Thursday 25 September 2014

Oddball Churches: Mega Spilaion

The Mega Spilaion Monastery
 (Ιερά Μονή Μεγάλου Σπηλαίου)

A Cave, a Dragon, an Icon, and a Deathless Quote

Mega Spilaion today

Mega Spilaion is the very first monastery to have been founded in what is today’s Greece and yet I often drive by with hardly a glance. It has been burned down and rebuilt so many times in its long history that it has lost that patina of age that makes so many old monasteries in Greece attractive. In fact, the only bit of the exterior that dates earlier than the disastrous fire of 1934 is the small tower entrance pictured below:

The rest of its impressive stone façade, although not entirely destroyed by the 1934 fire, was deemed too precarious to be preserved so a new one, remarkably true to the old, was constructed.

The old showing the position of the katholikon
The new

Even its stellar setting at the base of a sheer cliff, its well tended gardens, and an attractive bishop’s palace are not quite enough to make Mega Spilaion truly beautiful. The modern additions above the stone façade  are placed higgledy-piggledy and reflect the boxy unimaginative architecture popular in those Xenia hotels so popular in the 60s.

Remember them?

Because of its situation, Mega Spilaion does not conform to the monastery ‘norm’ which is so symbolically attractive: a courtyard surrounded on four sides by cells with the Katholikon or main chapel in the center. Instead its eight levels form a massive west facing arc obscuring the great cave that is its raison d’etre.  It looks like an impregnable fortress which indeed it was, its only real conqueror being fire.

Of course this prejudice against rebuilding or remodelling originals is absurd.  Constant renewal is a sign of vitality and significance. Homogeneity lies, not in the architecture, but in the faith.

This 1909 photo shows much nicer top tiers

Still…feelings are feelings and whenever we would ascend to the monastery it was definitely the Ithaca of the Odyssey; the journey there was the thing. In those days you could arrive at Zachlarou from Diakopton by the rack railway through the spectacular Voraiikos gorge and hire donkeys to take you up to the monastery.

So much more beautifully designed!


The view south from the monastery

The train (a modernized version) still plies the gorge but the donkeys have been put to pasture long ago; most visitors today tend to arrive by car or bus. 

In the Beginning….

The Monastery was founded in 362 by Simeon and Theodoros, two monks from Thessaloniki. According to the story, they were each blessed with the same vision while on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The message both times was to travel to Achaia, find the icon of Mary painted by Luke the Evangelist and to build a monastery on the spot. Finding it was the sticky part. Locating a small icon stashed away in the rugged north Peloponnese is a pretty tall order as anyone who knows the area will tell you.
Why was it lost? Apparently the icon had been presented by Luke to Theophilos the ruler of Achaia but during the subsequent Roman persecutions of Christians it had been hidden and its whereabouts forgotten.

Undaunted by such needle in the haystack directions, the two brothers set off.  After wandering in vain for an unspecified time, they happened on a young shepherdess, Efrosini, who had been blessed with a vision of her own and was able to lead them to the cave where the icon was hidden. It seems her billy goat had led her to a spring inside an overgrown cavern high above her village (today’s Zachlorou) where the icon was found.

As the monks began to clear the cave they found themselves under attack by its fierce resident dragon

Dragons looked a lot like snakes back then as this ancient vase attests….

All seemed lost until it was halted in its tracks at the cave’s entrance, zapped by two lightning bolts emanating directly from the sacred icon!  The dragon suitably vanquished, the monks and their future monastery became the icon’s new guardians. 

It is pretty clear that several strands of founding stories have been knitted together into one but that never seems to bother anyone telling the story. Christianity has had a pretty good run with inconsistent, not to say repetitious, details over time because questioning their veracity let alone considering possible classical or folklore sources was considered somewhat blasphemous.

 Still, I love this story. It harkens back to an era when Christian adventures were told in epic style and there was still a hint of Zeus in the image of God. The echo of the Golden Fleece is impossible to miss although the treasure was now an icon, Medea a virgin shepherdess, and magic the prerogative of Mary.

Travelers to Greece in the eighteen and nineteen hundreds tell us that the dragon’s bones were still on display at Mega Spilaio. They must have been a big hit with pilgrims who would not have questioned the reality of dragons any more than did  pagans, Pausanias or the writers of the Old and New Testament. Meta Darwin, I do wonder about the provenance of those bones and what became of them. (1) 

The Icon

(Παναγίας της Μεγαλοσπηλαιώτισσας)

Surrounded by beaten silver and the many tamata left by the faithful, Mary’s  embossed and blackened image can be found on the right side of the iconostasis in the monastery’s katholikon.   One unsympathetic  19th century visitor wrote: there is a hideous carving in low relief of the Virgin and Child —the work, they tell us, of Saint Luke.
 Harsh, but, in spite of its miracle working powers, it is hard to love at first sight. (2)

Orthodox tradition has Luke as the first icon painter. Once 600 icons were attributed to him; now only 70 get the official nod from the Church. Still, even 70 icons, one Gospel, and the Acts of the Apostles is a miracle of organization. The beeswax and mastica icon is in relief, its wax about three centimeters thick.  Luke made images of Mary something of a specialty; many scholars think he may have actually met her. Certainly the belief that he had met her made his portraits especially venerated as true portraits. The famous Virgin Hodegetria , the protectress of Constantinople, was also attributed to Luke.

  So, owning an icon by Luke was the top of the tops in Marian iconography and owning it made Mega Spilaion famous throughout the Orthodox world and a pilgrimage site of great renown.
It also made it vulnerable to attack in the 800s by the iconoclasts many of whom raged throughout the Orthodox world burning icons and killing their defenders; Mega Spilaion was burned to the ground in 840 by just such fanatics. The icon was saved however and when iconoclasm was declared a heresy, it was reinstalled and the monastery rebuilt.

 There were other fires, in 1400 and a worse one in 1640 but still the icon was saved. It was this latter fire which blackened her once vibrant pigments.  That the wax did not also lose its shape in one of these conflagrations is so unlikely that it is officially listed as one of her many miracles… 

Mega Spilaion prospered; it was favoured by emperors and given lands in Achaia, Elis, and as far away as Thessaloniki, Constantinople, and Smyrna. It is still a big land owner in Achaia. At its height it boasted over two thousand monks and was famous for the wine it produced from its own vineyards and stored in barrels in the monastery. 

At times, its abbots were more modern than you might think. During a drought and a disease affecting the grapes all over the north Peloponnese in the 1800s, the abbot of Mega Spilaion sanctioned the use of powdered sulphur, a new remedy at the time, a practice that local priests making do with parading icons through the diseased fields, had rejected as Satanic.(3 ) The scientific approach saved the crops and a good thing too. The monastery had the responsibility of producing enough wine to satisfy its own residents’ thirst along with that of its many visitors. Leake, another 19th century visitor claimed that their wine cellar was the most admirable room in the monastery!

 Although Mega Spilaion does not produce wine these days, within living memory, when the train would deposit visitors late in the day at the monastery all visitors would stay the night; the wine ration for each dinner guest was a generous one and a half kilos! That must have guaranteed a good night’s sleep.

Its strong walls backed by a sheer rock face came in handy on many occasions. When the Franks overran the Peloponnese after 1204 and created their Principality of Achaia, Mega Spilaio was a beacon of hope. In 1354 the Orthodox bishop of Patras fled behind Mega Spilaion’s  mighty walls and waited there until 1428  when the Greeks wrested  Patras back from the Franks.

When the Ottomans ruled, Mega Spilaion was something of a cash cow. It provided a lot of tax revenue either in direct taxes or bribes to keep certain privileges such as not having to house Turks in the main building.  Under the Ottomans, everything had a price. Leake commented: monks complain of the large sums which they are often required to pay at Constantinople for their privileges and security, to which, moreover, is attached the condition of supplying passengers gratis, with bread and wine, and to the Turks  whatever else the house affords. (4 )

During an uprising in 1770 when it momentarily looked as if the Greeks might defeat the Ottomans, the local Turkish population fled to Mega Spilaion which protected them and negotiated their safe passage, a favour that the Turks did not forget. This meant that Mega Spilaion’s walls were intact in 1821, and the monks, as so many monks elsewhere, were able to assist the revolutionaries during the War of Independence.

Its biggest crisis during that struggle came on June 21, 1827, when Ibrahim Pasha’s troops had already taken Kalavrita and a letter was sent beginning “Most noble abbot and the priests and monks of the great Cave…”   and recommending to the abbot that he should submit the monastery and it would be spared. 

The abbot’s reply on June 22 has become famous:
It is impossible for us to submit, because we have vowed on our Faith to become free or to die fighting, and as long as we exist we cannot break the sacred vow of our Fatherland… If you come here to war against us and you conquer us the evil is not great, for you have only defeated clergy. But if you should be defeated by us, which is our sure hope in our impregnable position with the help of God, it will be to your shame, and the Greeks will take heart and hound you everywhere…

With Mary’s help and/or the threat of reinforcements the monastery remained unscathed after a short battle on June 24th .

One hundred and sixteen years later on December 8, 1943, an event occurred that made the Ottoman attack seem almost civilized and, for once, Mary’s icon did not come to the rescue.

On that day German forces attacked Mega Spilaion, looted the church, and hurled the 22 inhabitants of the monastery they could find to their deaths from the cliff above the monastery before continuing their killing spree by murdering hundreds of citizens in Kalavrita and the surrounding villages

A simple cross marks the spot on top of the cliff 

This act of incredible barbarism still leaves me speechless. So does the complacent comment in the official booklet about Mega Spilaion which enthusiastically states that on that day the icon was once again miraculously spared as the Nazis set fire and burned several outbuildings.

That miracle working icons have their bad days without disturbing the faith of those who believe in their powers is true often enough and Mary’s icon is still famous for performing miracles – just not one in 1943.

Mega Spilaion Today

Mega Spilaion has been ‘doodied up” inside since the seventies when footsteps echoed in the large upper reception hall which fronts the katholikon, and the walls were crying out for a new coat of paint. Today,  the mosaics over the entrance are grand and in the Byzantine style.

The foyer is attractive,

 and a marble staircase leading up to the reception area is spick and span. But somehow that earlier hotel comparison lingers.  (Maybe pretentious hotels are trying to look like monasteries these days?)

Mega Spilaion is an example of what is happening to many pilgrimage sites in today’s Greece because of the renewed interest in religious tourism. It is a fast growing sector in a very big industry and makeovers, some lovely, some not, and some a bit of both are currently in the works all over Greece(5).


The upper hall fronting the Katholicon

This spacious upper hall with its large panel paintings is a case in point. Compared to the gravitas of the katholicon and its famous icon of Mary to which this hall is the antechamber, it is like having pictures from K Mart preceding a room containing the Mona Lisa. 

I have always found the belittling and supercilious descriptions of so many foreign travelers to Greece off putting and small minded. It was actually a genre all by itself until the great writer Patrick Leigh Fermor broke the mould and wrote about Greece with real empathy, so I am a little uncomfortable calling these paintings inept. You must judge for yourself. 
The Katholikon

The katholikon, a small  inscribed cross in square church with rather impressive bronze doors,  dates from the 17th century and is a welcome change from the hall that fronts it. Many of its wall paintings date from 1653. It decoration is elaborate throughout, a suitable setting for the icon it houses. The iconostasis was done by a woodworker from Chios I the 1700s. The marble floor is just beautiful.

  The central part was redone after the fire, but it is true to the old.

The Museum

This room is attractive, modern, and the displays well done. There is a drawing of the Katholikon’s  floor design and a reliquary with a piece of the True Cross. The rest is what you might expect and there is not as much as there would have been had not most the monastery’s treasures, including many Imperial Chrysobulls been destroyed in fires.

The Cave

The massive, yet shallow cave fronted by the monastery is another aesthetic shock.

 Visitors are first confronted with a life-size two dimensional figure of Christ on the Cross placed behind some  foliage,

 and then a pathway leads down past a stone fountain from which water flows from the famous spring and on to the lowest and deepest part of the cave where the following large tableau is presented:


The two dimensional humans in this story achieved sainthood as their halos indicate. The dragon is shown in profile, like the devil. The billy goat does not get any Heavenly kudos. (Christianity has been pretty tough on animals right down the line.)  I am not sure what that three dimensional container is doing in a diorama and even less sure why, from an aesthetic point of view, these figures are here at all. The famous icon displayed on its ‘find spot’ in the tableau is a poor copy of the real one in the katholikon.

It has to be said. It’s kitsch. It is hard to know what sensibility is being appealed to at Mega Spilaion today. Perhaps it is a kind of shotgun approach, something for every taste? In his introduction to the monastery Ambrossios the Metropolitan of Kalavrita says that the tone of the booklet provided is for the benefit of the soul of the pilgrim and not to impress his intellect – this from an Church that boasts such intellectual  and subtle thinkers as the Church Fathers! The cave seems to reflect that concept.

While not doubting the sincerity of such efforts as the cave figures, they make me uncomfortable. Who is in charge? Should there be some sort of artistic direction? Is sincerity enough? Do others share my view? 

Well, some do; I have taken my own small poll, but the majority of visitors seem take it all in their stride. 

There are only five resident monks at Mega Spilaion  today and the monk I had the privilege of meeting,  brother Seraphim by name, was pleasant, knowledgeable about the monastery, and kept quite busy in the small gift shop outside the main entrance where all proceeds from the sale of books, honey, and rose petal jam, go to charity.

Getting There

Mega Spilaion (Tel: 26920 – 22401)  is in the north Peloponnese 940 meters above sea level, 10 kms  by road north of Kalavrita, and reached by a road off the Corith-Patras coastal highway. It is open daily but generally closed at midday (The sign said 1-2 ). If you are not already puffed from walking up from the bottom of the gorge, know that there is a path just before the bishop’s palace leading up to the top of the cliff and a tower from which there is a stupendous view.


(1) The word “dragon” and “dragons” are found 22 times in the Old Testament and 12 times in the New Testament only in the Book of Revelations. It is quite possible that the monks had some dinosaur fossils in their keeping.

 (2)This comment is by William Clark from his book  PELOPONNESUS NOTES OF STUDY AND TRAVEL, written in 1858. You can read more at For more on wax and mastica icons, see “Encaustic Painting” in the ABC section of this blog.

(3)        Clark again

(4)        From Travels in the Morea by William Leake, 1830.  See more at

(5)        I was amazed to see that many thousands of euros are currently being spent at the nearby Taxiarchon Monastery to shore up a couple of chapels dug into the sandstone cliff above the main monastery – a truly beautiful spot, but  this massive amount of money will likely ruin its atmosphere. Are all of these beautiful old monuments about to become ‘suburban’, and probably off limits as well?


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