Feature Articles – On the trail of the Libro Rosso: the Monasteries of Metéora
The monasteries of Metéora are spectacular locations. But could they also be linked with the “Libro Rosso”, spoken about by author Kathleen McGowan in her novels? Indeed, isn’t it about time that the “Libro Rosso”, the “Gospel of Jesus”, is explored?
by Philip Coppens
Sometimes, interesting subjects do not receive the attention they deserve. And fiction sometimes contains interesting facts. Though having sold more than one million copies and being translated in 31 languages, Kathleen McGowan’s series of books titled “The Magdalene Line” has – so far? – remained firmly within the bailiwick of fiction. But what should one expect from a book that is referenced as “fiction”, correct?
Then again… we all know of The Da Vinci Code effect, created when Brown opened his novel with a few short quotes, arguing that the organisations mentioned in his novel are actual organisations. Thus, one page created a series of documentaries and even reactions from the Vatican, some arguing against, some in favour of the “facts” Brown mentioned in his book – and the conclusions he drew in fiction about Mary Magdalene.
McGowan has gone further than Brown. For example, in her second book, “The Book of Love”, there is an appendix, which maps the trajectory of two important books: an original gospel written by Jesus himself, “The Book of Love”, and a copy made in Alexandria by the apostle Philip, known as the “Libro Rosso” – the Red Book, named as such because of the colour of its cover.
Read the appendix and it reads like an appendix from any non-fiction book. And that is because it is meant to be, for McGowan is not inventing, but detailing her historical research into what she is convinced is a genuine document: a gospel written by Jesus, which after his death on the cross, was passed down the generations, in secret. Possession of either the Book of Love or the Libro Rosso came with tremendous opportunities and, of course, responsibilities; it could literally propel one onto the papal throne… or could make you into the most hunted-down person. Kathleen McGowan and I have been working together for over a year, and the trajectory of these two books has helped us on more than one occasion with providing us the most logical explanation for a historical enigma involving the Church – including the Papal Schism that occurred in the 14th century. Every time things go illogical in Vatican corridors, who possessed a copy of especially the Libro Rosso often explains the politics of the Papal Court.
Of course, bringing the history of the Libro Rosso to light in the space of an article, is an impossible feat… but during our research, on occasion, one detail can serve to perfectly illustrate the larger picture. The Varlaam Monastery, Metéora One such detail is Metéora, the dramatic cliff-side monasteries in Greece. I visited this most impressive site in 2005 and felt that a trip to Greece was not complete without it. Metéora might be familiar from the James Bond film, “For Your Eyes Only”, where the Monastery of the Holy Trinity is featured in one of the dare-devilish scenes 007 gets himself in.
What is the possible connection between the Libro Rosso, an important Christian relic, and the Greek-Orthodox monasteries of Metéora, perched on top of natural sandstone pillars rising at the edge of a most impressive river valley? It is clear that these were sacred rocks to our ancestors, and it is no doubt why the Church came here to create monasteries on top of them. In the 9th century, a group of ascetic monks moved in, living in the caves and nooks of the formations; in 1344, Athanasios Koinovitis brought a group of followers from Mount Athos to Metéora. In 1517, Nectarios and Theophanes built the monastery of Varlaám, which contained important Christian relics like the finger of St John and the shoulder blade of St Andrew. It is therefore clear that Metéora grew in importance, and became an important centre of holy relics. As the monasteries are perched on top of tremendously steep cliffs, they were perfect hiding places, both for known and controversial relics.
When I visited Metéora in 2005, I was unaware of the Libro Rosso, but did realise the importance of this site. Then, with the publication of “The Book of Love” in 2009, Metéora rose to the forefront of my research, as the site is known to have had a labyrinth. Labyrinths form an important teaching tool for the students of the Book of Love and therefore the presence of a labyrinth in Metéora was of interest. The labyrinth was located on the exterior wall of the guesthouse of the monastery of Varlaám, or All Saints, the second largest of the monasteries, which was constructed in 1541.
Adolphe-Napoleon Didron Aîné found the labyrinth in 1844 and was told by the local monks that it was known as “the prison of Solomon”, and that it had been copied by a deceased monk from a book that had since been lost. The design is all but identical to the Chartres labyrinth except in one detail: it does not have the six-petalled rose in the centre – but that is what makes the Chartres labyrinth unique and why so much attention on this specific type of labyrinth is placed in “The Book of Love”.
The question immediately posed is why a unique design like Chartres was found in Metéora. It might not seem to be a mystery for the uninitiated, but for labyrinth scholars, it is. The answer seems to lie in the fact that Varlaám is known to have possessed an extensive library and experts even argue that the book from which the design was copied, could be the original or a copy of a lost alchemical codex. An interesting conclusion reached by academics… The question therefore is: was the Libro Rosso, or a copy, at one stage held at Metéora? First of all: a connection between Solomon and the labyrinth is rare and interesting. The only appearance seems to be within the pages of the Libro Rosso, and hence people writing about this connection, should be considered to have had knowledge of or exposure to the Libro Rosso.
Outside of the Libro Rosso, there are only two sources that link Solomon to the invention of the labyrinth, and one of them is a Greek manuscript from the 11th century. The poem in Greek goes:
The Labyrinth that Solomon built When you hear of a labyrinth, stranger,
That Solomon moulded from his intellect and built with stones set in an arc:
Copy its structure, shape, and diversity
True to scale, using strokes of dark ink,
And, in so doing, observe the innumerable turns,
Namely the perfectly round paths that lead from the inside to the outside
And then curve in an arc back to the inside again,
And see it as the circular path of life,
Demonstrated by the slipperiness of the dangerous twists and turns,
[which emerge] from the round, circular bends;
For life’s path turns little by little –
Like a dragon, with his evil wriggling movements –
Seemingly creeping forward imperceptibly.
The labyrinth has a crooked gate through which it is difficult t gain entrance:
As far as you travelled, hurrying from the outside to the inside,
You will then have to travel through the narrow, winding, misleading paths
[from] the inside to the depths of the egress;
Day by day it bewitches you with its paths to the outside,
And mockingly it plays its game with you
With the turns of [vain] hope,
Like a dram with its blank faces,
Until Cronos, the prime mover, slowly vanishes
And, alas, that dark worker, Death, receives you,
Who dashes your chances of ever reaching the egress.
Experts accept that interesting documents were present in Metéora and that the presence of this labyrinth is more than interesting. Can we go “beyond the books”, as McGowan calls her research? The Libro Rosso is, as mentioned, a reference to the Gospel Jesus himself was said to have written down. Well, in Metéora, there are a number of depictions of Jesus showing an open – red – book to the visitor. Coincidence, one might argue, as there are only a few basic colours with which the artists could play. But wait. McGowan has also clearly argued that the design on this Red Book is a diamond. When we therefore turn to the wall paintings in Metéora, in a depiction of St Nicholas, we find the saint holding a red book… with a diamond on the cover. This is “beyond coincidence”, for sure.
Inside the same church, there is a painting of Solomon, depicted as a prophet. But the most interesting wall painting is in the Roussano monastery. Officially labelled “Preparation for the Throne” and linked with the Apocalypse, what we find is an altar into which elements of the True Cross and the Passion are incorporated. The altar is clearly not a throne, yet it is meant to represent a throne, ready for Christ’s Second Coming. But rather than Christ seated as king, which is the normal iconography, we find… a red book. Even more interesting is that beneath is a small pedestal, on top of which sits a jar. The jar in this setting is typically related to Mary Magdalene, the person whom took the Book of Love with her to Alexandria, where Philip copied it.
Another “hint” that someone at Metéora was aware of the existence of the Libro Rosso, is when they depicted two nails for Christ’s feet. For a majority of the Church’s history, most artists depicted Christ as crucified with nails through the palms of the hand and one nail for both feet. It is now known that this is historically inaccurate, and that the nails went through the wrists, and that there was one nail for each foot. Such details could be found, however, in the Libro Rosso, as apart from the words of Jesus himself, there were also eyewitness accounts of those who had witnessed the Crucifixion – and who therefore would know such things. Sure, enough though many of the paintings in Metéora have just one nail for the feet, there are some with two, like in the katholikon of Great Metéora. The important question is therefore whether the Libro Rosso came to Metéora? At this moment in time, it is impossible to answer this definitely, but what we do know, is this: throughout its history, the Libro Rosso was sought after. Those who held it, largely possessed enough power to sway the Vatican into doing what they wanted. Often those families who possessed it, ended up holding the highest office – the papacy. If not, normally, those possessing it were persecuted, and had to hide.
And the one aspect for which Metéora is famous for, is the fact that hiding here was easy. Until recently, the only access was through a system of ropes and ladders, a task that even has 007 think twice. No-one entered Metéora by accident and whomever was inside, was safe from any persecutor. In short, ideal circumstances for hidden or dangerous knowledge to be gathered here. And that this scenario is factual, is shown by those who have studied the history of the labyrinth and how one came to be painted on a wall here. It is no coincidence. Even the academics adhere to how it must have been derived from “alchemical” – read “heretical” – knowledge. Which is known to have been present inside the libraries of these monasteries. The one question that remains, and which may never be proven, is whether the greatest heretical book of all, the Book of Love, was one of them. The evidence for it, is quite literally present in the writing on the walls… of the monasteries. And when they are reanalysed with the knowledge of the Libro Rosso in mind, further clues to do with Christianity’s most controversial document might rise to the surface.