Saturday, June 6, 2020

The Authenticity of an Eerie 1932 Photograph from Mount Athos of Two Dead Excommunicated Monks

By John Sanidopoulos

In the monasteries of Mount Athos, when a monk dies, they are buried for three years until they are completely decomposed, then when only their bones are left bare they are placed in an ossuary to be stored with the bones of the other monks of the monastery. It is believed that a monk who lived a righteous life will decompose in three years, but if they are not decomposed then they are reburied and prayed over that their decomposition will soon come to pass, for it could indicate that there was a more nefarious reason behind the lack of decomposition.

This leads us to a story of an eerie photograph from 1932.

After the reconquest of Constantinople in 1261, when the Romans regained it from the Latins, only the political neutrality of the Pope could ensure the preservation of the revived Eastern Roman Empire. All the more so since the numerous military successes of Michael VIII Palaiologos, following the reconquest of Constantinople, very much unnerved the European monarchs, who thought about joining forces with the goal of ending the revived Roman Empire once and for all.

Michael himself, in turn, was a politician whom we would call a cosmopolitan today: the religious convictions and claims of the Orthodox clergy did not bother him much, as long as it was about preserving the Roman Empire as a political entity. The manifestation of this was the conclusion in 1274 of the Union of Lyons and the ensuing program of forcible subjugation of those under Patriarchate of Constantinople to the Papal See.

Already the following year, in 1275, John Bekkos, a fiery fighter against Catholicism in his youth, was elevated to the Patriarchal throne of Constantinople, and at the time of the events under consideration, in contrast to his earlier stance, he was now an ardent champion of the Union of Lyon. It was he who began to implement the will of the Pope in the Roman Empire, beginning in Constantinople. Eventually he would do this with Mount Athos as well.

Patriarch John Bekkos and representatives of the Holy See with their military arrived at Mount Athos in September of 1280 (some say the Patriarch went, while others dispute this), to “educate” the most conservative and isolated part of monasticism, which was their main opposing force. The memory of this visit is still an insurmountable obstacle to the penetration of any ecumenical ideas on the Holy Mountain.

This mission began, of course, with a diplomatic approach. However, it would be strange to expect from the Athonites that they would immediately change their views, serve the Latin heretics, and gladly submit to the papal tiara once and for all. On the contrary, it was not surprising that most monasteries responded with a sharp rejection, declaring the patriarch himself a heretic.

This rejection was not taken too kindly. The punishment was death for not submitting to papal rule. It began when the tower of Zographou Monastery was engulfed in flames with the monks in it. Then the papal delegation went to Vatopaidi, where the abbot of the monastery was tied up with heavy chains and drowned in the sea, and another twelve monks were beheaded outside the gates of the monastery. The monks of the Iveron Monastery were put in a boat, taken to the open sea, and left to the will of the autumn waves.

It was only at Great Lavra Monastery that the apostate Patriarch and the papal delegation were received with bell ringing and joy. That day, a joint liturgy was celebrated in the monastery of the Orthodox and the Catholics. Nothing more is said in the chronicles of this visit.

But there was one more thing. We are told that the Hierodeacon who served in this joint liturgy with the Latins "was consumed by disease like a candle in the fire," and seven other monks who betrayed their Orthodox faith were buried after their death outside in the monastery cemetery and after three years were found not to be decomposed. Four of them, who appeared the most terrifying, immediately after the exhumation were placed in one of the inaccessible caves near the Great Lavra. And the black “relics” of the remaining three were transferred to the narthex tombs of the Holy Apostles Church for all to see for future generations, as well as for prayers for their forgiveness.

They were there until the nineteenth century, when a pilgrim died of a heart attack, having experienced shock at the sight of these remains. After this incident, they were transferred to a cave near the Romanian skete, where they were walled up, and the place of their burial was deliberately forgotten.

And here the mystery begins. From the nineteenth century both locations of the remains of all seven apostate monks were unknown and in any case inaccessible. Nevertheless, we know about them precisely according to testimonies from the twentieth century.

The author of one of them is a photojournalist of the magazine Κήρυξ των Ορθοδόξων (issue 132), who in 1932 captured the frightening shot located at the top of this page. At that time, the publisher already considered it necessary to indicate on the signature to the photograph that this photograph was doubtful. And this despite the fact that Κήρυξ των Ορθοδόξων was the official printed organ of the Old Calendar "Genuine" Orthodox Church of Greece - a schismatic body protesting against any ecumenical initiatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. By the way, the above story about the three corpses in the tomb and the accident with the pilgrim is also known to us from this article.

Our second source is the monk Gabriel of Iveron, who left behind a testimony dated March 2, 1964. Here is what he reports about his acquaintance with these remains in 1887, when he was 22 years old:

"I came to Mount Athos in 1885 when I was twenty. After two years, because we happened to get wheat from the Monastery of Konstamonitou, 1200 okades, we went by sea with a boat to receive it. I was 22 years old and it was in September, two days after the Honorable Cross. In the evening we went to stay in the arsenal of Great Lavra, and in the morning we continued our journey, and so it happened. But as soon we were some distance from the Lavra, I heard my Elder, Monk Meletios, say to me:

'My child Gabriel, here before us are those who were excommunicated, who received the Latin-minded one at Great Lavra, and liturgized together with John Bekkos and his companions. I have seen them before, but since you are young, and someday it may be that some will say that it’s all a lie that there were no excommunicated, and these things were said to frighten people, for this reason let us go that you can see them with your own eyes, so you will not believe what they later tell you, for Holy Scripture says that the eyes are more reliable than hearing.'

And when the Elder said this, we reached a steep cliff, where only for someone to look at it was frightening, and he told me, 'They are here.' Being intrigued by the opportunity to see them, I asked, 'Are you kidding?' He laughed and said, 'What did you think, perhaps there would be a cross or some icons, so people can see them and do their cross? They themselves have the form of the devil, which you will see and then you will believe.'

So then we approached that abyss and after much effort, we went out, and literally with our fingertips climbed five to six meters and then I saw a cave and we entered, and I saw there a pitiful spectacle: three human figures were resting on a rock, standing upright, in their clothes, their outer and inner cassocks, with eyes opened, the hair and beard of the three long and white, their faces were black, as well as their hands further down, the fingers slightly inverted inwards, the fingernails up to 2-4 points long, and the toes not visible, because they were covered with socks and shoes.

In fact, I wanted to touch them to see if the body was soft, or just dry skin and bones, but the Elder didn't let me and told me, 'Do not lay your hands on the wrath of God.' But in everything else I placed a lot of attention, I just didn't put forth my hands. Then I was not afraid at all, but now, when I remember them, my soul is shaken and I cannot sleep throughout the night, nor eat for two or three days, while then when I saw them I did not think about it.

I am writing this, with my own hand, on 2 March 1964, at the Holy Monastery of Xenophontos, Gabriel the Hieromonk and Spiritual Father, from the Iberian Cell of the Nativity of the Holy Forerunner and Baptist John, also known as Mallaki."

And here is a second testimony: “Once, several mule drivers who were in a relaxed state and were drunk argued among themselves which of them was the bravest. And they set a goal to get one of the corpses and transfer it to the place where they drank wine and had fun. And in fact, there was one daredevil who, with a gun in his hand, endured these unfortunate remains and won the argument.”

It was not possible to establish the sources of two more details related to the legend of these apostates. The first of them concerns the conditions of the corpses in the tomb, where they are described as follows: "The corpses were black, swollen, with tangled hair, crooked nails and open mouths into which mice scurried back and forth." It is possible, however, that this is all from the same article in Κήρυξ των Ορθοδόξων.

Let us now analyze these two testimonies. The second testimony seems to be the least trustworthy. First, we do not know its source. A number of questions also come to mind. For example, drunkenness is prohibited on Mount Athos, and so also is carrying around a gun. And how did they know the location of the corpses? And from which cave did they get the corpse, the one that contains the four or the one that contains the three? After they removed the corpse, what happened to it? These and other such questions cannot be answered, which makes one think that it is a fictional tale to establish how scary these corpses are.

Much more remarkable is the story told by Monk Gabriel. It should be noted however that he recalls this story 77 years after his visit to the mysterious cave, and he was nearly a hundred years old. From the very beginning, the words of his elder were suspicious that there would be a time when the legend of the excommunicated would be declared a lie. It is unlikely that he was still severely haunted by their images after 77 years, and here it is quite possible to suspect a desire to create (or support) a pious legend precisely because it was questioned.

Now let us recall that, according to Gabriel, they stood upright when he visited the cave. It is obvious that the hair of a deceased person cannot stand on end several centuries after their death. And in a strange way also the eyes of the dead remained open. Didn’t the monks close them when they died? The growth of the nails can be explained by the fact that they didn't really grow longer after death, but the skin on the fingers merely decomposed and exposed the nails which take longer upon a bit of decomposition. Or are we to believe that their nails did grow after they died?

Going back to the story of the seven monks, which according to other sources they were in fact eleven monks, we must ask how they died at around the same time. We are not informed of this. It must have happened soon after John Bekkos left Mount Athos, because within two years John Bekkos abdicated his patriarchal position for fear of his life and was replaced by the Orthodox Joseph I Galesiotes, which brought Orthodoxy back to all of Mount Athos. And Gabriel's description of the corpses being skin and bone contradicts the original description of them being swollen.

It seems like we in fact do have in these stories pious traditions based on historical events. It is difficult to distinguish what in fact may be true and what may be pious fantasy. It will take someone to do an investigation on the ground to prove its veracity. The photograph itself is an obvious hoax perpetuated by Old Calendarists to frighten people away from any sort of union with the Catholic Church. As we said, it first was published in the Old Calendarist publication in 1932, and then it was published in the magazine Δίστομον ρομφαίαν in 1934, with a warning that it may not be authentic but a sketch. In fact, it seems obvious that they are Byzantine depictions of demons from an icon like the Last Judgment, where demons are depicted like this, though I'm not sure which icon this image came from. The photo doesn't even resemble any of the descriptions, most notable the fact that they are described by Monk Gabriel as wearing an inner and outer cassock but in the photo they are naked and covered by their beards, nor do they appear to be leaning on anything. Nor is a story given to us of how the photographer found the cave, who the photographer was and what his impression of everything was. For me, this makes it very questionable to the point of dismissing it all together. The story itself, however, is beneficial, and one can easily accept that such a story would want authentication to prove its veracity, and thus these pious fantasies were created for the simple minded.

Hellish scene of the Last Judgment from the mosaic of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello.

A slightly higher contrast of the photo.