The Monastery is named after the monk who first built a tiny chapel on this rocky promontory in the 14th c. Today it has an elegant church with 16th-c. frescoes by a well-known iconographer and other notable buildings.
History of Varlaam Monastery
In 1350, an ascetic monk named Varlaam climbed this great rock and settled at the top. He built three churches, a cell for himself and a water tank. No one followed his lead, so after his death the site was abandoned.
The buildings fell into ruin for almost 200 years until 1517, when two rich priest-monks, Theophanes and Nektarios Apsarades from Ioanina, ascended the rock and founded a monastery. According to legend, they had to drive away the monster who lived in a cave on the summit before they could move in.
The brothers renovated Varlaam’s church of the Three Hierarchs, erected the tower, and built a katholikon (1541-42) dedicated to All Saints. Using ropes, pulleys and baskets, it took 22 years to hoist all the building materials to the top of the rock. Once everything was at the top, the construction work took only 20 days.
Varlaam Monastery was occupied continously by monks (about 35 at a time) throughout the 16th c. and into the early 17th c. after which it began to decline. Steps were first carved into the rock in the early 19th c. and have been altered several times since.
What to See at Varlaam Monastery
Today, Varlaam Monastery is occupied by seven monks and can be accessed by a narrow bridge that runs from the main road. There is a pleasant garden in the compound, where a monk sometimes sits and chats with visitors.
The Late Byzantine katholikon of Varlaam has a cross-in-square plan with a west narthex, with a dome in each section. The frescoes in the main church were painted by the celebrated iconographer Frangos Katelanos of Thebes in 1548 (the date is inscribed on the south wall). The narthex was frescoed in 1566 by the brothers George and Frangos Kondares of Thebes.
North of the katholikon is the small “Parekklesion of the Three,” an aisleless chapel dedicated to the three great bishops St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. John Chrysostom. Originally built by Varlaam in c.1350, it was repaired by the founders in c.1520, renovated in 1627 and decorated with frescoes in 1637.
The tower contains the old windlass and rope basket (1536), which used to transport monks and supplies to the monastery. When asked how often the rope was replaced, a 19th-century abbot famously replied, “Only when it breaks.” It was used as recently as 1961-63, when the refectory was renovated into a museum of religous artifacts.
The monastery’s museum displays a fine collection of relics, carved wooden crosses, icons, embroidered epitaphoi and many other eccelesiastical treasures. Varlaam also possesses over 300 religious manuscripts copied by monks, some of which are displayed in the sacristy.
The monastic kitchen is an elegant vaulted structure with an octagonal dome leading to a chimney. The original water barrel, which can hold 12 tons of rainwater, is on display in a storeroom.