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Monastery of Agios Nikolaos Kaltezon

LISTED by Parliamentary Decree 30-9-1938 (Government Gazette 374/Β/14-10-1938)

LOCATION

Agios Nikolaos Kaltezon is located in southern Arcadia, thirty kilometres from Tripoli, eleven kilometres from Kato Asea, and 2.5 kilometres from the village of Kaltezes, which means ‘wells’ in Slavic. The village lies 680 metres above sea level, near the ruins of an ancient city, the so-called Paliochora, which include ancient fortifications and a medieval settlement around the fortress of Saint George (Fortress of Paliochora), with houses, sanctuaries, and other installations. East of the village, the toponym Tis Elenis to Pigadi (Eleni’s Well) suggests that the Eleneia beauty contest took place there in antiquity.

The monastery was built on a small plateau of strategic military importance. Founded in the late eighteenth century, it has been operating as a nunnery under the Metropolis of Mantineia and Kynouria since 1920 and still hosts four nuns.

 

FOLKLORE – TALES OF THE MONASTERY’S FOUNDATION  

Popular narratives regarding the monastery’s foundation relate it to the miraculous epiphany of Agios Nikolaos and the discovery of his icon. The contents and formulation of these narratives vary, as does their origin: popular, religious and scholarly. A favoured narrative is that of Ilias Lyronis.

A native of Kaltezes, Lyronis lived and worked in Smyrna, where he immigrated with his brother in search of a better life in the mid-eighteenth century. Although engaged to be married, he postponed his wedding after dreaming three times of Saint Nicholas, who told him to return to his homeland, find a remote chapel, excavate for the saint’s icon where indicated by the saint himself, built the saint a church, and become a monk. Although unspecified, the narrative’s chapel might be identified as that of Agios Christophoros-Aixiophoros, after which the entire region is named. Lyronis followed the saint’s advice and returned to his homeland. In 1696, with the help of his fellow villagers, he excavated the icon of Saint Nicholas with the intention of returning to Smyrna to found a church there. But the saint interrupted the journey to Smyrna, forcing Lyronis to return to Kaltezes where he raised money, founded the monastery, and became its first abbot.

Lyronis, who took the monastic name Ananias, first built a monk’s cell and a chapel to house “a lamp that burned day and night before the holy icon”. He worked hard and led a saintly life of self-sacrifice; this earned him the epithet ‘Agiopateras’ (Holy father) in local tradition. As founder and abbot of the monastery, Lyronis experienced a second miracle involving his patron saint. He complained to the saint that the Turkish aga, who regularly looted his monastery, went unpunished. In response, the saint immobilized the Turk until the latter compensated the monastery with various donations, including oil for the saint’s lamp. Whenever asked, the Turk confirmed the miracle, and he and his men stayed away from the monastery.

A different story relates that the monastery was founded on April 22, 1719, by the hermits Anthimos and Kallinikos, who built a church and cells near their hut. Their endeavour lasted a good forty years and required the help of their Christian neighbours and of several Ottomans.

HISTORICAL EVIDENCE OF THE MONASTERY’S FOUNDATION

Built at the southernmost end of the Mantineia Province, the Kaltezon Monastery was begun by the hermits Anthimos and Kallinikos in 1719, shortly after the ousting of the Venetians (Second Venetian Occupation: 1687-1715) and the unsettled first years of Turkish re-settlement. It is possible that the two hermits founded or, more probably, renovated an earlier monastery that had been damaged.

The construction of the church of Saint Nicholas and the residential buildings began in 1720. Within forty years, the number of monks rose to twenty, and the monastery acquired several landholdings through donations. Several inscriptions built into the walls of the monastic buildings confirm that construction took place in the eighteenth century (completed by 1795), probably on the ruins of an earlier church or monastic katholikon. From 1795 until the arrival of Ibrahim Pasha in the Peloponnese, the monastery was wealthy and even owned an aqueduct.

The monastery is one of the most famous in Mantineia as it hosted a most important event of the Greek War of Independence, the First Assembly, which led to the formation of the Peloponnesian Senate in May 1821. After several days of meetings, with Petrompeis Mavromichalis as president, thirty-seven notables, representatives of the provinces, established the Peloponnesian Senate and elected six commissaries, Mavromichalis, Theodoritos Bishop of Vresthena, Sotiris Charalampis, Thanasis Kanakaris, Anagnostis Deligiannis, and Nikolaos Poniropoulos, with Rigas Palamidis as secretary. This six-member committee became the core of a first government, which assumed responsibility for the country’s armaments and military organization. The committee signed its first protocol on May 26, 1821, and agreed to meet again in Stemnitsa. On June 1st, again at Kaltezes, the committee signed the first circular that was sent to all the notables and important people of the Peloponnese.

Two years earlier, in May 1819, the Kaltezon monastery had hosted the first meeting of notables and chieftains whose objective was Greek independence from the Turks. This meeting, which ended inconclusively, took place in a small secret cell (3.00 x 5.00 metres) in the monastery’s northwest wing, which was later converted into the church of Agios Karpos.  

In 1825, Ibrahim Pasha besieged and set fire to the monastery, destroying the north cells and all of the monastery’s documents. The years following Greek independence were a time of economic ruin and obscurity for the monastery, which provided refuge for the surrounding populations during the uprising. Preserved to this day, an underground secret passage, with an exit on the monastery’s southwest side, saved many persecuted men.

On January 20, 1838, the monastery was declared a ‘historical monument’ by royal decree. It was closed on February 25, 1846, again by royal decree, for a lack of monks, and annexed to the Tsipiana (Gorgoepikoos) monastery as a dependency. In 1921, the monastery was reorganized as a coenobitical nunnery, independent of the Tsipiana monastery. The same year saw the official celebration of the centenary of the 1821 uprising and the First Peloponnesian Assembly, and the conversion of the assembly’s venue into a church dedicated to the Apostle Karpos, whose May 26 feastday coincides with the day that the Assembly was sworn into office.

The monastery was extensively rebuilt after 1921. It housed a Vocational School for Young Women between 1925 and 1932 initiated by abbess Euphemia Varouxaki, who was succeeded by Agapi Anagnostopoulou. Renovation of old structures and construction of new buildings continued in subsequent years. 

ARCHITECTURE

1. DESCRIPTION OF THE BUILDING COMPLEX 

The Monastery of Agios Nikolaos Kaltezon (or Kaltezias) is a beautiful, picturesque building complex, with well-preserved early cells. Despite later restorations and construction, it has retained its original fortified character, with its two-storey residential buildings forming a square (each side approximately fifty metres long) around a courtyard and the church of Saint Nicholas in the centre.  

An inscribed plaque over the monastery’s main gate reads: “This monastery of Saint Nicholas, named ‘of Kalteza’, was built during the reign of Selim III, with the contribution of its abbot, the monk Ananias of the village of Roumani and Kalteza, for the salvation of his soul and for the repose of the later fathers, in the salvation year 1795.” (Η ΠΑΡΟΥΣΑ ΜΟΝΗ ΤΟΥ ΑΓΙΟΥ/ ΝΙΚΟΛΑΟΥ ΤΗΣ ΚΑΛΤΕΖΑΣ ΕΠΟ/ΝΟΜΑΖΟΜΕΜΗ ΩΚΟΔΟΜΙΘΗ ΕΠΙ/ΒΑΣΙΛΕΙΑΣ ΣΕΛΙΜ Γ’ ΔΙΑ ΣΥΝΔΡΟΜΗΣ / ΤΟΥ ΗΓΟΥΜΕΝΕΥΟΝΤΟΣ Κ(ΥΡΙΟ)Υ ΑΝΑΝΙΟΥ ΜΟΝΑ/ΧΟΥ ΕΚ ΚΩΜΗΣ ΡΟΥΜΑΝΗ ΚΑΙ ΚΑΛΤΕΖΑΣ / ΧΑΡΙΝ ΨΥΧΙΚΗΣ ΤΟΥ ΣΩΤΗΡΙΑΣ ΚΑΙ ΑΝΑ/ΠΑΥΣΕΩΣ ΤΩΝ ΜΕΤΑΓΕΝΕΣΤΕΡΩΝ ΠΑΤΕΡΩΝ/ΕΝ ΕΤΕΙ CΩΤΗΡΙΩ / 1795).

Scattered architectural elements, such as a column shaft and part of a carved templon architrave built into the katholikon’s cornice, suggest the existence of an earlier church under or near the katholikon. During Turkish sieges, those inside the monastery could escape through the underground passage in the complex’s southwest corner.

The monastery of Kaltezes was chosen for the meeting of the Peloponnesian Senate for its location, both remote and strategic, quickly accessible equally from Tripoli, Kalamata, and the Mani, and easily defensible in the event of attack. Aware of the monastery’s fortified character, Ibrahim Pasha, set fire to the complex and surrounding oak forest in retaliation after a battle. The church didn’t burn, but the wings were severely damaged. After Ibrahim’s departure, the monks returned and rebuilt part of the ground-floor cells. All of the residential wings were restored from 1915 to the eve of the Second World War. The southeast cell, where the Peloponnesian Senate met, was converted into a church dedicated to Agios Karpos, whose feast is celebrated on May 26.

With the exception of the concrete balconies, the mid-twentieth century construction work lent the residential wings a mixed faux-vernacular/faux-Neoclassical style, typical of many monasteries in the Peloponnese and Central Greece, which spoils the monument’s character.

The monastery is considered a historical monument primarily because of the important events that took place there during the Greek War of Independence rather than its heavily altered architectural features. One must also keep in mind that the monastery’s income comes primarily from agriculture and animal husbandry, whose requirements the vaulted ground floor storerooms in the residential wings serve.

A Vocational School of weaving and home economics for orphan girls functioned for a short time within the monastery. This important initiative, which proved too costly for the monastery to maintain, will be illustrated with the creation of a museum inside the room that still houses the looms and a handicrafts display.

Flowerbeds and a monument for those killed in the 1821 uprising now occupy the internal courtyard. Also, the area of the ‘secret school’ was decorated with religious paintings and scenes related to the Assembly. The secret passage, which monks and fighters used during the Ottoman period, was closed with a metal fence for security reasons. Finally, the installation of electric lighting in 1970 was a major undertaking.

 

2. DESCRIPTION OF THE KATHOLIKON

Beyond the vaulted passage is the stone-built katholikon (main church), a cross-in-square church, eleven metres long and six metres wide, with an octagonal dome, supported by four masonry pillars and two smaller blind domes over the prothesis and diakonikon. The katholikon is dedicated to Saint Nicholas, the Prophet Elijah, and the Transfiguration of Christ. A niche above the building’s south entrance contains the icon of Saint Nicholas; another over the west entrance contains an icon of Christ. A two-storey, triconch belfry rises above the west entrance.

 

Built in 1965, the chapel of Saint Nektarios is located outside the monastery’s enclosure, a few metres to the northwest, inside the monastery’s cemetery. When the monastery became a nunnery, the area intended for the cemetery was closed off by a high wall and iron gate. Part of the relic of Saint Nektarios, donated by father Philotheos Zervakos, abbot of the monastery of Longovarda of Paros, was placed in the chapel on October 13, 1968.

 

PAINTINGS – HEIRLOOMS – INSCRIPTIONS

Today, wall paintings by Sister Irini Kyriazi decorate the katholikon’s interior. The icon of Saint Nicholas, which appears in the Lyronis narrative, and a few other rather artless icons complete the decoration. Kyriazi decorated the naos after the church was extensively restored in 1987-1988, following the Kalamata earthquake of 1986; the dome and sanctuary she had already painted a few years earlier. Kyriazi also executed the wall paintings in the church of the Apostle Karpos (where the Peloponnesian Senate met), the chapel of Agios Nektarios, the monastery’s gate, the ‘secret school’, and the visitor’s refectory. She has also painted several portable icons and other images.

Four portable icons of the eighteenth century (circa 1700) from Smyrna decorate the templon. They depict the Virgin and Child, Christ the Saviour, John the Baptist, and Saint Nicholas. Oral tradition relates that these icons were commissioned by Lyronis in Smyrna. A portable icon with scenes from the life of Saint Nicholas in the upper half and Saint Nicholas and his retinue paying their respects to the enthroned Virgin in the lower half is considered the monastery’s protecting image.

 

RESTORATION WORK

Restoration work is in progress since March 2006 following a Ministerial Decree. The project is financed by the Third Community Support Network, executed by the Technical Service of the Holy Metropolis of Mantineia and Kynouria, and supervised by the local Ephorate (initially Fifth, subsequently Twenty-fifth Ephorate) of Byzantine Antiquities.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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-        Βελισσαρίου Π., «Του Χελμού τα Μέρη. Α΄ Παλιόχωρα Καλτεζών», Πρακτικά του Α΄ Τοπικού Συνεδρίου Λακωνικών Μελετών, Αθήναι 1982-83, σ.273-280.

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-        Μιχαλόπουλος Ανδρέας, Ο Άγιος Νικόλαος Καλτεζών και η Πρώτη Εθνοσυνέλευσις, Αθήνα 1974, σ.9-47.

-        Μουτσοπούλου Ν. Κ., «Αι παρά την Τρίπολιν μοναί Γοργοεπηκόου, Βαρσών και Επάνω Χρέπας από αρχιτεκτονικής ιδίως απόψεως», Επετηρίς Εταιρείας Βυζαντινών Σπουδών, τ. ΚΘ΄(1959) 390-445.

-        Σαραντάκης Π., Αρκαδία: Τα μοναστήρια & οι εκκλησίες της, Οδοιπορικό 10 αιώνων, Αθήνα 2000, σ.81-83.

-        Καρβέλας Γ. Δ., «Η ίδρυσις εν Καλτεζαίς της Πελοποννησιακής Γερουσίας», Χρονικά των Αρκάδων, τ. Α΄, 1959, σ.106-107.