls. The middle register depicts saints’ martyrdoms. A particularly extended version of the Pasa Pnoe (Psalms 148-150) appears on the west wall; scenes from the life and miracles of Saint Nicholas on the north. Various figures and busts decorate the pillars. Finally, the Akathistos Hymnos occupies the third register. Scenes from the life and miracles of Jesus Christ decorate the barrel vaults of the cross.

The usual subjects are organized in registers within the sanctuary. Old Testament themes, figures of hierarchs and apostles in various stances, and saints’ martyrdoms are fairly well preserved in the apses and on the walls, vaults, and pillars. Christ Pantokrator surrounded by a decorative frieze occupies the dome; the enthroned Virgin Platytera appears in the central apse.

Although covered with soot and despite later re-paintings and restorations, the wall paintings, which date to the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries, are fairly well preserved. Some areas, particularly in the lower registers, have been covered with varnish, now highly oxydized. Almost the entire painted surface shows salt encrustations.

Some restoration of the upper registers took place in the summer of 1999.

DOCUMENTS

The surviving archives and monastic code provide evidence for restoration and building activities during the eighteenth century, but also for internal matters. The archives contain documents dating from 1700-1800, including patriarchal sigillia and Turkish documents. Many of its 381 documents are minutes of auctions, according to which the monastery auctioned or sold many of its properties. The monastery also holds 25-30 old books, all of them restored, with lists of monks and monastic landholdings.  

A most interesting document concerning the monastery is a report by A. Momferatos, engineer of the Tripoli Roadworks, now in the State General Archives. The report includes a quick estimate of the cost of renovation of a monastic dependency in Tripoli, with a detailed description, drawing of the façade, and ground plan of the two-storey house, dated August 15, 1850, as well as an estimate of the cost of renovation of the monastery, with a detailed description of its buildings as preserved in 1852.

HEIRLOOMS

The monastery of Agios Nikolaos Varson holds a number of portable icons, sacerdotal vestments, and saint’s relics, such as those of the neomartyrs Demetrios and Paul, patron saints of Tripoli. The relics also include:

a. Part of the skull of Ayia Paraskevi in a silver reliquary inscribed with the date 1689.

b. Part of the relic of the leg of the young Saint Kerykos, who was martyred aged three together with his mother, Saint Ioulitta.

c. Part of the relic of Saint Nikephoros, Patriarch of Constantinople.

d. Parts of the relics of various Church martyrs, such as Tryphon, George, Charalambos, and others, inside two small reliquaries.

e. Relics of “the fathers from the Holy Lavra of Saint Sabbas”, kept inside a wooden reliquary.

f. Part of the holy relic of the Megalomartyr (great martyr) Barbara, which was saved from the fire at the homonymous church in Tripoli in 1987.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

-        Αντωνακάτου Ντ.- Μαύρος Τ., Ελληνικά Μοναστήρια, Πελοπόννησος, Μονές Αρκαδίας, τ. Β΄, Αθήνα 1979, σ. 31-38.

-        Ν. Βέης, «Βυζαντιναί Επιγραφαί Γορτυνίας», Βυζαντινά Χρονικά , 1904, σ.66.

-        Γριτσόπουλος T. A., «Η Εκκλησία της Πελοποννήσου μετά την Άλωσιν», E.E.B.Σ. 29 (1959), σ. 302-306.

-        Γριτσόπουλος Τ. Α., «Τα Μοναστήρια της Αρκαδίας», Πελοποννησιακή Πρωτοχρονιά 1965, σ. 177-178.

-        Κόντη Β., «Ιστορική Γεωγραφία της Αρκαδίας (395 –1209)», Σύμμικτα 6 (1985), σ. 111-112.

-        Λέκκος Ε. Π., Τα Μοναστήρια του Ελληνισμού, τ. Β΄, Αθήνα 1998, σ. 70.

-        Μουτσόπουλος Ν.Κ., Αι παρά την Τρίπολιν μοναί Γοργοεπηκόου, Βαρσών και Επάνω Χρέπας, Ε.Ε.Β.Σ., έτος ΚΘ΄, 1959, σ. 416-435.

-        Παπαγιάννης Αθ., Ιστορία της Νεστάνης Αρκαδίας, τ. 1, Αθήνα 2001, σ. 285-288.

-        Σαραντάκης Π., Αρκαδία, τα μοναστήρια και οι εκκλησίες της, Οδοιπορικό 10 αιώνων , Αθήνα 2000, σ. 31-34.

-        Αρχ. Χρυσοστόμου Σκλήφα Ηγουμένου, Η Ιερά Μονή του Αγίου Νικολάου των Βαρσών, Έκδοσις Ιεράς Μητροπόλεως Μαντινείας και Κυνουρίας, Τρίπολη 1996.