August 21, 2016

The Veneration of the Panagia on the Island of Santorini

Church of Panagia Episkopi in Santorini

By Archimandrite Theophylaktos Marinakis

Barren Santorini proves to be fertile in faith, in churches, in monasteries and chapels.

Regarding the worship, honor and love of the residents of the island, we have received valuable information from the chronicle of the Frenchman Francois Richard, in a publication of his from Paris in 1657, titled Relation de l'Isle de Sant-erini. The traveler, after first referring to the numerous churches of the island, expressing his admiration for the Greek resistance to the Ottoman tyranny and their unbending perseverance in the Christian faith.

He writes:

"As for the churches, there are some 300 (for every 20 residents of Santorini there is a church). One of the main churches is Our Lady of Episkopi, which, according to the people, was built by Alexios Komnenos (1081-1118)."

The same traveler further writes:

"Many times I wonder, how did the Christian faith manage to survive in Turkey and how are there 1,200,000 Orthodox in Greece. And one should keep in mind that never, from the reign of Nero, Dometian and Diocletian has Christianity suffered persecutions harder than what is faced today by the Eastern Church. Under Nero many Christians had the courage to die bravely for their faith on the wheel, at the gallows and at the stake. The blood of a martyr was good seed, which created millions of Christians."

Richard continues:

"The fervor of adoration by the people of the Cyclades to Our Lady is marked with emotion, with faith and hope, deep reverence and sacred terror towards her icon and name. And yet the Greeks are happy, those who remain Orthodox. I think this is due to the adoration they nourish for Our Lady. This adoration of the people of Santorini towards the Mother of God is seen everywhere: in their homes, in their churches, in their prayers, in their words and in their actions. It is so great, that sometimes you dare say it degenerates into superstition.

In all the houses you see icons of Our Lady. She is the best guardian and the housewife of the home. To this icon their gaze turns when something bad happens, and they beg for her help. They address her to thank God, so that through her mediation something good could come to their home. To her are entreaties and prayers made. I discovered with how much naturalness, how much eloquence and emotion families talk about the Queen of Heaven. When they want to confirm something, they take off their head coverings, turn their gaze towards her icon and make a vow, but without pronouncing, out of respect, the name of Our Lady. Oh what grace she has.

And if they happen to touch her icon with their hands, having first kissed it, this means they must believe, because they took their greatest vow and should not expect anything. And because they believe that if they put their hand on the icon they disrespected it, when they confess, they take care to say with remorse and contrition: 'I put my hand on the icon of Our Lady.'

At all times in the churches, even those that do not bear her name, there is always a beautiful icon of Our Lady. And everyone venerates it as they enter the church. Having completed their prayers they then kiss it. On Saturday night towards Sunday there is always a burning vigil light before the icon of Our Lady.

It is difficult to mention here all the praises, all the honorable names the Greeks give to Our Lady. Those who harbor doubts about this or are ignorant of it, I refer you to their books which are flooded with hymns and have such beauty, tenderness and loftiness that you are glad to hear them and even more glad to recite them."1

He goes on:

"You know the Orthodox Greeks fast forty days before Christmas and fifteen days before the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. I will tell you now that in the Aegean islands and especially in Santorini many Orthodox Greeks will pass the holy fortnight without meat and without wine. I spoke with many islanders who were nourished only with fruit and water, without stopping their hard work even for a moment, like ascetics.

These fine examples of virtue alone will bring confusion to many delicate Christians, who daily chant the angelic greeting and believe they are good and faithful servants of Our Lady although they make no effort to master the root of their desires or put a stop to their gluttony. But if the Greeks are commendable for their self-control, they are not any less in the generosity in their alms 'to her grace.'

Incredible are the number of churches to Our Lady in Greece. On the small island of Santorini there are over fifty. In all these churches during official celebrations, and often after Vespers and the Liturgy, the poor will find something to dine on. Sometimes they lay out a table and they are taken care of, at worst distributing bread and wine, each as they are able. Then, rarely do they attempt a journey and rarely do they undertake an important matter without offering something to Our Lady: oil, candles, incense, or an ornament for her church. Few Greeks die without bequeathing something to the church of Our Lady, one a vine, another field...."

Icon of Panagia Episkopi

Andreas Nomikos similarly writes of the love and faith of the people of Santorini for the Panagia:

"It is not only the icons of the Panagia - one or many - that adorn each church of our country and cause the reverence and veneration of our people. Also in every house, on the iconostasi, next to the icons of the family with the names of the parents and their children (behind each icon, as a status record, the parent records the date the child was born), there is necessarily one or more icons of the Panagia, to protect the family, exorcise all evil from the home, and for those who dwell therein to flee to the grace of the Panagia in times of need in their lives, the lord of the house and the housewife and even the children: 'Help, my Panagia!' Then in the churches and chapels, we meet courteous old ladies stooped over, unable to even drag their feet, but who are full of faith and devotion; with a bottle of oil in hand, they leave their village and climb up the mountain, hiking along the seashore, to arrive at the chapel of the Panagia, and venerate her grace. The chapel is far, along a rough and weary road, and bumpy. But faith lends its wings to the tired and weak legs and the old ill body resists. The power of the Panagia is completely manifested. The old lady arrives distressed, sweaty, dusty and wet to the chapel. She cleans and lights the oil lamps, she lights incense, does prostrations - where does she find such strength? such flexibility? - crosses herself and prays. Her soul becomes unburdened. Relieved she returns to her little home. She payed her religious debt, repayed her vow - for her son who is traveling, for her daughter who is sick, she did forgiveness for the soul of her husband who has been dead many years.

The same with the young mothers, whose children are sick and feeble, they flee to the Panagia Glykogalousa, for she also is a mother and knows about suffering, bitterness, as well as joys, given with the acquisition and rearing of a child. And just as among people the young mother, if she is ignorant of a matter, will consult with a veteran mother, the same now, in her difficult situation, in her despair, who will help her? The other Mother, the Mother of our God Jesus. Therefore she supplicates, lights her lamp, falls on her knees, weeps, beats herself, kisses her holy icon and offers to her grace a ring, her engagement ring, a silver effigy of a child, her child, with tears hanging it on the icon of the Panagia. How many such offerings adorn the icons of the Panagia, in the churches and chapels?"

Elsewhere the author writes:

"In our land, the great feast of the Panagia, a feast reverenced by all Greeks and unique, we would say, in its devoutness and celebration, is the Fifteenth of August, when the Dormition of the Theotokos is celebrated. This sacred festival Orthodox Christians, especially on the Greek islands, honor it with special preparations in a cycle of events, such as strict fasting, ecclesiastical supplications and vigils, in order to arrive at the grand and all devout celebration of the feast of the Dormition of the Panagia. So deep, indeed, is the respect of the Greek people in the celebration of the Fifteenth of August, that it has been given the nickname 'Holy Fifteenth of August'" (as well as "Summer Pascha").

Pyrgos, Santorini

Customs of the Fifteenth of August in Pyrgos

In the cycle of Christian customs for the Fifteenth of August in Santorini, we will mention here what interesting things Nomikos said took place in Pyrgos of Santorini.

"In the Castle, the fortress of the village - where the village once was and the inhabitants were closed in with a heavy iron door, to guard them against pirate attacks - there is preserved a chapel, an old Byzantine structure that the islanders called 'Theotokaki' [a 10th century chapel dedicated to the Dormition]. Here, in the days of the fifteen days of August, were concentrated the care and devotion of the people of the whole village, because here was the 'Tomb of the Panagia,' that is, a depiction of the Panagia on her funeral bed. Below the icon of the Panagia, beneath the iconostasis, at her 'feet,' they have made an old compartment, which is secured with locks throughout the year. Therefore, on the first of August, the women go to the Theotokaki, and they sweep it, they clean it, and they paint the walls white - a big preparation. Meanwhile the priest opens the compartment, and the women take out the bedding interwoven with gold and place it before the icon of the Dormition of the Panagia.

One by one, the women of Pyrgos, from their homes bring a lamp to this chapel - in the olden days, they brought a deep water glass in order to hold more oil. They place them on low tables, before the icon of the Panagia, and they light them. And throughout the Fifteenth of August, even until August 23rd, when the 'apodosis' of the Dormition is celebrated, the so-called 'Novena of the Panagia,' they will take care so that the lamps remain lit, for the health of their household. And they bring also and decorate each day the Panagia with all kinds of flowers, from basil scented hyacinths [the icon was unfortunately stolen in 1983]."

Chapel of Theotokaki

The Epitaphios of the Panagia of the Castle

"Special also is the custom which takes place in the great Church of the Panagia of the Castle. The women of this church bring down a big carved kouvouklion in the shape of a chapel for the epitaphios, which is the same used on Great Friday. They completely adorn it with flowers from the courtyard and countryside. Inside they place silk embroidery and bedding interwoven with gold, and the priest brings from the sanctuary the wooden painted likeness of the reposed Panagia, and he reverently places it in the epitaphios. Thus, when visitors come even today to Pyrgos of Santorini on this festive day, they are surprised to see the epitaphios, as if it is Great Friday.

This custom is known and celebrated in other parts of Greece, especially the islands, such as Tinos, Paxos, Skiathos, Samos, Kimolos and elsewhere. In the Byzantine Museum of Athens there is even preserved a wonderful woodcut epitaphios from Kimolos, depicting scenes from the life of the Panagia, which had been specially painted for the feast of the Dormition.2


1. Σιμόπουλος Κυρ., Ξένοι Ταξιδιῶτες στὴν Ἑλλάδα 333 μ. Χριστόν-1700, Β΄ ἔκδοση, Ἀθήνα 1972, τόμ. Α΄, σ. 527-530, ἔνθα μεγάλος ἀριθμὸς προσωνυμιῶν τῆς Παναγίας.

2. Νομικοῦ Ἀνδρ., Ἔθιμα τοῦ Δεκαπενταύγουστου στὰ χωριὰ τῆς Σαντορίνης (Ὁ ἐπιτάφιος τῆς Παναγίας), «Ἑλληνικὴ Λαϊκὴ Τέχνη», ἐκδ. ΕΟΕΧ, ἀρ. 8/1972, σ. 199 κ.ἑ.

Source: From Peraiki Ekklesia, July - August 2013. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.