Monastery St. Paul Mount Athos

The Monastery of St. Paul stands at an altitude of 140 metres on a small ridge, between two streams, with the sheer northern slopes of Mt. Athos as a background. Some of the more recent buildings have been built of concrete and extend over the in­hospitable slope as far as the alluvial banks of the southern river bed that runs down through the steep gorges of Mt. Athos. When the snows melt, or after a storm, the stream becomes a raging torrent, and not few are the times when it has wrecked and swept away entire buildings in its fury. Damage is also caused by avalanches, which have re­peatedly destroyed various edifices of the monastery. The harbour, which in antiq­uity was probably the site of the little town of Palaeochorion, lies half an hour away from the monastery. The road passes over the enormous boulders brought down on var­ious occasions by the two torrents. In the spring, this inhospitable landscape changes completely, and with the awakening Nature the entire hillside is covered with fantastic carpet of wild flowers.

There are many stories surrounding the monastery's name. The most convincing οne however, is the story that relates it to the monk, Paul Xeropotamites, the founder of Xeropotamou, who, in the latter years of his life, retreated to the isolation of this area in order to be able to devote himself to spiritual exercise and prayer.

However, because the Monastery was initially founded as a Kelli of Xeropotamou, it was not sufficiently important to be mentioned in the second Typikon of 1046. In 1259 it appeared in the chrysobull of the emperor Michael Palaeologus as holding the position of a small monastery in the hierar­chy of the Holy Mountain. It is also men­tioned in an official document of the emperor, but, after the pirate raids and depredations by the Catalans, it once again lost its importance and returned to the status of a simple Kelli.

After this, two Serbian monks, Gerasimos Radonius and Antonios Pagases from Xeropotamou, by dint of their own hard labour, rebuilt the monastery of St. Paul on its ruins, and succeeded in having it recognized as a monastery, mentioned in the third Tvpikon of 1394 as holding the eighteenth position in the Athonite hierarchy. The monastery appears for the first time as an entity independent of Xeropotamou in the official document of the patriarch Matthew in1401. Its hegumens' signatures are in the Slavonic script. Later, when Greek monks also began to sign important documents, a seal bearing both scripts was used, and continued to be used for very many years,

The first and most important benefactors of the monastery were the despots of Serbia, the all-powerful Brankovitch family. George Brankovitch (1427-1456), together with his two sons Stephen and Gregory, undertook the construction of the Katholikon, which is dedicated to St. George, in memory of its founder. His daughter, Mara, married the Turkish sultan Murad II (1421-1451) for political reasons, but die sultan did not oblige his wife to change her religion. Thus, Mara's lavish gifts, both of money and of land, once more guaranteed the prosperity of the monastery. When, after the fall of Constan­tinople, the remains of the "Gifts of the Three Magi" fell into the hands of the Turks, Mara decided to consign this precious treasure to her beloved monastery. She landed on the shore below the monastery, and began to wend her way up the hill. Suddenly, she heard a voice from heaven commanding her to turn back, because there was room for on­ly one queen on the Holy Mountain, the Mother of God. To this day, the chapel halfway up the road linking the shore and the monastery stands as a reminder of this memorable visit of a woman to Athos.

The monastery of St. Paul continued to pros­per in the 16th century under the protec­tion and patronage of the rulers of Moldavia and Wallachia. In 1521, Neagu provided the funds for the building of the defensive tower by the walls, in the upper part of the complex. Just beside it is the chapel of St. George, which was adorned in 1423-1425 with marvellous murals by artists of the Cre­tan School. Stephen the Great, ruler of Mol­davia (1457-1504) was one of the great bene­factors of the monastery. The Brankovitch family continued to offer its financial sup­port until the 17th century, but to an ever lessening degree. It was withdrawn entire­ly in 1710, when the Greek monks, then in the majority, took over the administration of the monastery. There followed years of serious financial troubles due, mainly, to the poll tax imposed by the Turkish conquerors. The monks were able to overcome the ter­rible shortages and poverty of that time thanks to the assistance of generous bene­factors, but above all thanks to the tireless efforts in the 18th century of the monastery's treasurer, Gregory, who managed to collect considerable amounts of money for the restoration of the monastery through the fund-raising campaigns he organised in East­ern Europe.

In the early years of the 19th century, an­other monk, Anthimos Comnennos from Silybria, a friend of patriarch Gregon V, undertook the restoration of the building complex and made large donations in land. During the years of the Greek War of Independence, the monastery was destroyed and remained completely desolate after the repeated Turkish raids it suffered in retaliation for the losses inflicted on the Turkish armies by the Greeks. Later, thanks to the donations of the Tsars Alexander I Nicholas I, the reconstruction of the buildings was made possible. The monks who returned there, however, were almost exclusively Greeks. In 1902, a huge fire once again destroyed half the buildings.

Those that were built in the following years were once more destroyed by a terrible flood caused by the torrents in 1911. But this time, modern technology and materials were used in the reconstruction of the buildings. Thus, with the exception of the huge wings of the Monastery of Panteleimonos, which in the meantime have suffered the ravages of a destructive fire and are crumbling, the monastery of St. Paul is the only one which has been built with concrete and displays distinctive cast-iron railings and other decorative elements.

The walls of the katholikon, inaugurated on the feast-day of St. George, are faced with marble, as is the altar screen. The katho­likon, dedicated to the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, managed to survive the fire fairly unscathed; but of the original wall-paintings that adorned the old katholikon of the Brankovitch family only a small part has survived. The inscription on the great chandelier of the church mentioning the name of its maker and the year 1659, is some-what puzzling. It is written in German, but contains many mistakes. As the chandelier was made in Dresden, it is conjectured that the author of the inscription was the Serbian monk Isaiah, who supervised its execution but whose knowledge of German was poor. In 1920 the library was burnt down, and a large part of its contents destroyed, in par­ticular the manuscripts on vellum. All that remains today are 500 manuscripts and 10,000 printed books of more recent times. The monks were fortunately able to save the monastery's treasures and relics from the hands of the barbarian hordes who constandy raided the monastery. Thus in the sacristy today can be found very precious relics, such as the Gifts of the Magi, two fragments of the True Cross, and a wonderful enamel diptych with an impressive icon of the Pantocrator. This diptych, measuring approxi­mately 35 x 28 cm, also portrays, in a frame of pearls, the Virgin and St. John and next to them the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. It originates from the famous Maas School and was made around 1200 using a special technique. A similar example of the art of the same school exists in the Neuburg Monastery in Austria. Very precious, too, is the pearl-encrusted pastoral cross with its 40 miniatures, shining beneath its crystal covering. Among the surviving treasures are also the icon of St. George and the icon of the Virgin Myrovlitissa.

Three Kellia, situated in Karyes, belong to the Monastery as do also two Sketes: the Rumanian Skete tou Lakkou, on the eastern side of Mt. Athos, dedicated to St. Demetrius, comprising 20 Kalyves, and the Greek Νea Skete, situated on the western shore, half an hour's walk to the south-east of the monastery.


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