January 12, 2014

Synaxis of Panagia Mesopanditissa of Crete

Panagia Mesopanditissa (Feast Day - January 13)

By John Sanidopoulos

The sacred icon of Panagia Mesopanditissa (Mediator of All) was brought to Crete from Constantinople during the years of iconoclasm, to be saved from the wicked fury of the iconoclasts. According to tradition, it was painted by Luke the Evangelist.

During the period of Venetian rule in Crete, it was kept in the Church of the Holy Apostle Titus in Candia (Heraklion), and it became a symbol of mutual love and brotherhood between the Venetians and Cretans. The Venetians had occupied this church while the Orthodox established Our Lady of the Angels (known as "Mikri Panagia" or "Small Panagia") outside the city walls. The sacred icon became so venerated by Catholics that Pope Innocent III declared in 1209 that whoever traveled to Crete to venerate this icon and the Apostle Titus would receive the remission of their sins. It was also known as miraculous, with a duke of Crete reporting how a crippled soldier from Milan was healed in the late 16th century.

Every Tuesday and Major Feast a procession was made with the icon by the pious Christians as a sign of mutual peace. This is attested to by the traveler Wolfgang Stockmann (1606) who reported that the icon was carried once a week by Orthodox and Catholic Christians from the Church of Saint Titus to the Church of our Lady of the Angels, then returned again. He also notes that every summer Orthodox and Catholics would carry the icon to the Monastery of the Savior, where prayers were offered to bring rain.

During the Cretan War the processions took place not only every Tuesday, but every Saturday. When Handakas was conquered by the Ottomans, the Venetians received the venerable icon of the Panagia and moved it to Venice in 1669, where they placed it in the Church of Santa Maria della Salute. It is kept there until today.

A copy of the original sacred icon can be found in the Sacred Church of the Holy Apostle Titus in Heraklion, where the feast of the Synaxis is kept annually on January 13th.

Santa Maria della Salute (Saint Mary of Health) is one of the jewels of Venice. Baldassare Longhena was 32 years old when he won a competition in 1631 to design a shrine honoring the Virgin Mary for saving Venice from a plague that in the space of two years (1629-30) killed 47,000 residents, or one-third the population of the city. Outside, this ornate white Istrian stone octagon is topped by a colossal cupola with snail-like ornamental buttresses and a baroque facade; inside are a polychrome marble floor and six chapels.

The original sacred icon of Panagia Mesopanditissa is above the main altar and has been venerated by the locals as the Madonna della Salute (Madonna of Health) since 1670, when Francesco Morosini brought the icon and other holy relics like the Skull of Saint Titus to Venice from Crete. It is noteworthy that the Panagia Mesopanditissa is depicted on the banner of Francesco Morosini, who was the last defender of Kastro at the time of the Cretan War and later Doge of Venice.

In 1630 it was decided that the Senate would visit the church each year. On November 21, the Feast of the Entrance of the Virgin, known as the Festa della Madonna della Salute, the city's officials parade from San Marco to the Salute for a service in gratitude for deliverance from the plague. This involves crossing the Grand Canal on a specially constructed pontoon bridge and is still a major event in Venice.

The statuary group at the high altar, depicting the Queen of Heaven Expelling the Plague (1670) is a theatrical Baroque masterpiece by the Flemish sculptor Josse de Corte. On the left, the city of Venice (as usual, represented as a beautiful and wealthy woman) kneels to implore mercy and deliverance from the plague. In the center, the Virgin Mary, holding Jesus, makes a gracious gesture of assent. On the right, a cherub uses a torch to drive away the Plague, shown as a hideous hag, fleeing.

Read more about the icon and the Cretan War here (Greek).