Monday 16 December 2013

Oddball Churches: Agia Theodora in Vasta

Ag Theodora: Vasta   (Αγία Θεοδώρα: Βάστα)

About 8 kms south of Megalopolis on the old Kalamata road, follow the sign to Apiditsa, then Isaris and on to Vasta.  Vasta, 850 metres above sea level, is 2 km west of Isaris., Because this area is isolated, it is good to know that Isaris and Vasta have restaurants (O Neromylos tou Nikola: 27910 81201, 6945 363756 is near the church). The area around the church is also a great spot for a picnic. Open: all day, every day.

Arcadia: a Little Background

 Arcadia, strange and inaccessible in ancient times, has yet to shed its weirdness. Then, its inhabitants were called acorn eaters by other Greeks, a soubriquet with the same meaning hayseed has today. It harboured remnants of groups conquered by more successful waves of Peloponnesian invaders, refugees who clung to ancient gods and ritual practices long after the rest of the Peloponnese had moved on to the tamer Olympians. Pan, not Apollo, reigned in Arcadia; whispers of  human sacrifice and werewolves were widespread.
Today, apart from Tripoli, its capital, Arcadians still live in isolated settlements leading a hard scrabble agricultural or pastoral existence. All need access to the few rivers that run for most of the year before becoming dry; the luckiest ones live near springs where water gushes up year-round from underground rivers fed by winter rains. These springs were always sacred in water starved Arcadia and, as time passed, ancient guardians like Demeter and Poseidon gave way to Christian ones like Theodora of Vasta


Although her icon has the blandness of most icons of female saints, the strangeness of her story and church are in the grand Arcadian tradition.

Her Story

In the ninth century families in this water rich oasis had to provide sons to guard the local monastery from marauders. If no son was available, they had to pay for a guard. Theodora’s family had no son and no money so she dressed as a man and began her guard duty. Apparently her beauty attracted a sister nun and when this nun fell pregnant – angry at Theodora’s rejection of her advances - she claimed Theodora had raped her. Theodora was promptly executed. (The sheer unlikelihood of this story is no deterrent to myth which has its own internal logic.)
Those unable to accept her dying as a man because modesty forbade her to reveal herself even in extremis will like version number two where one hundred or so years later Theodora, dressed as a man because she wanted to help defend the monastery, died  heroically in battle. In both versions, in her dying breath, she made the same request:
Let my body become a church
My blood a river
My hair the forest
According to the faithful, she got her wish. This small Byzantine church (probably 11th or 12th century) and dedicated to her has 17 holly and maple trees growing from its roof. Most of them are taller than 30 metres. It is an amazing sight. Only one root about the thickness of an arm is visible beside the entrance.

This short youtube video is excellent :

Even more amazing is its tiny barrel vaulted interior where, except for one wispy bit of green there is not one sign of the trees or roots. Notice that the smallness of the shrine has forced the artist to ‘double up’ the icons. Normally there would be four separate icons.  

 Image from

As a Byzantine Monument, Ag Theodora is under the joint aegis of the Church and the Ministry of Culture. The University of Patras’ geophysical team was called in to try to solve the mystery of the roots. As you can see by the first picture, the weight of the growing trees threatens the structure today, so how it has held together at all needed to be understood. According to the surveyors, concerned faithful and the local clergy, not entirely happy about a scientific examination of their shrine, dogged their every step,- yet another example of the wary balance between the Ministry of Culture which wants  to preserve a building and the Church which wants to preserve the faith. Churchmen know instinctively the inherent danger of science even if they have never heard of  Thomas Huxley's famous remark that science is organized common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact.

High frequency geo-radar finally indicated that the roots are all hair thin and somehow thread their way inside the walls of the church to get their nourishment from the spring underneath it – quite a miracle all by itself.

Ag Theodora’s church  has become a popular pilgrimage site for Greeks.  Once you get past the tourist tat on sale by the parking area it is quite a beautiful spot.  Her feast day is September 11th. I mention this because that is a day best avoided unless you love crowds. I still prefer visiting Arcadian shines whether ancient or modern in early morning or at dusk and, preferably in the off-season. At those quiet times between light and darkness, the mystique of Arcadia can still be felt. 

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