The word “monastery” comes from the Greek μοναστήρι, which means “the home of a single person”, since originally monasteries were inhabited by only one occupant. They had great importance and played an instrumental role in protecting and preserving the culture, since the monks copied by hand the sacred texts, as well as old Greek and Latin documents.
Monasteries also were important from a socioeconomic point of view; they were centers of production capable of feeding not only the monks, but also the locals who lived in their vicinity. Additionally, they offered shelter and protection in case of attacks from invaders.
Some splendid medieval monasteries can still be seen in Europe, such as La Sacra di San Michelle in Italy and the Monastery of the Holy Trinity in Greece, both classified as World Heritage sites by Unesco.
Piedmont / Italy
The Sacra di San Michele, also known as Saint Michael’s Abbey, was built between 983 and 987 AD and sits on top of the Pischiriano mountain in the Italian region of Piedmont. It was first ruled by Benedictine monks, and after more than two centuries of abandonment it was recovered by the Rosminians.
Built atop a rocky crag base, its setting is so emblematic that the Italian writer Umberto Eco was inspired by it to write his novel The Name of the Rose. It is much admired for its high towers and for being the resting place for some members of the royal House of Savoy.
The interior of the beautiful XII century Romanesque church boasts some stunning sights, among them especially noteworthy are the statue of Saint Michael the Archangel by the sculptor Paul dë Doss-Moroder, the Staircase of the Dead with the Portal of the Zodiac and the Museum of Daily Life, where old utensils of daily use give an idea of how life was centuries ago, as well as a library of more than 10,000 volumes, some of them incunabula.
Meteora / Greece
In the Thessalian plains not far from the city of Kalambaka, built in an area characterized by high mountains and cliffs, are the monasteries of Meteora, which in Greek means “monasteries suspended in the air”.
Six of the original 24 monasteries are still active, among them the Holy Trinity, which is probably the most famous after being featured in several films such as James Bond’s For Your Eyes Only.
The monastery was built between 1458 and 1476 atop a perilous narrow cliff, accessible only climbing through 140 steep steps. Prior to the twentieth century, the pilgrims and the byzantine monks could only reach the top using ladders, and provisions were placed in baskets drawn up by ropes. Finally, in 1925 access was made easier thanks to carved stairs.
Among its many attractions are a charming church dating from 1476, adorned with sixteenth century frescoes and the round chapel carved in the rock, dedicated to John the Baptist and dated in 1682. ■