By Sir James William Whittall
Having heard from a friendly Orthodox bishop that a curious ceremony, if it might not be styled a Passion play, was, and had from time immemorial been, enacted on Greek Maundy Thursday at Patmos by the kaloyeri or monks of the great monastery of St John the Evangelist there, and feeling convinced that a description of it would interest English friends, I decided to attend it, and I did so under unusually favourable circumstances. Patmos is not at all times accessible, and I had a conveyance of my own to go in. I knew Greek well, and could converse direct with the monks, to whom, as well as to others at Patmos, I had very strong letters of introduction.
The Monastery of St John was built in 1085, in the reign of Alexius Comnenus, by a native of Trebizond, John Christodoulos (servant of Christ), who was afterwards canonised, and whose mummified body, preserved in the church in a silver coffin with the face exposed, is said to be gifted with great miraculous powers. The building was erected on the site and with the materials of a temple dedicated to the goddess Artemis, and occupies an imposing position on a hill about six hundred feet high. It is more like a grand old medieval castle, with turrets, &c., than a monastery, and the strength of the building saved it at times from the inroads of pirates and freebooters. Although this monastery was built in honour of St John the Evangelist, the true site of the divine's dwelling, in which he wrote the Book of Revelation, is shown in a small monastery lower down, now used as a school. This, in my humble opinion, rather tends to confirm the authenticity of the site, for if it had been at any time in dispute it would most certainly have been claimed by the great monastery above, which quite overshadows the lowly one below. The cave or grotto in which St John saw the vision is here shown. It is in a rock, the upper part of which is rent in three pieces. The tradition is that St John, lying on the rock below, was awoke by great thunder and a convulsion of nature, which rent the rock above in three, to denote the Holy Trinity and the Unity at the same time (for the three rents join in one), and then saw the celestial vision which he wrote down.
On our arrival at Patmos my yacht was greeted with warning cries of 'Beware of Kinops!' Now, Kinops, according to tradition, was a leading demon who haunted the island and inveigled men by revealing to them their dead friends restored to life again. On St John's arrival at Patmos, Kinops cursed him and tried to prevent his landing, upon which the saint hurled him into the sea and converted him into a rock, which, just visible above water, constitutes a danger to navigation, and is still called Kinops.
I spent a fortnight at Patmos, Passion and Easter week, living half the time in the monastery itself, in continuous communication with the monks and the chief inhabitants of the town. I not only saw everything that is shown to strangers, but a good deal that is not. There are many valuable treasures in the monastery, including remarkable antique ecclesiastical vestments, crosiers, mitres, gold and silver plate thickly encrusted with jewels, and numerous manuscripts and books. The mitre, crosier, and vestments of St John Christodoulos are first shown, and so are those of a series of patriarchs and bishops extending over the last nine hundred years. I was especially struck by the crosier of the patriarch Neophytus, who lived about three hundred years ago, which he got from the heirs of a famous bishop called Musselim, of an earlier age, and for which, the igoumenos told me, Rothschild, who visited the island, offered an enormous price. It is in gold-and-blue enamel of most exquisite workmanship. Some of the early episcopal robes were also of wonderfully fine brocade, and looked quite new. It appears that many of the dignitaries of the Orthodox Church were originally monks of the monastery, attached to which in past times there was a theological school renowned for its learning, and which it is now sought to re-establish. These dignitaries were obliged by religious custom to leave all their ecclesiastical belongings to the monastery they hailed from. Hence this vast collection of treasures, which has been preserved intact since the eleventh century; for, although the monastery was at times attacked, the monks managed always to save their treasures, which cannot be said of most of the other monasteries in the Levant.
Perhaps the most remarkable treasure in the monastery is the famous Codex N of the fourth century, a marvellous artistic manuscript on thin purple vellum, with the letters in silver, those referring to God and Christ being in gold. Leaves were often torn out of this manuscript in past ages, and were given as credentials to monks sent as envoys on special missions to Russia and other parts of Europe. In one of the manuscripts just deciphered, embodying a curious petition addressed by the monks to the Emperor Charles, and begging for his support against piratical inroads, it is stated that the monks in charge of the petition were bearers of a leaf of the manuscript for presentation to His Majesty. These leaves have excited the wonder of ecclesiastical students for many years past. Six of them are in the Vatican, which published an elaborate work on the subject, reproducing the pictures in full; six are in England, and two in Vienna. A few years since, some of the leaves were privately exhibited for sale at Constantinople, and were strenuously competed for by agents from the United States, England, and Russia. Although both Americans and English had given orders to bid extreme prices for them, the Czar got the leaves by political influence for a consideration of one thousand pounds sterling and a set of valuable ecclesiastical vestments. These leaves purported to come, and I believe did come, from a Greek church at Caesarea in Asia Minor. Those now existing at Patmos are thirty-three in number (I counted them), containing parts of the Gospel of St Mark. Why this manuscript should have been thus split up between Patmos and Caesarea the monks could not tell me, nor how many were the leaves of the original manuscript, and only quoted the authority of two versions on the subject, one of which made the leaves one hundred and eighty-two in all, and the other four hundred and ninety.
If the piety of a place may be gauged by the number of its churches, then undoubtedly Patmos is the most pious place on earth, for within its limited and rocky surface three hundred and sixty-six churches and chapels are contained, or about one to every ten inhabitants. This extraordinary wealth of ecclesiastical buildings demonstrates the great prosperity of the little island in days gone by. That for its size it was astonishingly wealthy is proved also by the great number of valuable relics of the past in the shape of furniture imported from Europe one hundred and fifty to four hundred years since, jewels, gold and silver ornaments, embroideries, &c., still existing in private houses, though the island has been the prey of collectors for many years past. Some of these relics would not disgrace a royal palace. The past prosperity of the place is easily explainable. Under the shadow of the great monastery, which was recognised and in a measure respected by its Turkish sovereigns, who confirmed to it the privileges granted by Alexius Comnenus, Patmos was one of the few spots in the Levant in which during the early and middle ages Christians could dwell in comparative safety. Rich Greeks, therefore, congregated there, and brought their treasures with them; they became large shipowners and traded with Europe. Many of them were evidently men of education and cultivated taste; they established a school renowned for its learning.
Now, owing to security in regions more favoured by nature, and to the decline of the sailing marine, the people are fast leaving the island. There are quite large colonies of them in America, Smyrna, Alexandria, &c., and few return to their native island. A few of the old families, dating from early centuries, still exist, and it is melancholy to see them gradually becoming extinct, the few that are still left dwelling poverty-stricken, yet full of pride, in their ancestral houses, among the remains of their ancient grandeur, which they very reluctantly sell off piecemeal to buy bread with.
It is also sad to realise that the old artisans who ministered to their wealthy compatriots by their exquisite work in the form of gold and silver and embroideries have totally disappeared, their art being lost with them. What especially attracted my notice were the models in gold and silver of antique Greek galleys and other things thickly encrusted with exquisite enamels, and the embroideries, called Rhodian, but of which the finest were made at Patmos. The artisans in gold had undoubtedly inherited the art of the Greek jewellers of the Hellenic period, whose work excels the finest of which modern jewellers are capable. A very few specimens of these arts are now left; in a few years there will be none.
The whole of Passion week was spent in constant services in the church of the monastery, and a terribly hard life it was for the monks, who had to be up all night, slept very little by day, and lived on one daily meal, consisting of dry bread and boiled vegetables. With all the attenuation which followed on so hard an existence they preserved a serenity of soul which was truly remarkable, and I have to thank the abbot, Agathangelos, his nephew, and all the monks for the most courteous hospitality. The monks, who are all more or less men of education, often discussed with me the union of the Anglican Church with theirs. All, without exception, expressed their earnest wish for such a union, and their conviction that it would be brought about some day. They also gave me some of the reasons, chiefly political, why the movement has been so far retarded; but I scarcely think it would be right to refer to them.
The monastery possesses, besides the body of St Christodoulos, several wonder-working relics, notably the skull of St Thomas, got from India, and presented by Alexius Comnenus, which is preserved in a golden casket and carried about in solemn procession whenever a great calamity befalls Patmos or the neighbouring regions. Some years since a plague of locusts settled on the island of Samoa. A deputation thence, accompanied by monks, solemnly took the relic to the scene of the locusts' ravages, upon which the swarms immediately quitted the island, and flying towards the sea, were drowned. That this did take place there can be no doubt, for there are thousands of eye-witnesses of the fact still living; but as locusts do often quit the land and fall into the sea, this may only have been a happy coincidence. Other remarkable cases of miraculous power exercised by the relics were related to me, and are undoubtedly firmly believed in by all. One of these, which is peculiarly quaint, occurred only a few years since. The captain of a sailing vessel took advantage of the attending monk's inattention to chip off a finger from St Christodoulos' body, which was exposed at the time. He then went down to his ship, rejoicing over his acquisition, and atarted for his destination with two other ships. The latter sailed off with a favourable wind. His vessel could not make any way at all, being beaten back by currents. For three days in succession the ship would not move, until at last he bethought him of the sacrilege he had committed ; and returning to the monastery, he confessed his sin, restored the finger, and then was allowed to proceed on his voyage. The finger is now preserved in a separate receptacle.
And now let me describe the ceremony to see which was the principal object of my visit to Patmos. It is called the Niptira, and is regarded with such interest that many hundreds of pilgrims from the neighbouring regions defy the elements and attend it, arriving in frail native craft over what is frequently a stormy sea in the spring mouths. The ceremony takes place in a small square, one of the very few level bits of land to be found in the town of Patmos, which is built on the precipitous sides of what may safely be styled a steep pyramid capped by the stately monastery. There was much excitement in the little town over what was reckoned to be the great event of the year. For days before, whitewashing was the order of the day, until the whole place was so dazzlingly white that the eyes could not rest on it for more than a second or two. A square temporary erection of poles, festooned with garlands of flowers and surrounded by a little forest of crosses, ikons, and ecclesiastical ornaments, was the scene of operations. Within this enclosure there were thirteen seats, the one to be occupied by Christ being in the centre. Everything being ready, the thirteen performers, headed by the igoumenos (abbot), with our deacons bearing crosses and swinging censers, and all dressed in purple vestments embroidered with gold, came in procession from the monastery church, and as they approached the enclosure, were ushered into it two by two by the four deacons, swinging their censers, on each side of them. The igoumenos, who wore more gorgeous robes than the others, represented Christ, one of them took the part of Judas, and the others the parts of the other Apostles. The role of Judas up to two years since was taken by one of the laity; but there was great difficulty in finding a man to assume so repulsive a part, and since 1902 perforce one of the monks has to represent the traitor. The igoumenos first rises to pray a dedicatory prayer; and the choir, which is outside standing on a slight elevation, then join in a rather long chant on the love of the brethren. The igoumenos then rises again, and holding his crosier, calls for a blessing on the ceremony. Then commence the actual proceedings, which begin with the words of Christ: 'With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer;' and after the agony on Gethsemane, end with the words, 'Rise, let us go; lo! he that betrayeth Me is at hand.' From this my readers will understand that the whole of the scenes occurring in the four Gospels between the saying of the above words are enacted, and this is done in strict accordance with the four Gospels in the most appropriate sequence of them that could be adopted. Thus the prospective betrayal, the strife as to who should be greatest, the asseverations of faithfulness, the washing of the feet, and the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, &c., are all given chiefly in the form of dialogues between Christ and His Apostles. Of course, the principal part amongst the Apostles is given to St Peter; and after the igoumenos has laid aside his robes and girded himself with a velvet apron embroidered with gold, the scene of the washing of the feet is very graphically enacted by a literal reproduction of the dialogue between Christ and St Peter: 'Lord, dost Thou wash my feet?' 'What I do, thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.' 'Thou shalt never wash my feet.' 'If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with Me.' 'Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head,' &c. But it must not be supposed that each Apostle does not also act an individual part. Thus, when Jesus uses the words, 'One of you shall betray Me,' each Apostle in turn springs forward and asks the Saviour, 'Is it I?' When this questioning ends, St John is seen lying at Jesus' feet, with his head leaning on Jesus' breast, and says unto Him, 'Lord, who is it?' Jesus replies, 'He it is to whom I shall give a sop,' &c.; upon which follows the scene with Judas. The asseverations by St Peter of his fidelity to his Master and the prophecy, 'The cock shall not crow till thou hast denied me thrice,' are also graphically given. The scene of the agony at Gethsemane is the last of all. It is not enacted on the stage, but on a spot outside of the enclosure, to which Christ retires with the three Apostles. Christ prays and the Apostles slumber. The closing words of the ceremony are, I repeat, 'Rise, let us go; lo! he that betrayeth Me is at hand.'
What contributed to make the whole performance most quaint and primitive was the constant interposition between each performer's participation in the scene of the solemn chant of a monk called the Evangelist, who, standing on a little height some twelve yards from the sacred enclosure, and dressed in full canonicals, introduces, as it were, the performers to the crowded audience by solemnly chanting each time,' Listen to the words of our Lord Jesus Christ,' or the Apostle Peter, or John, or James, &c. On the whole, this ceremony or play, if I may so call it, is a most curious, primitive, and interesting one. It certainly greatly impressed the audience. Although it was lacking in the effectiveness of perfect acting, as at Ober-Ammergau, it certainly was not wanting in solemnity, dignity, and earnestness. The performers, too, were clearly impressed with the parts they were acting, and there was none of the levity I have witnessed in Eastern services at times. It was a reproduction of the scenes, as well as it could be given, not by actors dressed for the occasion and acting as actors would, but by monks in inappropriate sacerdotal vestments, all moving within a very limited space, which could not have covered more than a hundred square yards, if so much. All the performers knew their parts by heart, and I saw no references to books. It struck me, however, that one of the deacons who held a book in his hands did act in a measure as prompter.
Immediately after the closing scene the performers seated themselves on their chairs in the enclosure, and the director of the theological school, which is in the lower monastery of the Apocalypse, already referred to, who is called Alexander Dhilanas, doctor of divinity and a deacon, a nephew of the famous Bishop Lycurgus, delivered the sermon of the occasion on the duty of humility. It has seldom been my good fate to listen to so truly, eloquent and absolutely evangelical a discourse, in the course of which he by turn addressed the people and the monks, calling upon them to follow the example of Christ in His great humility. He finally wound up his address by a stirring appeal to the audience to exert themselves to restore their holy island, the scene of God's great revelation to St John, to its pristine preeminence as a champion of the faith of Christ. What especially struck me and the English friends with me was the remarkable fact that only the name of Christ as a pattern was mentioned in it. I might mention here that this eloquent divine gave up a remunerative and easy post in another more favoured locality to take up that of Patmos, which brings him nominally five pounds per month, but in reality only about three pounds in cash, on which he has to live and clothe himself. He sacrificed himself for the love of his religion, purely and unselfishly.
Certainly my visit to the monastery and my long conversations with the monks gave me a much higher opinion of them than I previously had formed from hearsay. That they are unselfishly and sincerely devoted to a life which is terribly hard none can deny. That some of them, at least, are men who do not take to it because of their ignorance of the world is beyond doubt, for many are gentlemen who have been well educated and have travelled. One of them was Orthodox chaplain at New York, and knows English. I was glad to notice that increasing interest is being taken in their valuable library, of which an extensive catalogue has been printed. Still, it is not quite complete, and my special friend, Ayios Theofilos, is now engaged in remedying the defects by a careful study, and in some cases transcription, of some of the more undecipherable manuscripts, of which the contents had not been fully studied. I trust this may lead to important discoveries in time. One of the manuscripts may turn out to be of historical importance, for it purports to describe the taking of Constantinople by the Turks.
Chambers Journal, Dec. 1903 - Nov. 1904.