Two Trees and a Basin, Chilandari
Two cypress trees cast their characteristically long shadows over the courtyard of Chilandari. They flank the phiale, a canopied basin containing the holy water used for baptismal initiation and purification before entering the church. The phiale’s convenient location near the entrance of the Catholicon or main church facilitates the safe transport of the water to the interior of the church, or elsewhere. It is not uncommon for monks to consume holy water at least once each day.
The concept of a spatial icon, as developed by Alexei Lidov, refers to spaces of worship that incorporate architecture, movement, light, smell, taste, touch, and other experiential qualities in a holy place to cause divine visions for persons within that space.1 Jelena Bogdanovic demonstrates the important function of phialae in rites of blessing in her essay ‘The Phiale as Spatial Icon’. The feast day for Epiphany or Theophany (Theophania means vision of God) celebrates the revelation of God as Jesus in human form, and on the same day the ritual called ‘The Great Blessing of Waters’ occurs as part of the celebration of Christ’s life, specifically the Baptism.2 The monks gather at the phiale and bestow a blessing on the church and themselves with the newly consecrated water. As Jelena Bogdanovic puts it, “Because Christ was sinless, his baptism made water and all creation holy, and in that context water can become both the instrument and the sign of its original biblical meaning — the source of life.”3
The planting of cypress next to the phiale and other key areas of monasteries on Mt. Athos speaks of the tree’s significance in the context of sacred space. Similar trees can be found throughout the Mediterranean in cemeteries, due to their connotations with Resurrection. The wood of the cross was thought to be of cypress. Reaching heavenward, the two spire-like trees suggest the idea that the monastic complex anticipates the heavenly paradise, and embodies the monk’s desire to grow closer to God.
Bogdanovic, Jelena, "The Phiale as a Spatial Icon" in Alexei Lidov, ed., The Life-Giving Source. Water in the Hierotopy and Iconography of the Christian World. Materials from the International Symposium. Moscow, 2014, 106-109; online at http://lib.dr.iastate.edu/arch_conf/77.
Lidov, Alexei. “Hierotopy: The Creation of Sacred Spaces as a Form of Creativity and Subject of Cultural History,” in Alexei Lidov, ed., Hierotopy. Creation of Sacred Spaces in Byzantium and Medieval Russia. Moscow: Progress-tradition, 2006, 33-58.
2Bogdanovic, “The Phiale as a Spatial Icon,” 106.
3Bogdanovic, “The Philae as a Spatial Icon,” 106.