Musing on Medieval Monks and Commitments

I’ve been looking at old documents, well, photographs of them, which were forwarded to me recently.  One of the most beautiful was the founding document of the Dionysiou Monastery in northeastern Greece.  It is one of the 20 monasteries that make up the Mt. Athos communities.  It sits on a cliff over the sea.  Dionysiou Monastery was established in the year 1374, by Alexios III Comnenos, Emperor of Trebizon.  It was dedicated to St. John the Forerunner.  It still exists, with a community of 50 monks living and praying there now. 

Alexios III gave St. Dionysius of Korysus a generous financial gift to build the monastery and its chapels, plus guaranteeing an annual grant for the future in order to keep it running.  In exchange, Dionysios was to ensure that the Emperor and his family would be remembered in prayer for all time at church services.  Additionally, any family member visiting the monastery would be given “special welcome”, to include automatic inclusion of any who wished to join the community.   The document was quite beautiful, illuminated with drawings, gilded, hand-written of course.

I found myself wondering today, on All Souls Day:  are the monks still praying for the soul of Alexios III and those of his family and his descendants?  Are there any descendants, continuing to honor the annual grant in return for prayers “in perpetuity”?  Perhaps the good monks are indeed still praying for the emperor’s soul–for it seems that 400 years later, the document was recopied, portraits and all, indicating a refreshing of the commitment for new generations to uphold.  

It’s amazing to think that as nations and dynasties rose and fell, a single promise of prayer can still stand firm, even after 640 years.

About reinkat

I am an iconographer, and have been studying Russian/Greek icons since 1995. I'm married with 3 children. I love hiking, camping, animals, my family and church--and icons.
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4 Responses to Musing on Medieval Monks and Commitments

  1. Biltrix says:

    This image reminds me a lot of Chinese painting. Fr Joseph Tham (occasional Biltrix contributor) is a very talented artist in the Chinese tradition (in addition to being a Physician and an expert in Bioethics). He gave a small group of us a couple of lectures on Chinese painting with some slides of his own paintings to compare with those of his “master” and some ancient Chinese paintings. Unfortunately, he does not want to share his work publicly — I’m still working on that.

    Among the commonalities between this example and Chinese painting is writing directly on the paining. In Chinese paintings, this is usually a poem, whereas in Christian iconography they are usually verses from scripture and/or ligatures for Jesus, Mary, or one of the saints. The interesting thing (for me) is that I just noticed the similarity between the two different styles, when looking at this document. It’s a beautiful sample. Thanks for sharing it!

    • reinkat says:

      I agree, it does. I also see great similarities between Korean portraits and saint icons, and also connections with statues of Buddha in some ways. I was always surprised at the influence of Turkish/Middle Eastern culture and also far-Eastern influences, while in Russia. But not all the surprising: Greece was so close the Middle East–and Russia shared a border with both the Near and Far East, with much mixing of cultures and peoples throughout history.
      I can understand why Fr.Tham might not want to share his art publicly. It changes things, changes your own attitude towards it. It would be an honor to see it, and you can count yourself blessed to have seen it and to learn from his explanations. Chinese brush painting and calligraphy are exquisite.

  2. Cornel A. says:

    I’m absolutely sure monks pray for the soul of Alexios III and his descendants. We have some special services, worships for all founders of a church or monastery.

    When I was there, in Mt Athos, they had every day a service for those who are dead now, those who helped the monastery even once and many other people.
    They also have some special moments when the Holy and Divine Liturgy is celebrated.

    Oh, I know I don’t use the right English words but you must know that monks are praying every day for all people, alive or dead.

    • reinkat says:

      Thank you for taking time to comment and inform. I am very glad to know this. All over the world, Catholic and Orthodox monks and nuns are praying for us all, the living and the dead. Every day. And that the promise to pray is extended and kept even centuries later. I want to consciously and intentionally remember also to pray for them.

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