The History of the Monastery of Daphni
The modern city of Athens has more than its fair share of Byzantine jewels. However, just on the outskirts of the city stands one of the most famous and remarkable Byzantine monuments in Greece. Its massive size and exquisite decoration make it one of the best preserved, surviving masterpieces of Byzantine art and architecture in Greece. This is none other than the historic Daphni Monastery [Grk: Μονή Δαφνίου] built by the Byzantines in the 11th Century AD.
Together with the famous monasteries of Hosios Loukas near Delphi and Nea Moni on the island of Chios, the Daphni Monastery is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its significant historical and architectural value. These monasteries are famed as masterpieces of ‘middle’ Byzantine Architecture, and are especially noted for their priceless interior gold mosaics.
Situated on the famed, the monastery is built on the site of an ancient Greek temple dedicated to Apollo Daphnaios that was destroyed by the invasion of the Goths in 395 AD, the name Daphni meaning “laurel” in Greek. An earlier monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary was built on top of the destroyed temple in the 6th Century AD.
After Frankish Christian crusaders sacked it in 1205, it was given to the Cistercians (a Western Catholic Monastic Order), who added their own cloister and twin pointed arches in the Gothic style to the façade. Surprisingly, it wasn’t until the Ottoman Turks that the monastery was returned to the Orthodox Church captured Athens. Ancient Ionic columns surviving from the Temple of Apollo were used in the portico of the monastery; today only one remains after Lord Elgin took the other three back to London.
Daphni is a premier example of a cross-in-square type church with a high and wide central octagonal dome. Its floor plan is very complex and architecturally sophisticated, with the inside appearing very open and airy. The massive dome appears to merely float on eight points as the arches link the four corners with the four openings around it. The four corners that support the dome appear to be carved into the wall, which gives open space for beautiful mosaic decoration that still survives to this day. The mosaic decoration of Daphni is some of the finest in Greece that hails from the middle-Byzantine period. The stunning architectural plan and high quality mosaics leads many to believe it was built on orders of the Emperor himself, and that highly skilled artisans were sent from the capital Constantinople to execute the decoration of the monastery.
The Monastery unfortunately is located very close to a seismic fault line and as a result was severely damaged in the 1999 Earthquake that struck Athens. The major damage prompted it to be closed for emergency structural repairs. The repairs are still ongoing today, a testament to the painstaking and lengthy process of repairing the cracked walls and shattered mosaics. Since being closed since 1999 the Monastery has only since recently opened two days week. It is open only on Tuesday and Friday from 9AM to 2PM. Although it is completely encased in scaffolding, visitors are taken inside to climb the scaffolding to see the priceless 11th Century mosaics at eye level only a mere couple of feet away. Although off the beaten path, the Daphni Monastery is truly a site to behold, even clad in scaffolding and braced by steel supports, it is easy to see why the building is so important.
This post was written by GreekBoston.com