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Monastery of the Great Lavra

The Great Lavra, also called the Lavra of Athanasios, is monastery located near the southeastern tip of the peninsula of Mount Athos. It was founded by Athanasios of Athos in 963, with the financial assistance of the general and future emperor Nikephoros (II) Phokas, who intended to retire to the Holy Mountain.

The katholikon of the Lavra, begun in 962/3, consists of a cross-domed core enlarged into a triconch by the addition of apses to the cross-arms. The naos is covered by a dome on piers. Two parakklesia flank a deep narthex that, in 1814, replaced the original inner and outer narthexes. The church's bronze doors were made in Constantinople around 1002. The exterior of the church is rather austere with little embellishment. Directly in front of the church and sharing its axis is a phiale and, further away but still on the same axis, the refectory or trapeza. The church plan type used here for the first time, and called the Athonite type by some scholars, was emulated in later monastic churches in northern Greece and the Balkans.

Although called a Lavra (where monastic life is individual), the monastery was really a koinobion (monastic life in common) with which a limited number of hesychasts were associated. Athanasios's typikon permitted only five monks to live in kellia outside the Lavra. As soon as the ktetor Nikephoros became emperor, in July 963, the Lavra obtained the status of an imperial monastery. In 964 Nikephoros issued three chrysobulls on behalf of Lavra, guaranteeing its independence from ecclesiastical authorities, limiting the number of monks to 8o, and providing it with an annual grant (solemnia) of 244 gold pieces and a quantity of wheat. Athanasios supervised the construction of a large mo-nastic complex, including a Church of the Theotokos, cells, a kitchen, refectory, hostel, and waterworks.

The number of monks soon increased to 120, and by mid-11th century reached 700. In 1045 the typikon of Constantine IX Monomachos specified that the hegoumenos of Lavra had precedence over all other hegoumenoi, even the protos; Lavra retained this primacy in perpetuity. Lavra remained an imperial monastery: in 1052 the monks of Lavra asked Constantine IX to appoint an influential patron to the monastery in order to protect it from any new fiscal burdens that might be imposed by local archons. In response the emperor sent a praipositos, the chief of the koiton, and the kanikleios John to carry out the mission.

The increase in Lavra's estates, which were significant in the 11th-12th centuries, came to a halt under Latin rule. After the mid-13th century, however, the monastery continued to acquire further property. In 1259 Michael VIII confirmed all the properties of Lavra and added the village of Toxompous; Andronikos II was even more generous to the monks. At the same time Patriarch Athanasios I attempted to put Lavra under the control of the patriarchate. Lavra was evidently involved in the political and religious conflicts of the second quarter of the 14th century, having as its hegoumenoi such luminaries as Philotheos Kokkinos and Gregory Palamas. On the other hand, some dissident elements penetrated into the monastery, although the information about their activity is obscure. Thus Andrew Palaiologos, one of the Zealot leaders, ceded a portion of his property to Lavra; the Latinophile Prochoros Kydones was connected with the monastery; and in the 1360s the case of a certain Moses Phakrases (a favorite of Philotheos Kokkinos) shook the community and required the patriarch's intervention; though unfortunately, we do not know the basis of the charges against him. The internal problems were aggravated by military threats: the raids of the Catalan Grand Company were followed by the Serbian occupation of Mt. Athos, and then the brief establishment of Ottoman authority in 1387. In the early 15th century Manuel II still had some prerogatives over Lavra and levied a third of the charatzion (the Turkish tax haraç). In 1430, Thessaloniki and all of Mt. Athos were finally conquered by the Ottomans. The rich library of Lavra contains over 2,000 manuscripts, of which about 800 are of Byzantine date. The archives of Lavra are also a precious resource for the Byzantinist, since they contain 172 acts dating before 1453.


Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium

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