The Architecture of Mount Athos

Credits

There are two small villages on Mount Athos (the ‘capital’ of Karyes and the port of Daphne), twenty principal monasteries, twelve sketae, kellia, kathismata, hermitages, and a number of isolated towers, warehouses, and boathouses.

The twenty Athonite monasteries resemble mediaeval cities, built as they are in precipitous locations, fortified with strong walls, and with one or two entrances and a spacious open area within the walls. In this area, the courtyard, are the katholikon (main church), the phiale for the blessing of the waters, the refectory, and various chapels; and it is surrounded by the monks’ cells, the abbot’s quarters, and all the auxiliary structures. Each monastery is a large complex with its own character, consisting of many buildings constructed in different periods and in different architectural styles and showing different influences.

The founders and benefactors of the monasteries were emperors, high-ranking officials, and princes, who unstintingly gave the financial assistance needed to rebuild and repair the monasteries.

Tower of Dionysiou Monastery
Tower of Dionysiou Monastery

The Towers

A number of monasteries have towers, which have a purely defensive purpose. Built in the center of the monastery or at its highest point, they served as observation posts against pirate raids or as the monks’ last refuge when the rest of the monastery had been occupied by pirates or brigands. Observation towers were also built over a number of the monasteries’ boathouses. They are square structures with a staircase inside, a chapel at the top, and loopholes or machicolations all round.

The Gate

Each monastery has one entrance, or two at the most. The main gate is usually sited beneath defensive towers. It is usually a double entrance, the doors being made of timber and reinforced with iron bars. They are secured inside with cross-bars. At sunset, the doorkeeper locks the gate and gives the keys to the abbot, unlocking it again at sunrise.

The entrance of Xenophontos monastery
The entrance of Xenophontos monastery
Cell wing of Koutloumousiou Monastery
Cell wing of Koutloumousiou Monastery

The Cell Wings

The monks’ cells are small rooms, usually rectangular or square in plan, and built in rows on a number of floors. Access between them is by means of corridors roofed with a succession of arcades. The cell wings are built of stone, of brick, or of stone and brick.

The guesthouse is where pilgrims are received, usually near the entrance to the monastery. It has all that the pilgrims need, such as sleeping quarters, reception rooms, a kitchen, and bathrooms.

The Guesthouse

The guesthouse is where pilgrims are received, usually near the entrance to the monastery. It has all that the pilgrims need, such as sleeping quarters, reception rooms, a kitchen, and bathrooms.

The guest house of Gregoriou Monastery
The guest house of Gregoriou Monastery

The Katholikon

Floor plan of Katholikon of Great Lavra Monastery
Floor plan of Katholikon of Great Lavra Monastery

All the katholika (the main churches of the monasteries) are built in the same architectural style, being triconchal cross-in-square structures. All have the basic parts of a church: narthex, naos, and sanctuary.

In the katholika of Dionysiou, Pantokrator, and Koutloumousiou, the diaconicon has been replaced by a typikarion, a space which is circular inside and polygonal outside. Until 1293, the churches had double narthexes (an inner narthex and an outer narthex), as in Pantokrator, Esphigmenou, and Dionisiou. After this date one of the narthexes was replaced by a spacious area with two columns, known as the lite, between the naos and the narthex. There are usually chapels in the inner narthex.

Even the katholika of the Postbyzantine period follow the basic layout of Athonite architecture as laid down in the preceding centuries. Exceptions are the churches that were built in the 19th century with Russian funding in Panteleimon Monastery and the Skete of St Andrew. Though they preserve the traditional layout of the Athonite type of church, these structures incorporate the features of Russian church architecture, being extremely large and having gold-covered onion domes.

Dome of Katholikon of Stavronikita Monastery
New Katholikon,
Xenophontos monastery

In the naos, there are two apses roofed with semidomes at the end of the north and south arms of the inscribed cross. These facilitate the task of the choirs of cantors. The third apse, also roofed with a semidome, is the sanctuary apse.

The katholika are paved with precious marble and there is marble revetment on the walls up to a certain height. Above this they are covered with frescoes, the thematic repertory of which is strictly specified. The older iconostases (up to the 14th century) were carved out of wood; the more recent ones (17th–18th cent.) are also carved out of wood or else made of marble with Baroque influences.

Most of the katholika are painted red outside, examples being the katholika of the Great Lavra, Koutloumousiou, Iviron, and Vatopedi. Others, usually the more recent ones, opt to leave their classic cloisonné masonry bare.

The main churches (kyriaka) of the skatae were similar in architecture and form to the katholika of the monasteries until the mid-18th century. The most important kyriaka belong to the Skete of St Anne, built before the 17th century, and to Kavsokalyvia, built in the early years of the 17th century. Though they are Athonite-type churches, they are less conservative in style. The masonry is plainer, the proportions of the apses and the domes are heavier than in the katholika, and some of them incorporate Islamic pointed arches.

Chapels

A chapel at Iviron Monastery
A chapel at Iviron Monastery

Each monastery has a number of chapels, dedicated to Christ, the Virgin, and various saints. Some of them are incorporated in the katholika (often dedicated to the veneration of some holy relic), the towers, and the boathouses, in the cell wings, in independent structures in the courtyards, or in a conspicuous place near the monastery gate.

Phiale

The phiale is used for the ceremony of the blessing of the waters. Not all the monasteries have one. Where there is insufficient open space, there is no phiale. Its usual place is between the katholikon and the refectory. It consists of a marble canopy resting on columns, which covers the fountain.

Phiale of Megisti Lavra Monastery
Phiale of Megisti Lavra Monastery

Refectory

The Refectory of Simonos Petra Monastery
The Refectory of Simonos Petra Monastery

This is the most important building after the katholikon in the monasteries of Mount Athos. The monks go there in procession after the end of the Divine Liturgy. It is logical, therefore, that it should be on the ground floor opposite the katholikon. In the later monasteries, however, which usually have a smaller interior surface area free, it is on one of the sides of the monastery. In Dionysiou, Docheiariou, and Xenophontos, the refectory is linked to the katholikon by a portico.

The refectories are spacious, the older ones having solid built tables and the later ones long wooden tables. The walls are covered with frescoes, whose principal theme is the Last Supper. Naturally enough, the refectory is surrounded by auxiliary areas housing the kitchen, the bakehouse, and the storerooms for wine, oil, and crops.

Apart from these principal buildings, there are also infirmaries, libraries, bathhouses, and storerooms within the monastery precincts, and kiosks, stables, mills, cemeteries, the charnel house, and the boathouse outside the monastery precincts.

The Refectory of Vatopediou Monastery
The Refectory of Vatopediou Monastery
Kiosk of Megisti Lavra Monastery
Kiosk of Megisti Lavra Monastery

Kiosk

Not far from each monastery, usually in a location with a lovely view, there is a covered platform with wooden or built benches around the perimeter. Monks and visitors usually sit in the kiosk on fine days and meditate as they gaze at the sea. It offers them an opportunity to relax and for their spirits to reach out towards heaven and the divine.

Boathouse

The architecture of the monastery boathouses is particularly interesting, and they usually have a protective tower. The boathouses, in which boats were docked and their cargoes stored, complete the impressive architectural picture of almost all the Athonite monasteries.

The boathouse of Gregoriou Monastery
The Boathouse of
Gregoriou Monastery

Bibliography

  1. Vatopedi Monastery: Tradition, History, and Art (in Greek), vol. 2, Mount Athos, 1996.
  2. S. Kadas, Mount Athos: The Monasteries and their Treasures (in Greek), Athens, 1979.
  3. P. Mylonas, ‘The Architecture of Mount Athos’ (in Greek), Nea Estia, 74/875, Christmas, 1963, pp. 189-207.
  4. A. Orlandos, Monasterial Architecture (in Greek), Athens, 1958.
  5. C. Patrinelis, A. Karakatsani, and M. Theohari, Stavronikita Monastery: History, Icons, and Gold Embroidery (in Greek), Athens, 1974.
  6. M. D. Polyviou, ‘Ecclesiastical Architecture on Mount Athos’ (in Greek), I neoteri kai synhroni Makedonia, vol. I, Athens, n.d., pp. 196-203.
  7. P. Theocharidis, ‘Monastery Architecture’ (in Greek), I neoteri kai synhroni Makedonia, vol. I, Athens, n.d., pp. 184-95.
  8. P. Theocharidis, ‘The Architecture of Simonopetra’, Simonopetra, 1991, pp. 76-85.
  9. P. Theocharidis, ‘The Residential Wings of the Athonite Monasteries (1500-1900)’ (in Greek), Ayion Oros, Athens, 1991, pp. 253-70.
  10. P. Theocharidis, P. Foundas, and S. Stefanou, Mount Athos (in Greek), Athens, 1991.

IntroductionHistoryArtArchitectureEnvironmentLegal FrameworkMapVisitingTrekking GuideVirtual Tour

© 2000 – Macedonian Heritage