Sights - Lassithi Prefecture
Toplou Monastery


History of Toplou Monastery

Description of the monastery

The icon Megas ei Kyrie

The text of Megas ei Kyrie


The first thing to see, when you arrive at Toplou from Sitia, is a small chapel standing alone to the right of the road. It is the monks' burial place.


To the left are the actual monastery buildings. Before the entrance to the monastery you see a mill from last century. It is not used any more, but was earlier of great importance, when the monastery still had a "closed" economy and was self-sufficient.

Continuing towards the entrance you see a row of houses, which have contained monks' cells and living quarters for Toplou's numerous secular helpers during the monastery's great periods, when there was not enough space inside the walls.

The entrance of the actual monastery is through the so-called Loggia, which appears as a high and broad wall around the monastery, but which actually consists of a number of monks' cells. In the Loggia is now established a shop with books, icons and other religious items, which reveals that new times have come to the monastery, which - especially after the thorough renovation - has become a popular destination for tourists.

From the Loggia you enter a forecourt and now face the fortress-like monastery, which you access through the "Wheel door". It has this name, because it runs on a wheel, when it is opened or closed owing to its heavy weight. Above the door is the so-called "Killer hole", where the monks were able to delay potential enemies by pouring stones or boiling oil down onto them, while the rest of the residents of the monastery could escape through a 180 m underground passage ending behind the monastery in a gorge, which was then covered with trees.

In the courtyard of the monastery, which is paved with pebbles from the sea and decorated with plants in big pots, you can see, how big and complex the monastery building itself is. It had tree storeys and is 15 m high. At ground level are the church of the monastery and 13 rooms, of which some have been made into a museum with icons, relics and various documents about the history of Toplou. On the first floor are 20 rooms (6 kitchen facilities, dining hall, guestrooms and so on), and on the second floor are 8 rooms (the abbot's home, 2 guestrooms, monks' cells and storerooms).

Above the compact courtyard rises the 33 m high bell tower. It is built in the Italian style and is therefore separated from the church, but is instead a part of the fortress-like complex around the monastery. It was built under abbot Gavriil Pantogalos at the beginning of the 17th century, but collapsed and was later rebuilt by Kyrillos Smirilios.

According to tradition the area was marked by much drought, when the tower was built. But the builder dreamt that if he jumped out from the tower, he would find water on the spot, where he hit the ground. So he jumped and without being hurt (just a little blood was dripping from his finger), he cut in the massif rock the well, you still see today. Even though it is only 4 m deep, there is a lot of water in it.

The church is built as a two-nave basilica. The north nave is dedicated to the birth of Virgin Mary and derives from about year 1300. A part of it is built upon the original church to Agios Isidoros, which derives from the time about year 960. The south nave, which has been added after the destruction of the monastery in 1471, is dedicated to Agios Ioannis Theologos, who is celebrated on the 26th of September. Behind the chancel is a cave, where holy water wells up. According to tradition the first icon was found here.

During the earthquake in 1612 the monastery suffered great damage, and almost the whole north wing collapsed. It was renovated under abbot Pantogalos in 1619, which is mentioned in the inscription to the left of the church door under the marble relief of Virgin Mary. Contrary to the western Church the Orthodox Church allows only icons, not reliefs and statues. But there is in fact a relief of Virgin Mary on the front of the church nave, a relic of the Venetian period.

The senate in Venice contributed with 200 gold ducats to the completion of the work so that the monastery could get its fortress-like appearance. Also the Metzos and the Kornaros families, who where mutually related, donated large sums of money, and it is therefore said that it was them, who were in charge of the renovation of the monastery. The south wing is still called the Kornaros Wing and the north wing the Metzos Wing.

The monks' dining hall

The probably most fascinating room after the renovation of the monastery is the monks' dining hall, which is completely coved with fresco paintings. As early as in 1982 the monks began the first experiments with fresco together with the icon painter Manolis Betinakis. It emerged to be a long and difficult process, as none of the persons involved had any previous knowledge of this technique. But let Betinakis himself tell us about the course:

Fresco is an old technique, which has been known for many centuries. But as we had no experience with the technique and had to read our way in some books, it was a difficult process. So we cautiously started various attempts. It has to be mentioned that fresco is the only technique, which can last for several hundred years. The materials, which are used, are chalk, river sand and flax. It is important that the chalk is at least two years old, and that the river sand is thoroughly washed and dried. To understand the technique better, you can imagine dissolving some chalk in a glass of water and letting it settle. After a period of time a thin film will be formed on the surface. It is this film, which confines and preserves the colours.



When the wall is plastered, the film is removed from the still moist plaster in the area you want to paint. It must be a small area at a time, as the film re-forms after a short while. This means that the work must be done, when the plaster has the correct consistency, so I sometimes worked until 2 or 3 o'clock at night.

Many people think that the colour enters deeply into the plaster, but that is not the case. It rather settles on the outside and is then enclosed by the film. The colours we have used are earth colours dissolved in water. Artificial colours are not suitable, because they react with the plaster. Before I begin to paint on the walls, I have already drawn the motifs on paper. The outline and the principal lines are perforated so that I can copy them to the plaster with charcoal, which I dab through the holes. Then the film is removed in the area, which is about to be painted, while the rest is left untouched. It is important to paint the light colours first, because if you paint them upon the dark colours, they become impure.


I am self-taught, because only the School of the Fine Arts in Athens teaches fresco technique. When I am about to choose motifs I am inspired by Theofanis the Cretan, whom I am very fascinated by, but I also think out new motifs myself.



The collected photo series from the monastery



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