August 13, 2015

Holy Empress Irene of Constantinople, Who Was Renamed Xene as a Monastic

St. Irene of Constantinople (Feast Day - August 13)


The Pantocrator gave you a Monastery above,
Having built Him the same Monastery below.

Irene, who was born with the name Piroska, was the beautiful and virtuous daughter of King Ladislas I of Hungary (1040-1095). Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118) and his second consort, Irene Doukaina, sought a bride for their son, John II Komnenos (also known as Kalo-John), and found a perfect candidate in Irene of Hungary. Irene was described as having sandy hair that cascaded over her shoulders and framed a serene face. Following her conversion to the Orthodox Church and settlement in Constantinople, Piroska was renamed Irene. Their union was the cause of general delight and rejoicing, and produced eight children, four males and four females.

After a while, Irene understood that the glories of this world are fleeting, and she devoted her time to the worship of God and continuous help of the poor and needy. Whatever she had, she lavishly distributed among those in need, rejoicing in giving more than receiving.

The Holy Empress is described as meek and humble, easily approachable, gracious, helpful and long-suffering. Her smile was modest, and she mourned penitentially for her shortcomings. She lived as an ascetic in the palace, mastering self-control and eating little and plain foods, disdaining imperial pomp.

Pantocrator Monastery

Empress Irene built the Monastery of the Pantocrator, nearby the Church of the Holy Apostles, in Constantinople, with its surrounding hospital, hostels and old-age homes. Niketas Choniates comments that she zealously worked for the completion of her building projects, "neither giving sleep to her eyes nor rest to her temples until she found a place for the Lord" (Ps. 131:4-5).

Because she required enormous financial assistance for her projects, she took her husband Emperor John by hand into the church of the Monastery, and falling prostrate before him, she said weeping, "Accept, O Master, the God-built temple by your grace." The Emperor thus pledged whatever she required and desired to complete her projects. He also gave the Monastery its name, hoping that it would surpass every monastery of the City. The Empress, relieved that her projects would be completed and maintained, rejoiced.

It was not long until Empress Irene took on the monastic schema, receiving the name Xene. She spent her final years in Bithynia. There she reposed in peace at an early age on 13 August 1134, and her sacred relics were transferred to the Monastery she built in Constantinople. This Monastery, according to the promise of Emperor John, increased and expanded until it became the foremost monastery of Constantinople.

On April 8, 1143 Emperor John died in a hunting accident, when he scratched his hand on a poisoned arrow. His relics were also interred in the Monastery of Pantocrator, which he participated in splendidly adorning. In Hagia Sophia John and Irene are depicted in a mosaic standing on either side of the Virgin and Christ Child, adorned splendidly and showing that they were great benefactors to the Church.