Some 6km east of Dhístomo (which by bus is 35min east of Delphi), the monastery of Ósios Loukás was a precursor of the final flourish of Byzantine art found in the great churches at Mystra in the Peloponnese. From an architectural or decorative standpoint it ranks as one of the great buildings of medieval Greece; the remote setting is exquisite as well, especially in February when the many local almond trees bloom. Approaching along the last stretch of road, Ósios Loukás suddenly appears on its shady terrace, overlooking the highest summits of the Elikónas range and a beautiful broad valley. The complex comprises two domed churches, the larger katholikón of Ósios Loukás (a local beatified hermit, Luke of Stiri, not the Evangelist) and the adjacent chapel of Theotókos. A few monks still live in the cells around the courtyard, but the monastery is essentially a museum, with a souvenir shop on the grounds.
The design of the katholikón, built around 1040 to a cross-in-square plan, strongly influenced later churches at Dhafní and at Mystra. Externally it is unassuming, with rough brick-and-stone walls topped by a well-proportioned octagonal dome. The interior, however, is rich, with multicoloured-marble walls contrasting with gold-background mosaics on the high ceiling. Light filtering through alabaster windows reflects from the curved mosaic surfaces onto the marble walls and back, bringing out subtle shading.
The mosaics were damaged by an earthquake in 1659, replaced at many points by unremarkable frescoes, but surviving examples testify to their glory. On the right as you enter the narthex are a majestic Resurrection and Thomas Probing Christ’s Wound. The mosaic of the Niptir (Washing of the Apostles’ Feet) on the far left (north side) of the narthex is one of the finest here, the expressions of the Apostles ranging between diffidence and surprise. This humanized approach is again illustrated by the Baptism, up in the northwest squinch (curved surface supporting the dome). Here Jesus reaches for the cross amid a swirling mass of water, an illusion of depth created by the curvature of the wall. On other squinches, the Christ Child reaches out to the High Priest Simeon in The Presentation, while in The Nativity, angels predominate rather than the usual shepherds. The church’s original frescoes are confined to vaulted chambers at the corners of the cross plan and, though less imposing than the mosaics, employ subtle colours, notably in Christ Walking towards the Baptism.
The Theotókos chapel
The chapel of Theotókos (“God-Bearing”, ie the Virgin Mary), built shortly after Luke’s death, is nearly a century older than the katholikón. From outside it overshadows the main church with elaborate brick decoration culminating in a marble-panelled drum, but the interior seems mean by comparison, enlivened only by a couple of fine Corinthian capitals and the original floor mosaic, its colours now faint.
Finally, do not miss the vivid frescoes in the crypt of the katholikón, entered on the lower south side of the building. Bring a torch, since illumination is limited to three spotlights to preserve the colours of the post-Byzantine frescoes.