The Great and Holy Monastery of Vatopaidi stands on a picturesque stretch of coastline on the gulf of the same name and almost in the centre of the north-eastern side of the Athos peninsula, five minutes from the sea.
According to Athonite tradition, the Monastery was built by the Emperor Constantine the Great (324-337), was subsequently destroyed by Julian the Apostate (361-363) and was re-founded by the Emperor Theodosius the Great (379-395) as a thank-offering to the Blessed Virgin for saving his son Arcadius from certain death by drowning when, as a child, he was in peril in a rough sea near Mount Athos. Arcadius was carried in a miraculous manner to the shore, where the sailors found him sleeping near a bramble bush (Greek: pcnoq). For this reason the Monastery was called Vatopaidi: from fiaioq and naidiov (= a child). The spelling ‘Vatopedi’ is based on a derivation from fiaToqand ns5iov(= a plain).
The same tradition then takes us to the 10th century, when Arab pirates looted and burnt down the Monastery, slaughtering the monks and taking away with them to Crete as a prisoner the sacristan, the deacon-monk Sabbas (for an account of this event, which is connected with the icon of Our Lady Vimatarissa).
The biographer of St Athanasius the Athonite (second half of the 10th century) mentions three nobles from A-drianople, Athanasius, Nicholas and Antonius, who have a direct link with Vatopaidi. These came to Athos, bringing with them their fortunes, which amounted to 9,000 gold pieces, with the intention of founding a monastery. St Athanasius, knowing that the Monastery of Vatopaidi was in ruins as a result of the incursion of the pirates, sent them there to restore it. In fact, in a document dated 985 of the Protos* Thomas, we encounter the signature of the monk Nicholas as Abbot of the Monastery. This is the oldest official written evidence of its existence.
Monastery documents of the years 999 and 1002 tell us of a dispute between Vatopaidi and the Philadelphou Monastery, since the latter had been built near Vatopaidi, encroaching upon its boundaries. It would seem that Philadelphou was founded during the period when Vatopaidi had been laid waste by the Arabs and Abbot Nicholas protested to the Protos Nicephorus, laying claim to ownership of the Philadelphou Monastery. The documents in question cedes the Philadelphou Monastery to Vatopaidi, and the tradition that the three nobles from Adrianople did not found, but restored the Monastery of Vatopaidi when it was in ruins as a result of the pirate raid thus receives some confirmation.
The subsequent growth of the Monastery was rapid: in the Typikon* of Monomachus (1045), it took second place in the hierarchy of all the monasteries of the Holy Mountain, a position which it has retained until the present. It also gained the right to take part in the Sy-naxeis* in Karyes in the person of its Abbot and four delegates, to keep a yoke of oxen to ensure bread supplies and to have a boat for its needs.
In the years which followed, by acquiring a large number of metochia*, Vatopaidi began to expand both within and outside the bounds of Athos. The Monasteries of leropatoros, Berroeotou, Kaletze, Xystrou, Tripolitou, Chalkeos and Trochala were soon annexed to it, as were the metochia of Prosphorion, Peritheorion, Chrysoupolis, St Demetrius at Cassandra and two others near Thes-saloniki, all of them outside the bounds of the Athos peninsula. It also obtained the regard of Byzantine emperors: Constantine Monomachus (1042-1055) devoted to it each year 80 gold hyperpyra* from the imperial treasury. During the reign of Alexius Comnenus (1081-1118), the Monastery lost many of its metochia as a result of the frequent wars; for this reason the Emperor ceded to it the Monastery of Sts Cosmas and Damian at Drama.
At the end of the 12th century, the former prince of Serbia Symeon Nemanja and his son Sabbas, subsequently the first Archbishop and Ethnarch of Serbia, were monks of Vatopaidi. The presence of these two saints lent great prestige to the Monastery, and to Athos as a whole. St Sabbas took part in official missions to Constantinople in order to settle issues concerning the Holy Mountain. It was on his request that the Monastery ceded to the Serbian saints the «melissomandrion» (= apiary) of Chelandari, so that they could build the Serbian monastery of that name. Their presence at Vatopaidi and their benefactions to it were always to remain in the memory of the Serbian people, and all the Serbian princes served as protectors and benefactors of the Monastery.
It was in the time of St Sabbas that the Monastery flourished as never before or after. It had as many as 800 monks, extended its buildings, thanks to the efforts of the two saints, and founded five new chapels on the site. With the founding of the Chelandari (or ‘Chilandari’) Monastery, a kind of spiritual affinity between the two brotherhoods developed. This has meant that the custom has survived down to the present for the representatives of Chilandari to play a prominent role at the Feast of the Vatopaidi Monastery (25 March) and those of Vatopaidi at that of Chilandari (21 November).
During the period of Frankish rule, the Monastery’s development was suspended and progress came to a halt. The pirate fleet of the Catalans plundered and laid waste the monasteries, forcing the monks to reveal the hiding-places of their treasures. In those difficult times, the Monastery lost many of its precious objects and documents.
After the unsuccessful attempt of the Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus (1259-1282) to bring about the re-union of the Eastern and Western Churches at the Council of Lyons (1271), the Monastery suffered fresh tribulations. According to tradition, when the supporters of the union returned from Lyons, they invaded the Holy Mountain and attempted to force the monks to embrace their views. The refusal of the Vatopaidi brotherhood resulted in the hanging of the Abbot Euthymius and the drowning of 12 monks in the bay of Kalamitsi, as well as the hanging of the Protos of Karyes, St Cosmas of Vatopaidi.
Shortly afterwards, however, with the aid of the Pa-laeologues, the Monastery recovered. Andronicus II (1282-1328) regarded it as «from time immemorial among the first and the glorious» and provided it with financial support so that it could return to its «former prosperity and state».
The attacks of the Catalans were succeeded by those of the Turks, with the result that some of the monasteries were devastated and that the ascetics who had been scattered all over the Holy Mountain gathered in the large monasteries, in order to escape ill-treatment at the hands of the Turks. Vatopaidi, with its high walls and nine towers, was an impregnable fortress and a safe refuge for the monks. At the same time, the Blessed Virgin was an ever-vigilant guardian and protector of the Monastery, as is shown by the miracle at that period of known as the ‘Paramythia’.
In 1347, the Emperor John VI Cantacuzene (1347-1354), at the request of the monks of Vatopaidi, dedicated to their Monastery that of the Psychosostria in Constantinople, so that those monks of Vatopaidi who were visiting the capital could find «rest and domicile and any other due security». The Emperor himself visited the Monastery a little before 1341 and presented the library with 26 elegantly decorated codices and a gold-embroidered epitaphios*. He also built within the Monastery the tower of St John the Divine and, outside it at a short distance, the tower of Kolitsou. So great was Cantacuzene’s love and concern for Vatopaidi that in the last years of his life he retired there and was tonsured a monk under the name of Joasaph. His name is commemorated even today among the ‘proprietors’ (ktetores) of the Monastery and tradition has it that he was buried in the katholikon. The rooms which stand near the Chapel of St John the Divine are reputed to be where the Emperor lived.
Apart from Cantacuzene, the Monastery numbered among its monks other princes, such as Andronicus Palaeologue, Despot of Thessaloniki (the monk Acacius), and the monk Gabriel (Palaeologue) (1432).
At the same time, it attracted to it, or the area around it, certain major ascetics. Prominent among them are the figures of St Gregory Palamas, the great hesychast theologian, and his teacher St Nicodemus, St Joasaph of Meteora, and St Sabbas, the ‘fool for Christ’s sake’, whose life was written by his pupil St Philotheus Coc-cinus, Patriarch of Constantinople, stand out. These were followed a little later by St Macarius Macres, subsequently Abbot of the Pantocrator Monastery in Constantinople (1431), while during the early years of Turkish rule it sheltered for a while the former Ecumenical Patriarch, Gennadius Scholarius.
Around the year 1500, another Patriarch of Constantinople, St Niphon, accompanied by his disciples the martyrs Macarius and Joasaph, betook himself to the Monastery. It was at this period also that the polymath St Maximus the Greek, the great missionary to the Russians, was a monk at Vatopaidi. According to the latter’s testimony, the Monastery at that time followed a semi-coenobitic way of life; it functioned, that is to say, as a lavra*. The oldest act converting it into a coeno-bium at this period dates from 1449. How long it remained idiorrhythmic is unknown.
To be continued….