Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Benedictine Monastery of Saint Mary on Mount Athos


The Benedictine Monastery of Saint Mary on Mount Athos

Dom Leo Bonsall

Benedictine contacts with the Church of the East have been many and varied, but the foundation of the abbey of St Mary on Mount Athos and its continuing existence during a period when official relations between Rome and Constantinople were at a very low ebb is perhaps the outstanding example of monastic co-operation transcending the estrangement of East and West. The full history of the monastery has never been written, for much of it is shrouded in mystery. There are very few documents and the dating of some of these is difficult; all that visibly remains of the buildings is a tower and a few walls on the eastern side of the Athonite peninsula. It is hardly surprising that one of the first Benedictine foundations in the East should have been made by monks from the maritime city republic of Amalfi: Amalfitan merchant ships were trading throughout the area, and monks from that city continued their founding work with the monastery of St Mary the Latin in Jerusalem, and another monastery in Constantinople itself.

The first mention of the followers of St Benedict coming to the Holy Mountain is contained in the lives of the Georgian saints John and Euthymius who founded, round aboout 980, the lavra of Iviron (that is, Iberon, the monastery of the Iberians or Georgians). The following account is given in a Greek akolouthia from Athos:

Before the foundation of the lavra of Iviron, the monk Beneventus, the brother of an Italian prince, arrived on Athos with six of his disciples, wanting to live there. He became an intimate friend of John and his son Euthymius and all three decided to leave the lavra of Saint Athanasius, where they lived, and found an independent lavra. The [Amalfitans] returned home to obtain the things needed for the construction of a new monastery. Being held up, however, on their journey, they found when they returned that the lavra of Iviron had been established and was being governed by Euthymius, to the displeasure of his father, John. Then Beneventus bought a piece of land and built a new monastery which had many monks, the greater part coming from Amalfi; in fact the monastery took the name of the Amalfitans, and was consecrated to the memory of the Most Holy Mother of God.

The official life of the two Georgian saints was originally written by another monk of Iviron, George the Hagiorite, about 1045, or thirty years after the death of Euthymius. The Bollandist Paul Peeters, SJ, published in 1922 a definitive Latin translation of this work, in which there is a passage telling how the founders of Iviron reacted to the arrival of the Latin monks:

Further, while Father John was alive, a certain monk arrived from the land of the Romans, a man famous for his virtue, to whose worth the lands of both the Romans and the Greeks bore witness, the brother of the duke of Benevento, of a most noble family. This man arrived with six disciples on this Holy Mountain in order to pray. When our fathers saw that he was outstanding in the gifts of grace they received him as a friend and one of themselves. They treated him with the greatest kindness and invited him to make his home among them, saying ‘Both you and we are alike pilgrims’. They persuaded him with great difficulty, for he desired to live in a separate monastery . . . . And so he built a pleasant monastery in which he gathered many brothers. With the help of our fathers the whole work was completed . . . and to this day there exists on the Holy Mountain this monastery of the Romans, who live a regular and edifying life [probe ac rite] according to the Rule of Holy Benedict whose life is described in the Book of Dialogues.

One of the great figures on Athos at this period was St Athanasius: monks flocked to hear and speak with him from all over the world and the Benedictine founders were no exception. Athanasius’ biographer tells how the western monks brought the saint a jar of caviar, which, of course, the saint did not eat, though he accepted it so as not to offend them. It is very interesting to note the friendship of the Benedictines with St Athanasius, for one finds in the rules of his followers many signs of the influence of the Rule of St Benedict.


Modern commentators are unanimous that the account of the arrival of the western monks given by George the Hagiorite is to be preferred to the first one cited above. Peeters holds that it is to be regarded as a document ‘of great importance not only for the religious history of Athos, but also for the political and religious history of the period.’ So the arrival of the Latin monks has to be placed not only during the lifetime of St John but also during that of St Athanasius. St John and St Euthymius arrived on Athos about the year 970 and began building Iviron about 980, so the foundation of St Mary’s took place some time between 980 and 1000. A. Pertusi narrows this down further to 985-90, and quotes a document of the Great Lavra dated 984, signed by two of the Latin monks, John and Arsenius.

The monastery of Iviron was famous for its learning, and the extant works of the Latin monks lead us to believe that they were of comparable intellectual standing. This could explain the continuing friendship between the two monasteries. As examples of literary activity in the Amalfitan monastery, we have Latin versions of several hagiographical works, certainly including the ‘Account of the miracle of St Michael in Chonae’ translated by one Leo, who calls himself a monk of the Latin monastery on Athos; other similar manuscripts may well be from the same source, and it has been suggested that the transmission to the West of the legend of Barlaam and Joasaph links Iveron and the Amalfitan monastery.

The Benedictine historians of the 11th century do not mention the Amalfitan foundation: in fact, they rather confuse matters. The chronicler of Monte Cassino, Leo of Ostia, tells of the election of Manso, twenty-eighth abbot of Monte Cassino, in 986: ‘He became abbot through the influence of the princes of his family and not through the vote of the monks.’ He goes on to tell bow after Manso had taken up his office several of the best monks decided that they could not live under him and left the monastery; among them was one Joannes Beneventanus who went to the East, to Jerusalem, Sinai, and then to Mount Athos. Leo is quoted in the Dialogues of Pope Victor III:

...He went to Jerusalem, and then spent six years on Mount Sinai in the service of God. Then he went to Greece, where he remained some time on the mountain which is called the Holy Mountain (in monte qui Hagionoros dicitur).

However, Leo says that John was a hermit on Athos, and far from founding and ruling a monastery on his own, it seems that John was under an abbot on the Holy Mountain and that it was due to this man’s advice that he returned to Monte Cassino:

Not long afterwards the most holy Father Benedict appeared in a vision to that same John, giving him the pastoral staff which he was holding in his hand, and advising him to return as quickly as possible to Monte Cassino. At the first light of dawn he explained religiously to the abbot of the monastery the vision which he had seen. The abbot, being a man of foresight and discretion, seeing the will of God in this vision, looked at him and said: ‘Brother John, return with all speed to your monastery, lest you seem disobedient to the great father who has appeared to you in a vision. It seems to me that almighty God has decided to place you over his flock, and has chosen you, in his mercy, to watch over his sheep.’ In obedience, therefore, to this vision and advice he returned across the sea, with Christ as his guide, and returned to his monastery. He was made prior by the most holy John (who was then abbot, but through infirmity was unable to bear such a great burden). Not long afterwards, by the counsel and choice of the brethren, he was appointed abbot by the same venerable father.

So John of Benevento, though certainly on Athos during the period, would seem not to be the founder of St Mary’s.

There was on Athos at the same time a Georgian hermit called Gabriel, from whose life a little more information can be gained about the early Latin monks:

The venerable priest Gabriel had a great spiritual love for the holy old man, the great Leo the Roman, who, each time he came to visit our fathers, used to take a cell next to that of Gabriel and there spend the day.

From the eastern sources, therefore, the founder of the monastery was Leo the Roman, a brother of the duke of Benevento. There is, it must be noted, no other record of the duke of Benevento of the period, Pandulf II, having a brother called Leo who was a monk. The John of Benevento, it would seem, was a monk of Monte Cassino who came to the Holy Mountain at the same period, between 993 and 996-7, for spiritual advice (possibly from the abbot of St Mary’s) and then returned to Monte Cassino to become abbot.


This is the only information available on the founding of the monastery. It used to be thought, for example by Dom Rousseau, that much more information was probably to be found in the archives the Great Lavra. Pertusi, however, assures us that the documents published by himself, P. Lemerle, and A. Guillou are all that the Great Lavra possesses on St Mary’s.

The first documentary evidence we have of St Mary’s is the signature in Latin of John of Amalfi, presumably the successor of Leo, on a document dated 991. Perhaps it was still this same John who signed documents in 1012, 1016, and May 1017. As stated above, it was about 1045 that the Georgian monk George described the western monks as living ‘probe ac rite’ according to the Rule of St Benedict. At the same period a minute of imperial civil service notes and approves the decision of the Grand Council of Mount Athos to allow the monks of St Mary’s to possess a boat, not for any commercial usage but for the needs of the monastery.

In 1081, Benedict, abbot of the imperial monastery of the Amalfitans, signs a document, and the emperor of the period, Alexius I, confirms to the convent of the Amalfitans certain lands which are described in great detail. The words ‘imperial monastery’ should be noted; they indicate a very flourishing period for the Benedictines, as they now have the same title as the Great Lavra, Iviron and Vatopedi, the three most ancient lavras on the Holy Mountain. In 1083 another act of the Athonite Council, about the reconstruction of the monastery of Xenophon, has the signature of the monk Demetrios, abbot of the Amalfitan monastery. It is remarkable that, contemporary with the increasing tension typified by the quarrel between Cerularius and Rome, the Benedictines of Athos were not only living their lives peacefully, but taking a full part in the government of the Holy Mountain and enjoying imperial patronage.

Another collection of acts, of the council dated 1097, bears the signature of Vitus, abbot of the Amalfitan monastery. There is a further reference to the monastery in acts dated 1169, on the acquisition of the monastery of St Pantileimon of Thessalonika by the monastery of Rossikon on Athos. This carries among others the signature in Latin of the abbot of St Mary of the Amalfitans.


Agostino Pertusi published in 1958 three new documents on the Amalfitan monastery, preserved in the Great Lavra of St Athanasius. It is very difficult to date the documents, but after extensive researches Pertusi formed the opinion that they date from about the year 1287. Their authenticity has been confirmed since his first publication. They tell of the donation of the monastery of the Amalfitans to the Great Lavra and the confirmation of that transfer by the patriarch and the emperor. At the time that the donation was made the convent was very poor, the house was in ruins, and the remaining monks had no one capable of taking responsibility for its upkeep. A lot of factors may have contributed to this sad situation: the source of vocations much have been drying up, the republic of Amalfi declined politically after 1137, religious tensions and conflicts between East and West were becoming more and more intense, and Andronicus II pursued an anti-Roman policy.

It is interesting to speculate what happened to the survivors, if there were any, at the time of donation. We do not know. The local tradition says that they all left, taking with them their belongings, but this tradition seems dubious in the light of the documents of donation. It seems more probable that they did not leave but were absorbed in the Great Lavra. So ended Benedictine life on Athos, after lasting about three hundred years.

As Dom Rousseau pointed out, the monks of the Holy Mountain have good reason since the demise of St Mary’s to be suspicious of the West: for example, the foundation of Propaganda, in 1636, of a school on Athos to educate the monks, and the attempts of the Jesuits in the 17th century to found a mission there to convert them! Other similar activities have not helped the relations between western and eastern monasticism. Consideration was given by the West to refounding a Benedictine monastery on Athos, but this idea was so displeasing to the monks of the Holy Mountain that in 1924 they incorporated a clause into the constitution by which they are governed, forbidding such a foundation. How different from the arrival of the Amalfitans, when the Athonites not only gave them one of the most beautiful sites on the mountain, but helped them to build their monastery! But now that the ecumenical patriarch himself, on whom the Holy Mountain directly depends, has done so much to change the old atmosphere of suspicion, may it be no longer a vain hope that co-operation between East and West might again become a reality here, in one of the most holy places in the world?

Eastern Churches Review 2:3 (1969), pp. 262-7 (footnotes omitted).


To read more about supporting the ministry of the Mystagogy Resource Center, please visit the DONATE page. Thank you.

Please Visit Our Sponsors

BannerFans.com