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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Treasures of icon painters from Mount Athos

A sacristy gallery has been opened at the House with a Spire, a historic building located in downtown Kyiv near the Golden Gate
23 April, 2014 - 17:17

Icons are now present not just in churches. For example, the sacristy gallery is now showing copies of miraculous icons from Mount Athos. Visitors can see the most famous images – Our Lady as Mother Superior of Mount Athos, It Is Truly Meet/Our Lady of Mercy, Our Lady of Iveria, Our Lady of Joy and Consolation, Our Lady of Sweet Kiss, Our Lady of Three Hands, Archangel Michael, Saint Nicholas the Miracle-Worker, Saint George the Victory-Bearer...

Amazing miraculous properties of holy images and their high artistic level are closely connected with the traditions of iconography existing on Mount Athos. As related by ancient manuscript sources, Athos painters diligently prayed and fasted, ate only on Saturdays and Sundays, celebrated divine liturgy daily and all-night vigil twice a week.

The very seclusion of monasteries on Mount Athos naturally protects it from the outside influences, making it into an autonomous region, where the monks have lived under elected self-governing authorities for a thousand years. Therefore, Athos may rightly be called a monastic republic. According to the latest census, there are about 1,700 monks there. Of the 20 monasteries of Mount Athos, 17 are Greek, one Russian (Saint Panteleimon’s), one Bulgarian (Zograph) and one Serbian (Chilandar). Monks live according to the Julian calendar and the Byzantine time, which is determined according to the ancient custom: clocks are set at midnight every Saturday at sunset, and so a new day begins.

The Holy Mountain has been the arena for spiritual achievements of thousands of monks. It is no coincidence that the Orthodox tradition reveres Athos as earthly domain of Our Lady. Iconographic tradition originated there a very long time ago. The local monasteries have very rich holdings of Byzantine and post-Byzantine iconography, with earliest images dating back to the 11th century. These icons allow one to trace the history of iconography on Mount Athos and in the whole of Greece.

Let us recall that in the 13th and 14th centuries, icon painting was dominated by masters of the Macedonian school, centered in Thessaloniki. Characteristically, even after the fall of Constantinople and the imposition of ban on icon painting, Athos painters never stopped their work. From the 15th to the 17th century, Crete was the center of icon painting, building on its traditions of ascetically restrained iconography. The leading master of this school was Theophane Strilitsas from Heraklion, who painted the Church of Great Lavra and the Stavronikita Monastery on Mount Athos. In the 18th century, Greek iconography exhibited two trends: a return to the traditions of the Byzantine Empire and the emergence of the Epirote school. Russian masters came there later, in the 19th century, and began to paint icons in an Academic style, while the early 20th century saw coming to the fore of the folk icon tradition, displaying a noticeable influence of folklore Balkan motives.

Icons shown now in the sacristy gallery were painted in the Saint Nicholas Belozyorka Cell, widely known for its resident painters. The masters create identical copies of famous miraculous images, and each of them involves a story of its own.

We may well begin our story with the icon of Our Lady which is called Glykophilousa, meaning “of Sweet Kiss” in Greek. According to legend, this image was painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist. During the reign of emperor Theophilus the Iconoclast in the 9th century, a pious woman, the wife of patrician Symeon, kept this icon in her room even at risk for her very life. The husband demanded that she burn the icon, but the woman chose to put it into the sea... Some time later, the icon miraculously appeared on the shore before Saint Philotheou Monastery on Mount Athos. Abbot and brethren brought it to the cathedral church. A yearly procession to the place of the icon’s appearance has been held ever since on Easter Monday.

The icon of Archangel Michael is associated with a legend of the holy spring. There was a church of Archangel Michael in Cherotopa area, built by one of the residents of the city of Laodicea to thank God and Holy Archangel Michael for his mute daughter’s cure after she drank water from the holy spring at the shrine’s location. However, the pagans wanted to destroy the shrine. They put two mountain rivers into one canal and directed it at the shrine. Through the prayer of Saint Archippus, Archangel Michael appeared near the shrine and opened a wide cleft in the mountain with his staff, ordering the raging stream’s waters to flow into it. The miracle’s site was named Chonae, which means “hole” or “cleft.”

The icon of Saint George the Victory-Bearer miraculously appeared in Zograph Monastery on Mount Athos from Saint Penuel’s Monastery. There were three brothers on Mount Athos, Moses, Aaron and John, relatives of Justinian the Great, who decided to leave the world and settled in a hermitage near the present-day Zograph Monastery. They had a church erected there, but did not know what saint to dedicate it to, and asked God for advice in prayer. They had been at prayer through the night, and in the morning, when they came together at the shrine, they were surprised to see the face of Saint George on a prepared board, from which emanated a heavenly glow. They realized that the Lord answered their prayer and revealed the image of the saint in whose honor the church should be built.

The icon of Saint Nicholas the Miracle-Worker is one of the most revered throughout the Orthodox world. He is known as a helper and protector from disease. In 1087, when threatened with a Muslim invasion, the relics of Saint Nicholas were transferred to the Italian town of Bari, where they have been kept ever since. An Athos cathedral was dedicated to Saint Nicholas, and the miraculous icon of Saint Nicholas of the Oyster stands in the cathedral near the right choir column, with traces of the shell that once stuck to it still visible on the icon. The tradition has it that this icon, made as a mosaic, was thrown into the sea. It is unknown how long it was there, but finding it was a miracle. Fishermen threw a net into the sea on the eve of the Stavronikita Monastery’s reconstruction, and, instead of fish, had a priceless catch – an icon of Saint Nicholas! A shell stuck to it, which people very carefully tried to separate from the miraculous image, but could not. The damage is still visible on the icon.

All sacred images are intended to strengthen faith and send us consolation and assistance. By the way, the gallery is open around the clock, selling spiritual literature and small Greek icons, offering a lecture of Holy Fathers on the faith, and allowing one to order a prayer service. Admission is free. The exhibition “Miracle-Working Icons of Mount Athos” is a program of the Living Spring Foundation, opened with the assistance and blessing of His Beatitude Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine Volodymyr.

Olena Shapiro is an art historian                                    

By Olena SHAPIRO. Photo illustration courtesy of the press service of the sacristy gallery