Monastic Landscape: Docheiariou from the South
Taken from a winding path on high to the south of the monastery, this view of Docheiariou is one only a monk or a pious pilgrim might see. This image evokes the dichotomy between monastic enclosure or seclusion, and the inevitable interactions with the outside world. Athos was originally a site for hermits, but became a site for communal monasticism by the late 10th century. Docheiariou is among the earliest surviving monasteries of Athos, founded in 967 by Saint Euthymius, one of the followers of Saint Athanasios. The site was twice relocated, first in the mid-eleventh century, then again under Emperor Alexios Komnenos, at the beginning of the twelfth century.
Where the early church fathers found seclusion in the desert, the monks on Athos found solace in the bounty of nature, surrounded by a vast ocean. Life at Athos is defined by the monk’s relationship with nature, both tamed and wild; they see Athos as an earthly Garden of the Panagia (“All Holy Mother of God”) or paradise. Mount Athos was established as a site for monastic worship officially around 1080, but it is said that Mary, the mother of Jesus, founded the site much earlier. Thus the peninsula is also known as the Garden of Mary, the only woman to have ever stepped foot on the land.1
The tree branch in the upper portion leads us into the landscape, just as Docheiariou itself is nestled into the hillside. This type of composition evokes 18th century landscape paintings, where trees are used as a framing devise. Also framing the image is a fortified tower at the summit of the monastic compound, which served as a refuge from pirates and invaders, as an elevated cell for the most ascetic monks, and also as treasury.2 The tower also plays a symbolic role, as a signifier for spiritual struggle and the desire for ascent to God (theosis).3
Burridge, Peter. “The Architectural Development of the Athonite Monastery,” Bryer and Cunningham, Mount Athos and Byzantine Monasticism. Birmingham, UK 1994, 171-188.
Della Dora, Veronica. Imagining Mount Athos: Visions of a Holy Place, from Homer to World War II. University of Virginia Press, 2011.
Popovic, Svetlana. “The Byzantine Monastery: Its Spatial Iconography and the Question of Sacredness.” In Hierotopy: The Creation of Sacred Spaces Byzantium and Medieval Russia, edited by Alexei Lidov, 150-185. Moscow: Progress-tradition, 2006.
Speake, Graham. Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise, New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2002.
1Della Dora, Imagining Mount Athos, 63; Graham Speake, Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise, 21-38.
2Burridge, “The Architectural Development of the Athonite Monastery,” 184.
3Popovic, “The Byzantine Monastery: Its Spatial Iconography and the Question of Sacredness,” 167-9.