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Varlaam Monastery, founded in 14th Century still active today

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
March 20th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Varlaam Monastery, also known as Barlaam Monastery in the Meteora is named in honor of the monk who first built the tiny chapel on this rocky promontory in the 14th century. The monastery, still occupied today, features an elegant church with 16th-century frescoes by a well-known iconographer and other notable buildings.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - In 1350, an ascetic monk named Varlaam climbed the rock and settled at the top. Varlaam built three churches, a cell and a water tank. After his death, the site was abandoned.

The buildings fell into ruin for almost 200 years until 1517, when the priest-monks Theophanes and Nektarios Apsarades from Ioanina, climbed the rock and founded a monastery. The two priest-monks, according to legend had to drive away the monster that lived in a cave on the summit before they could settle in.

The brothers renovated Varlaam's church of the Three Hierarchs, erected the tower, and built a katholikon dedicated to All Saints. Ropes, pulleys and baskets were all used to lift materials to build on the top of the rock. After all the material was lifted to the location after 22 long years, the construction work took only 20 days.

Varlaam Monastery was occupied by monks, about 35 at a time throughout the 16th century and into the early 17th century. The monastery then suffered a decline. Steps were first carved into the rock in the early 19th century and have been altered several times since.

Varlaam Monastery is currently occupied by seven monks and can be accessed by a narrow bridge that runs from the main road. There is a pleasant garden in the compound, where a monk sometimes sits and chats with visitors.

The Late Byzantine katholikon of Varlaam has a cross-in-square plan with a west narthex, with a dome in each section. The frescoes in the main church were painted by the celebrated iconographer Frangos Katelanos of Thebes in 1548. The narthex was frescoed in 1566 by the brothers George and Frangos Kondares of Thebes.

Located north of the katholikon is the small "Parekklesion of the Three," an aisle-less chapel dedicated to the three great bishops St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. John Chrysostom. Built by Varlaam around 1350, it was repaired by the founders in 1520, renovated in 1627 and decorated with frescoes in 1637.

The tower contains the old windlass and rope basket which was used to transport monks and supplies to the monastery. When asked how often the rope was replaced, a 19th-century abbot famously replied, "Only when it breaks." It was used as recently as 1961-63, when the refectory was renovated into a museum of religious artifacts.

The monastery's museum displays a fine collection of relics, carved wooden crosses, icons, embroidered epitaphoi and many other ecclesiastical treasures. Varlaam also possesses over 300 religious manuscripts copied by monks, some of which are displayed in the sacristy.

The monastic kitchen is an elegant vaulted structure with an octagonal dome leading to a chimney. The original water barrel, which can hold 12 tons of rainwater, is on display in a storeroom.

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