December 3, 2009

The Miraculous Icon of Panagia Gerontissa

The Holy and Miraculous Icon of the Panagia Gerontissa is found in the Holy Monastery Pantokratoros on Mount Athos and is the only traditional icon depicting her full-bodied and alone. The Monastery was founded about 1357 by Alexios the Stratopedarch and John the Primikerios, and completed in 1363. They are buried at the Monastery. Their Monastery was built on the ruins of the Monastery of Pantokratoros that had been plundered by pirates during the years of Frankish occupation after the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204.

Tradition says that the icon now known as Panagia Gerontissa was given to the Pantokratoros Monastery as a gift of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos in the 11th century. It is a copy of the famous icon of Panagia Gorgoepikoos originally found in the Holy Monastery of Pantokratoros in Constantinople, which was built by the same emperor.

According to the Monastery’s traditions, this icon was brought from Constantinople by the founders, Alexios and John, when they came to the Holy Mountain with the purpose of establishing a monastery. They put it in the place they had selected for building the monastery and work began. However, the next morning they found the icon at the place where the monastery stands today. They took it back to its initial location and resumed work. However, the next day the icon was again found at the present location of the monastery. After the miracle was repeated for a third time, the founders began to build on the site that Our Lady the Theotokos had selected. The initial position the founders had chosen is identified with that of the Chapel of St Athanasius the Great approximately 500 metres north-west of the Monastery.

Below is the "Narration of the Miracle-Working Icon of the Mother of God Named Gerontissa" taken verbatim from the book Anotera Episkiasis epi tou Atho (Athos: in the Shadow of Heaven) published in Constantinople in 1861:

This icon stands today inside the katholikon against the east column of the left choir. In earlier days it was placed inside the sanctuary.

In this monastery there once lived a virtuous old abbot who fell sick shortly before his repose, and who knew by revelation the time of it. As he ardently desired to be worthy of and receive the Holy and Life-Giving Communion, the flesh and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ before his departure to eternity, he asked the officiating priest-monk to hasten the end of the Service, but the priest would not respect his abbot’s request and continued to perform the Service at a slow pace. Suddenly he heard a threatening voice coming from this icon of the Mother of God standing in the sanctuary, ordering him to do as the abbot wished. Owing to this miracle the icon was given the symbolic name Gerontissa (‘the Elderess’ or 'the Abbess', since the miracle involved the abbot, or elder, of the Monastery).

In this silver-covered icon, which has been refurbished, the Theotokos is depicted full-length. The jar depicted in relief on the silver cover of the icon was added there in memory of another miracle. On a certain day and while the abbot was praying in front of the icon, the empty oil jars of the monastery were suddenly found filled with olive oil in a miraculous way.

At the time the Saracen pirates raided this Holy Monastery, they threw this sacred icon into a nearby well. At a later time it was found in there following the instructions of a relative of one of those Saracens who had been stricken blind for his impudence and folly. This reckless barbarian, being contemptuous of this sacred item of the Christians, had attempted to cut it into pieces so that he could light his pipe with one of its fragments, but at that same moment he lost his sight because of his audacity and so the icon remained in the well for more than eighty years.

Nevertheless this justly-punished barbarian, when he found himself at death’s door, being in agony and repenting for his impudence, and in the hope of receiving some relief and comfort from his afflictions in return for his repentance, ordered his servants that they must go to Mount Athos, even after his death, and recover there the icon he and his companions had thrown into the well. Therefore the relatives of the repenting barbarian, obedient to his will, came to Mount Athos, indicated the place where this sacred icon had been thrown, and recovered it in honour. This is the tradition maintained in the monastery about this miracle-working icon.

The silver covering of the icon was made in Moscow in 1874 and according to tradition it is a votive offering of a prominent lady from Constantinople in response to a demand from the Blessed Virgin Mary who asked her to offer it. The anthivolon (tracing of the icon) sent to Moscow in order for it to be made is still preserved.

Right beside the marble one on the south side, there is another icon stand where the icons of the saints celebrated each day are placed in turn. This icon stand, dedicated by Priest-monk Anthimos from Sifnos in 1716, is ornamented with inlaid ivory, mother of pearl and carapace, a classic example of the decorative arts of the Eastern Mediterranean at that time.

It should be noted that the presence of the Gerontissa on this large icon (1.96m x 0.76m) of the nave is indeed very commanding as the Theotokos is portrayed full-length, facing slightly to the right in the Hagiosoritissa posture.

The Feast Day for the icon of Panagia Gerontissa is celebrated on December 2 annually. This date commemorates a miracle which occurred on the night of December 1 in 1948 when the Monastery was saved from a fire through the miraculous intervention of the Panagia. Because of this the icon also came to be known as "Pyrosoteira" ("Rescuer from Fire"), which was celebrated the following day on December 2.

Countless miracles are attributed to the Panagia Gerontissa.