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Friday, September 24, 2021

The Veneration of the Panagia Myrtidiotissa on the Island of Kythera


Kythera, an island between the Peloponnese and Crete, is famous for its spiritual heritage. There are shrines in sheltered places, small chapels in caves and picturesque churches that reveal the religious tradition of the locals. The relationship of the locals with the Panagia, who has been protecting the island and its inhabitants as a guardian for centuries, also played an important role in this.

The miraculous icon of Panagia Myrtidiotissa is kept in the Monastery of Myrtidia in Kythera, and is the most important treasure of the island.

History of the Icon

The valley in which the monastery is located today, was overgrown with plane trees and all kinds of vegetation. The aromatic plant, myrtle, covered the whole area as it does today. So it was an ideal pasture and many shepherds visited it with their flocks.

One of these shepherds had the special favor to discover the icon of the Panagia. Searching among the myrtles, he discovered the icon that today bears the name Myrtidiotissa, due to its location. Ecclesiastical records mention the event taking place on September 24, which chronologically is placed in the 13th century.

The origin of the icon is unknown. Some say it was hidden there to protect it from pirate raids. Others say it was placed there by a devout Christian who loved to pray in silence. What is certain is that at the spot (which is now known as "Myrtidia") the shepherd later built a chapel. He fought the "good fight" there and after his death he was succeeded by the monk Leontios. He, with the help of pious pilgrims and with great personal effort, expanded the small chapel.

This was the beginning of the Monastery of Panagia Myrtidiotissa which was completed with two more chapels: that of the patron saint of Kythera Saint Theodore and that of the Life-Giving Spring. Both of these chapels ceased to be used when the main church was completed, with their last reference being found in an 1825 census.

In this chapel is kept the miraculous icon from November 21 to the first week of Great Lent. The rest of the year the icon is placed on the majestic marble throne in the newer church, located further above. Many of the buildings of the monastery, as well as this church, were built thanks to the vision and effort of the abbot Agathangelos Kalligeros.

Panagia Myrtidiotissa in Chora
 
 
Panagia Myrtidiotissa in Chora

Such a treasure was kept with special reverence by the Kytherians, as was natural. The massive pirate raids on the island intensified the need to keep the icon in a special place, where it could be better guarded and at the same time venerated. The location chosen was the Fortress of Kythera which is located in a prominent position on the island.

There the icon will remain for several centuries. Until the day when a man full of zeal, the abbot Agathangelos Kalligeros (1841-1857), will refer to it in his sermon at the Cathedral of the Honorable Cross in Chora. He will also announce his plans for the construction of a new monastery.

His desire was really crucial in order to immediately form a fundraising committee and return the icon to Myrtidia.

Monastery of Panagia Myrtidiotissa


The Church of Panagia Myrtidiotissa

Despite the importance of the church as the place where the miraculous Panagia Myrtidiotissa was kept, few historical facts have remained to this day that inform us about the construction phases of the building. Searches in the archive of the island or even in the Metropolis failed to bring to light a document that mentions its history. Few facts and above all the tradition state that this beautiful church started to be constructed in 1851 and was completed in 1855.

The abbot of the monastery, Agathangelos Kalligeros, did his best to bring a radical change inside the church. One of his first actions was to go to Athens, where he met with the merchant Niketas Tzannis. He promised him the necessary money needed for the marble throne of the icon and the iconostasis. Then, looking for an experienced sculptor, Kalligeros met the well-known artist of Tinos, Iakovos Varoutis. There he found an impressive marble iconostasis that was being prepared for the Church of the Annunciation in Cairo. Abbot Agathangelos was so impressed that he finally persuaded the sculptor to send it to Kythera and decorate the beautiful church in Myrtidia.

Many of the icons that decorate the church and the iconostasis were painted in Kythera by Ioannis Staes in 1861-63.

After this the collection of contributions allowed the construction of new monastic cells. Then a two-storey guest house and a large storage tank were added in 1866, donated by Demetrios and Nikolaos Andronikos. In 1888 a magnificent porcelain bell tower was built with the assistance of the craftsman Nikolaos Fatseas (known as Fouriari). Its height is 26 m.

There is also a museum with icons and a library on site.

Abbot Agathangelos Kalligeros

It would be good to mention some biographical data about this great man, whose presence played a crucial role in the construction of the new Monastery of Panagia Myrtidiotissa.

The first document that refers to the abbot Agathangelos is located in the archive of Panagia Myrtidiotissa. Dated on March 4, 1839 and with the signature of Metropolitan Chrysanthos of Kerkyra, the transfer of the Elder Agathangelos Kalligeris to Kythera from Kerkyra is mentioned.

Agathangelos was born in 1799. He studied at the seminary of the Ionian Academy of Kerkyra where a little later he was ordained a priest and served the Academy. In 1839 he was granted the right to intervene in the affairs of the Monastery of Myrtidia. In the same year, on July 9, 1839, Agathangelos officially settled as abbot in the Monastery of Myrtidia.

His first concern was to ask for and secure the return of the miraculous icon to the monastery, as it was kept at that time in the church of Chora. In 1841, the Ionian Supreme Body approved his request together with a resolution for the litany of the holy icon through the cities of Kythera.

Abbot Agathangelos Kalligeros died in the monastery he built in 1895 at the age of ninety-six. He was buried in the church as a founder and in 1923 the Monastery Committee built a monument in his honor.


The Coating of the Icon

The icon of Panagia Myrtidiotissa was much smaller than the dimensions we know today. This is due to the artist Nikolaos Spithakis, who in 1837 placed the icon in a wooden frame. This made her look bigger in volume, giving her the majesty we know today.

The golden "shirt" of the Panagia is also covered with precious stones. Diamonds, gold chains and various vows adorn the front of the icon. At the bottom of the gold shirt are depicted three of the most famous miracles of the Myrtidiotissa. These are the discovery of the icon, the healing of the paralyzed Theodoros Koumbrianos, and the rescue of the fortress of the city of Kythera from lightning in 1829.


The Litanies in Kythera

The love and honor the people of Kythera have for their protectress, Panagia Myrtidiotissa, is expressed with a litany that takes place every first Sunday of Great Lent. At that time the miraculous icon is processed from village to village and from city to city, thus making a cycle of 15 days until its return to the monastery.

The first mention of the litany is found in an official document of the Bishop of Kythera, Neophytos Levounis, dated 1750. However, in 1841, a new decision of the Island Council increased the duration of the litany to 7 days so that the icon "will enter various villages for the blessing of the inhabitants."

Today, the procession of the icon takes place during the Easter period and lasts for at least two weeks. A small procession also takes place on September 24, a day that is an official celebration of the Myrtidiotissa. Immediately after the solemn Divine Liturgy, a procession of the icon takes place in the area around the monastery.
 

Panagia Myrtidiotissa in Hymnography

Various facts about the history of the Monastery, the miracles, as well as the gradual expansion of the litany, can be found in the pamphlets that have been written over the years. Such works include specially written hymns in honor of the Panagia Myrtidiotissa. The first work was written in 1640 by the then Bishop of Kythera, Sophronios Pangalos. It was then published in Venice in 1744 by Mr. Ioannis Kaloutsis.

As this first work was quickly exhausted, a second edition was made in 1811 by Emmanuel Georgiou in Constantinople. This publication was made with the blessing of the Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremiah. When the second edition was sold out, a third work was published in Smyrna in 1847 with money from the Cypriot community.

The sixth edition was published in Piraeus in 1902 by the Abbot of the Myrtidiotissa Monastery in Chios, Christophoros Seremelis. A seventh edition was rewritten and printed by the Bishop of Kythera, Euthymios Kavathas. The eighth revised edition of Sophocles Kaloutsis was published in 1953 with the official approval of the Holy Synod of the Church. The uniqueness of this last work, perfectly combines the tradition of our Orthodox Church with the folklore elements of the faith of Kythera over the years.


Miracles of Panagia Myrtidiotissa

The boldness of this miraculous icon towards God is great. That is why from time to time miracles have happened which have been recorded in various documents but also in the hearts of the locals. It is important to say a few words about them.

The Healing of Paralysis

Theodoros Koumbrianos was a relative of the shepherd who first discovered the icon.

He himself suffered from paralysis but never forgot her Grace. That is why every year on September 24, the day when the finding of the icon is honored, he sent his relatives to participate in the Divine Liturgy and to light a candle for him.

One year after a lot of begging he was transferred to the main church. The time came when a loud roar was heard from the sea. A woman in panic started shouting that pirates were attacking the church, thus causing its desolation within a few minutes. And in the middle of the church, Theodoros, alone and helpless, began to supplicate God, since he could not move.

Suddenly, like the former paralytic of the Gospel, he "takes his bed" and begins to walk towards the exit of the church. There, his relatives, unable to believe this great miracle, came out of their hiding places.

Pirates of course were nowhere to be found! Everyone understood that it was a plan of the Divine Economy to leave the paralyzed man with the icon alone. And since then, Theodoros and his whole family celebrated with special brilliance the memory of the Myrtidiotissa.


The Rescue of the Fortress of Chora

On January 21, 1829, the icon of Panagia Myrtidiotissa was still kept in the capital of Kythera, in Chora. One night the disaster was unprecedented for the island of Kythera. Heavy thunderstorms and rain were the main elements of the weather.

Suddenly, two powerful thunderbolts struck the building: one struck the flagpole and the other broke a large section of the wall. Due to the intensity of the lightning, two large barrels of gunpowder overturned, scattering all the explosives in the area.

The disaster was certain for the building. The guard immediately called on Divine help, and out of nowhere he saw a white-clad woman in the area! It was none other than the Panagia Myrtidiotissa who rebuked the lightning and one after the other they proceeded towards the sea.

The wild roar of the winds and the lightning was replaced with calm. Early in the morning, everyone paid their respects to their protectress, with a procession taking place in the city. When the icon was later transferred to the present church of Myrtidia, the hagiographer Stephanos Stais painted a faithful copy of the icon in 1844. Today it is kept in the area and is accessible to everyone.

Indeed, the miracles of our Panagia are infinite!

Chapel of the Panagia Myrtidiotissa in Naxos

Panagia Myrtidiotissa All Over Greece

Apart from Kythera, the Panagia Myrtidiotissa is widely revered throughout Greece. For example, one of the most beautiful and picturesque chapels of the Cyclades is Panagia Myrtidiotissa in Naxos. Also, the Church of Myrtidiotissa is found in Alimos, Ilioupoli, Piraeus, Heraklion and the Monastery of Paliani. 


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