Sunday, April 8, 2018

MALTA - The Golden Island




The first time we visited Malta we saw a man with a falcon on his wrist standing by the side of the road. He didn’t look anything like Humphrey Bogart let alone Peter Lorre, but the falcon was truly a Maltese falcon. The Grand Master of the Order of Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, the ruler of the island between 1530 and 1798, had to “pay” a falcon as an annual tribute to the Emperor Charles V and his mother Queen Joanna of Castile as monarchs of Sicily. In return the Grand Master retained his rule over Tripoli, Malta and Gozo. Tripoli is now part of beleaguered Libya, and Malta and Gozo are the two main islands of the country of Malta set between Sicily and Libya. 

Napoleon ended their rule The Order eventually moved to Rome and is now known as the Knights of Malta who do good deeds and occupy a marvelous spot on the Aventine Hill. If any of you have peeked through the keyhole in the gate to the garden to see the view of St Peters, that’s the spot.



For a taste of the Knights’ life when they weren’t fighting The Grand Master’s Palace in Malta’s capital, Valetta, is well worth a visit. The Gobelin tapestries from 1693 depicting highly-romanticized exotic plants and animals from the New World are a marvel of the designer and weavers’ artistry.



Malta has many lovely churches but we found it strange that the first building in Valletta, Our Lady of Victory (in Maltese, Tal-Vitorja), founded in 1565 to commemorate the lifting of the Ottoman siege that year, and the capitulation of the Italian fleet to the Allies in 1943, is in a desperate state with the paintings on the vault almost invisible due to water damage and neglect.

The small church isn’t far from the city’s magnificent and hyper theatrical Co-Cathedral dedicated to St. John the Baptist after the Knights withstood the terrible siege by the Ottoman Turks. In an amazing victory an army led by Jean de Valette and his 500 Knights supplemented with an assortment of Maltese civilians, 500 galley slaves, and Spanish, Greek and Sicilian soldiers, defeated Suleyman the Magnificat’s force of 40,000 fighters and 250 ships. It was a war where the Knights used captured Ottomans’ heads as cannonballs and the Turks floated Knights’ decapitated bodies away on mock crucifixes.



The steps of the church were covered in flowers in memory of an investigative journalist recently assassinated for her writings about alleged government corruption. But once inside the cathedral our minds were swept back in time, overwhelmed by what seems to be acres of gold leaf and paintings celebrating the glories of the Church in high Baroque style. But as on every visit, my eye is drawn to the macabre inlaid marble floors which cover Knight’s tombs, many of whom are depicted as skeletons.



The painter Caravaggio fled Rome after a murder, first to Naples and then Malta. A fitting ending to a cathedral visit is his marvelous Beheading of St. John along with the less-dramatic St Jerome that reside in the Oratory, built for private devotion (although it’s hard to envision doing so with the gaping crowds). The Beheading is the only painting he ever signed perhaps because he knew death was close on his own heels. The Knights took him in but his violent ways could not be controlled and he fled again after he was forced to appear in front of his masterpiece, the Beheading, to be “expelled and thrust forth like a rotten and fetid limb” from the Order.




But the Maltese sunshine lured us away from skeletons and grisly history to enjoy the golden-colored stone buildings that seem to have absorbed centuries of sunlight and now glow in contrast to the blue sky and sea.




 We stopped for a coffee at the town of Marsaxlokk, also called Tas-Silg or Marsaskala, a fishing harbor. The brightly-colored photogenic boats were bobbing in the harbor after the morning’s catch was unloaded. Many had eyes painted on the bow in an ancient custom.






We drove on to L-Isla, also known as Senglea, to stroll down the narrow streets toward Il-Birgu (Vittoriosa) to tour the harbor where the Maltese underwent years of horrendous attacks on the British shipyards during World War II.








The bravery of the dockworkers and their families was so notable that King George VI awarded the people of Malta the George Cross to "bear witness to the heroism and devotion of its people" during the great siege they underwent in the early part of World War II. Italy and Germany besieged Malta, then a British colony, from 1940 to 1942. The George Cross was incorporated into the Flag of Malta beginning in 1943 and remains on the current design of the flag. The plaque is on the exterior of the Grand Master’s Palace and the harbor is still an important shipyard.




After finding a location called Ix-Xatt ta Tax-Xbiex on a map I looked up the derivation of the Maltese language so liberally sprinkled with Xs and Ks. It is derived from Sicilian Arabic with the addition of French and Italian along with an overlay of English, a reflection of all the conquerors who swept over the country for millennia.


We finished our day with a stroll along the waterfront below Valletta and stopped to admire the beautiful sailing ship The Sea Cloud. It was once owned by Margorie Merriweather Post, who founded General Mills, wore jewelry owned by Marie Antoinette, and vacationed at her estate in Florida: Mar-a-Lago of current fame. The ship is now used for cruises for those fortunate enough to have the time and money to enjoy it. 



The Sea Cloud’s sails were furled, the lowering sun reflected off the golden town on a cliff above us. We too anchored for the day.      
 


All photos except that of the Caravaggio painting and the Grand Master's Palace copyright Judith Works
The Caravaggio is from Wikipedia Commons; The Caravaggio is from Wikipedia Commons, photo by Stefano Trezzi

Friday, February 9, 2018

PATMOS: The Island of the St. John







"Do you have a cigarette?” Ninety-three-year-old Mrs. Simandiris said in Italian after we'd climbed a shaded lane to her home for a taste of local life. The ancient woman, sitting in an arm chair surrounded by nick-knacks and an overflowing ashtray, presided over our visit, smiling and laughing while she showed our small group photos of her family, great-great  grandchildren and all. In between cadging cigarettes, she asked people to take her photo for a euro. 

Never without words, she prattled on in Italian, the language she was forced to communicate in when the Italians dominated the island between 1912 and 1943. Her home has been inhabited by the same family for centuries after it was built by an ancestral merchant trader, who to judge by the furnishings, traveled far around the eastern Mediterranean and into Russia. After her talk we toured the home with typical embroidered curtains shading rooms crammed with memorabilia, samovars, oil lamps, a treadle sewing machine, a daybed covered with exotic fabrics. 




I was particularly enchanted with an old family portrait placed under an oil lamp. 




And an old mirror, the silvering gone.




Who was this family and what could their lives have been on this tiny island dominated by the Holy Monastery of Saint John? Of course, I’ll never know and must content myself visualizing our lively hostess having a breakfast of thick Greek yogurt, fragrant honey, coffee in a tiny cup half-filled with sludge, and the first cigarette of the day. Perhaps that’s why island Greeks are famous for their long lives.

Our small ship had approached what appeared to be a white and gold mound suspended in blue an hour earlier. It was the small island of Patmos with drought-yellow vegetation and Greek-white buildings resting between impossibly Mediterranean blue sky and sapphire sea. 




There’s no dock other than that for the local ferry. A mustachioed man with leathery brown skin and a Greek fisherman’s cap steered the launch owned by the Port Authority to the inner harbor. We’d boarded a shuttle and wound up to the major town at the summit to meet Mrs. Simandiris before visiting the island’s two famous sacred sites. After we’d all said ciao and arrivederci to our hostess, it was time for more serious thoughts as we wandered down the narrow streets lined with shops, curtained windows, and old doors, one with a braceleted and ringed hand door knocker. Who lived there?













The first holy site was a cave just below the town of Chora where in AD 95, St. John dictated the last book of the Bible: The Book of Revelations. 

Scholars are not exactly sure who John was. Some think he was the Disciple John, but most now believe he was a different person, frequently called John the Theologian or St. John the Divine. He'd been living in sophisticated Ephesus when he was hauled off to Rome to face accusations of prophesy. After he miraculously survived being boiled in oil and managed to convert all the on-lookers with the feat, he was banished to barren Patmos to get him out of the way. 

Revelation is also known as The Apocalypse from its original Greek title. The word "apocalypse,"  literally "revealing,"has come to be associated with cataclysmic disaster, judgment day or the end of the world, and is of course famous in books, film, and commentary about current world affairs, the stock market, and the weather. 




It seemed to me to have little relevance to life on this idyllic island on the day I was there, but the island’s history like most of the Middle East has been painful over the millenia. 

Whatever the intent of the author, he apparently lived in a cave open to the weather for a year dictating his work to a scribe. Fortunately, the persecuting emperor, Domitian, was assassinated and John returned to Ephesus where he faded from history. His writings remain.





After the Edict of Constantine, establishing Christianity in the 4th century, the cave became a place of pilgrimage.

Probably no different from the past, we joined long lines of day-trippers standing next to white walls cut with sharp shadows.


When our turn came we filed in for a minute or so to look at the icons, touch the walls, and wonder about the past before returning to the sunshine. But as in pagan Delphi, the constant tramp of footsteps detracted from our consideration of the tenor of John’s times and the meaning of Revelations and its message for today.
  
The Holy Monastery of St. John towers above the small white-washed town of Chora and the entire island. Founded in 1088, the massive building in the form of a crusader castle, housed holiness and protected the island against depredation from Muslims and pirates. As with so many religious sites, it was built over the ruins of an ancient church which in turn was built over a temple to Artemis the Huntress. Both the entrance and the interior are covered with stunning frescoes, many from the 1600s. The beautiful gold-leaf dome, the hanging lamps, and icons combine to present an atmosphere to make even the most determined non-believer marvel at the profound sentiment it expresses.

















The museum is a treasure trove of ancient codices, documents, illuminated manuscripts and early printing. The most astounding to my mind is the Purple Codex, the section owned by the monastery composed of 33 leaves of parchment  dyed purple, the color of emperors. Dating to the 6th century, it is an extract from the Gospel of Mark written in gold Greek capital letters all run together. Other marvels fill the rooms, including an icon by know to us as El Greco, later famous for his dramatic elongated figures now seen in the Prado Museum in Madrid where he lived after leaving Greece. Other treasures on display are jewelry and church furnishings, but it was the fragment of the New Testament that moved me the most. I couldn’t help thinking if it wasn’t for these monasteries even more would have been lost to us and we would be much the poorer in spirit and knowledge than we are.

Still contemplating the religious aspects of the island we found our way down to the tiny port following lanes lined with more shops, white houses with pots of purple Greek basil on doorsteps, laden pomegranate trees, and views of the sea around every turn.











The cafĂ©, shaded by a gigantic fig tree  was buzzing with locals and a few stray tourists. We joined them for an iced coffee before strolling by the few shops with their stylish linen summer clothes still hanging on racks stirred by a faint breeze. 






But it was mid-October and life was slowing. Mrs. Simandiris was probably contemplating her winter cigarette supply, and we needed to return to our ship.
   

All photos copyright Judith Works except for the following:
 Illustration from Medieval Book of Revelations are from Wikipedia commons
 Interior photos and artwork in The Holy Monastery of St. John are from Google Cultural Institute

Friday, January 5, 2018

More on Meteora




For those of you who are interested in knowing more about Meteora and its rock formations and monasteries, here's a link to a website called Mapping Europe. It contains drone photos that capture some of the wonders of the area.
https://www.mappingeurope.com/greece/meteora-monasteries-map.htm

Thanks to Martha Bakerjian for the find!

Friday, December 29, 2017

METEORA – CLOSE TO GOD


METEORA – CLOSE TO GOD

Meteora is a five-hour bus ride from the ancient and pagan holy site of Delphi, and a world away in religious beliefs. Glenn and I and the others on the tour lurched around steep roads over a mountain pass marked by small memorials at every curve to those who met with accidents. It was a relief to descend to the plains of Thessaly to reach Meteora and its astounding pillars that abruptly rise skyward as high as 1800 feet above the plain. Neanderthals and our earliest ancestors sheltered in caves here some 50,000 years ago. The surrounding area was known in ancient times, mentioned by Homer and Herodotus, and was the home of the most famous doctor of antiquity, Asclepius, who founded a healing center here. Then, like Delphi, its fame receded into the mists of time until the 9th century when Greek Orthodox hermits settled in caves to lead solitary lives of contemplation and prayer.



Whether from the desire for closeness with others who shared the same beliefs or a change in religious philosophy, the first of twenty-four monasteries was founded sometime before 1200 AD, although sources differ on dates. The first monks drove wedges into crevices to ascend the pillars. Reaching the top, they wove rope ladders which could be drawn up in case of attacks from the Turks, and baskets for building materials and later arrivals. Ladders and baskets were replaced “when the Lord let them break,” which I suspect was quite often.

Some of the building complexes were built on pillars large-enough to support a small church, terraces, lodges and refectories. Others rested on pinnacles so small there was only room for one tiny building.


Now, only six of these religious monuments continue to function while the ruins of the others lie lonely and desolate. Even those that remain are barely populated with dwindling numbers of ascetics desiring the isolated life: about 15 monks and 40 nuns.


We had the opportunity to visit two of the monasteries: 

   St. Stephen is relatively easy to visit because there is a wooden foot bridge from land to pillar although it’s not a good idea to look down if you suffer from vertigo. Monks were living a common life here by the 1300s. Despite the designation, the complex was deserted by 1960, and converted into a nunnery in 1961. We were welcomed by a smiling apple-cheeked elderly woman in black. Hanging on pegs were neat black and white wraps which those of us women who wore slacks had to wind around our waists before we joined Sunday crowds of every age.


Doubly covered, I began to look around. There are two churches, the oldest built in 1545, was heavily damaged by Germans in WWII. The second church, built in 1798, has relatively modern frescoes, some done in 1915, and while lovely, they don’t hold the same fascination for me as other-worldly Byzantine era masterpieces.


The monastery reportedly has a piece of the True Cross and relics of John the Baptist although they weren’t on view, but the refectory holds marvels: icons, embroidery, silver and ancient parchments. The most interesting icon was done by a painter from Crete, later known as El Greco when he moved to Spain to produce the elongated and luridly-colored paintings for which he is famous.





  Varlaam or All Saints Monastery, 1200 feet above the plain, began as a cluster of cave-dwelling monks about 1350 and transformed into a church and cluster of outbuildings in 1518. Stairs were cut in 1923 and we began the long walk and then climb what seemed to be a thousand steps to visit the church, said to have been built in twenty days after collecting the materials for 22 years.




Some creatures took a break on the way up.


As I looked at the winch and rope net used for humans and materials I wondered how many monks and visitors fell to their death as they reached for heaven. The thought of swinging out over the abyss was terrifying. Now a small cable car does the job safely.


The interior of the small church with brilliant gold, red and blue icons; lamps; and furnishings glowed in the dim light, a truly holy atmosphere. Many of the chairs and tables in the church were of inlaid wood in the Syrian style. When I inquired why our guide reminded me that the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox church remains in Istanbul the former capital of the late Roman Empire known as Constantinople. I wished to take photos but unsurprisingly none were allowed


What were these men’s lives really like divorced from the world and its cares? It seemed to me it would have been a short life of privation, freezing cold and snowy in the long winters, with chilblains and arthritis wracking their bodies in an unremitting struggle to reach a state of holiness through ritual and prayer as flickering candles lit the golden icons.

A life I could not imagine for myself but admire anyway. The world could use more holiness.

All photos copyright Judith Works

Thursday, November 30, 2017

PANETTONE SEASON

Hooray! It's Panettone season around here.



Actually, it’s the holiday season. In the US this means from Thanksgiving to New Year’s day. So I have about five weeks to indulge in my favorite treat: panettone, that traditional sweet and oh-so-delicious Italian Christmas bread. About the first of November the stores, even in my corner of Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest, begin stacking up the colorful boxes in windows and shelves and I begin loading up the shopping cart. The bread is distinctive – tall and domed and nestled in a paper cuff. The height comes from letting the dough rise three times over a period of 20 hours. It usually weighs a kilo (just over 2 lbs.) and is sturdy enough to last for days without going stale tho' probably not as long as my mother's fruit cake that was tough enough to survive a dogsled trek to the North Pole.  The packaging, which gets ever-more elaborate, almost always features a ribbon handle or bow all the better to carry it home. During our time in Italy, I often crowded into a jammed car on the Metro to share what little space there was with others toting their own panetonne.



Ideal for hostess gifts, I also use it for non-traditional recipes like bread pudding and French toast (I should call it Italian toast) although there’s nothing better than a simple wedge toasted and served with orange juice and coffee on a Christmas morning in front of the fireplace.



For those of you who aren’t familiar with the bread: The current iteration originated in Milan in the early 20th century but it has ancient origins, possibly back to Roman times when the aristocrats dined on a leavened bread sweetened with honey. A slightly more plausible origin is a story about a cake flavored with lime zest and raisins served at the Duke of Milan’s table in the 15th century. Attesting to its popularity, it soon began to be depicted in paintings, and in the 18th century a “Pane di Tono” or luxury cake was mentioned by an Italian writer, Pietro Verri. Whatever the earlier varieties contained, modern bakers can’t resist experimenting with additions beyond raisins such as chocolate, dried figs, pears, orange or citron peel, mascarpone, or sweet liqueur to tempt the shopper.



How could anyone resist?  Not me!

All photos copyrighted by Judith Works
  

Sunday, November 12, 2017

SACRED SPACES I - Delphi









What makes a site sacred? The atmosphere, the setting, the priests who declared it so, or the pilgrims who trek from far away to experience a oneness with their god or gods? Maybe all of the above.

My husband and I set out from Athens for a two-day trip first to visit sacred Delphi, once considered the center of the world. The following day we would visit another sacred site, Meteora, deep in the mountains of mainland Greece. The country’s economic woes were in full view, not only in the city with its empty store fronts, but even more so in the countryside where miles of abandoned buildings, some half-built, were everywhere that cotton fields weren't. Fluffy cotton balls from the harvest drifted alongside the road to somewhat soften the scene on the fertile Plains of Thessaly before we began a climb into the mountains where, sadly, the roadways were lined in trash.




But religious sentiment was everywhere evident with dozens of tiny models of Orthodox churches, often painted the blue and white colors of Greece, placed near dangerous roadway curves where some unfortunate motorist met with disaster, or perhaps was saved from death by a miracle. We stopped for a coffee at a roadside stop where I slipped into a nearby chapel built for travelers who paused for a prayer before continuing their journeys. I lit a tall beeswax taper to join others casting glowing light on the icons painted in rich gold, red and blue.

We’d been to Delphi some years earlier. Set high on a steep slope not far from Mt. Olympus, it had been a quiet, mystical and enchanting experience with the ancient ruins overlooking groves of olive trees sweeping down to the bright blue sea. It was easy to imagine pilgrims coming to worship Apollo or wait in trepidation for the enigmatic prophecies of the fearsome Delphic Oracle who chewed on bay leaves and inhaled gases from a cleft in the rock for inspiration.




But would she have ever dreamed of today’s mass tourism with buses lined up to disgorge passengers who only wished to climb the marble-paved path to spend five minutes taking selfies before lunch? Perhaps she did, but we were too distracted by the noise and shoving to continue beyond the pillars of the Temple of Athena to climb the top of the hill where we’d previously sat to contemplate the mysteries of the past.




Giving up, we retreated to the quiet museum where we could marvel at the fragments of the treasures that have survived invasions and looting over nearly three millenia. The wonderfully-named chryselephantine heads made of ivory and gold depicting Apollo and and a haughty-looking Artemis brought to mind how religion has informed art until recently. The ivory is blackened by burning in one of the periodic desecrations by marauders or natural disasters, giving the gods an African appearance. I wondered if Picasso had seen them. 









Nearby, is another treasure: pieces of a gold and silver life-size bull. Other rooms hold statuary, building fragments, curious egg-shaped pieces that represent the navel or center of the Greek world, and a gigantic sphinx.










And no one who has ever seen The Charioteer can forget the perfect serenity of the slender young man as he holds the reins to guide his horses to victory.



But my favorite is the small bowl finely painted with a scene of Apollo, the god of the sun, healing, music, and poetry, holding his lyre and pouring a libation while a sacred raven perched on a branch listens. What ancient tune did the god play? If we could hear it now, would we feel close to a sacred state?





All photos copyright Judith Works