St. George the Painter, History of

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  • The monastery of St. George the Painter was one of the largest and most influential spiritual seats and cultural centers on Mt. Athos throughout the Middle Ages and the Ottoman period. The monastery is situated in the northwest part of Mount Athos, one the oldest of the monasteries.
  • Today the monastery is the only Bulgarian monastery on the Holy Mountain. It derives its name from the legend of the miraculous painting of the image of St. George on the Phanouilian icon.
  • To this day there is no complete history of the monastery. Many of the sources have not been traced and studied in detail. According to the legend, found in the original charter, the monastery was founded at the end of the 9th century or the beginning of the 10th by three brothers from Bulgaria, Moses, Aaron and Ivan Selima from Ohrid. In the lists of donors first comes Emperor Leo VI the Wise (887–912). The inscription on the embossed silver cover on the Phanouilian Miraculous icon of St. George cites the year of the foundation as 898. In 972, the painter George, considered to be the founder, signed the Typicon of Mt. Athos, issued by John I Tzimiskes as Γεώργιος ‛ο ζωγράφος. A contract for a sale in Greek, dated 980, is considered the earliest historical document for the existence of the monastery. The contract has been preserved in two copies in the monastery’s archives. The second copy, dated 1311, bears the signature in Cyrillic of Hegumen Makarios. Judging by the two copies of the contract, the monastery must have possessed land for several decades during the 10th century and was an independent monastery.
  • There is no information on the history of the monastery from its foundation to the beginning of the 13th century. In the first half of the 13th century, Tsar Ivan Asen II (1218–1241) became a donor to the monastery. The stronger ties of the monastery with Bulgaria throughout this period point to the great authority and guidance of the monastery in the spiritual and cultural development of Bulgaria. It was to the monastic community of St. George the Painter that Tsar Ivan Asen II turned for the choice of a patriarch when the Bulgarian patriarchate was restored. He chose Ioakim I who had been a monk at the monastery. A number of the manuscripts preserved in the monastery’s library are examples of the reform of liturgical literature in 13th century.
  • Because of the resolute refusal of the community of monks to abandon Orthodoxy, by accepting the union between the Western and Eastern churches pronounced at the First Council of Lyon in 1245, the monastery was attacked on October 10, 1275, by Catalan mercenaries who destroyed the monastery and burned alive the 22 monks and four lay brothers in a defense tower built by Tsar Ivan Asen II. The narrative of the 26 martyrs, which was probably written at the beginning of the 14th century, states that the monastery plate from the times of the Bulgarian Tsars Simeon, Petar and Samuil were also burned together with 193 books. Even though it suffered the martyrdom of its monks and was fully destroyed, the monastery rejected the ideas of the union and support from Emperor Michael VIII (1223–1282). The monastery recovered in 1289 when the new Byzantine Emperor, Andronicus II, confirmed all its former rights, returned its lands and donated the money to restore the destroyed buildings. During the 14th century the Bulgarian tsars Ivan Alexander (1331– 1371) and Ivan Shishman (1371–1395) became generous donors.
  • The Monastery of St. George the Painter was the main center of the spiritual movement of the century in the Eastern Orthodox Church known as hesychasm; the central figures of Bulgarian hesychasm were linked to this monastery. The Bulgarian Patriarch Theodosius had formerly been a monk at St. George the Painter and the last patriarch, St. Euthymios, spent five years there (1365-1370) engaged in translating and editing liturgical works.
  • Throughout the Ottoman period the monastery remained a spiritual center of Christianity. In the 15th century, St. Kosma, a Bulgarian man of letters from Sofia, lived at the monastery. Towards the end of the 16th century, the Reverend Pimen of St. George the Painter painted many wall painting at monasteries in the Sofia area. From the 15th to the 19th centuries a number monks copied liturgical works, Hierodeacon Malachia, Pop (priest) Manasios of Dryanovo, daskal (teacher) Pop Makarios, the monk Gregory Iveron.
  • Under the difficult conditions of Turkish rule, the monastery was supported by various donors. Towards the end of the 15th century, generous donations came for over three decades from the Moldavian Voivod Stefan the Great (1457–1504) and his successors. After the destruction of the church of St. George by the Knights Hospitallers early in the 16th century, the Moldavian rulers donated a considerable sum, rebuilding the church and redecorating it. The successors of Stefan the Great presented the monastery with two monasteries in Bulgaria.
  • Throughout the 17th and 18th century, the donors to the monastery were Bulgarian and Russian. Bulgarian pilgrims made donations not only to St. George the Painter, but also to other monasteries on Mt. Athos. At this time it was the practice of itinerant monks (known as taxidiotes) to gather alms. In 1696, the Russian Tsar Peter I supported this practice, issuing a decree allowing taxidiotes from St. George the Painter to gather alms in Russia every five years.
  • Hadži Valcho (1705–1766), a brother of Hegumen Laurentios (his secular name was Lazar) was the main donor to the monastery. In 1758, he restored the completely destroyed five-story eastern wing of monks’ cells. This is now known in his honor as the Bansko quarters. It was his support that allowed the construction of a small church of the Dormition of the Virgin in 1764.
  • In the 18th and 19th century the Monastery of St. George the Painter became one of the centers of the Bulgarian National Revival period. It was here that Paiissios of the Monastery of St. Sava completed his Istoria slavjanobolgarskaja in 1762, which is considered the starting point of the national revival in Bulgarian literature. The monastery was also engaged in the educational activities of the Bulgarian National Revival. In the 1930s, Archimandrite Anatolios and Hadži Victor, representatives of the monastery met with Vassil Aprilov, an eminent Bulgarian engaged in the promotion of modern Bulgarian education, in Russia. The outcome was the establishment of a modern secular school, where Bulgarian was taught in the curriculum, together with other secular subjects. At the same time many monks from the monastery founded religious schools in various town in Bulgaria. Along with this revival of the Bulgarian national consciousness, after the mid-19th century, the monastery, until then inhabited by Bulgarian, Serbian and Greek monks, gradually became inhabited almost entirely by Bulgarian monks.
  • In the period after the liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule at the end of the 19th century the Monastery of St. George the Painter changed considerably and the number of monks was drastically reduced. As of the 2005 census, there were 168 monks at the monastery, 138 Bulgarians, eight Bohemians, five Hungarians, four Albanians, eight Croatians, and five Dalmatians.
  • Recently the monastery has been engaged in the publishing of religious literature for Bulgaria. There have been a number of books on moral guidance and translations have been made into Bulgarian of various works of the Holy Church Fathers, of the twelve volumes of the Vitae of Dimitrii Rostovski, and the vitae of the principal Bulgarian saints.
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