Traditional skull painting practiced by the monks on Mount Athos

Sull in the ossuary of the Romanian Skete Prodromos on Mount Athos. Photo from Wikipedia

Sull in the ossuary of the Romanian Skete Prodromos on Mount Athos. Photo from Wikipedia

Mount Athos is an Eastern Orthodox monastic republic located on a remote, mountainous peninsula in northern Greece that is only accessible by boat.  It is an independent mini-state within Greece, similar to the Vatican, and operates under a charter granted by Byzantine emperor John I Tzimisces in the 10th century A.D.  Referred to as the “Holy Mountain,” this monastic republic includes 20 large monasteries, dozens of small hermitic communities that follow monastic rule (sketes), as well as individual religious hermits.

According to tradition, all of the monasteries on Mt. Athos have charnel houses because the mountainous terrain doesn’t allow for large cemeteries.  The cemeteries for each monastery and skete are small and the graves are reused. When a brother dies the body is buried with no coffin so it decomposes quickly.  After three years, the remains are exhumed, washed, then put in a nearby ossuary.  But the skull is given special treatment.

Like the gravediggers who worked at the charnel house in Hallstatt, the Athonite monks practice skull painting, and each monastery has its own artistic tradition.  Some monasteries, like the Romanian Skete Prodromos and Skete Prophet Elias, will only paint the name and dates of birth and death on the forehead.  But the monks at St. Panteleimon, a Russian monastery, have mastered the art of skull painting.  According to Paul Koudounaris, author of Empire de la Mort, they are the “Rembrandts of skull painting” and their mastery exceeds what is found among the painted skulls in Hallstatt.  Unfortunately when Koudounaris visited St. Panteleimon they would not let him photograph the skulls for his book.  If you’re a man you can visit and see these extraordinary skulls for yourself, but if you’re a woman you’re SOL.

Mt. Athos has officially prohibited women since 1046 AD.  The monks feel that women will hinder their path to spiritual enlightenment and make their celibate lifestyle more difficult.  The ban is so strictly enforced that the monks will sometimes require physical examinations.  Each male visitor needs passport to enter Mount Athos and has to be accepted as a religious pilgrim with a limit of 10 per day.


Koudounaris, P. (2011 April 27). Mt. Athos, Greece monastic ossuary (Xenophondos).  Retrieved on March 8, 2014 from:

Houser D. (2008 April 14).  In Mt. Athos, Byzantine Empire lingers.  Retrieved on March 8, 2014 from:


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