Meteora – Great Meteoron monastery

The Great Meteoron (Monastery of the Transfiguration of Christ) is the highest, largest and oldest of the six monasteries of the Meteora. Founded in the 14th century by a monk from Mount Athos, the Great Meteoron is still impressive and important today. If there is only time to visit one monastery in the Meteora, this is the one to choose.

History of Great Meteoron Monastery
The Great Meteoron was established around 1340 by St. Athanasios Meteorites, a scholarly monk from Mount Athos. He ascended the highest pinnacle – legend says he was carried up by an eagle – which he named Megalo Meteoro (“Great Place Suspended in the Air”). He first built a small church and modest lodgings for monks, dedicating both to the Virgin Mary. Later he added a larger church dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ, which became the primary dedication of the monastery.

Athanasios’ successor was Saint Iosaph, a Serbian king formerly known as John Uros who abandoned worldly power to become a monk here in c.1373. Over the course of his 40-year life at Great Meteoron, he rebuilt the Church of the Transfiguration (1387-88) and added monastic building including monks’ cells, a hospital, and a cistern. The Patriarch of Constantinople granted the monastery independence in c.1415 and its leader was officially designated an abbot (hegoumenos) in c.1482.

The Great Meteoron reached its peak in the 16th century, when it received significant imperial and royal donations. The nave and narthex of the Church of the Transfiguration were rebuilt in 1544-45 and the monastic complex was expanded later in the century with a new kitchen, a tower, a home for the aged, a refectoryand several chapels. The church was repaired and enlarged after an earthquake in 1544.

What to See at Great Meteoron Monastery
Platýs Líthos (“Broad Rock”), the rock on which the Great Meteoron stands, rises over 2,000 feet(615m) above sea level. The original hermitage of St. Athanasios Meteorites, a simple building carved into the rock, can be seen on the left of the staircase leading to the monastery entrance. Within the monastery, a shady courtyard provides a pleasant place to rest after the ascent.

The Church of the Transfiguration consists of the katholikon built by Saint Ioasaph’s in 1388 and a nave and narthex added in 1544-45. The katholikon has a Greek-cross-in-square floor plan, with a 12-sided central dome resting on a drum. The icons adorning the iconostasis date from the 14th to 16th centuries.

The frescoes of the katholikon date from 1497-98 and are well-preserved. They are painted in the Macedonian style and depict Christ Pantocrator, the Virgin Enthroned, the Three Hierarchs, various military saints, the monastery’s founders Athanasios and Iosaph, and scenes from the life of Christ.

The nave and narthex frescoes were painted in 1552 by an anonymous artist of the Cretan school. Notable in the nave are depictions of : Christ Pantocrator; the Transfiguration; the Raising of Lazarus; the Entry into Jerusalem; the Last Supper; the Descent to Hades; the appearances of Christ after the Resurrection; the Assumption of the Virgin; the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and the monastery’s founders Athanasios and Iosaph. Notable subjects in the narthex include: gruesome martyrdoms of early Christian saints; full-length figures of the founders; John the Baptist; the Baptism of Christ, the First and the Seventh Ecumenical Council; the Last Judgment with violent Punishments of the Damned; and ascetic saints.

The large refectory (1557) on the north side of the church has a vaulted roof supported on five pillars and an apse decorated with a portrait of the Virgin Mary with the archangels Michael and Gabriel. It houses an excellent museum with wood-carved crosses, rare ricons and important religious manuscripts. The impressive home for the aged (1572) has a central dome.

The adjacent kitchen is still blackened with smoke and contains the original bread oven and soup-hearth. The wine cellar, full of wooden wine barrels and other agricultural supplies, can also be visited. For many visitors, one of the most interesting stops outside the church is the sacristy, where skulls and bones of previous residents are neatly stacked on shelves.

From the southeast corner of the monastery, there are fine views to the neighboring pinnacle. This was once home to Ypselotera (“Highest of the Heavens”), the highest of the Meteora monasteries. Founded around 1390, it fell into disuse in the 17th century, perhaps because of the danger involved in accessing it.