To Crete with John Xenos

I am off to Crete later today to talk with the Regular Members about Late Antique and Middle Byzantine Crete.  I will talk with them at Gortyn which was the Late Roman capital of the island. 

The best thing about preparing these site reports is that you come across little bits of information, texts, ideas that you would never have encountered otherwise.  While reading on Middle Byzantine Crete, I came across the autobiographical early 11th-century Vita of John Xenos (John “the hermit” or “the stranger”) (Tωμαδάκις KrChron 2 (1948), 47-72).


John spent his life going across the mountains of Crete finding churches that had been neglected and rehabilitating them.  He was often led by visions.  In one case God tells him to build a church at the site of a mnemeia (a monument — presumably the tombs?) to Sts. Eutuchios and Eutuxianos.  He rebuilt a church of St. George and provided it with a cistern so that they could grow food there.  His most famous foundation was at a place called Myriokephala where he established a monastery on the site of a large “Greek building” (ellenikon ktisma); he later founded a metoichi (smaller dependent monastery) of St. Patapios and provides it with a garden and fruitbearing trees.  A Byzantine typika (a document describing the rules and often the foundation of a monastery) exists for the monastery at Myriokephala and has been translated.  He eventually retires near Kisamos in Western Crete.

The Life of John Xenos is a good example of how Byzantine saints lives present a transformed landscape in the Early Middle Byzantine period.  The rebuilding and refounding of churches by not only John but also by his older contemporary, St. Nikon O Metanoeite, in Crete produced a religious landscape of the island that was significantly reshaped in the generation after the Nicephoras Phokas returned the island to Byzantine rule after over a century of Arab occupation.  There are other examples of this process for mainland Greece (I have studied Theodore of Kythera who settles in an abandoned church on Kythera).  On Crete and elsewhere these saints lives follow a similar pattern: the saint happens upon a pre-existing sacred site that has been neglected, and the saint, sometimes after a vision, restores, rebuilds, or somehow resanctifies the site. This process creates an interesting interplay between continuity (i.e. the pre-existence of a site) and change (the restored building and institutions) which allows continuity and change to persist simultaneous in the Byzantine landscape.

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