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Monastery of Panagia Eleousa Vlachernas

LISTED historical monument surrounded by a 100-metre protection zone by Ministerial Decree ΥΠΠΟ/ΑΡΧ/Β1/Φ30/27528/532/8-6-1993 (Government Gazette 482/Β/1-7-1993)

LOCATION

Now situated between Levidi and Vytina in Mantineia, 940 metres above sea level, the village of Bezeniko (modern Vlacherna) has changed location several times in the past. According to tradition, the village was originally built below the Eleousa monastery, near the site of Spilia (or Metochi), where the remains of houses and a square building dubbed Agiorgis (Saint George) by the locals are still visible. Traces of settlements are also preserved at the sites of Vardaioi and Livadi, where local tradition places the farmstead of a Turkish notable and several events of the Greek War of Independence. An old Slavic toponym, Bezeniko was later replaced by Vlacherna.

The majestic scenery created by the slopes of Mount Mainalo on the west and the plain of Orchomenos on the east is the setting for two monasteries, Panagia Eleousa and Vlacherna. The Panagia Eleousa monastery is located south of the village, below the Bezeniko Castle. The Vlacherna monastery is located northeast of the village, atop Mount Kastania (possibly ancient Mount Knakalos).

Tucked away in a fold of Mount Mainalo, surrounded by pine trees and almost invisible, the rock monastery of Panagia Eleousa was a refuge in difficult times, particularly during the Greek War of Independence and Ibrahim Pasha’a appearance in the Peloponnese (1826). A footpath, which began at the village and followed the Arapissa gorge, led after a 45-minute walk to the monastery’s first steps. Today, a dirt road has replaced the footpath making it possible to reach the monastery by car.

On the way up to the monastery, near the modern monument of local hero Alexis Nikolaou or Levidiotis, the derelict church of Panagia Kataphygiotissa stands inside an impressive cave. This single-nave church follows the cave’s contours. Its walls are partially preserved, and traces of wall paintings are visible in situ. Little is known of its foundation. With the help of the locals, the parish priest tends to the small church and occasionally holds services.

Bezeniko Castle

The ruins of Bezeniko Castle, an impregnable fort probably built in the Late Byzantine period, are located above the Eleousa monastery, at the top of the rock that dominates Bezeniko/Vlacherna. The castle was named after the nearby village, which developed on the rise’s southern slope and bears a Slavic name (the ending –nikos is common in Arkadia). The settlement is first mentioned as Pazenikin polin in Laonikos Chalkokondylis’ account of the Turkish expedition of 1458 in the Peloponnese. Sultan Mehmet II apparently sent Manuel Kantakouzinos to the castle to convince its besieged inhabitants to surrender. The Turks, however, failed to conquer the castle and went on to besiege Mouchli. A 1463 Venetian list of fortresses mentions the fort by the name Bocenico, whereas documents of the last years of the Venetian period also give the names Boserico and Bessenico.

Built on a naturally fortified site, the castle is inaccessible on three sides. The Byzantines protected the more regular east side with a double fortification wall and tower. A single fortification wall was built on the north side, where there is sheer drop. The entrance gate is located on the south, protected by a rectangular tower. Left of the tower are traces of fortification walls. The walls are better preserved on the east side, where they follow the contour to its highest point and end in another tower. The remains of houses and several water cisterns occupy the flat hilltop, which offers views across the Vlacherna plain to Mount Mainalo and, further away, the mountain peaks of Oligyrtos and Lyrkeio. The fortification wall’s Byzantine masonry uses local limestone, roof tiles, and lime plaster.

The fort’s location was crucial for controlling the road connecting Mantineia and Elis. Nowadays, the ruined castle is overgrown.

 

NAME

The Panagia Eleousa (or Panagia Bezenikou) monastery is named after both the epithet of the Virgin Eleousa (Virgin of Tenderness) and the name of the nearby village of Bezeniko (modern Vlacherna). According to Eleni Konstantopoulou-Dori, the epithet Eleousa belongs to the Virgin and not to any other saint, since there is no Saint Eleousa in the Greek festival calendar.

There are several theories on the origin of the toponym Bezeniko. It appears under the form Pazeniki in a fifteenth-century text by Laonikos Chalkokondylis, and as Patzanika in an anonymus chronography. Bezeniko Castle is mentioned in a 1463 Venetian list of forts by the name Bocenico, and was known as Besenico in the last years of the Venetian period (1687-1715). Bezeniko is probably a Slavic word with references to water, the baneberry bush, and the elder tree. The diminutive suffix –niko is common for Arcadian sites located near water: Garzenikos (Municipality of Methydri and Kandila), Prosinikos (Municipality of Nymfasia Pigi), Rezenikos (Municipality of Valtetsi), etc.

An article in the Arkadika Chronika (vol. Α, p. 88) signed by a certain Vlacherniotis (=from the village of Vlacherna) claims that the name originates from Besius (380-400), a major-general in Stilicho’s army, who, after defeating Alaric at the site of Vardaioi, took the name Besenikos to commemorate his victory (Besius + nikos [victory] = Besenikos > Bezenikos)

 

FOLKLORE

According to tradition, the Eleousa monastery had always been a rich foundation, with vast landholdings and many monks. It was dissolved in 1833, and its estate was divided between the monasteries of Kandila and Kernitsa.

The local hero Alexis Nikolaou or Levidiotis is buried in the monastery. Photakos (Photios Chrysanthopoulos) relates in his Memoirs that Levidiotis sought refuge in the monastery along with other villagers during Ibrahim Pasha’s raids. He also mentions that Levidiotis’s horse, which he had stolen from the Egyptians, bolted as he chased the other Egyptian horses; Levidiotis was saved at the last minute. Photakos gives a touching account of Levidiotis’s end and of how the hero’s horse died after carrying his master’s body to the Bezeniko monastery, where Levidiotis and his co-fighter Kouvavas were buried with honours.

A popular (demotic) song relates the hero’s death in the battle of Levidi on November 15, 1826. The song begins with three partridges sitting at Noudimos, one looking towards Stachteros, the other towards the monastery, and the third one lamenting how the Turks invaded the Levidi plain and the villages of Vareia, Vrysi, and Nenino, took many slaves, both men and women, and stole entire flocks of sheep and herds of cows. The news angered Alexis who called the seizes to saddle his horse and the tzaouses Nikolos to gather the men, and leave for Vrysi and Nenino. They left the monastery, raced to the Levidi plain, and engaged in battle at Vlantas until midday. Then Alexis and eighteen of his men rode beyond Balia to surprise the enemy at a narrow pass, but they were expected and met an entire regiment at Kostainas ti Lakka. The drums beat, the guns fired, and nine bullets hit Alexis, who held onto his weapons and continued to kill until he was killed.

HISTORICAL EVIDENCE

The Byzantine historian Laonikos Chalkokondylis (ποδείξεις στοριν 2.205.16) mentions the Bezenikos Castle and its 1458 siege by Sultan Mehmet II. The episode’s protagonist, Manouil (Ginis) Kantakouzinos, probably an Albanian chieftain, was sent by Mehmet to persuade the Greeks to surrender the castle. Kantakouzinos did the opposite, but was discovered by the Turks, who banished him from their camp. The Turks failed to take the castle and moved on to besiege Sparta and Epidaurus. An anonymous chronicler relates the same events in a more popular idiom, probably using Chalkokondylis’s scholarly text as a source: “From there [Mehmet] proceeded through Mantineia to the region of Kalamata and the town of Patzanika. And they called Master Mano(u)il Kantako(u)zinos, who was captain of the Peloponnesians and the Albanians and was in the sultan’s service. But some Christian Peloponnesians told the sultan: ‘Master Mano(u)il Kantakouzinos said to hold on and not surrender to your lordship!’ Upon hearing this, the sultan was displeased and sent him away from his army. He did not want him around, or his opinion, or his advice. The sultan passed through and fought in Mantineia, but was unable to take the castle.”

The inhabitants of Levidi and Bezeniko put up a similarly heroic resistance when Ibrahim Pasha attacked the monastery four hundred years later.

The General State Archive (Monasteries, File 329) and the chroniclers of the Greek War of Independence provide important evidence for the monastery’s history. The monastery enjoyed the stavropegial privilege, but suffered hardships and was dissolved. It was re-organized during the Second Ottoman period (after 1715) as a parochial monastery, but was burnt by Ibrahim Pasha and dissolved a second time. In 1829, after Ibrahim’s departure, two monks, Dionysios Argyropoulos from Levidi (aged 55 and literate) and Parthenios Papadiamantopoulos (aged 36), settled in the derelict monastery. The monastery was again dissolved, and the two monks claimed from the Tripoli Prefecture and the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs their property, as well as 1,600 piastres that they had put into the building, thus initiating a long dispute and exchange of documents. In a document of 1838, the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs holds the Governor of Mantineia responsible for the fact that the Bezeniko monks did not provide a precise list of the monastery’s property. The Ministry suspected the monks of not reporting missing objects and giving false descriptions, and planned to take measures if the monks further refused to collaborate.

An inventory of the monastery’s property, compiled by the monks and dated June 23, 1833, provides an interesting description of its condition, dependencies, and estate. The document also gives the monastery’s location and distance from neighbouring villages. It mentions that, according to tradition, the monastery had enjoyed the stavropegial privilege, but became parochial under the bishop of Mantineia in the Ottoman period. When the monks settled there in 1829, they found nothing, no chrysobulles, no books, no writings, except “the cave with the church” (during the Greek War of Independence, numerous books and manuscript codices were transferred to the Kandila monastery to be used for making bullets). They employed a thirty-year-old shepherd and a fifteen-year-old servant for the various chores. The monastery was small, with a single water cistern and two cells with a cellar.

In 1843, the Eleousa monastery was considered dissolved. In 1839, the monks of the Kandila monastery requested Eleousa’s landholdings in order to increase their meagre income. The Holy Synod agreed and the landholdings were ceded 1840. The Kandila monastery has kept a sketch for a delivery protocol (October 1840) relevant to decree n° 5634/16-10-1840 of the Administration of Mantineia, according to which the monks Dionysios and Parthenios handed over various objects to the Kandila monastery.

In his 1828 inventory and description of the village of Bezeniko, Rigas Palamidis omits the monastery. Palamidis relates that Bezeniko, originally a thriving, densely populated village, had suffered under the Turks, who suppressed and eventually chased away its inhabitants. The village was virtually abandoned, and by the time some of its inhabitants returned, Ibrahim Arnaoutoglou had seized their vineyards and fields leaving them only the mountainous properties surrounding their huts. Arnaoutoglou’s estate comprised eleven farmsteads from which he collected 482 jars of produce. A certain Omer Boubasis owned an inn. The village was divided into Epano (Upper) Bezeniko, or Paliobezeniko (Old Bezeniko), and Kato (Lower), or Neo (New), Bezeniko. The entire village consisted of 84 farmsteads, 26 houses, 28 huts, and one tower. There were also two churches: Agios Athanasios and the derelict Agios Demetrios.

 

ARCHITECTURE

1. The monastery

The monastery occupies a hollow in the bedrock. A modern stone-paved path leads to a cement staircase with 92 steps, which climbs to a small plateau with spectacular views over the surrounding landscape, and from there to the monastery’s gate. A belfry stands on the plateau’s northwest side. The monastery’s exterior is very simple, with four windows and two balconies on the façade. The arched gate is flanked by doorjambs and crowned with a pointed pediment. A crenellated semi-circular structure on the west was probably the monastery’s fort.

Approximately halfway up the stairs leading from the gate to the katholikon’s door is a rock-hewn passage into a crypt, which, according to local tradition, served as a refuge in the event of an attack or as a ‘secret school’. The katholikon’s door resembles the monastery’s main entrance gate. An inscribed plaque (0.40 × 0.40 metres) built into the niche bears a relief cross and the date 1890. A relief head decorates the tip of the pediment above the door. North of the katholikon is a plastered structure, probably a water cistern.

Recent repairs and reconstructions have altered the appearance of the monastery’s cells and other areas.

 

2. The katholikon

The katholikon (main church) of the Eleousa monastery is dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin. It is a domed, two-column cross-in-square church, 5 metres long and 4 metres wide, with a rock-hewn sanctuary and a later narthex (6 × 5 metres). The church is paved with square stone slabs. The narthex floor probably dates to the early twentieth century, since it resembles the floor of the narthex in the Varson katholikon, which an inscription dates to 1908.

The three apses on the east side are rock-hewn. The dome rests on two columns and two elongated pillars, which define the three-bay sanctuary. The altar was originally located in the diakonikon’s south wall, in a niche created for this purpose. A single window is located on the south wall. Traces of fire are visible in the interior. The makeshift roof spoils the building’s appearance.

According to tradition, the Eleousa monastery was built under Andronikos Palaiologos in the early fourteenth century. The katholikon’s wall paintings, however, probably date to the eighteenth century.

 

WALL PAINTINGS

The katholikon’s wall paintings, which probably date to the eighteenth century, were damaged by fire. Recent over-painting of the backgrounds, possibly with oil paints, has also deteriorated because of humidity. Moreover, the entire painted surface suffers from salt encrustations. The wall paintings in the narthex date to the twentieth century.

 

INSCRIPTIONS

A dedicatory inscription (0.22 × 0.12 metres) states that the monastery was renovated in 1956. Another inscription relates that the wall paintings were completed with a donation by Vasileios and Ekaterini Panousi, Greek expatriates living in the United States, on July 25, 1908 (Αυτή η θεία και ιερά Μονή της Αγίας Ελεούσης | εζωγραφίσθη δαπάνη της Μονής και των |αποδημούντων εν Αμερική Πατριωτών Βασιλείου και |Αικατερίνης Πανούση εις αιώνιον μνημόσυνον αυτών | και εν έτει 1908 Ιουλίου 25).

A plaque (0.25 × 0.15 metres) near the entrance bears a relief cross framed by a dedicatory inscription, which states that the gate was renovated in 1900 by various donors including the commissary Demetrios Tziolas (1900 / ΙΟΥΛΙΟΥ | Η ΘΥΡΑ / ΑΥΤΗ | ΑΝΕΚΑΙ / ΝΙΣΘΗ | ΑΠΟ ΔΙΑΦΟΡΩΝ / ΣΥΝΔΡΟΜΗΤΩΝ | ΚΑΙ ΥΠΟ / ΕΠΙΤΡΟΠΟΥ ΔΗ | ΜΗΤΡΙΟΥ / Κ. ΤΖΙΟΛΑ | Η ΚΤΙΣΤΕΣ / ΜΑΚΕΔΟΝΙ).

A smaller inscription probably refers to a donor from Levidi (συνδρο/Λεβιδίου).

Finally, above the katholikon’s entrance door is a plaque with a relief cross and a dedicatory inscription mentioning a K. Tziolas and the date May 1 (ΜΑΙΟΥ 1 | Κ.ΤΖΙΟΛΑ | ΣΥΝΔΟΜΙΤΟΥ).

DEPENDENCIES AND ESTATE

In an inventory dated June 23, 1833, now in the General State Archives (File 315), the Eleousa monks describe the monastery, its dependencies, and its estate. They also claim that they found no documents (chrysobulles, inventories) or books listing the monastery’s estate when they settled at the monastery in 1829. In their description of the monastery’s interior, they mention that the templon icons were covered with soot.

The inventory lists a few sacred vessels and one reliquary, which the monks bought with their own funds (200 piastres) from a foreign monk named Kallinikos and which contained relics of Saints Charalampos and Anargyroi, and of the martyr Paul of Tripoli. It also lists two monastic dependencies (one at the edge of Bezeniko with three buildings, which were burnt by Ibrahim Pasha then restored by the monks and leased to farmers; another derelict dependency at Levidi), landholdings in various sites near and around Bezeniko, and livestock (113 sheep and goats, some of which were bought by the monks, two mules, and beehives donated by the people).

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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