The Theotokos is considered by Orthodox Christians to be the Abbess of all the monasteries on Mount Athos. She oversees the welfare of the monasteries as well as the monks who have dedicated their lives to imitating her through humility, obedience and purity. One way she has manifested her divine protection throughout the Holy Mountain is through her many wonderworking icons in the various monasteries and churches. The most famous and celebrated icon of the Theotokos on the Holy Mountain is without a doubt the icon known as “Axion Estin”.
The church that houses the icon of Axion Estin is in Karyes, the capital of Mount Athos, in a church called Protaton. It is called Protaton because it was the first church built on the Holy Mountain in 843 AD by Saint Athanasios the Athonite [“Protaton” means “the first”]. The iconography of the church seen today was done in the 13th century by the renowned iconographer Emmanuel Panselinos.
To show that the Theotokos is the head of the monasteries of Athos, the icon of Axion Estin is seated on a throne of the church. It is named after the hymn we chant following the communing of the faithful of the Holy Gifts in the Divine Liturgy, but the initial lines of the hymn itself has an angelic origin that was revealed to a monk in the tenth century by the Archangel Gabriel himself. The miracle took place near the Skete of Protaton, in the vicinity of the Sacred Monastery of Pantokrator in the cell of a monk and his novice. (The rest of this wondrous tale can be read here.)
It was after this miraculous occurrence that the icon of the Theotokos was transferred to the church in Protaton. The cell where the miracle happened is known today by the name “Axion Estin” as well. The miracle took place on June 11, 982 on a Sunday. The miraculous brick on which was transcribed the hymn of Axion Esti was transferred to the Patriarchate of Constantinople and displayed for veneration by the faithful in the imperial palace Church of Saint Stephen. From then on the hymn Axion Estin became a staple within the Divine Liturgy and other services of the Church. The icon is especially celebrated with festivities and a procession on Bright Monday after Pascha and many miracles take place on this day.
The icon itself is a bit faded, but covered in a silver sheath to protect it. It has been recently restored and is now in good condition. It bears the inscription “Μήτηρ Θεού Καρυώτισσα” or “Mother of God Kariotissa”. Its origins are probably from Constantinople and is of the Panagia Eleousa type first painted by the Apostle Luke.
On October 3, 1913 after an all-night vigil in the Protaton church, the self-governed region of the Holy Mountain became part of the Greek state after a decree was signed by the Abbots of the monasteries in the presence of and after doing a prostration before the miraculous icon of Axion Estin. This was done according to the international treaties of London (1913), Bucharest (1913), Neuilly (1919), Sèvres (1920) and Lausanne (1923). The Decree, “made in the presence of the Holy Icon of Axion Estin”, stated that the Holy Mountain recognised the Kings of Greece as the lawful sovereigns and “successors on the Mountain” of the Roman “Emperors who built” the monasteries and declared its territory as belonging to the then Kingdom of Greece.
On the one thousand year anniversary of Mount Athos in 1963, the icon of Axion Estin left the Holy Mountain for the first time to be venerated in Athens by thousands of faithful. In 1985 it was brought to Thessaloniki aboard a military ship and received there with the same honors as a Head of State.
During the Greek Revolution of 1821, before the great catastrophe that took place on the island of Chios, the Turks pillaged the monasteries of the island of their wealth. One day a Turk happened upon two Greeks who were trying to save the treasures as he was holding an icon of the Theotokos. He told the Greeks: “Take this Mariam” (the Turks call the Virgin “Mariam”). The Greeks didn’t understand why the Turk was giving them the icon. He went on to say: “I tried with my sword to cut this icon in pieces so as to throw it in the fire, but every time I went to chop it nothing would happen to the icon. I looked carefully at the icon and I noticed it smiled at me. I understood your faith is great and this icon should not be destroyed. Take the icon and put it in your church.”
In tears the two Greeks signed themselves with the sign of the Cross and they took the icon and hid it in a bag taking it to their homeland in Reizdere, Asia Minor. They placed the icon in the Monastery of Saint Nicholas and it soon became known for its miraculous properties.
Of its many miracles, the following is told:
There was a sick woman who sought healing from the Holy Virgin and vowed an offering of her bracelets in return. She was healed. But she lived a distance from Reizdere and it made it difficult to go and make her promised offering. This thought occupied her conscience after the miracle.
One day the healed woman noticed her bracelets were missing. She thought someone stole them. At that time she left for the monastery and meant to give an offering of money for the worth of the bracelets. She told the abbess of all that happened and she lead the woman to the icon of the Holy Virgin. With amazement and tears she looked up at the icon and saw her two bracelets which were found in front of the icon a few days before. The Holy Virgin helped fulfill the vow on behalf of the woman.
The faithful Greeks did not abandon this icon neither during the exile of 1914 when they brought the icon with them to Chios, or even during the genocide of the Greeks in 1922 when they were permanently exiled to Greece.
During the Genocide of 1922 a man by the name of Barouma hid the icon in his furnace after he risked his life trying to save it. This Barouma became a monk on Mount Athos where he lived the rest of his life with the icon. Eventually the icon was brought to Chios and then Lemnos. Eventually the Greeks who had come from Reizdere wanted to bring it with them to Crete so they boarded the boat with their beloved icon. As they passed the Holy Mountain the monks requested that the icon stay with them, but the citizens of Reizdere could not part with their icon. It was brought with them to Ierapetra, Crete.
In Ierapetra the icon continued to work miracles for the inhabitants. Eventually a church was built in its honor named Panagia Eleousa. The story of this icon demonstrates the great faith of the Greeks of Asia Minor, the grace of holy icons, and the care the Theotokos shows to the needs of her beloved faithful.
Axion Estin (Greek)
Άξιον εστίν ως αληθώς μακαρίζειν σε την Θεοτόκον, την αειμακάριστον και παναμώμητον και μητέρα του Θεού ημών. Την τιμιωτέραν των Χερουβείμ και ενδοξοτέραν ασυγκρίτως των Σεραφείμ την αδιαφθόρως Θεόν Λόγον τεκούσαν, την όντως Θεοτόκον, Σε μεγαλύνομεν.
Axion Estin (English)
It is truly meet to bless thee, O Theotokos, ever blessed, and most pure, and the Mother of our God. More honorable than the cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim. Without corruption thou gavest birth to God the Word. the true Theotokos, we magnify thee.
Apolytikion in the Fourth Tone
Ye hosts of the Fathers of Mount Athos, gather today, and shout with a voice of jubilation, leaping for joy, and faithfully keeping feast: For, behold, the praise of the most pure Theotokos wondrously and awesomely is sung by the Angel; and therefore, as the Mother of God, we glorify her name.
Kontakion in the Fourth Tone
All of Athos keepeth feast this day in gladness; for it wondrously received from an Archangel’s holy hand the hymn whereby thou hast ever been praised as the Mother of God, as is truly meet.