submitted by Peter Vanges on 20.01.2005
From, Chapter 40,
Kythera. A History.
Publisher: Kytherian Association of Australia.
Kythera is full of churches. There is a church in every village, every town, on hill tops, in valleys or caves near the sea, or hidden in the centre of the island. These are simple, beautiful or majestic depending on where they are located. But none is more revered, none is so inspiring, none is so important, as the Monastery of Myrtidiotissa.
The original small icon of the Madonna and Christ Child was found by a shepherd at the location where the monastery stands today. The exact year is not known. Some believe that this icon was found in 1160 and others between the l3th-l4th centuries. The importance of this church in the lives of all Kytherians is so significant that it warrants a detailed account of the holy icon and the monastery.
It is really of no great consequence to know which of these or other dates is correct. One belief is that the icon was placed there by someone who preferred to pray in isolation and tranquillity. Others believe that it was perhaps placed out in the open during an earthquake by a terrified nearby resident. V/hat is of great importance for us is that it is there.
The valley where the monastery stands today was tranquil and green in ages past. The aromatic plant, myrtle, covered the whole area. Free and unrestricted, the shepherds wandered with their flocks. There, on 24th September, centuries ago, to his amazement, a shepherd came across a small icon. Upon closer inspection he discovered that it depicted the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. The faces on the icon were clearly visible. One can only imagine the feelings that such a discovery evoked in this man, who must have thought that he was the luckiest man on earth to have made such a God-given find. With tears in his eyes, full of joy and religious ecstasy, he prayed, kissed the icon and took it to his humble dwelling. While a myriad of thoughts must have passed through his mind, only one prevailed: the icon had to be returned to the spot where it was found as it did not belong to him. There was something else that needed to be done. A chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Christ Child must be built. This icon became known as “Myrtidiotissa”. After many devoted years of service to this chapel and grounds, the shepherd died and was succeeded by a monk known as Leontios. He too dedicated all his efforts to the service of the church and further extended the small chapel.
Other extensions added two similar small chapels, one in honour of the patron Saint of Kythera, Theodore, and the other in honour of the “Life Giving Theotokos”. These two chapels ceased being used when the much larger church was completed. Both of the chapels were in full use and good condition in 1825 according to an inventory taken that year. The inventory documented the property and items in the above chapels. The central, original chapel was masterfully preserved under the new main church known today as “evresis”. Here, every year, from 21st November to the first week of Lent - early Spring - the holy icon is kept. The rest of the year the icon is placed on the majestic marble throne in the new church above. This beautiful church was built thanks to the vision and effort of Abbot Agathangelos Kalligeros in 1841-57.
The holy icon, before the arrival of the abbot, was kept at Hora in safe custody; this was decreed by the aristocracy. Upon his arrival, Abbot Kalligeros, during a special service at the Cathedral of Crucifixion at Hora, spoke with passion to the congregation about Myrtidiotissa and his vision to build a splendid monastery suggesting that the icon must be returned to its rightful place. Such was his passion and enthusiasm that a fundraising committee was immediately formed and the icon was returned to Myrtidia.
Construction of the new church, as we know it today, began in 1841 and was completed in 1857. Slowly the church was surrounded by a two-storey edifice of guest rooms that allowed Kytherians to spend time in prayer and meditation. In 1866 a large underwater storage tank was constructed with a substantial donation by Dimitrios and Nicholas Andronikos. By 1888 a marvellous sandstone bell tower was built by the craftsman Nicholas Fatseas (known as Fouriaris).
The importance of the icon of Myrtidiotissa for Kythera cannot possibly be measured or overemphasised. The religious devotion of Kytherians to the icon of the Lady of Myrtidia is best displayed by the many miraculous events which are attributed to the faith of the Kytherians in the holy icon. The paralysed have walked, the sick found health, non-believers were turned away from attacking the island, Kytherians were saved from plagues, those adrift at sea were saved, and all of these through the miracle of the power of faith in Myrtidiotissa.
Today, although the population has dwindled to approximately 3,000 people, the Monastery of Myrtidia is kept in an excellent condition and no visitor to the island, Kytherian or foreigner, departs without first visiting this beautiful place.
The original icon was small in dimensions compared to the one presented today. The original icon was implanted onto a much thicker board in order that the whole upper part of the body of Mary and Christ Child could be depicted; this was the work of Nicholas Spithakis in 1837. The whole work is of pure gold with a number of valuable offerings of gold chains, diamonds and other valuable stones, secured to the icon. On the bottom part of the gold covering, three of the most well-known miracles are depicted, specifically, the discovery of the holy icon, the cure of the paralysed, and the lighting strike of the church within the fortress at Hora.
The fact that the icon was kept at Hora out of fear for its being stolen during the years of pirate attacks, eventually created the demand for its litany throughout the island. We learn details of the monastery, the miracles performed and the gradual expansion of the litany of the holy icon from booklets which have been written over the years by devoted faithful. Such works include specially written hymns in honour of the Panagia Myrtidiotissa. The first dedicated work was written in the year 1640 by the then Bishop of Kythera, Sofronios Pangalos, and was subsequently published in Venice in 1744 by Ioannis Kaloutsis. As this first work was quickly exhausted, a second publication was made in 1811 by Doctor Emmanuel George Mormons in Constantinople. This publication had the permission of His Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremias. When the second edition was exhausted, a third work was published in Smyrna in the year 1847 with money donated by the Kytherian community there. The fourth edition was published in Kefalonia in the year 1849, the fifth in the year 1894 by the Kytherian Ioannis Koumetsopoulos. The sixth edition was printed in Piraeus in 1902 by the Abbot of the Monastery of Myrtidiotissa at Chios (Greece), Christoforos Seremelis. A seventh edition was rewritten and printed by the Bishop of Kythera, Efthimios Kavathas. The eighth revised edition by Sophocles Kaloutsis was published in 1953 with the official approval of the Holy Synod of the Bishops of the Church of Greece. This work is a particularly good one, as the composer has tried to conform to the dogma of the orthodox church, without disregard of popular beliefs of Kytherians through the years.
Although we will not deal with dogmatic matters, we must in passing mention some of the miracles believed to have taken place by the divine power of God to the faithful who have asked through the All-Holy Mother of Jesus. One needs to understand that people express their faith in different ways at different times in order that the acceptance of these miraculous acts be understood and correctly interpreted.
In the 15th century, as was customary until recently, during the celebrations of 24th September, every Kytherian would literally pack up and go to the monastery of Myrtidia. The family of Theodore Koumbanios for years had followed this tradition. Even when he was struck with paralysis after a serious illness, he was carried to the monastery every year. So it was that once again he was carried to the shrine of Myrtidiotissa. Upon arrival they placed him in the church near the holy icon. During the service, one of the faithful who stepped outside the church heard voices and noise coming from the direction of the sea. He panicked and informed everyone that pirates were coming to enslave them and to loot the monastery as they had done many times in the past. Everyone fled in fear, thinking of themselves and forgetting the paralysed man in the church on his own. In his despair the paralytic Theodore Koumbanios turned to God and asked for his mercy. As if awakening from a dream he stood and started walking, crying out for his family who were hiding nearby. Word of this miracle quickly spread throughout the island and abroad. This, and many other miracles listed in the special publications mentioned, have helped make Myrtidia a revered religious centre for many centuries.
The construction of the monastery of Myrtidiotissa
Amongst the many historic documents kept at the monastery of Myrtidiotissa there is one dated 4th March 1839, and signed by the Metropolitan of Kerkyra, Chrisanthos. In this letter the Bishop indicates the transfer of Rev. Agathangelos Kalligeros to Kythera. Agathangelos was born in 1799; he studied at the seminary of the Ionian Academy of Kerkyra, was ordained as priest there and served at the Academy. In 1839 he was granted, for the term of his life, the right to manage the affairs of the monastery of Myrtidia, and upon arrival on the island took residence there. On 9th July 1839, he was officially installed as Abbot of Myrtidia.
His first concern was to ask for and secure the icon’s return to the monastery, as it was kept in the church at the Kastro of Hora. In 1841 the Ionian Upper House approved his request and passed a resolution with details of the litania of the holy icon to the towns of Kythera. This aroused strong reactions both from the aristocrats and peasants of Hora alike, who even before 1732, were accustomed to having the holy icon at the Hora Cathedral for the period of Lent. A tradition had already been established and we know that the icon’s Litany to Hora always took place on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the first Sunday of Lent. The icon remained at Hora until the first Sunday after Easter. From Hora it was taken through the villages and towns back to the monastery a week later. Abbot Kalligeros also set about planning the construction of a church befitting its reputation and religious importance.
A special register covering the years of construction, blessing, etc., and kept in the Metropolis of Kythera, appears to have been lost or misplaced along with other, as yet not classified, documents in the island’s depository. As far as can be ascertained, the construction of the present beautiful church started in 1851 and was completed in 1855. The completion of the building meant that new efforts had to be undertaken by Rev. Kalligeros for the necessary internal decorations. To achieve this the Abbot went to Athens and met with Nikitas Tzannes who pledged the full amount required for the marble throne for the icon and the templon (iconostasis). Searching for an experienced sculptor,the Abbot found a sample of an entire work, ready for shipment to the Greek Church of Annunciation in Cairo, Egypt. The Abbot was so impressed with this work that he eventually persuaded the sculptor to instead dispatch it to Kythera, to decorate the beautiful church of Myrtidia.
Originally, all the icons necessary for the church were ordered in Russia, but for reasons unknown, they were painted in Kythera byJoannis Staes in 1861-63. The construction and decoration of the sandstone bell tower is the work of the Kytherian Nikolaos Fatseas (known as Fouriaris) from Levadi in 1888. Ongoing fundraising made possible the building of the kelia (guestrooms) that surround the church.
Abbot Agathangelos Kalligeros died in the monastery he built in 1895 at the age of ninety-six. He was buried in the grounds of the church and in 1923 the Committee of the Monastery erected a monument in his honour. The surrounds of the monastery continue to be developed with an attractive entrance square, a parking area and progressive tree planting to further beautify the monastery.
As mentioned previously, the island has a large number of churches, chapels and monasteries. With time and the decline in population, some of them have been allowed to reach a state of disrepair. It is sad to think that numerous priceless and irreplaceable icons, frescos and artefacts have been destroyed while others have been stolen. Through good management, the monastery and its contents remain in safe keeping, in a wellsecured and maintained environment, to the glory of God.
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