Monastery of Chilandari from the Southwest


Chilandari from the Southwest, digital print from a 35mm slide, 1981

Each monastery on Mount Athos, although unified in their devoutness, has a unique history and position on the peninsula. Chilandari, seen in this photograph, was re-founded in 1198 by the Serbian monk Symeon and his son, Savvas, from the former Greek monastery called Chelandarios that lay in ruins. It came to wield substantial spiritual, economic, and political power both on Mount Athos and off, especially in Serbia. Even today, Chilandari controls twenty percent of the territory on the Holy Mountain.

In this photograph, Frank Horlbeck artfully frames Chilandari with greenery, with the forest gently sloping behind the monastery and thick foliage in the foreground. He still recalls how a monk led him up a “secret path” so he could get this bird’s eye view. The trees along a mountain path seem to part just for the viewer, presenting the entire monastery complex. The structure of the monastery, a typical Athonite monastic site plan based on the Great Lavra of St. Athanasios, is clearly presented. The stone walls, into which the cells of the monks and the guest quarters are built, encircle the Catholicon, the main church. The high, fortified towers along the wall, called the Tower of St. Sava and the Tower of St. George, today serve as a place for solitary contemplation and historically were used as a place of refuge during times of invasion. Cultivated land exists immediately outside the walls in organized rows of crops and a vineyard, while the untouched wild nature sprawls just beyond. The typikon of St. Athanasios, which all monasteries on Mount Athos follow, mark manual labor in these fields as essential aspects of daily life, along with obedience to the abbot and personal devotion.1

Inside the walls, the series of domes culminating at the largest, central dome over the naos, that make up the Catholicon, ascend above an open courtyard. The double narthex or lite also covered with domes and the apsidal transept arms are indications of a typical Athonite plan. The refectory stands near the church in the southern wall, as monks proceed directly to their meal after morning and evening services, connecting spiritual and physical nourishment. Two cypress trees rise from the central courtyard, which flank the phiale, the canopied basin that holds the water used in the Catholicon before it is blessed and made holy, which can be seen in another photograph in the exhibition. To the left of the Catholicon, a smaller chapel, the Chapel of the Holy Archangels, protrudes slightly from the wall into the courtyard and is capped by a singular dome. Chilandari, despite seeming immoveable, has changed quite a bit over its history, with invasion and destruction in the fourteenth century and expansion northward in the late-sixteenth to early-seventeenth centuries. Chilandari has changed recently as well, as a fire destroyed half of the complex in 2004 and reconstruction is still underway.

Michelle Prestholt


Bogdanovic, D., Djuric, V.J., Medakovid, D., Chilandar on the Holy Mountain. Belgrade, 1978.

Burridge, Peter. “The architectural development of the Athonite Monastery,” in Mount Athos and Byzantine Monasticism edited by Bryer and Cunningham. Birmingham: UK, 1994. 171-188.

Dennis, George T., trans. Typikon of Athanasios the Athonite for the Lavra Monastery. In Byzantine Monastic Foundation Documents, vol. 1 edited by John Thomas and Angela C. Hero, with assistance of Giles Constable. Washington, D. C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2000. 245-270.

Popovic, Svetlana. “The Byzantine Monastery: Its Spatial Iconography and the Question of Sacredness,” in Hierotopy: Creation of Sacred  Spaces in Byzantium and Medieval Russia. Edited by A. Lidov. Moscow: “Progress-tradition”, 2006: 150-185.

Speake, Graham. Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.


1Dennis, trans. “Typikon of Athanasios the Athonite for the Lavra Monastery,” 245-270.

Monastery of Chilandari from the Southwest