2011 Seminar

The Seventh Mount Menoikeion Summer Seminar at Hagios Ioannes Prodromos Monastery
June 25-June 30, 2011
"After the Fire: Assessment, Reconstruction, and Continuity"


Director: Nikos Bakirtzis *06 (Art and Archeology)
Coordinators: Dawn LaValle (Classics) and Jamie Greenberg (Music)
Graduate Students: Jennifer Morris (Art and Archeology), Nick Marinides (History), Alex Petkas (Classics), Emily Spratt (Art and Archeology), Jaqueline Strum (Art and Archeology)
Princeton Faculty: Dimitri Gondicas, Nino Zchomelidse, Slobodan Curcic
Greek Archaeological Service Participant: Xenophon Moniaros

Our Princeton group has returned once again to the monastery that has become so dear to many of us, but with a significant difference this time--the loss sustained by the fire on December 13th which destroyed a large part of the south wing of the monastery complex.  As observers and friends we wanted to take the opportunity of this summer's trip to experience the loss and begin looking toward the future of the architectural life of the monastery, at once historic and contemporary.  This blog will recount impressions of the new realities of monastic life after the fire both from returning participants and also from those who have come to Prodromos for the first time.  Thank you for following along on our journey!

BLOG for 2011

Newbian Ponderings
Posted on July 2, 2011 by Dawn LaValle
by Jaqueline Sturm and Alex Petkas

This year’s Prodromos Monastery newcomers made their first acquaintance with a community which seemed rather well functioning.  Even though we were quite well apprised of the catastrophe and its extent, and were aware of the implications of it for the way the community functions, to us, it seemed like a reasonably well functioning machine.  There were visitors speaking with the nuns, we were welcomed with delicious coffee and treats, worship operated normally, and there was generally no obvious sense of loss in the air.  The obvious exception was the clear evidence of destruction to our right after entering: charred bricks, melted, twisted metal, scarred trees.

The nuns here are eager to put the loss behind them and continue with normalcy, as we were told before and then learned through our conversations with them.  What felt to veterans like a gaping hole in the periphery of the complex, we experienced as an open space, a lovely view in fact, but no less striking as a feature in the panorama than the beautiful chapel at the heart of the complex.

Today was our first real personal encounter with the loss, and the tragedy.  After a session of our presentations, as we sat chatting in the library, Sister Maria shared with us her experience of the night of the fire.  She brought vividly to our minds the speed with which the catastrophe unfolded once the first signs of the fire had been detected.  We got a sense of the helplessness which the nuns must have felt that night, not only faced with an inferno which they could do nothing to extinguish but also with the fact that there were simply too few hands to do all that needed to be done in the short time which was given them: there were older and more frail nuns who had to be transported to safer ground, icons to be removed from the central church in case the fire should (heaven forbid) spread there, in addition to all of the icons in the refectory which was already ablaze at the time.  When the firefighters finally arrived forty five to sixty minutes after the fire kindled, they realized that the fire was dangerously close to jumping past the fire-wall, by way of the wooden balconies which project along the perimeter of the monastery.  Nuns had gone into the building ahead of the fire in order to hew down a section of the balcony in order to break the path which the fire was following.  This they did in the face of strong resistance on the part of the firefighters, who thought the endeavor too dangerous.  It is difficult to imagine that they would have succeeded; fortunately – they would say miraculously – the balcony section at the fire’s blazing vanguard collapsed before it could spread to the next building.  If this had not happened, the complete south and east sections of the monastery might well have been lost – approaching half of the entire periphery of the complex. The account was so vivid that Jaqueline was beset by dreams that night of flaming buildings and collapsing balconies!

Earlier in the day, we had been to the bishop of Serres’ icon museum, where many icons which once resided in the Prodromou Katholikon are now housed for display. Emily’s presentation that morning gave us an excellent overview of the museum’s collection (with emphasis on the Prodromou pieces), as well as an account of the way in which they were first removed from the monastery by the former metropolitan, shortly before its re-inhabitation by the nuns, then later placed in the museum by the current metropolitan, and now find it difficult to return to their original home.  After hearing of our visit, Sister Theologia asked, “Did you see our icons?”

The day for us closed with the festal vigil of Saints Peter and Paul.  This was a particularly touching event for those among the group who are not Orthodox Christians, many of whom were experiencing the Byzantine festal liturgy for the first time.  The liturgy, chiefly with its combination of chanting, incense, and light – the nuns lit and swung the majestic polyeleos, a sort of Byzantine chandelier – assaults all of the senses.  A fitting end to a varied and fulfilling day.

A Side trip to the Monastery at Ormylia
Posted on July 2, 2011 by Dawn LaValle
by Dawn LaValle

Thursday morning saw our van pulling out of the beauty of Serres and heading down the highway toward the Chalcidiki, which is both the summer playground of thousands of Thessalonikians, as well as the location of Mt. Athos, that most holy place in Orthodox Christendom.  We had decided on our way back to Thessaloniki to take a side-trip to the Monastery of the Annunciation at Ormylia, the largest women’s monastery in Greece, with about 115 sisters in residence.  Why go from one monastery to another?  Hadn’t we had our fill yet?  We thought it might be interesting to see another flourishing women’s monastery in the area with a different tradition and different story.  Ormylia was founded in the 1970’s under the guidance of a charismatic priest named Fr. Aimilianos.  The men under his direction re-founded the Monastery of Simonos Petras on Mt. Athos, and the women came to Ormylia–as close as they could get to the Holy Mountain.  

We were greeted in English at the gate–Ormylia’s nuns come from all over the world–and were led to a shady seating area, given the traditional Turkish Delight, or loukoumia as the Greeks prefer, and Greek coffee, and were soon joined by a nun by the name of Sr. Augustina.  We explained who we were and gained some knowledge of the monastery.  As she asked us more questions about ourselves, she hit upon a fact that changed everything–some of us are students of Peter Brown!  Her face lit up, and doors were opened, literally.  Peter Brown had once come through Ormylia and given her a copy of his biography of Augustine, her patron.  Any friend of Prof. Brown was a friend of the monastery of Ormylia!  She rose, disappeared, and returned with the key to the inner area of the monastery where visitors are usually not allowed to go.  She lavished her time on us as she gave us a tour of their overwhelmingly beautiful new church.

How different was this church to the katholikon at Prodromos!  Separated by about 800 years, in fact.  Everything new, everything fresh.  Yet at the same time, there were all of the traditional elements that linked the two monastic churches together–the same saints adorned the walls, the same iconostasis, the same ancient type of chandelier which we had seen swing so bewitchingly a few days earlier at the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul at our monastery of Prodromos.  It was a wonderful opportunity to see the creation of a Byzantine-style building piece by piece–the outlines of future mosaics still awaiting an artist sister’s hand to complete them.  As Prodromos struggles with the difficulties and delights of adapting their life-style to an ancient and uncompromising setting, the sisters at Ormylia have a chance to start afresh, to create a new monument for future generations to call ancient.  More than anything, I think our group felt a sense of unity and continuity between the two monasteries–one building complex in the middle of its life, and one at the beginning.  Both full of young energy and hope.  May they both be granted many years!

Impressions from a Rushed Visit
Posted on July 2, 2011 by Dawn LaValle
by Nicholas Marinides

I arrived at Prodromos quite late, due to the need to attend a wedding back in the States. I found myself in a somewhat strange position: as a latecomer (and having only visited the monastery once before, four years ago, and then only for a short time as well) I was not able to experience the monastery life as intimately as my colleagues; but as a seasoned monastic pilgrim and as a Greek-speaker, I was able to adjust to the monastery’s rhythms more easily than them. But then again, as a man and as being much more familiar with men’s monasteries, the visit to a women’s monastery was something relatively unfamiliar.

The differences are of course apparent in the chanting: instead of the deep full sound of an Athonite choir, “like the voice of many waters,” there was the more ethereal and refined sound of women’s voices. I also noticed it in the nuns’ account of their reaction to last winter’s fire (which I heard second-hand from some of the students, not from the nuns themselves). The event was deeply traumatic for them, and at the end of a frightening and exhausting day of fire-fighting, they gathered together to weep over the loss they had suffered. Such a catastrophe in a men’s monastery would be as traumatic in its own way, but I suppose it would evoke a different kind of emotional response. Lastly, if I had been at the monastery longer I would have been able to converse more with the nuns and learn more about their monastic experience; but as a man I would have felt obliged to maintain a certain respectful distance and formality that would not be as necessary for the women in our group.

As it happened, I was able to learn something from our group conversation with Gerondissa Fevronia, where I served as translator, and by speaking with her personally about my research for a bit afterward as the group started moving back toward the library for our final talk. Here I met the refreshing simplicity of monastic wisdom, which can overcome the limits of gender. In speaking to Gerondissa, I heard the same kind of tranquil conviction and insight that I have heard in the speech of Athonite elders. And I can understand how that calm ascetical figure is a pillar of strength for the community in the difficulties of the fire and its aftermath.