Dafni Monastery (Athens, Greece)
Dafni or Daphni (Δαφνί) monastery lies 15km to the west of Athens, almost half-way along the ancient Sacred Way (Iera Odos, Ιερά Οδός) to Eleusis. It is located at the foothills of the Poikilon Oros near the forest of the same name, by Athinon Avenue, one of the main roads leading from Athens to the Peloponnese. One can see the monastery from his car driving on Athinon Avenue. For visiting the monastery, I recommend, instead of taking Athinon Avenue, to follow Iera Odos, which actually ends at the monastery car parking.
The monastery underwent severe damages in the 1999 earthquake, and it was closed for many years. It reopened a couple of years ago.
Note: The monastery, today, is a museum and not a functioning monastery with nuns or monks. No religious services (mass) take place in the church.
Open: Tuesday, Thursday and Friday 08:00-15:00
Admission is free of charge. You ring the bell on the gate, and it opens electronically.
The first monastery was erected on the site in the 6th century AD and was enclosed by strong defensive walls, almost square in plan. Only the northern parts of these walls can be seen today. The Daphni Monastery is built on the ancient sanctuary of Apollo Daphnaios, which was destroyed during the Goths invasion in 395 AD. The monastery, most probably, took its name from the sanctuary.
The second phase, dated to the end of the 11th century (around 1080), is the one we see today.
The catholicon (main church), dedicated to the Virgin's Dormition, is a cross-in-square church of the octagonal type, surmounted by a broad and high dome. It is one of the very few (three) churches of this type surviving in Greece. It has a narthex, formed as an open portico. The exonarthex (porch) was constructed a little later, in the early 12th century, in which the Ionic columns of the ancient temple of Apollo were incorporated. Today, only one Ionic column remains in the porch's colonnade, while the rest were removed by Lord Elgin in the 19th century and are currently in possession of the British Museum. New marble ones have replaced the missing columns during the recent renovations. The church walls were built in the simple cloisonne masonry with poor brick decoration, restricted on the windows. Beneath the narthex is a crypt, not open to the public.
Nevertheless, the monastery is famous for the catholicon's sublime mosaics, dating from the end of the 11th century, a unique, fine example of the Classical idealism of Middle Byzantine art. The crowded scenes of the mosaics narrate scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin. The individual figures represent archangels, prophets, saints, martyrs, bishops. Their arrangement in the dome, the cross-arms, the sanctuary, and the narthex was dictated by the concept that the nave represented the universe, with the dome symbolizing the heavenly vaults and the floor the earth.
Byzantine art often survives as ecclesiastical art. The Daphni Monastery was built during a renaissance period in culture and art and a return to classical traditions. The figures in the mosaics are more naturalistically represented, and they blend more smoothly into their surroundings. The decoration of the monastery is inspired by the spirit of the times. Faces are dematerialized, austere, and depicted with unemotional expressions. The bodies are heavy and rigid, common characteristics in representing the Bishops, Monks, and the Martyrs' icons. The pictorial perspective, the figure styles and gestures, the modeling of the figures along with the simplicity of design, and the dazzling splendor of color reflecting from the gold and silver tesserae distinguish the Daphni mosaics among the mosaics of the eleventh and twelfth centuries as particularly grand specimens of Byzantine art in general.
Around the beautifully restored main courtyard of the monastery, besides the catholicon, stands the refectory and the kitchen (a long two-story building) and a second long building (the former use of which is not clear) with a beautiful arcade in the front. This building houses a small museum in two small rooms.