Lord's Voice | Diakonia | Links | Baptism | Multimedia


The Historic Archive of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece


The Reciprocal Relation between Doctrinal and Historical factors in the Separation of the Oriental Churches from the ancient Catholic Church

Byzantium and Charles the Great

Greece in the World War II

The First Icons of Christ and the Virgin

Church, Schools and Science during the Turkish occupation

The Hesychasm in the Occident during the 14th Century

"Unity", "Division", "Reunion" in the light of Orthodox Ecclesiology

Nationalism in the Orthodox Church


  The Hesychasm in the Occident during the 14th Century

Antonio Carile,
- ,
2000, . 131-140


Hesychasm is the modern label for describing 14th15th Centuries religious, political and social movements linked to the Civil War of 1341- 1347.

Hesychasm is first of all the methods of monastic prayer and contemplation from hesychia, the technical term for a practice aiming to achieve communion with God through interior quietude, having at its core the "prayer of the heart", that is Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me", prayer introduced to Mount Athos by Gregory Sinaites, who combined this continuous and imageless form of prayer with control of breathing. In this sense the word is connected to the byzantine monasticism back to the desert fathers, tightly interlaced to western monasticism as well.

The psychosomatic exercises to achieve concentration ( prosoche ) were a late byzantine addition to the prayer and the entire tradition was finally unified in the doctrine of Gregory Palamas (ca. 1296 died in Thessalonike on 14 November 13 59, canonized in 1368). According to Palamas the contemplative can reach the experience of God's uncreated grace ( energeia ) as distinct from God's unknowable essence, so that the hesychasts encounter the living God directly. Palamas had to meet a strong opposition from the theologian Gregory Akindynos, the scholarly historian Nikephoros Gregoras, the humanist John Kyparissiotes and the byzantine thomists Demetrios and Prochoros Kydones, all in a context of deliberate trend toward a reapprochment with Italy and the latin West. Palamas in 1336 exchanged letters with Barlaam, a western bilingual monk born in Seminara in Calabria where he ended his career as bishop of Gerace (1342-1348), after his conversion to Catholicism. Barlaam as hegoumenos of the Akataleptos monastery in Constantinople and as a protege of Andronikos III Palaiologos was the orthodox spokesman in Union negotiations in Constantinople. Barlaam attacked hesychasm for its theology and its way of prayer, accusing Gregory Palamas of Messalianism, and arguing that the light on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration was created, was an indalma, an image. He nicknamed mockingly the athonite monks omphalopsychoi, with souls at their navel, and triggered the controversy over palamism which was to divide the orthodox church till the local council of Constantinople, in 1341, ended in his condemnation and in the burning of Barlaam's writings against hesychasm. Despite the friendly feelings of Palamas towards the roman church, Palamas was denounced as a heretic by the papal legate Paul of Smyrna.

At Avignone Barlaam met Petrarch, who was willing to study Greek with him and to whom actually Barlaam supplied the Greek teacher in the person of Leontius Pilatus, the awkward monk of Calabria, whose function in western Humanism through Petrarca and Boccaccio has been masterly sketched by Agostino Pertusi. The friendship between Barlaam and Petrarca prompted the esteem of ancient Greece in Petrarca but left in him a touch of disgust for byzantine monasticism. As we can as certain by his personal evaluation of Leontius Pilatus. Petrarca as well as Boccaccio were the leading figures in Europe's prehumanism and their tastes and choices were to impress deeply on the european culture through the papal court in Avignone and the angevin court in Naples. Petrarca and Boccaccio introduced in European culture Homer and Digenis Akritas through the Boccaccio remake of Akrita, but no more than classical greek manuscripts were bestowed by the great seneschal Nicolas Acciaiuoli, to his foundation of Certosa del Galluzzo in Florence, as we can ascertain from his will of 1341, which left to the Certosa Acciaiuoli's rents from Peloponnesus. Byzantine intellectual on their part had discovered that the Westerners were not only brutal soldiers and greedy merchants but they were also scholars well acquainted with Aristotle and Plato. Among those who experienced this discovery was Cantacuzenos' own secretary, Demetrios Kydones, who had learnt Latin at a convent of Dominicans in genoese Galata and was amazed at the intellectual prowess of the Latins. He became an advisor of Emperor John V (1353- 1391) and participated in his travel to Rome and conversion to roman church. Demetrios Kydones, his brother Prochoros, Manuel Calecas, John Kyparissiotes assimilated thomist thought and methodology. In the next century Bessarion, who considered Venice alterum Byzantium , the second Byzance, was willing as well to integrate himself in the Italian Renaissance: all of them did so as Greek patriots in the consciousness that Hellenism was in danger in Byzantium and probably devoted to fade but that it could still find shelter, intellectually and culturally, in the West. This particular group of intellectuals could hardly find a common language with the Hesychasts and considered the monks victory in 1341 - 1351 a national disaster because it let to a different set of priorities. But it would be an error to reduce the monastic party to opposition to the study of Greek antiquity or to reduce its stand to anti-Latinism: John Cantacuzenos, supporter of Palamas, was nevertheless a spokesman in favor of a union-council between the churches of Roma and of Constantinople and sponsored, even after the hesychast victory, translation of latin theologians into greek and used them in his writings.

In presence of the survival of latin domination following the Fourth Crusade which had provoked a new consciousness of the Hellenism of Byzantium and a defense by the byzantines of their cultural identity, the victory of Hesychasm was felt by some of the byzantine humanists a tragedy of major proportions, because it attented to this new, rather romantic, discovery of Hellenism in the sense of a greater identification with the language, the civilization and the history of ancient Greece, in an attitude of ethnic defensiveness. The leaders of hesychasm as Palamas, the former pupil of Theodore Metochites under whom he studied Aristotle, were not fanatics and obscurantists : they just distinguished between the secular studies and the Christian theology. John Cantacuzenos, the chief supporter of Palamas and his disciples after 1341, acted also as a mecene of humanists like Demetrios Kydones, probably satirized in the Porikologos . The separation of the religious zealots from the humanists was only a question of methodological emphasis and of theological inspiration: the hesychast did not want to suppress Hellenism in Byzantium, they just wanted to preserve the church throughout eastern Europe whilst the humanists were concerned with the more nationalistic and more secular romantic idea of Byzantium as the new Athens. These humanists moreover represented in the byzantine society a close-knit elite dependent upon the waning material welfare of the ruling class: in this sense the satires against the scholars and the archons of the XIV century Byzantium means the vanished social position of this elite. Outside Constantinople Thessalonika and Mistra there were no centres where the humanists could find any popular, material or political support. On the other side the world of byzantine monasticism, which was not affected by the limited ideal of preservation of antique Hellenism, enjoyed widespread influence in the popular masses within and outside the Empire: the patriarchate of Constantinople exercised its administrative powers in immense territories and countries: some of the patriarchs were effectively hesychast : Isidoros (1347-1349), Callistos (1350-1353, 1355-1363), Philotheos II (1353-1354, 1364-1376). The Sjuzjumov's theory of Palamism beeing connected to the people's reaction against Venetian and Genoese commercial exploitation is rather simplistic but emphasizes the anti western options of hesychasm. In fact Palamas became an alliate of John Cantakuzenos and his supporters, that is the archontes who are criticized by the contemporary political thinkers as Thomas Magistros and as Alexios Makrembolites, but Theodore Palaeologus the marquis of Montferrat as well, for their ruthless exploitation of the poors.

The criticism of social organization and the charge of excessive poverty inside the byzantine cities, according to the traditional byzantine thinking from Agapetus (527) to the legislation of Romanos I Lecapenus (927), are at the core of the thought of Thomas Magistros (born and died in Thessalonike ca. 12701347) who had amongst his pupils Philotheos Kokkinos, the future patriarch Philotheos II, Demetrios Triklines and Gregory Akindynos. He entered in contact with the emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos during an embassy in 1314- 1318 in order to deliver an oration on behalf of the general Chalandrenos, accused of treason, who had valiantly defended Thessalonike against the Italoi, that are the Catalans, the Persai, that are the Turks, and the Triballoi, that are the Serbs. In his peri politias ( PG 145, cc. 496-548) Thomas Magistros suggests that all the citizens may possess arts and sciences, and military training so that it is not necessary to recur to mercenaries as the Catalans. This is the best way to get over poverty.

The son of Andronikos II, alleged disciple of Gregory the Sinaites, and the son of Irene Yoland of Montferrat, Theodore Palaiologos (1291-1338), became in 1305 marquis of Montferrat. He had written two small treatises in greek, then translated in latin and from latin in french by Jean de Vignai towards the end of 14th Century. One of the treatises is Sur la manière de richese et pauvret é de ce monde (About richness and poverty in this world): it represents an effective link between the byzantine high culture, influenced by hesychasm, and the western culture in XIV Century. The same analysis of Thomas Magistros about the origin of richness is made by Alexios Makrembolites, at the service of exisotes Patrikiotes, a financial adviser of John VI Kantakuzenos, in his Dialogue between the Rich and the Poor of 1343. Richness can be originated in sciences, commerce, soberness' robberies and aristocratical power ( dynasteia ). The distribution of richness between the poors, which reminds us some excesses of the Zealot revolution: leads to a general poverty, according to Makrembolites. But in fact Hesychasts defended the monastic property against secolarisation for military purposes* as is now interpreted, against Tafrali, Nicolas Cabasilas ' so called antizealot discourse, most probably referred to the confiscation of monastic properties.

Hesychasm, nevertheless, is above all a religious phenomenon: the victory of Palamas and his followers meant not only the assertion of a group of hermits willing to follow a particular spiritual tradition in the wilderness of Mount Athos but in effect it determined the attitudes and policies of the byzantine church as a whole. This provoked a polarization between a monastic dominated church and the humanists, who promoted the study of Greek antiquity and who were becoming increasingly attracted by the Italian beginning of the Renaissance. A certain polarization between those who promoted the study of Greek antiquity "the wisdom from outside" he thyrathen sophia, the socalled humanists, and the monastic traditionalists had been a permanent element in the intellectual life of Byzantium, at least since the ninth century and it recurs in the Palaeologian period following the patterns of the past, in connection with the revival of ancient studies. Hesychasm in this sense was cut out from the major centres of politics and culture in the West: the Papacy and the court of Naples. But the result of the internal crisis in Byzantium led to a more active administration by the patriarchate of the russian metropolitane and to a strong spiritual and intellectual renewal of byzantine influence in monastic circles, through the mediation of the southern Slavs and of Roumanians. Turdeanu has stressed the hesychast influence towards 1365 in Valachy through the hieromonachos Nicodemos (the founder of the monastry of Vodita then passed to Arges ). The leadership by hesychast patriarchs for over thirty years, from Isidoros (1347-1349), to Callistos (1350-1353, 1355-1363), to Philotheos Kokkinos exercised a strong impact upon Russia in the fourteenth century. The renewed monastic influence led to an administrative and ideological reassertion of the ecumenical patriarchate as main centre of leadership of the byzantine orthodox church, though the hesychasts shared the basic principle of eastern Christian ecclesiology incompatible with any tendency towards absolutizing the power of the patriarch and of the bishops and considering them as infallible. Palamites in their concern for moral and social issues in some contrast with the eremitic monastic trends of the past and in a certain parallelism to the western cluniac movement, made them look at the patriarchate and its administrative apparatus as tools for preservation Christian orthodoxy and byzantine Christian civilization. These religious zealots who occupied positions of leadership in the byzantine church and who enjoyed widespread popular support, and who were backed by political leaders as John Cantacuzenos and John Alexander in Bulgaria, although many of them were athonite monks can be designate as hesychasts with some reservations. Meyendorff thinks that they were promoting a new religious maximalism, with basic cultural and political priorities, they were not struggling only for a particular spiritual tradition. Though not assuming the external signs of imperial power, which the popes had assumed in the eight century and which the patriarch would assume after the capture of the city by the Turks, the patriarch of Constantinople during the Palaeologian period gradually took up the position of main spokesman of the orthodox "family of nations". Patriarch Philotheos in a letter of 1370 to Great prince Dimitri of Moscow, styles himself as "the common father, established by most high God, of all the Christians found everywhere on earth" and patriarch Anthony in 1393 remembers to great prince Basil that "the patriarch is a vicar of Christ and sits on the very throne of the Master".

Hesychasm provoked too transnational contacts between monastic communities and numerous new translations of byzantine texts into Slavic Hesychasm beyond a technique of spirituality, was rather aiming at mantaining the structures of the Orthodox faith in a period of dangerous changing political situation in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe.

Hesychasm as an aspect of political or social problems in the years 1341-1347 is connected in a loose and indirect way to the Union negotiations to which it was not favourable, to the antilatin polemics and to the Cantakuzenos ' movement: most probably it is not connected to the traditional byzantine defense of lay poverty. Hesychasm, on the contrary, is prone to defend the monastic property and the traditional asset of the monarchical power inside the society: in this direction it concurred to the shaping of serbian dynastical biographies of holy kings.

Thessalonika at the middle of the fourteenth century was troubled by three different forms of division. First of all there was a political division between the pretender John Cantakuzenos supported by the archons of Thessaly and by the monastic interests and the minor emperor John V supported by the dowager empress Anne of Savoy. The people of Thessalonika supported the claims of the young emperor. The second division was between hesychasts or palamites and the thinkers who preferred the inheritance of ancient greek philosophy. Barlaam visited Thessalonika about 1330-1331 and founded a school in which lectured on the logic of Aristotle and the philosophy of Plato, that is according to an archbishop of Thessalonika "seeking to persuade, all men to abandon hesychia and to turn their minds to the philosophers of Greece". The palamites relied on the patronage of John Cantacuzenos whilst the others, the so called Barlamites, were more sympathetic to John V. And then there was a social dissension between rich and poor. The Zealots were the party of the poor and to this movement is probably to reconnect the satirical literature against the political hierarchy and against the rich: the Diigisis ton zoon ton tetrapodon and the Porikologos. They were against the hesychasts because of the common interest with the party of the richer classes leaded by Cantacuzenos and because the defense of the monastic property, which they intended to curtail for social objectives: "If we arm soldiers from these funds, to fight and die in the cause of these holy things and on behalf of our laws and fortifications, it is not better so than that they should be spent to no purpose by monks and priests who need only a little for the table and the other requirements of life - sitting as they do at home, living under their own roof, and having no danger to face? What is necessary above everything else is the stability of our walls and the existence of law... What wrong are we doing if we ask they should do as much to support soldiers who defend their liberty as they do in repairing roofs, putting tumble down houses in order, and taking care of land and estates? If it is lawful for servants, farmers, builders and bakers to be supported from ecclesiastical funds, why should it not be still more lawful for soldiers to be supported by them?". Most probably the literary and philosophical opponents of the hesychasts were not unwilling to see the monks curbed down in their richness. The Zealots of Thessalonika had a party chief who divided the power with the representative of the byzantine government and they were backed by the sailors' guild. In 1345 one hundred of imprisoned nobles were hurled from the walls of the citadel and cut to pieces by the mob. The Zealots appealed to the Serbs for help and when Cantacuzenos took the city in 1350 arrested the chiefs of the Zealots.

As for the diffusion of Hesychasm toward the West we can quote the bios of the hesychast saint Maximos Kausokalyba (1280 ca. 1375 ca.) by the metropolit of Peritheorion Theophanes, former hegoumenos of Vatopedi. He affirms that Gregory Sinaites, the hesychast monk who died in Paroria 27 November after 1337, had amongst his pupils Andronikos II Palaiologos (†341), Steven Dusan (†1355) and Alexander I of Valachia (†1364). In fact Gregory Sinaites, who had as a disciple the future patriarch Kallistos who composed his bios, received financial support for his monastery of Mount Katakekryomene from the bulgarian tsar Ivan Alexander.

In a recent book about the monarchical ideology in the dynastical hagiobiographies of Serbian middle age, Bojovic points out the hesychast environment in which were shaped the hagiographies of the dynastic saints of the Serbian royal family. The monk Domentijan, living in the Serbian hesychasterion of Karies in 1254 completed the life of Saint Sava, the founder of the Serbian church, who spent his early career on Mount Athos. Afterwards, living in the Metamorphosis Monastery which was built by king Uros the Great (1243-1276) not far from Karyes, in 1264 Domentijan composed the hagiography of Simeon Nemanija the Myroblytes written by suggestion of the king himself, who was the nephew of the saint.

It is to say that the crown of king of Serbia derived in 1217 from the pope Honorius III so that the Serbian monarchy suffered a sort of dichotomy between the catholic origin of the kingship and the orthodox profession of the dynastic saint. Domentijan attributes to Simeon Nemanija and to Sava the vision of the not created light "The two gaze through the eyes of the intelligence the eternal and without end light". Domentijan had the task to transform the Serbian fatherland in a medieval ideal state, based on the concept of the divine election of the king, endowed of a monastic holiness, of a personal saintliness, patron of his people New Israel and endowed of the mission of evangelization. The influence of athonite hesychasm on the Serbian church was stressed under the archbishop Danilo II (1324-1337). In the two parekklesia of the Hodegitria church founded by him, he guested some greek monks of the Athos intented to translate ecclesiastical books. Danilo's hagiographical and hymnographical writings reflects the erudite monasticism of Mount Athos tightly connected to the hesychasm which, according to Bogdanovic, led to a higher spiritualization of the Serbian literature.

The history of Athos in 14th century is marked by the revival of Hesychasm and by a renewed slavic presence not only by the Serbians, who predominated in the Balkan peninsula. Connections between Mount Athos and Serbia were very tight since saint Sava. The Serbian monastery of Chilandari superseded the bulgarian monastery of Zographou both in byzantino-slavic relations and in terms of production of Slavic manuscripts. In effect according to Constantine of Kostenets, a bulgarian monk writing in Serbia around 1418, the copyists were usually incompetent and the only slavic texts to rely on were those produced in Trnovo, the capital of Bulgaria, or on Mount Athos which imitated greek models in content and in style. The slavic presence on Mount Athos had a decisive influence in the Balkans dominated by the multiethnic Serbian empire of Stefan Dusan. The southslavic literature was affected by the athonite ideals upon the spiritual culture. All the leaders of the bulgarian literary renaissance, Theodosius, Euthymius and Cyprian of Kiev were athonite monks and their activities in slavic lands were pursued in close' contact with other athonite hesychasts like Callistos and Philotheos, who had become patriarchs of Constantinople. Russia too had direct contacts with Mount Athos and with Constantinople itself, where the rapports were better established than those of the southern slavs ; in permanent quarters, according to Meyendorff for the Russians, who occasionally shared them with Serbians and Bulgarians. These quarters during the Palaeologian period depended by the need created by the administrative dependence of the metropolitanate of Russia upon the patriarchate and the constant travelling of diplomats and pilgrims. In fact we find a presence of russians inside the various monasteries of the capital, Studios, St. Mama and the Perivleptos, all located in the southwest corner of the walled city of Constantinople, which probably constituted the russian quarter where russian pilgrims and monks gathered together. In Moscow there seems to have existed a greek monastery of saint Nicholas and direct ties with Constantinople existed at the monasteries Bogoyavlensky and Simonovsky, so that some russian churchmen were able to learn Greek. The religious controversies of the fourteenth century have now generally been recognized as a crisis of civilization with profound consequences for the future of byzantine society and the post- byzantine period in slavic lands too and in Russia. The Slavs received from Byzantium a renewed spiritual leadership and accepted the intellectual cultural and ideological goals of byzantine hesychasm.

Meyendorff in 1981 put the question of the rapports between hesychasm and the pictorial art of the Palaeologian period. He thought that the cultural and religious background of the so called Palaeologian Renaissance determined its innovative style toward an immitation of life and an imitation of antique models before Palamites prevailed in 1341, 1347 and 1351. Art historians detect at the middle of the fourteenth century a change in artistic patterns and style due to a stifling effect of monastic rigorism : patriarch Athanasius I and Gregory Palamas were even accused of iconoclasm. The diffusion of the new style in Slavic countries, largely influenced by the monastic ideals of hesychasm, makes impossible to refer to hesychasm as a milieu supposedly hostile to the Palaeologian art, considering the works of Theophanes the Greek and of Andrej Rublev. Nothing in palamite theology challenged the legitimacy of Christian art whose reality was grounded in all epochs on the incarnation of Christ. Epiphanius the Wise in a letter about 1415 moreover praised Theophanes the Greek, who decorated in 1378 the church of Transfiguration in Novgorod, working too in Nizni - Novgorod and finally in Moscow, in the churches of Annunciation and of Archangel Michael in Kremlin, on the ground that his painting "never looked on existing models... in his spirit, encompassed distant and intellectual realities, while his spiritual eyes contemplated spiritual beauty". But it is to notice another phenomenon too: the naturalistic and prospective art of italian Renaissance, from the Venetian Bellini to the urbinate Rafaello was very attentive to the iconography of the hermit and to the light of the Transfiguration. Hesychasm could in fact provide the artist with a theology of the eternal light and the beggar orders, which knew directly the eastern problems of palamism, could supply italian artists with the necessary linkings to byzantine hesychasm : Carpaccio of saint George of the Schiavoni in Venice paints byzantino-turkish societies while Bellini's keen attention to eastern society is well known, and it is not necessary to remind the shameful commission he accepted from Mahomet II to paint " cose di lussuria " in the old Seray : I wonder which image of the delicate madonna painter had we if his pornography most probably in persian and indian style had survived to us. I suppose that the new sensibility for contemplative life, with images of hermits, of saints intented to mental study of the holy writings into their libraries, like Carpaccio's saint Jerome, the them of Transfiguration, may let us suppose a link with the high spirituality O f eastern hesychasm during a period in which the studies of ancient Greece were assumed in Italy through the mediation of Greek scholars, mainly exponents of high classes of byzantine society transplanted into italian towns Let me give an example. Men like Thomas Diplovatazis whose burial tomb was in Pesaro, in the very street in which I was born, brought with them not only their knowledge of greek tradition, their diplomatic competence used by the lords of Pesaro, and their language but their spirituality too. Not far from his tomb in the church of saint bishop Ubaldus Bellini made the big saint Ubaldus ' altarpiece showing as a part of the landscape, a geographical but an ideal landscape too, the iconography of the hermit near the iconography of the ancient ruins. Had the two met in Venice or in Pesaro? In every case it was impossible to live in Venice or in Pesaro in second half of the fifteenth century ignoring the greek presence, till now mainly perceived by scholars of classical philological interests under a humanistic sight with a strong rationalistic bias against monasticism.


For receiving news, offerings and in general any actions regarding the Organization please fill in the next fields. For protection of data see here.

{ technical support        contact