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Monastery of Epano Chrepa

LOCATION

The monastery of the Panagia of Epano Chrepa is located a few kilometres west of Tripoli, near the village of Perithorio, on the south slopes of Mount Mainalo, 1,280 metres above sea level. The monastery affords spectacular views over the plain of Tripoli.

The ancient Arcadians considered Mount Mainalo the home of many deities besides those of the Dodekatheon, such as Pan, the Mainalian Dryads, the Amadryads, and the Bacchai. With the advent of Christianity, places of pagan worship were re-sanctified with the construction of Christian churches. No evidence for the new religion dating from the Early Christian period, however, was found on Mount Mainalo. In the Late Byzantine period monks chose this particular site for a monastery dedicated to the Panagia Epanochrepitissa.

Mount Mainalo comprises three peaks: Ostrakina to the north (1,981 metres), Aidini in the middle (1,849 metres), and Epano Chrepa to the south (1,559 metres). The monastery is located on a strategic site that controls the passes from Mainalo into Gortynia, through the Falanthos villages. The Panagia monastery served as refuge when several battles took place nearby.

The shear mass, peaks, and gorges of Mount Mainalo have always provided natural defense. The monks have worked the mountain’s steep schist slope into a series of terraces appropriate for buildings, gardens, and, in recent times, parking for the pilgrim’s vehicles.

 

NAME 

Dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin, the monastery is known by the name Moni Epano Chrepas or Epanochrepitissa (Monastery of Epano Chrepa) after the nearest peak of Mount Mainalo. Some scholars believe that the name originates from the Slavic word for heap (chrepa). N.K. Alexopoulos links the name to the word chalepos (> chalepa > chlepa > chrepa), which designates barren land.

 

HISTORICAL EVIDENCE 

The monastery already held the stavropegial privilege in February 1581, when the Patriarch of Constantinople Jeremiah II bestowed the same privilege on the monastery’s dependency of Agios Georgios at Tripoli, which was considered a small monastery. The patriarchal document mentions that:

 

“among the stavropegial foundations is the holy monastery of the Panagia, which lies on the mountain of Epano Chrepa, near Hydropolitza [=Tripoli], the patriarchal and stavropegial, outside which, amidst the vineyards, is the small monastery of Agios Georgios, which is said to be deserted and with no possessions, but which is useful as a dependency for the monastery of the Panagia of Epano Chrepa, so that the monks who serve and tend the nearby vineyards and fields donated to the Panagia monastery by this stavropegial privilege have a place to stay instead of having to take the long and difficult road up the mountain to the monastery every day.”

 

The latest preserved sigillion is by Gregory V and dates from March 1798. A passage in this sigillion suggests that the previous sigillion was issued by Gabriel IV (1780-1785), after the Greek uprising of the Orlofika. Whether another sigillion existed before Gabriel IV’s is not known. Jeremiah II’s sigillion of 1581 was probably the second of a series of sigillia concerning the monastery.

In a Venetian census prior to 1715, the Epano Chrepa monastery and its dependencies comprised three churches, nineteen cells or houses, 123 vineyards, nine olive trees, and two pastures. The monastery currently holds several documents, including a few in Turkish, which provide information on the monastery’s life. The documents that date from 1766 to the Greek War Independence record a series of sales and purchases, donations, loans, real estate disputes etc. Some documents suggest that the Turks often visited the monastery. The monastery also holds six manuscript codices: two of the seventeenth century, one of the eighteenth century, and three of the nineteenth century.

The monastery’s foundation codex and documents dating from the time of the Greek War of Independence record several historical events and illustrate the role played by the monastery during difficult periods. The siege of Tripoli, the violent suppression of the 1770 uprising, and the annihilation of the Albanians in 1770, are all events that sealed the monastery’s fate. A simple-minded monk wrote an account of the failed Albanian siege of Tripoli, after which the area suffered greatly – the account is erroneously dated “March 19, 1769”, since Tripoli was besieged from March 29 until April 9, 1770: “On March 19, 1769, [Albanians] came to take the land and on April 13 they opened the keep and took the monastery’s vessels and the monastery’s 878 sheep, and up on the mountain they killed Abbot Kallinikos, aged 85, may his memory live eternally.”

In June 1770, after the Orlofika uprising, the pasha of Tripoli requested that all the peasants and the monks of the Epano Chrepa monastery gather at Perthori to pay homage and plead forgiveness for the events. The document signed by “the most magnificent Muslim master Hasan effendi, representative of his Highness Misin Zate Meymith Pasha,” reports that: “the inhabitants have the potential and will to pay homage and be slaves (ragiades) as before, but became wild because they did not know better. For this reason, those who come and prostrate and beg for the mercy of the great ruler will be forgiven and left unharmed. And do not omit to bring a gift to show your submission.”

One document records the plague that desolated the Peloponnese during the Ottoman period; several others report more or less important events in the monastery’s life from 1791 onwards. A report submitted to the Patriarchate by the Epano Chrepa monastery in December 1791 illustrates vividly its tense state under Turkish rule: “We provided an honest account and precise record, and also presented your sigillion. But to no avail. It is impossible to describe, most Holy Master, what we and our monastery endure on a daily basis from the repeated visits of various wretched Turks, as we approach Tripoli. Our few animals do not satisfy their voracity. Our meager yearly produce does not meet even half a year for them. And after having suffered abuse and beatings and all kinds of hardship and horrible things we have given up, we cannot endure anymore harm from them. If God’s mercy abandons us and the Church’s help does not reach us in time, our monastery will be ruined. Cyril, our abbot, is a capable, hard-working man. We are very happy with him…”. Further on, the same document lists the monastery’s estate, which included numerous objects and relics kept at the monastery, a vast number of livestock and landholdings around the monastery, and dependencies.

After the Orlofika uprising and the siege of Tripoli, the monastery also contributed significantly to the Greek War of Independence, thanks to its location and the monks’ willingness. Various documents mention that the Turks looted and burnt the monastery on March 29, 1821. The monastery contributed 10,000 piasters for the fighters’ animals’ fodder, 1,000 piasters for arms, 1,000 piasters as a loan to the Peloponnesian Senate in 1822, 1,500 piasters at different times, and sacred vessels worth 1,250 piasters to the mint. Moreover, three monks fought in the battlefield. A report by Abbot Cyril dated June 19, 1833, relates that the monastery was burnt to the ground by Ibrahim Pasha; it also provides information of the state of the monastery’s buildings and lists its property.

The Epano Chrepa monastery was for men until 1934 with Kallinikos as its last abbot. It became a nunnery by decree of Archbishop Germanos of Mantineia in 1935.

ARCHITECTURE

1. The residential buildings: description and construction phases

The monastery’s main building complex is trapezoidal with three wings surrounding a courtyard’s on the north, east, and south. A tall enclosure wall with a large arched entrance gate at its centre lines the courtyard’s west side. The south wing on the steepest side is the latest addition to the complex.

 

a. North wing

The katholikon (main church) is attached to the east side of the two-storied north wing. The east part of this wing consists of two consecutive domed spaces. On the west, an elongated vaulted space occupies the ground floor and a series of rooms the second storey. On the south, a second-storey corridor with arched windows corresponds to a ground-floor portico with five arches; a staircase connects the portico and corridor. The wing is stone-built, except for the second-storey partition walls and corridor and the ground-floor arcade, which are made of brick. The corridor’s floor and the staircase are of poured concrete. The roof is wood.

The way in which the katholikon is attached to the north wing, using the latter’s west wall as its east wall, suggests that the north wing pre-dates the church. An old photograph from the Georgios Lampakis archive, however, suggests that the church was contemporary with the north wing’s elongated ground-floor room. With its vaulted spaces and thick walls this ground floor can therefore be dated to the earliest building phase. The north wing’s second storey and the west enclosure wall were added later, possibly in 1861, as indicated by the date inscribed over the main entrance gate. The wing was remodelled in 1937: the portico and corridor were added, the second-storey interior was divided using brick partition walls, and a new roof was constructed after raising the second storey’s west part. The photograph in the Lampakis archive and the study of the window frames suggest that the arched windows on the north façade also date from this period.

 

b. South wing

The south wing is three-storied, with a basement below its central part, accessed by a steep transversal staircase. An exterior staircase on the building’s west side connects the ground and top floors, which consist of rows of small rooms. The ground-floor rooms line a portico with six arches similar to the arches of the north wing; the second-storey rooms line a corridor that faces the courtyard. The southern second-storey rooms open onto balconies. An old oven occupies the building’s northwest corner.

The basement and ground floor are stone-built; the second story and arcade are built of brick. The basement and ground floor are used for storage. The second-storey rooms are monks’ cells, with the largest room serving as a living-reception room.

The basement and ground floor probably belong to the earliest building phase. The second storey does not appear in the Lampakis photograph.

 

c. East wing

The east wing is shaped like a squat pi, with the katholikon tucked between it and the north wing. Attached to the katholikon’s south façade is a small, single nave chapel dedicated to Agia Paraskevi. West of the chapel is an anteroom, probably built after the Second World War, which supports a small poured concrete belfry.

The ground floor comprises two small, dark, vaulted rooms, each with its own small arched doorway opening onto the courtyard under a large solid arch. North of these rooms, a narrow vaulted passage connects the courtyard with the area east of the monastery. The second storey consists of a single elongated room with a closed corridor to its west; a balcony lines the corridor’s west side.

The walls are stone-built, except for the one defining the second-storey corridor, which is made of brick. The vaulted ground-floor rooms probably belong to the first construction phase. The second storey was built later, possibly after Greek independence.

A three-storied L-shaped building, which probably belongs to a different construction phase, occupies the monastery’s southeast corner. Another two-storied building was added on the east side, and a third floor was added to it later. Two more two-storied annexes stand west of the west wing.

2. The katholikon

The katholikon (main church) occupies the northwest corner of the complex. The original building, a single-nave, barrel-vaulted basilica, was later extended to the west by 2.20 metres. The building is now 9 metres long and 3.65 metres wide, with external walls 0.90 metres thick. On the east side, the semi-circular sanctuary apse is decorated by a dentil terracotta course and pierced by a light shaft framed by limestone ashlar blocks. Three more apses are set into the walls’ thickness: a semi-circular apse in the northeast corner, which serves as the prothesis, and two rectangular apses. A wall originally separated the nave from the barrel-vaulted narthex to its west, but was later demolished in order to unify the two spaces. Its existence is confirmed by the break between the wall paintings of the nave and narthex and the different height of the vaults in these two spaces.

Apart from its westward extension, the church was remodelled several times. In 1937, the chapel of Agia Paraskevi was added against its south façade. The chapel’s sanctuary apse features a later two-lobed window.

The katholikon is entered from the south side through two doors, of which one opens into the narthex and the other into the nave. A carved Byzantine templon epistyle was reused in the nave’s doorframe, which is later than doorframe in the narthex. A small rectangular window in the north wall is the primary light source. Another rectangular window is located in the sanctuary apse, and a small occulus directly below the vault’s keystone. The templon is fairly recent, probably contemporary with the church’s 1937 repairs.

When Nikolaos Moutsopoulos visited the monastery in 1950, the katholikon’s walls were already covered by thick wall plaster. The masonry is probably rubble with limestone and lime mortar, typical of the Ottoman period. The massive external appearance of the sanctuary apse, which occupies almost the entire east side, supports this hypothesis. Another characteristic of the Ottoman period is the shape of the sanctuary window and the location of the dentil terracotta band.

The three apses also occur on other churches of neighbouring Arkadian provinces, such as the church of the Dormition at Dimitsana and the church of Agios Ioannis at Zygovisti; an arrangement similar to that of the east apse can be seen in the churches of Agios Nikolaos at Zygovisti and Agios Panteleimon at Stemnitsa. The vaulted, single-nave basilica occurs throughout the Peloponnese and Greece from the Byzantine period. It became particularly popular, however, in the Post-Byzantine period, primarily for chapels and small remote churches, and, occasionally, for monastic katholika, particularly those that developed from hermitages.

 

SCULPTURE

A marble block (0.99 x 0.14 x 0.16 metres), the extremities of which have been broken off, was reused as a lintel over the katholikon’s south door. The block is decorated with a guilloche pattern that forms consecutive circles filled with fire wheels and rosettes. Nikolaos Moutsopoulos dated the block to the eleventh century and believes that it may have been brought here from Mantineia. Tassos Gritsopoulos datesd it to the period before the Latin conquest and considers it part of the templon of the original monastery’s katholikon.

Two fragmentary sculptures of the same width, now on the monastery’s ground floor, are related to the above lintel. The first piece of sculpture (0.26 × 0.32 metres) features relief flame-shaped leaves, a square anchor with spiralling double stem, and leaves. Similar motifs decorate the second, more worn, piece of sculpture (0.77 × 0.32 metres).

When visiting the monastery on August 28, 1895, Georgios Lampakis noted “several carved marble blocks of the ninth century, decorated with different types of leaves”. The lintel was probably one of these sculptures.

A marble plaque, 1.00 × 0.74 × 0.21 metres, probably a parapet slab, was reused as an altar table. The plaque’s obverse depicts a cross with flaring arms at the centre. The cross stands on a circle supported by a triangle, from which a climber consisting of three symmetrically spiralling stems sprouts. Two flame-shaped leaves and pairs of rosettes decorate respectively the slab’s sides and corners. The motif of the flowering cross inside a triumphal arch is particularly popular in the decoration of Byzantine templa. A later inscription carved on the cross’ horizontal arm reads † ΓΑΒΡΙΗΛ ΙΕΡΟΜΟΝΑΧΟΥ (Of the monk Gabriel). According to monastic tradition, this parapet slab was brought in from Mantineia to cover Gabriel’s grave, possibly in the seventeenth century. Moutsopoulos dates the slab to the eleventh century.

Scholarly opinion on the date and origin of these sculptures vary. Lampakis dated them to the ninth century. Moutsopoulos suggested an eleventh-century date and a provenance from Mantineia. Gritsopoulos, but also Diana Antonakatou and Takis Mavros in a more recent study, attribute the sculptures to a Byzantine building that existed in the monastery before the Latin conquest, in the ninth or, possibly, the tenth-eleventh centuries. The presence of these sculptures suggests that the monastery of Epano Chrepa was founded in the tenth or eleventh centuries.

 

WALL PAINTINGS

The katholikon and its westward extension were decorated with wall paintings, now covered by a thick layer of soot. Damaged by humidity, the original wall plaster has fallen in places and has been replaced by modern wall plaster.

The recognizable scenes include the twenty-four Oikoi of the Akathistos Hymnos, arranged in framed panels of equal size. Higher up are the Life, Passion, and Miracles of Christ. The Betrayal is depicted on the south wall. Stylized mountains are visible on the north wall and below them an unusual scene that follows the Deposition, with Christ lying in the centre surrounded by many figures.

Christ Pantokrator surrounded by angels dominates the vault. The four evangelists occupy the corners, as in churches with pendentives. The decoration of the sanctuary apse, prothesis, and diakonikon is hardly visible, except for certain scenes from the martyrdom of saints and apostles, and the panel of the Extreme Humility, which are better preserved.

Georgios Lampakis noted several sixteenth-century graffiti on the painted surface. Tassos Gritsopoulos attributes the paintings to Cretan artist and dates them no later than the sixteenth century. The artist used earthy colours, such as different variations of ochre, and took particular care of the faces, which he rendered with nobility and deep spirituality.

The west wall, which belongs to a later extention, was decorated by a different artist, who chose to depict the Pasa Pnoe (Psalms 148-150), a scene normally placed in the narthex. A red band frames the panel that depicts Christ in glory, holding an open book; dozens of ecclesiastical figures in medalions form a circle around the central figure. The scene is incribed with a passage from Psalm 148: ΕΝΗΤΕ ΤΟΝ ΚΝ ΕΚ ΤΗC ΓΗC ΔΡΑΚΩΝΤΕC ΚΙ ΠΑCΕ ΑΒΙ CΥ ΠΥΡ (Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths, lightning …). 

INSCRIPTIONS

During their visit to the monastery, Diana Antonakatou and Takis Mavros reportedly identified a plaque from an old fountain inside the courtyard. The plaque (0.38 × 0.53 metres) was decorated simply and inscribed (probably by Abbot Kallinikos): 1742 | ΚΛΝΚ ΙΡΜΝΧ (1742, Kallinikos, the monk). Inside the basement, they found a marble plaque (0.55 × 0.25 metres) inscribed ΓΕΓΟΝΕ Η ΠΑΡΟΥCΑ | ΑΝΑΚΕΝΙCIC ΤΩΝ Κ(ΕΛ) | ΛΙΟΝ ΤΟΥΤΟΝ ΔΙΑ | CΙΝΡΟΜΙC ΤΟΥ (These cells were renovated with funds provided by …) and another (0.52 × 0/25 metres) inscribed 1690 ΔΙΑ CΥΝΔ | ΡΟΜΗC ΤΟΥ ΠΑΝΟCIO | TATOY CΕΡΑΦΙΜ ΙΕΡΟ | ΜΟΝΑΧΟΥ (1690 with funds provided by the most holy monk Serapheim).

 

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