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Osios Loukas Review
The monastic complex at Osios Loukas, still inhabited by a few monks, is notable for both its exquisite mosaics and its dramatic stance, looming on a prominent rise with a sweeping view of the Elikonas peaks and the sparsely inhabited but fertile valley. The outside of the buildings is typically Byzantine, with rough stonework interspersed with an arched brick pattern. It is especially beautiful in February when the almond branches explode with a profusion of delicate oval pinkish-white blooms.
Luke (Loukas) the Hermit, not the evangelist who wrote a book of the New Testament, was a medieval oracle who founded a church at this site and lived here until his death in AD 953. He was probably born in Delphi, after his family fled from Aegina during a raid of Saracen pirates. This important monastery was founded by the emperor Romanos II in AD 961, in recognition of the accuracy of Loukas's prophecy that Crete would be liberated by an emperor named Romanos. The katholikon, a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture, was built in the 11th century over the tomb of Luke. It follows to perfection the Byzantine cross-in-a-square plan under a central dome and was inspired by Ayia Sophia in Constantinople; in turn, it was used as a model for both the Monastery of Daphni and Mystra churches. Impressive mosaics in the narthex and in portions of the domed nave are set against a rich gold background and done in the somber but expressive 11th-century hieratic style by artists from Thessaloniki and Constantinople. Particularly interesting are the reactions evident on the faces of the apostles, which range from passivity to surprise as Christ washes their feet in the mosaic of Niptir, to the far left of the narthex.
In the second niche of the entrance is a mosaic showing Loukas sporting a helmet and beard, with his arms raised. The engaging Nativity, Presentation in the Temple, and the Baptism of Christ mosaics are on the curved arches that support the dome. Two priceless icons from the late 16th century, Daniel in the Lion's Den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the Flames of the Furnace, by Damaskinos, a teacher of El Greco, were stolen a few years back from the white marble iconostasis in the little apse and have been replaced with copies. The tomb of Osios Loukas is in the crypt of the katholikon; his relics, formerly in the Vatican, were moved here in 1987, making the monastery an official shrine. A highlight of the complex is the Theotokos (Mother of God), a small communal church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, on the left as you enter. On the periphery are the monks' cells and a refectory, now restored, which has been used as a sculpture museum since 1993. To visit you must wear either long pants or a skirt. Bring a small flashlight to help see some of the frescoes.
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