Ossuaries & Charnels

Mt. Athos, Greece monastic ossuary (Xenophondos)

Mt. Athos, Greece monastic ossuary (Xenophondos)

Mt. Athos, Greece monastic ossuary (Xenophondos)

The Greeks have a long history of charneling bones, due to the fact that many villages have small, rocky cemeteries–my family is Greek, and I remember a very old provincial saying, “Everything and my grandmother’s bones,” which was the equivalent of the English “Even the kitchen sink.” All of the monasteries on Mt. Athos have charnels, necessary since the cemeteries have at the most perhaps nine burial plots. The photo here is from Xenophondos. These are some of the most historic charnels in the Christian, and especially Orthodox, world, but not well known due to the fact that visiting Athos is extremely difficult: you have to be male and accepted as a religious pilgrim by the Orthodox Church. Assuming then that most people reading this won’t be visiting Athos any time soon, I encourage you to read the section on the Athonite charnels in Chapter One of the book. The monks here practice skull painting, and may have been the first Christians to do so (some of the skulls in the photo have an inscription with the name of the deceased on the forehead). At the Russian monastery on Athos, St. Panteleimon, the painting of skulls has been taken to a point of perfection–not just the names are included, but also decorative designs, of incredible technical mastery, far beyond what one finds among the painted skulls in Hallstatt. That I do not have photos from that charnel is a shame, but is offset somewhat by the fact that going to Panteleimon to view the skulls resulted in my absolute favorite anecdote in all the research and travel for compiling the book. It was not possible to contact Panteleimon beforehand (the monks on Mt. Athos live in seclusion, and in general with thirteenth-century technology), but I had been accepted as a pilgrim at Simonopetra, and from there went to Panteleimon to talk to them. The painted skulls there were a revelation to me, and there was nothing I wanted more than a chance to photograph them. The abbot, however, is absolutely convinced that God does not want anyone to take photos in that room, nor anywhere on the monastic grounds, and has prohibited it. I had no choice to but accept his decision, because to sneak into the ossuary and photograph it would be to defile its sacred nature, and in a sense violate the entire purpose of the book. I stayed at the monastery for a couple days, hoping to find a way to get the abbot to change his mind. Through the instigation of Brother Sergei, I got an audience with the abbot, because Sergei believed that I might be given a liberty due some obscure religious holiday they were about to celebrate. I was ushered into the main hall of the monastery, a huge gold and silver encrusted room, and set on my knees before a Russian monk who looked like he was about seven feet tall and had a beard stretching down to the floor. I felt like Dorothy visiting the Wizard of Oz. Sergei translated for me, and made the case for granting me the privilege of photographing the skulls. The abbot spoke, and then this was in turn translated. “He is sorry,” I was told, “he realizes you have come a very long way and he thinks the reason you are here is noble, but even though it is a holiday he cannot let you take the photographs–God does not wish it.” I thanked him for his time, and told him that I understood, and that I just wanted to tell him that the decoration on the bones is a beautiful memorial to the brethren of the monastery–that was I all I could say, really. But the abbot spoke again, and this was translated as, “He wants to be sure you understand that there is nothing personal in his decision. Another man came here and asked to photograph the skulls; he told him no also.” I replied that I understood that it was nothing personal, and I respect his decision and have no problem with it. He spoke yet again, and I was told “and he wishes to tell you that the other man in questions was Vladimir Putin.” What? Putin?–yes, Putin, as President of Russia, had visited the monastery and given them a gift of one million US dollars for renovations. And he also asked to photograph the skulls, but was turned down. Well, the abbot had certainly proved his fairness, since if the President of Russia cannot photograph the skulls after giving them a million dollars, I certainly can’t expect to either. I thanked him again and told him I understood and turned to leave. As I was walking out, he said one more thing: “but he wants you to know, if it makes you feel any better, that he looked at the sample photographs you submitted, and he says you are a much better photographer than Putin.” In fact, yes–that did make me feel better about things, somehow the episode left me almost euphoric. Those were the only photos I really wanted that I missed out on, but I was told by a Russian abbot that I am a better photographer than Vladimir Putin. Somehow it was a fair trade.
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