June 20, 2019

A Miracle That Took Place Every Tuesday in Constantinople

The most famous and revered icon in Constantinople was the depiction of the Theotokos as the Hodegetria. This was a full-bodied image of the Mother of God holding the Christ Child in her arms. According to tradition it was the first icon painted by the Apostle Luke. It was said to have been brought to Constantinople from the Holy Land by Eudocia, the wife of Emperor Theodosius II (408–450). It was displayed in the Monastery of the Panagia Hodegetria in Constantinople (otherwise known as Hodegon Monastery), which was built specially to contain it. The icon was double-sided, with a crucifixion scene on the other side. For hundreds of years it played a role of a palladium of the Roman Empire. It is widely believed that the icon was destroyed when the Ottomans invaded Constantinople in 1453, though some Russians and Italians claim to have the original.

This most venerated Hodegetria icon performed a regular miracle, which happened every Tuesday on the square in front of the Hodegon Monastery in the center of the capital of the Roman Empire, not far from the Great Palace and Hagia Sophia. Pilgrims and travelers of the eleventh to fifteenth century from various countries have informed us in detail about this miraculous per­formance. They have left their written records about the Tuesday rite in Greek, Latin, Old Russian, and Old Spanish, presenting different perceptions of the same event.

First of all, it should be noted that the Tuesday rite consisted of two differ­ent events. One of them was a procession through the city stopping at dif­ferent churches depending on the particular day. According to some late Byzantine sources, the Hodegetria shrine and the procession with the miraculous icon on Tuesdays were established by the Empress Pulcheria in the fifth century. In the fourteenth century the tradition was already widely accepted and included in the official ecclesiastical history. Yet there are no historical testimonies to confirm this tradition.

A fairly detailed description of this rite has been given to us by Pero Tafur, a Spanish traveler, who visited Constantinople in 1437. With this account we are able to see the Tuesday rite through the eyes of a lay representative of the Western world in the Renaissance period. In chapter 17 of his travels, Tafur writes about the miraculous performance with the Hodegetria icon:

The next day I went to the church of St. Mary, where the body of Constantine is buried. In this church is a picture of Our Lady the Virgin, made by St. Luke, and on the other side is Our Lord crucified. It is painted on stone, and with the frame and stand it weighs, they say, several hundredweight. So heavy is it as a whole that six men cannot lift it. Every Tuesday some twenty men come there, clad in long red linen draperies which cover the head like a stalking-dress. These men come of a special lineage, and by them alone can that office be filled. There is a great procession, and the men who are so clad go one by one to the picture, and he whom it is pleased with takes it up as easily as if it weighed only an ounce. The bearer then places it [the icon] on his shoulder, and they go singing out of the church to a great square, where he who carries the picture walks with it from one end to the other, and fifty times round the square. By fixing one's eyes up on the picture, it appears to be raised high above the ground and completely transfigured. When it is set down again, another comes and takes it up and puts it likewise on his shoul­der, and then another, and in that manner some four or five of them pass the day. There is a market in the square on that day, and a great crowd as­sembles, and the clergy take cotton­wool and touch the picture and distrib­ute it among the people who are there, and then, still in procession, they take it back to its place. While I was at Constantinople I did not miss a single day when this picture was exhibited, since it is certainly a great marvel.

Another detailed testimony comes to us in the mid-fourteenth-century Russian "Pilgrim Book" of Stephen of Novgorod. In all principal features it coincides with Tafur's evidence. This experienced Orthodox pilgrim em­phasized the liturgical elements of the rite and its iconic imagery. He records:

The icon is very large and highly ornamented, and they sing a very beautiful chant in front of it, while all the people cry out with tears: "Kyrie eleison" [Lord have mercy]. They place [the icon] on the shoulders of one man who is standing upright, and he stretches out his arms as if [being] crucified, and then they bind up his eyes. It is terrible to see how it [the icon] pushes him this way and that around the monastery enclosure, and how forcefully it turns him about, for he does not understand where the icon is taking him. Then another takes over the same way, and then a third and fourth take over that way, and they sing a long chant with the canonarchs while the people cry with tears, "Lord have mercy." Two deacons carry the flabella in front of the icon, and others the canopy. A marvellous sight: [it takes] seven or eight people to lay [the icon] on the shoulders of one man, and by God's will he walks as if unburdened.

From this and other records we learn that the focal point of the rite was the reproduction each week of the miracle. It consisted of the carrying of the ex­tremely heavy icon of the Hodegetria, which was placed by several people on the shoulders of one man who, then, showed himself able to carry it effort­lessly. These icon­-bearers in uniform red vestments were members of a spe­cial family of servants of the Hodegetria, which some sources claim an ancestral lineage to the Apostle Luke. A crucial moment of the miraculous performance was the effect of the icon "flying" in the air and moving its bearer in a circle. The extraor­dinary mystical character of the rite was clearly emphasized in the earliest known Latin description of the late twelfth century:

On the third day of every week the icon was moved in a circle with angelic pow­er in full view of the crowd, as though snatched up by some kind of whirlwind. And it carried about its bearer with its own circular movement, so that because of its surprising speed it almost seemed to deceive the eyes of the spectators. Meanwhile everyone, according to their tradition, beat their breasts and cried out "Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison" ["Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy"].

While we do not know the exact reasons why this rite exists, nor even why it was done every Tuesday, it has been argued that the Tuesday rite was a liturgical and iconic re­enactment of the siege of Constantinople in 626. In this year, the city was, ac­cording to tradition, saved by the intercession of the Mother of God and her wonderworking Hodegetria icon. The choice of a Tuesday for the Hodegetria rite could be explained by one of the oldest accounts of the siege of 626. In the sermon of Theodore Synkellos, delivered at the first celebration in 627, we find this important testimony of a contemporary of the event: "Like an invincible arm, he [the patriarch] bore this [icon] on all the city walls; that was on Tuesday." Thus, Tuesday became a day for the historical commemoration of the real event and its cosmic and iconic reproduction with the Hodegetria rite, mystically guarding and protecting the city through the Divine strength of the icon.

The weekly Tuesday rite may well have functioned as an important supplica­tion by the city for salvation and protection, reproducing through ritual a mys­tical link, continually renewed, between the townspeople and their main inter­cessor. The Mother of God confirmed her supernatural presence in the city's main palladium, the icon of the Hodegetria, with the help of a regular weekly miracle. The rite created a kind of spatial icon, or an iconic image in space, em­bracing the miraculous event, liturgical procession, special rituals of venera­tion, with the common people in attendance and the icon of the Hodegetria it­self.

As a possible confirmation of this link between the rite and the historical event of 626, we have the Akathist Icon with a depiction of the cycle from the Akathist Hymn, a hymn chanted for the first time, according to tradition, after this miraculous deliverance. In the icon "The Praise of the Virgin with the Akathistos Cycle" from the Moscow Kremlin, which was painted in Moscow by an outstanding Greek artist in the second half of the fourteenth century, we are given a glimpse of the Tuesday rite in two panels displayed symmetrically to the right and left of the central image of the Mother of God. The scene with the Tuesday rite to the right represents in the center of the composition a man in red garment, bearing over his shoulders an icon of the Hodegetria under an umbrella. The bearer, stretching out his hands, is surrounded by clerics and lay people, male and female, raising their hands in a gesture of supplication to the icon of the Virgin.

Many more details, informing us of the peculiarities of the Tuesday rite, one may find in an individual picture of the same period - a late thirteenth-century fresco from the Blachernai Monastery near Arta (Mainland Greece). This unique scene, represented on the narthex wall, is badly damaged, but a lot of important details can be reconstructed.

For more information on this subject, read The Flying Hodegetria: The Miraculous Icon as Bearer of Sacred Space by Alexei Lidov.