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Monastery of Loukou (Transfiguration of the Saviour)

LISTED historical monument surrounded by a 200-metre protection zone by Ministerial Decree ΥΠΠΕ/ΑΡΧ/Β1/Φ30/9292/256/30-5-1980 (Government Gazette 470/Β/9-5-1980 )

LOCATION AND TOPOGRAPHY

The Loukou monastery is one of most significant monastic centres in Arkadia, the most important one in Kynouria. It is also the best-known and most accessible monastery for visitors arriving from the Argolid, only four kilometres inland from Astros.

The region of Loukou has many interesting sites. According to Konstantinos Romaios, Pausanias’s “Eva, the greatest of Thyrean villages” was located here. So was the sanctuary of Polemokrates, a famous healing centre, which received all who sought help. Herodes Atticus, a luminary of the Roman period, who knew both great glory and happiness, but also the deepest of human sorrows, spent much of his life here in his luxurious villa and estate.

Surrounded by the Zavitsa, Paliopanagia, and Elliniko mountain ranges, the Loukou monastery is located near two historical sites: the town of Astros and the village of Kato Doliana. The monastery dominates the entrance to the plain of the river Tanos, which flows into the Gulf of Argolis 65 kilometres away.

The picturesque Mount Zavitsa, known in antiquity as Temenion Oros, is one of Mount Parnon’s projections toward the Argolid. Set between two gorges and the mountains of Zavitsa in the northeast and Parnon in the southwest, the monastery was built on and near ancient sites. Archaeological excavation has revealed an ancient settlement north of the river Tanos and east of the Loukou rivulet, on the foothills of Mount Parnon. The evidence for a settlement includes pottery, roof tiles, multi-coloured marble plaques, architectural sculpture, traces of mosaic floors, and a Roman aqueduct preserved in the arch of a bridge that crosses the Loukou rivulet and which served as the monastery’s aqueduct with an ample water supply.

The monastery’s katholikon (main church) was probably built over an Early Christian basilica of the fifth century. The remains of ancient buildings, statues, and architectural sculptures confirm Loukou as a sacred site, where the ancient Greek and Christian civilizations merged well.

 

NAME

The etymology of the name Loukou is uncertain. Several scholars, including Anastasios Orlandos and Georgios Sotiriou, tentatively linked the name to the term lykos (wolf), supposing that the monastery was originally named Lykou after the wolves that abounded in the area. Others have suggested that the monastery was built by a Byzantine emperor and was named after a statue of Hera (Juno) Lucina (Lucia) that was discovered when the monastery was founded. A third theory links the name Loukou to a certain Loukas, who may have founded the monastery and became its monk, and a fourth to the term Lykeion (from lux = light). More recently, G. Konstantopoulos (Nea Gortynia, 21/01/1973) pointed out that the toponym Loukou also exists in his homeland, Glatsinia in Gortynia, and probably derives from the loukia, or water channels, used in orchards. Several channels of this sort exist outside the Loukou monastery.

The most convincing hypothesis, however, is supported by oral tradition and recorded in a monastic codex by Abbot Joseph Korallis. According to this explanation, the toponym derives from the Latin Lucus Feroniae (lucus = sacred park or forest), the name of the forest in which Herodes Atticus built his villa. This forest was filled with animals to hunt, water springs, and plane trees. The epithet tis Loukous has been used for the monastery since at least the early seventeenth century.

 

HISTORY, DATE, CONSTRUCTION PHASES 

The Loukou monastery is subordinate to the Archbishopric of Mantineia and Kynouria. Dedicated to the Transfiguration of the Saviour, its katholikon (main church) was built at an unknown date possibly atop the ruins of an Early Christian church of the fifth century. The katholikon was formerly considered Byzantine, but current scholars opt for an early Post-Byzantine date because of certain morphological features. It is possible, however, that an earlier monastery existed on this site.

Throughout its history, the monastery witnessed brilliance due to its able and energetic abbots. It also repeatedly suffered destruction, fires, and dissolution. It has always enjoyed the stavropegial privilege, which enhanced its status. Historical references from the seventeenth century confirm the stavropegial privilege, supporting the hypothesis that the monastery existed in the Byzantine period.

After the fall of Constantinople and the Turkish conquest of the Peloponnese, the monastery was left in desolation. A group of expatriate fur merchants in Constantinople reorganized the monastery and obtained a sigillion that renewed its stavropegial privilege from Patriarch Dionysius II (1546-1555).

According to the monastic code, the katholikon was decorated with wall paintings in 1649, a date also confirmed by the study of the paintings (early seventeenth century). A note kept in the library of the Loukou monastery relates that the Turks set fire to the monastery and the thriving town of Ai Giannis in the mid-seventeenth century, burning all of the church’s sacred vessels and slaying the monks. Another noteworthy event is the 1730 visit of the criminally paranoid Abbot Fourmont, who ravaged ancient Sparta by having workmen destroy the hundreds of ancient inscriptions, sculptures, and artefacts that he saw and copied, in order to increase the rarity and value of his notes.

The monastery’s significant presence and contribution throughout the Ottoman period continued during the Greek War of Independence. Its Abbot Neophytos was a member of the Filiki Etaireia, and several monks contributed to the cause by bringing food and arms to the Vervaina military camp. This angered Ibrahim Pasha, who set fire to the monastery on the eve of its feast day (August 5, 1826). Much of the monastery was burnt to the ground, together with many chrysobulles, precious heirlooms, and important documents. According to tradition, the katholikon was spared thanks to the miraculous intervention of Agios Eustathios, who was depicted in a wall painting and whose face exuded “steaming hot blood” when a Turkish soldier hit it with his gun. The monastery also contributed to the construction of the Scholi tou Genous at Agios Ioannis. In fact, charity was one of the monastery’s major activities, which gave it a philanthropic and hospitable reputation.

An important document for the monastery’s history is a report addressed to the Royal Province of Kynouria on July 11, 1833. This records the state of the monastic buildings, church, and heirlooms, as well as the repairs carried out after the War of Independence. The report mentions the monastery as an ancient stavropegial foundation, built at an unknown date, which survived the fire set by Ibrahim Pasha because the monks removed all inflammable materials from its interior. Abbot Konstantios Korallis, who signed the report, states that he repaired the monastery and lists nineteen cells, six domes, a stable, an olive press, a hut with an oven also used for storing olives, three two-storied towers, a newly-built house, a kitchen, another small house, and several annexes, which give the impression of a fortified monastic complex.

In 1834-1837, Abbot Konstantios, the monks, and the villagers of Vervaina sought to re-establish the monastery. In their application to the Holy Synod, the abbot and monks emphasized the monastery’s contributions to the Greek cause. The Loukou monastery was re-established on August 25, 1837, by Royal Decree. In the meantime, however, the monastic buildings had fallen into ruin and the monastery’s landholdings had been encroached upon.

In a report addressed by the Holy Synod to the Ministry in 1858, the monastery is referred to as “organized”. In fact, all of the lists of functioning monasteries in the Kynouria province, of personnel, and of monastic revenues currently in the General State Archives (Prefecture of Arcadia, Province of Kynouria, Metamorfosi Sotiros Loukous, Town of Thyrea) mention the Loukou monastery, whose revenues exceed those of other monastic establishments.

In 1946, Archbishop Germanos of Mantineia and Kynouria converted the Loukou monastery, traditionally a men’s establishment, into a nunnery due to a lack of monks. A nunnery to this day, the Loukou monastery preserves its stavropegial privilege and a vast estate. When the sisterhood settled at Loukou under Abbess Christonymphi Kartsona (†1997) in 1947, the monastery was in ruins and the surrounding countryside ravaged by the Greek Civil War. The nuns promptly repaired the old buildings and built new ones. They also preserved the monastic landholdings and heirlooms. They repaired the churches of the Ascension and Agios Demetrios, both dependencies of the Loukou monastery, and added a third dependency, the monastery of Agios Nikolaos Karyas, which functions as a men’s monastery since 1994, in 1967. Two chapels dedicated to All Saints and the Dormition of the Virgin were built respectively in 1957 and 1962. Finally, they established a library containing 300 old books, manuscripts, sigillia, and codices.

THE MONASTERY’S SURROUNDINGS AND KATHOLIKON

In its present form, the Loukou monastery preserves a certain air of harmony, quaintness, and beauty. The new buildings do not overpower the katholikon (main church) and other earlier structures. Past and present coexist respectful of one another, and, apart from a few discordant elements, the large rectangular building complex surrounding the katholikon is an example of decent restoration and restrained renovation.

In the early nineteenth century, Veli Pasha excavated at Loukou in search of ancient statues. A little later, the monks hastily excavated several ancient sculptures, which they placed inside the monastery’s courtyard. After the establishment of the Greek state, the finest pieces were donated to the Aigina Museum (April 1831) and were later taken to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Excavations by the Greek Archaeological Service in October 1977 produced further important finds.

Pottery shards, roof tiles, and small plaques of multi-coloured marble are scattered over the site of the ancient settlement. Four large monolithic granite columns and a large Corinthian capital lie at Kolones, approximately 300 metres north of the monastery. A little further are the excavated ruins of a large building, the villa of Herodes Atticus.

Several Corinthian and Ionic capitals, pilaster capitals, marble column and mullion bases, architraves, and columns are kept in the monastery’s courtyard. Other architectural sculptures are built into the church and monastic buildings as decorative elements. Southeast of the church, directly outside the orchard’s enclosure, stand the foundations of a large building with marble columns and a marble opus sectile floor. Early travelers also mention mosaic floors. Part of a mosaic floor with geometric motifs was preserved until recently against the church’s south wall; another was excavated in 1977.

An arch supporting a masonry water channel, formerly part of a Roman aqueduct, crosses the Loukou river and still provides the monastery with water.

 

ARCHAEOLOGICAL FEATURES – The villa of Herodes Atticus

The area surrounding the monastery is one of the most important archaeological sites in Kynouria. Excavation and surface finds indicate that north of the monastery’s enclosure lay Eva, the largest town of ancient Thyrea, which Pausanias described in AD 170. The archaeological finds from this site form a special collection, now in the Astros Archaeological Museum.

The luxurious villa of the sophist Herodes Atticus occupied the site in the second century AD. Decorated with fine monuments and works of art, the villa was Herodes’s summer residence, where he and other sages enjoyed his famous symposia. What drew Herodes here was undoubtedly the beautiful, wooded, natural environment and abundant hunting.

Surface finds from the monastery’s site suggest that the Christian foundation was built over an ancient building. The finds, primarily reliefs of the Late Classical period (fourth century BC) with representations of Asklepios, the Asklepiads, and their worshippers, now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, indicate that the building was the sanctuary of Asklepios or, more probably, of the Asklepiad Polemokrates, whom the ancient Greeks honoured greatly. Ancient written sources mention his sanctuary and its water springs, which were used for therapeutic purposes. The beautiful surroundings, fine climate, and natural springs, currently dubbed Tis Manas to Nero by the locals, made this an excellent site for the establishment of a healing centre.

The ravages of time and war have deteriorated the site’s built and, to a certain extent, natural features. Approximately two millennia later, however, archaeological research – amateur at first, then systematic – began uncovering its history and monuments. Excavations were first carried out by the monks, then by the owners or trespassers of the fields, who established a limekiln inside the ruined villa, which provided a wealth of raw materials (stone, marble) to be turned into lime. Several architectural sculptures and statues were destroyed in this manner or transported to the monastery’s courtyard to be reused as building material. Other artefacts traveled far from their find spot and are now in the Berlin Museums and National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

 

ARCHITECTURE

1. The monastic complex

The tall enclosure wall that surrounds the Loukou monastery gives it a fortified appearance. The visitor enters into the outer courtyard, where various architectural sculptures are kept, from the south. The east outer gate is particularly imposing. Above the entrance to the monastery, towards the east, is a series of single and two-storied buildings, which, together with the impressive tower in the northeast corner, lend variety and grace to the façade. This tower, which dates to the Post-Byzantine period, is the only one of the four original towers preserved. It is three-storied with vaults, trap doors, archery windows, and machicolations. The Abbot Joseph notes that the tower was accessed by a portable ladder.

Over the vaulted passage is the chapel of All Saints (1962); on the left is the chapel of the Dormition of the Virgin (1957). Several architectural sculptures are scattered inside the inner courtyard: Corinthian and Ionic capitals, pilaster capitals, marble column and mullion bases, and columns. A headless female statue is built into a vaulted room in the ground floor of the east wing, and other architectural sculptures are reused in the katholikon and other buildings. The marble architrave that crowns the doorway of a cell in the north wing is particularly impressive.

The monastery’s various buildings surround the katholikon. Rows of ground-floor cells occupy the north and south side; more cells and service rooms are located on the west. A fine architrave of the fifth-century basilica now serves as a lintel in the north-wing cells. Despite later additions, which altered the arrangement of earlier buildings, the central wings (centre and right as one enters) preserve their original core, with vaulted rooms in the ground floors and monks’ cells on the upper floors. The southeast wing houses reception and guest rooms.

 

2. The katholikon

Built of red limestone and brick cloisonné masonry, the katholikon (main church) in the centre of the monastery’s courtyard stands out against the other lime plastered buildings. The masonry of the sanctuary and dome is particularly neat, with more regular courses than on the other surfaces.

The remains of a mosaic floor and barrel vault on the north wall indicate the location of two chapels, which were preserved until the early years following Greek independence. The chapels, which flanked the katholikon’s entrance, were dedicated to Agios Charalampos (north) and Agios Panteleimon (south). Both chapels were no more than three metres long, barrel-vaulted, and decorated with fine wall paintings.

The katholikon, which survived Ibrahim Pasha’s fire, is an exquisite example of church architecture. It is a domed four-column cross-in-square church, 11.70 metres long and 9.10 metres wide, with three three-sided apses on the east wall and sail vaults over the corner bays. The octagonal dome, 3.85 metres tall and 0.52 metres wide, is carried by four monolithic unfluted columns with upside-down Ionic bases reused as capitals. A double dentil band forms a cornice directly below the roof. Brick patterns, such as suns, chrisms, branches, trees, etc, decorate the west and east façades. A frieze of lozenges surrounds the dome. Fragmentary marble sculptures from earlier buildings, such as Corinthian pilaster capitals, architraves, and consoles, were built into the walls, and ceramic bowls from Asia Minor or Rhodes were used to decorate the sanctuary apse, the pediments over the windows, and other areas.

The arched entrance is located at the centre of the west wall. The small marble belfry on the west is a later addition, possibly of 1870. The dome’s eight elongated windows and the windows on the north, south, and east walls illuminate the interior.

The preserved original floor consists of large multi-coloured irregular plaques interspersed with smaller plaques, reused parapet slabs, and other reliefs. At the centre, directly below the dome is a rectangular frame containing a circular plaque (diameter: 0.48 metres) with a relief two-headed eagle, a reminder of the monastery’s stavropegial status.

Jean-Pierre Sodini, Demetrios Pallas, and Marie Spiro dated the fragmentary mosaic floor visible in the katholikon’s southwest corner to the Early Christian period. Anastasios Orlandos (1924) dated the katholikon to the twelfth-thirteenth centuries, and all other scholars subsequently accepted a Byzantine date. Recent studies, however, by Manolis Chatzidakis and Charalampos Bouras showed that the katholikon was built in the Post-Byzantine period in imitation of Byzantine style.

 

WALL PAINTINGS

According to the monastery’s code, the katholikon was decorated with wall paintings in 1649. Its interior is covered with paintings by an unknown artist, which, apart from the usual subjects, also depict scenes from the Old Testament and the twenty-four Oikoi of the Akathistos Hymnos. Despite visible traces of the damage done by Ibrahim Pasha’s soldiers (for example slashings on the saints’ faces), most of the painted surface is well preserved. The wall paintings display various styles reminiscent of the work of several known artists of the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries, such as the Moschos and Kakavas brothers and their disciples. None, however, can be securely attributed to any of these artists. In fact, they display a pronounced vernacular character, visible in the love for detailed representation of the objects of daily life and the stylization of the figures.

 

PORTABLE ICONS

Also noteworthy are the despotic icons of the carved wood templon and the icons inside the sanctuary. All of them are fine examples of the art of icon painting, expressive, technically flawless, and well preserved; they date to the seventeenth century (1639-1641). Several icons depict the donor in adoration, accompanied by a dedicatory inscription: the icon of Christ enthroned between the Virgin and Saint Catherine (1641), the icon of the Transfiguration, the icon of the Virgin Glykophilousa by the priest Panagiotis of the church of Agios Ioannis, the icon of Christ surrounded by the symbols of the four Evangelists (1639), and the icons of John the Baptist (1639) and the Ascension (1639). The three latter icons have dedicatory inscriptions by members of the Ritzos and Arianitos families of Monamvasia. Before Ibrahim Pasha’s raid, the monks removed all flammable materials from the katholikon and hid them in nearby ravines. Another icon of the Ascension, the miraculous icon of the Holy Cross, the icon of Saint Catherine’s Prayer, and the icon of the enthroned Virgin and Christ are also kept in the katholikon.

 

GRAFFITI

There is graffiti in many places inside the church. Left of the icon of Saint Hadrian, a graffito reading “1611 November 4” provides a terminus ante quem for the wall paintings. Two slightly earlier dates are incised on the northeast (“160[?] in the monastery”) and southeast (“1609”) columns together with various compass-drawn motifs, one with a ship. Other graffiti date from 1722 to 1853. A detailed study of the graffiti could provide interesting, hitherto unknown evidence on the monastery’s history.

 

LIBRARY – HEIRLOOMS

The library contains approximately 500 books, old and new, as well as manuscripts and patriarchal sigillia, one of them by Gregory V on parchment. Sixty documents both Greek and Turkish (firmans, hodjets [title deeds], etc) were handed over to the Ecclesiastical Committee for the accounting of the monastic landholdings.

Many of the heirlooms were destroyed during the fire set by Ibrahim Pasha, but the monastery’s most important heirloom, a cross containing a fragment of the True Cross and other relics, survived. The fragment of the True Cross, which “often exudes a pleasant perfume”, was a gift from Catherine of Russia, who donated small fragments of the True Cross to most Greek monasteries. The visitor can admire benediction crosses, a 1781 Gospel book, sacred vessels, sacerdotal gowns, portable icons of the sixteenth century, and relics of the saints George Tropaiophoros, Demetrios Myrovletis, John Chrysostome, James, Ierotheos, Paraskevi, Agathi, Theodore, Nektarios, Xeni, Makrina, Euphrasios the Cook, etc. 

 

THE MONASTERY TODAY

Abbess Nektaria and nine nuns manage and maintain the monastery today. Apart from their religious duties, the nuns are also involved in carpet weaving, embroidery, and agriculture. Devotional objects and handicraft were formerly on display.

DEPENDENCIES

The Loukou monastery formerly owned four dependencies. Nowadays, all of the nearby abandoned monasteries belong to the monastery.

 

1. Dependency at Kalyvia Agiou Ioannou (Ascension at inland Astros)

A square building complex, with a tower on the west side and derelict buildings burnt down by Ibrahim Pasha in the southwest corner, this dependency is located at the edge of inland Astros, on the road to Doliana and Tripoli. Outside of the south side is the burnt church of John the Baptist. The dependency owned a large adjacent field of 33,500 square metres. Part of it was sold as building plots in 1935, and another was expropriated by the town of Astros in 1937. Part of the expropriated land was used for building the local high school in 1946.

The dependency’s katholikon is now dedicated to the Ascension. It is a recent (1952) stone-built basilica ten metres long and 6.75 metres wide, with a two-pitched roof, a three-sided sanctuary apse with a bilobe window, and a belfry on its west side. Inside, it has a wooden ceiling and masonry templon. Opposite the church, to the west, is a tall, traditional, lime-plastered building, still dubbed ‘the Tower’, which contained cells for soldiers, the poor, and visitors. Impressive ground-floor vaults support the wide staircases and roof. Two narrow shooting windows flank its arched doorway. Adjacent to the tower, to its south, is a single-storied building with storerooms. Formerly, this dependency had more cells and a pottery workshop that produced storage jars and tableware for the Loukou monastery.

 

2. Dependency of Agios Demetrios at Chantakia

 

The old dependency of Agios Demetrios is located approximately three quarters of an hour on foot northeast of Agios Ioannis Kynourias. A hermitage of the Loukou monastery was located on the nearby mountain, dubbed ‘Kalogerovouni’ (Mountain of the Monks). This dependency comprises a small church with a semi-circular sanctuary apse and a stone-built single-lobed belfry over the west door; storerooms are located south of the church. The church was burnt by Ibrahim Pasha. A water spring gushes between the church and the storerooms.

 

3. Dependency at Zavitsa – Agia Sotira

Agia Sotira is located at Klima on Mount Zavitsa, approximately two and a half hours beyond Xeropigado. A small new church recently replaced the old one.

 

4. Agios Nikolaos Karyas (see Agios Nikolaos Karyas)

RESTORATION WORK

The opus sectile floor of the Loukou monastery’s katholikon was conserved in the summer of 2006 by conservators of the Greek Archaeological Service (Directorate of Restoration of Antiquities). The wall paintings in the northeast corner bay were conserved in 2007.

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