September 1, 2015

Synaxis of Panagia Pammakaristos in Constantinople

Panagia Pammakaristos (Feast Day - September 1)

The famous Byzantine Church of Panagia Pammakaristos, where the Patriarchate was sheltered after the Fall of Constantinople - notably from 1456 to 1587 - had the great privilege to possess one of the most important portable mosaic icons, that of the Panagia Pammakaristos. Stephen Gerlach, who visited the Patriarchate in 1578 when it was established in the Monastery of the Pammakaristos, mentions the icon and gives a description in Martin Crusius's Turco-Graecia. Manuel Malaxus, who published his Historia Patriarchica up to 1581 in the above-mentioned historical edition, writes: "... and on the right side (of the templon), the icon of the Most Holy Theotokos Pammakaristos, of great beauty and splendor." When the Church of the Pammakaristos was converted into a mosque - the Fethiye Camii - "this historic icon was among the relics and treasures transported from church to church" (M. Gedeon) during the Patriarchate's wanderings in search of a shelter.

After the Patriarchate's final installation at the Phanar, the mosaic icon of Panagia Pammakaristos was set up in a special place of the templon in the south aisle of the Patriarchal Church of Saint George. Much later, in 1798, the Patriarch Gregory V converted this aisle into a parecclesion (side-chapel) honoring the Holy Virgin by reason of the icon of the Pammakaristos, which has retained to this day its original place in the iconostasis.

In 1933, during the patriarchy of Photios II (1929-1936), who was greatly interested in the letters and arts, George Soteriou, the renowned Professor of Christian and Byzantine Archaeology in the University of Athens and Director of the Byzantine Museum of Athens, was invited to Constantinople. Acting on the Patriarch's instructions, Soteriou listed "one hundred and thirty-five old portable icons belonging to churches and monasteries in Constantinople, its environs and islands, many of which very important because of their antiquity and artistic quality. Unfortunately, only a few of these icons were transported to the Patriarchate...." The mosaic icon of the Panagia Pammakaristos and that of St. John the Baptist were consolidated, cleaned and restored with some daring by the artist K. Vasmatzidis, as the Academy of Athens was officially informed by Soteriou in 1933.

The Virgin is portrayed in the established iconographic type of the Hodegetria. A dark red omophorion adorned with a gold border and gold stars covers the head and shoulders. The face is oval, with large almond eyes, marked eyebrows, straight nose and small mouth. The light and shade effects on the cheeks and the round chin, the red hues under the eyes, enhance the modelling of the face and disclose affinities with the classicizing forms of the post-Iconoclast period, predominant in the so-called Macedonian and Comnenian art. With the right hand the Virgin "points" towards her Son whom she holds in the left arm. Comfortably sitting on His Mother's arm, Christ is dressed in a brown-red tunic highlighted with gold streaks. With the right hand He makes the sign of blessing towards the Virgin and in the left He holds a rolled-up scroll. His face, with pronounced features, lively eyes and a wide forehead crowned with sparse hair, is turned towards the Holy Mother of God, who gazes at the onlooker, indicating with her gesture the Savior of the World.

In this way a close spiritual connection is established between the Virgin, the Christ Child and the worshipper - a silent communication of the devout Christian with Panagia Pammakaristos, the All-Blessed one, interceding between man and God. The participation of the heavenly powers is denoted by the presence of the angel depicted in a medallion in the upper right-hand corner. The dark-gold color of the Virgin's and Christ's halos harmonizes well with the gold reflections of the garments and the light-gold background of the composition.

Despite the damages the icon has suffered and the occasional repairs, not all of them successful, the delicate workmanship, careful combination of warm colors, simple unaffected drawing and, above all, the profound spirituality of expression point to the great art of the 10th and 11th centuries. The serious, composed, pensive and wistful countenance of the Holy Virgin with the almost human expression and classic form suggests rather the mid-llth century, particularly the trends developed in the late years of the Macedonian dynasty. "There was at this time a new blossoming of intellectual activity in Byzantium" (Ostrogorsky) with men of great learning, like Constantine Lichoudes, Michael Psellus, John Xiphilinus, John Mauropus et al.

It may therefore be maintained that the famous icon, which had been the most venerated and prized possession of the Church of Panagia Pammakaristos, is to this day one of the rarest and finest surviving examples of the great tradition of Byzantine art.