My Messinia

The caves of St. Onuphrius-The Early Christian Catacombs

The early Christian cemetery of St. Onoufrius is a hidden and still an almost unknown place to the visitors and the locals alike. The manmade caves sit on the top of St. Nicholas mountain ( The easiest way to reach it is to take the road leading from the city of Pylos to Methoni and make a right at St. Athanasios church and take a dirt road which leads towards the top. Somewhere in the middle of the distance the road stops and you have to continue on foot). DSC_0153 psotvDSC_0144otvI have been searching for this place for quite a while and I finally found it thanks to the help of another Messinia aficionado, Dimitris Panoskaltsis (read his blog about the area here), who led me to it through the slopes of blooming anemones.DSC_0390psotvThe cemetery dates to the mid 4th-5th century AD. During the Byzantine period (12-13th century AD) it was converted into a hermitage and adorned with frescos. These catacombs are unique in the Peloponnese and one of the few known examples of the kind in Greece.DSC_0320psotvDSC_0230psotvvDSC_0318otvThe structure is carved into the natural porous stone within a large rock. The catacombs were envisible initially and the underground chambers could be only accessed by carved stairs leading below. Unfortunately the eastern part of the structure was destroyed by the Franks and then by the Venetians as the stone blocks from the mountain were used to build the fortifications of the castle of Methoni. The missing walls exposed the western side of the sanctuary which now consists of six chambers and many pit graves.DSC_0363psotvDSC_0294ccotvDSC_0268psotvDSC_0280psotvDSC_0334psotvDSC_0235otvSmall niches for the placement of lamps are cut into the rock at the base of the arcosoliums* arches, while benches and offering tables, structures associated with the funerary cult, are on the sides of the chambers. The roof of the chambers is flat and the arcosaliums have the form of relatively high blind arches. The walls were originally covered with paintings, very few of which are visible today.DSC_0241psotvDSC_0200otvDSC_0316psotvDSC_0186psotvDSC_0208otvDSC_0398otvThe remains of the catacombs consist of:

  • A “descending scale” ie the stairway leading to the underground interior of the catacomb. At the point of turning to the left, there is a carved lamp holder illuminating an anchor which made the descent possible.
  • A triangular cavity, which assuming could be either the “throne of the bishop” in the divine mode or the ceremonial in the funeral sequences.
  • Going down below, always on the left, an opening, like a big window, takes us to a cubic chamber.
  • A large circular chamber. Only its western section is saved as the eastern part was demolished. Several “arcosols” are preserved, and many pit tombs on the ground.
  • At its top there are signs indicating the existence of a skylight.

Segments of galleries with several archosols and pit tombs are still preserved. In one of the arcasolium tomb there are still many human bones.DSC_0202psotvDSC_0335psotvThe caves of Saint Onuphrius were known to foreign travelers and the locals as a place connected with Christian worship. Some foreign travelers referred to it it as hermitage, others as cloister , which later became the cemetery of the area. DSC_0308psotvThe locals, seeing the murals which adorned all the walls regarded it as an “old church” and visited it sometimes to light a candle. There are testimonies that till 1910 and once a year, on June 12, the day of Saint Onuphrius, the priest-Thanasis (1883-1928) made a service there. However from 1940s the chambers were used for keeping sheep and goats and the frescos were destroyed by bond fires lit within the caves.

The official recognition of the catacombs came around 1960s.DSC_0351otv*An arcosolium (or arcosolia) is an arched recess used as a place of entombment. The word is from Latin arcus, “arch”, and solium, “throne” (literally: “place of state”) or post-classical sarcophagus. Early arcosolia were carved in rock in catacombs. In the very earliest of these, the arched recess was cut to ground level. Then a low wall would be built in the front, leaving a trough (the cubiculum, “chamber”) in which to place the body. A flat stone slab would then cover the chamber containing the body, thus sealing it. The stone slab occasionally also served as an altar, especially for Christians. who celebrated Mass on them. In the later arcosolia, the arched recess was carved out to about waist height. Then the masons cut downwards to make the chamber into which the corpse would be placed. In effect, the trough was then a sarcophagus with living rock on five of its six faces. As before, a flat stone slab would then seal the cubiculum.

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Source: : Οδοιπορικόν στις Εκκλησίες και τα εξωκκλήσια της σημερινής Μεθώνης ( Κ.Δ Κωστόπουλου )

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