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Monastery of Agios Nikolaos Sintzas

LISTED historical monument with a surrounding 200-metre protection zone by Ministerial Decree ΥΠΠΟ/ΑΡΧ/Β1/Φ30/45723/1577/7-11-1997 (Government Gazette 1098/Β/12-12-1997)

 

LOCATION – ACCESS

The monastery of Agios Nikolaos Sintzas is located six kilometres northeast of Leonidio, the capital of the region of Tsakonia. Situated in the fertile valley of the Daphnon stream, Leonidio succeeded the ancient city of Brasies or Prasies, one of the eighteen cities of the League of the Free Lakonians, with sanctuaries of Asklepios and Achilles. The earliest reference to Leonidio is in a 1293 chrysobulle of Andronikos II Palaiologos, which mentions the church of Agios Leonides, from which the town took its name. Modern Leonidio was founded by the inhabitants of Prastos, after this town’s destruction in 1826.

The monastery is built deep into the Leonidio valley, in the cavernous hollows of a solid rock-face dotted with the hermitages of ascetics, who settled there probably in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. Deeper hollows were selected and used ingeniously to create a solid, dry, spacious plateau for the main monastic building, which comprises two superimposed wings of cells and guestrooms and a katholikon (main church) in the centre. Shallower hollows house individual hermitages (east of the main building), storerooms, and service areas.

NAME

According to one hypothesis, the monastery’s epithet (Sintzas) derives from the Tsakonian dialect and, more specifically, from the word sytza (sykia = fig tree). Several narratives on the monastery’s establishment and name involve a fig tree that grew inside the cave that was to become the monastery. According to other hypotheseis, Sintza comes from the Turkish words since (made of clay) or sincap (squirrel or other animal used for its fur, or fur garment). In a 1819 testament, the monastery is referred to as Insintza.

The name is written with an iota instead of an upsilon, as it appears in the sigillia, because its relation with the word sytza/sykia is not confirmed.

TRADITION AND FOLKLORE The Sintza cave

The Sintza cave appears in various myths and narratives. It is here that Ino, princess of Thebes, daughter of King Kadmos, raised her nephew, Dionysus, the god of wine, figs, and walnuts. According to tradition, a large fig tree planted inside the cave by Dionysus himself marked the site of the sanctuary where the god was raised. The monastery was named after that fig tree Tis Sytzas, in the Tsakonian dialect.

According to the Greek myth, Semeli placed her son Dionysus inside a larnax, which dolphins brought to the land of Prastos, the coast of Tsakonia. Pausanias reports a different version of this myth: the dead Semeli and her son Dionysus were both inside the larnax, which was washed ashore (εξεβράσθη) at a site that took the name Brasiai after this event. The locals buried Semeli with great honors, and Ino raised the son of Semeli and Zeus inside the cave. In the days of Pausanias, travelers were still shown the cave where Dionysus was raised and the valley of Leonidio, which was dubbed Garden of Dionysus. According to tradition, the body of Saint Leonides was washed ashore on the same spot about a century later. The town of Leonidio was named after the saint, and a church was built on the beach of Plaka in his honour. In fact, the Sintza monastery still owns the site on which the chapel of Agios Leonides stands; this chapel may have been a monastic dependency.

Finally, the spine of a large lizard or crocodile, now in the monastery’s library, is related to yet another narrative. According to tradition, a dragon appeared at Marathia near Leonidio, scaring the pilgrims from Hydra and Spetses visiting Sintza. People from Kranidi killed “the snake” and freed the land.

HISTORICAL FACTS

There is no written evidence on the monastery’s foundation and operation. The monastery was founded before 1622, when a sigillion of Patriarch Cyril I declared the monastery stavropegial. The sigillion mentions the founder’s name, a monk Dionysios, and suggests that the monastery was already fully operational, with a church, buildings, annexes, and monks. In 1875, Michael Deffner found a lead seal, also dated 7130 (=1622), in a damp corner of the monastery and brought it to the National Library in Athens.

In 1653, not long after 1622, the monastery’s stavropegial privilege was renewed. This suggests that the monastery flourished in the mid-seventeenth century. The stavropegial privilege was renewed again in 1798 by Patriarch Gregory V, whose sigillion, now in the National Library of Greece, mentions the previous renewal by Ioannikios II. In the meantime, the land had witnessed the vicissitudes of war, including the armed insurrection of 1770.

The monastery’s decline began in 1828, the year that marked the end of the Greek War of Independence and the birth of the Modern Greek state. With too few monks left, the monastery was merged with that of Karya. In responded, nevertheless, to the call for the creation of schools by the Greek governor Ioannis Kapodistrias. In a document addressed to the Royal Secretary on May 31, 1834, the Prefecture requested a definitive decision on the dissolution or not of several monasteries and the settlement of their landholdings. The document recommends the dissolution of the Sintza and Reontino monasteries among others, and the transfer of their landholdings to the monastery of Artokosta. In 1953, the Sintza monastery became a nunnery. The monastery celebrates the recovery of the relics of Saint Nicholas on May 9 and the memory of Saint Dionysios on October 3.

 

ARCHITECTURE

1. The monastery

Neither the katholikon (main church) or the other buildings provide any evidence on the monastery’s establishment, organization, and operation. The better-preserved buildings have good-quality rubble masonry with large quantities of mortar. Made with ceramic mortar, the vaults are especially strong.

Outside the monastery is a water spring and next to this a rock-hewn Roman tomb with a fragmentary inscription (published by Deffner) that reads: ΤΩΠΟC ΤΙΒ ΚΛΑΥΔΙΟΥ ΕΥΡΩΤA. A French monk also left his mark on the monastery that was his home at an unknown date; his French epitaph names him Christopher of Madagascar and reads “On revient toujours à sa première amour” (One always returns to his first love). A hermitage at the monastery’s north extremity blocks the entrance to an explored cave of great interest.

A plaque inscribed with the date 1783 is built into the lintel above the monastery’s gate. The date probably corresponds to a renovation, since the monastery was already mentioned in a patriarchal sigillion of 1622. From this gate, an open corridor flanked by the rock face on the left and the deep gorge on the right leads to another arched wooden door that opens onto a vaulted passage. Over the vaulted passage are the monks’ cells, the guest rooms, and a two-storied, multilobed belfry. Further ahead is a small courtyard with the church of Agios Nikolaos on the left. On the right, a parapet guarding against the sheer drop allows a splendid view towards Leonidio. North of the church, the monastery’s residential buildings are two-storied, with storerooms on the ground floor and monks’ cells, guestrooms, and the abbot’s quarters on the first floor. All of the buildings have tile roofs and are tucked into rock hollows. Next to the main church, on the site where, according to tradition, the old icon of Saint Nicholas was recovered, is a chapel dedicated to Saint Dionysios.

 

2. The katholikon

Built in the early seventeenth century (possibly ever earlier), the katholikon suffered repeatedly through the centuries and, therefore, retains little of its original appearance. The core, however, of a small single-nave church with three apses of the Athonite type and a small dome inscribed in a square is still preserved. By carving the rock face, the church was extended four metres to the west, and is now approximately 7 metres long and four metres wide. Four steps lead to the entrance door on the south side. The windows are a later addition.

Located four steps lower than the courtyard, the katholikon proper is of the cross-in-square type with an eight-sided dome on a four-sided base. Three apses protrude on the east façade: the shallow side apses of the prothesis and diakonikon, the latter with a narrow window; and the large, semi-circular sanctuary apse at the centre, with a large arched window. A characteristic dented band of terracotta bricks decorates all three apses, which are paved with ceramic tiles. The entrance door on the south side is flanked by two arched windows. Above one of the windows, at the centre of the south façade, is an arched niche with a dented frame both on the inside and out. The katholikon’s lime-washed interior shows no traces of wall paintings.

HEIRLOOMSPORTABLE ICONS

The monastery holds several noteworthy manuscripts, old editions, and saint’s relics (Saints Nikolaos, Tryphon, Charalampos, Paraskevi, Ioannis Eleimon, Panteleimon, Dionysios Areopagites etc).

The carved wood templon, which features wine scrolls and birds, holds four despotic icons depicting Christ as Great Priest, the Virgin and Child, John the Baptist, and Saint Nicholas. Two of these icons date to the mid-seventeenth century and were donated by the famous Likinioi family of Monemvasia. A dedicatory inscription at the base of the icon of Christ Great Priest reads: †ΔΕΙCΙC ΤΟΥ ΔΟΥΛΟΥ ΤΟΥ ΘΕΟΥ ΑΝΔΡΕΟΥ ΛΙΚΙΝΙΟΥ ΤΟΥ ΕΚ ΜΟΝΟΒΑCΙΑC αχμε (Prayer of God’s servant Andreas Likinios of Monemvasia, 1645). Another, at the feet of John the Baptish reads: †ΔΕΙCΙC ΤΟΥ ΔΟΥΛΟΥ ΤΟΥ ΘΕΟΥ ΜΑΝΟΥCΟΥ ΜΑΝΤΙ ΤΟΥ ΕΚ ΜΟΝΕΜΒΑCΙΑC ΑΧΜΒ΄ (Prayer of God’s servant Manousos Mantis of Monemvasia, 1642). Near the templon’s upper edge are fourteen icons with scenes from the Twelve Feasts. The icon of Saint Nicholas on the worship stand was executed “by the hand of Kyriakos Koulidas in the year 1767”.

LIBRARY

Manuscript gospel books with fine decorative designs and calligraphy are kept in the monastery’s library.

DEPENDENCIES

1. Agios Charalampos at Leonidio

The monastery’s dependency of Agios Charalampos at Leonidio serves as a winter residence for the nuns. Its traditional white façade matches the style of the houses of Leonidio. The arched entrance door is on the west side. The church of Agios Charalampos in the courtyard’s southeast corner is surrounded by various buildings containing cells, guestrooms, and service rooms. The original church, a barrel vaulted basilica, approximately 9.50 metres long and 3.50 metres wide, was later extended to the west and north. Of the original church, only the carved wood templon is preserved. The mediocre portable icons date to the nineteenth century. The two-storied buildings of the west side, which house the abbot’s quarters among others, have been renovated.

 

2. Agios Leonides 

Formerly a dependency of the Sintza monastery, the small, single-nave basilica of Agios Leonides stands near the port of Plaka. The earliest reference to a church of Agios Leonides in this region appears in a 1293 chrysobulle of Andronikos II Palaiologos. The original church was therefore built before the end of the thirteenth century. The modern church probably recalls or replaced its Byzantine predecessor. Leonides, one of the first Christian martyrs, was arrested at Troizen in 251, during the persecutions of Decius. He was taken to Corinth and was sentenced to death by drowning together with seven other women martyrs. As in the ancient Greek myth of the dead Semeli and infant Dionysus washing ashore in a larnax and initiating a new era, the later narrative mentions the dead martyr washing ashore on the beach of Leonidio in the third century and initiating the Christian era in the region.

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