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Saint John on Pátmos

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Pátmos has been intimately associated with Christianity since John the Evangelist – later John the Divine – was exiled here from Ephesus by emperor Domitian in about 95 AD. John is said to have written his Gospel on Pátmos, but his sojourn is better remembered for the otherworldly voice that he heard coming from a cleft in the ceiling of his hillside grotto, which bid him to set down its words in writing. By the time John was allowed to return home, that disturbing finale to the New Testament, the Book of Revelation (aka the Apocalypse), had been disseminated as a pastoral letter to the Seven Churches of Asia Minor.

Revelation followed the standard Judeo-Christian tradition of apocalyptic books, with titanic battles in heaven and on earth, supernatural visions, plus lurid descriptions of the fates awaiting the saved and the damned following the Last Judgement. Hugely open to subjective interpretation, Revelation was being wielded as a rhetorical and theological weapon within a century of appearing. Its vivid imagery lent itself to depiction in frescoes adorning the refectories of Byzantine monasteries and the narthexes of Orthodox churches, conveying a salutary message to illiterate medieval parishioners.

John also combated paganism on Pátmos, in the person of an evil wizard, Kynops, who challenged him to a duel of miracles. As the magician’s stock trick involved retrieving effigies of the deceased from the seabed, John responded by petrifying Kynops while he was under water. A buoy just off Theológos beach in Skála today marks the relevant submerged rock.

Forever after in the Orthodox world, heights amid desolate and especially volcanic topography have become associated with John. Pátmos, with its eerie landscape of igneous outcrops, is an excellent example, as is Níssyros, where one of the saint’s monasteries overlooks the volcano’s caldera.

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