During the ninth century and the Byzantine Iconoclasm (destruction of the icons), in the reign of Emperor Theophilus, and in accordance with his command, the empire was pillaged by thousands of his soldiers, searching everywhere for hidden icons.
At this time, near the city of Nicaea in modern day northern Turkey, there lived a pious widow who had concealed an Icon of the Most Holy Mother of God in order to keep it safe. It wasn’t long, however, before it was discovered and a soldier thrust his spear into the sacred image. To his horror, however, his terrible deed rebounded on him as blood flowed from the wound he had made on the face of the Mother of God. On seeing this, the frightened soldier and his companions quickly fled, leaving the now damaged icon still in the possession of this pious widow.
That night the widow spent the whole night in vigil, praying before the Icon of the Most Holy Mother of God during which God revealed to her what she should do and so in the morning she took the icon to the sea and cast it upon the water. Legend has it that the holy Icon stood upright on the waves and it began to float westward towards the Aegean Sea.
Very many years passed during which nothing more was heard about the icon and then, one evening in the year 1004, the monks of the Iveron Monastery on Mt. Athos saw a pillar of light shining like the sun upon the sea. For several days the fathers of the Holy Mountain marvelled at this miraculous image until, finally, their curiosity got the better of them and they descended to the edge of the sea, where they saw that the pillar of light was over the Icon of the Mother of God floating some way out in the water. However, when they approached it to try and retrieve it, the icon drifted off a little further out to sea out of their reach.
Later, the Mother of God appeared to the fathers of the Holy Mountain and told them that, alone of all the monks on the Holy Mountain, only Gabriel, a Georgian monk working then at the Iveron Monastery, was worthy to retrieve the holy icon from the sea. She also appeared to Gabriel and told him, “Enter the sea, and walk out upon the waves with faith, and all will witness my love and mercy for your monastery.” This was during the Paschal season that year and on Bright Tuesday the monks of Mt. Athos found Gabriel and lead him down to the sea whilst chanting hymns and censing with holy incense. Gabriel then walked out upon the water just as Our Lord had done on Lake Galilee. Taking the icon in his arms he obediently carried it back to the shore. Later, whilst the monks were celebrating a paraklesis of thanksgiving, a cold, sweet smelling spring miraculously gushed forth from the ground where the icon stood. Afterwards, they took the icon with great reverence to a church where they set it down in the sanctuary.
However, the next morning one of the monks, on coming to light a lamp in the sanctuary, discovered that the icon was no longer where they had left it but was now hanging on a wall near the entrance gate. They took it down from the wall and returned it to the sanctuary but again, the very next day, the icon was found at the monastery gate. This happened several times until, eventually, the Most Holy Virgin appeared to Gabriel and told him, “Announce to the brothers that from this day they should no longer carry me away. For what I desire is not to be protected by you; rather I will overshadow you, both in this life and in the age to come. As long as you see my icon in the monastery, the grace and mercy of my Son shall never be lacking!”
The monks were overjoyed at this announcement and erected a small church near the monastery gate to glorify the Most Holy Mother of God and placed the wonder-working icon inside where it came to be known (in Greek) as the “Portaitissa” (meaning“Keeper of the gate”). We, though, now know it as the Iveron Icon: this is because of its presence in the Iveron Monastery on Athos; the Monastery being so named because it was established by St Euthymius (955 – 1028), a Georgian national and “Iveron” (or Iberia) being the ancient name of his homeland, Georgia. Contrary to popular opinion, therefore, it does not relate to the Iberian (i.e. Spanish/Portuguese) peninsular.
The 1648 Russian Copy
In 1648 Russian pilgrims who had visited Mt. Athos brought news of this wonder-working Icon to the then Patriarch Nikon of Moscow who commissioned an exact copy of it to be made and sent to Russia. It arrived there on October 26, [Gregorian calendar – October 13th old style], and almost immediately the icon was glorified with numerous miracles attributed to it by the faithful. It is still The newly restored Iveron Icon Chapel, outside of the Kremlin in Moscow’s Red Squarecommemorated on that day as the feast of the Translation of the Iveron icon to Moscow. A Chapel was built in 1669 next to the Kremlin walls in Moscow to enshrine the icon. The Iveron chapel, as it was called, formed the main entrance to Red Square and, according to tradition, everyone, from the Tsar right down to the lowest peasant, before entering the square, used to stop at the icon to venerate it. Sadly, the chapel was destroyed by the Bolsheviks after the Revolution of 1917 and the fate of the icon is still unknown. Recently a new copy was made on Mt. Athos and placed in the newly restored Iveron Chapel by the gates of the Kremlin. Here on a daily basis Akathists to the Mother of God are served regularly throughout the day.
The Montreal Myrrh Flowing Icon
Yet another version of the famous Portaitissa was in Canada. For fifteen years, from 1982 until 1997, myrrh continually flowed from this Icon. Owned by Br. Joseph, a Chilean convert to Holy Orthodoxy, he had converted to Orthodoxy in his youth and, though he never entered a monastery, he began, as best he could, to lead a monastic life in the outside world. He later moved from his native Chile to Canada where he continued to observe the monastic way of life.
In 1982 Br. Joseph made a pilgrimage to Mount Athos, the ancient bastion of Orthodox monasticism. An art teacher by profession he was also an iconographer and planned in his trip to visit some of the monasteries and sketes of Athos which specialise in icon painting. Whilst heading for the Danilov skete, where icons are painted in the ancient Byzantine style, Br. Joseph and a companion on his journey, became tired after climbing uphill for about eight hours and so decided to stop at a skete they had observed on the hillside below.
Fr. Klimentos, the abbot of the skete, dedicated to the Nativity of Christ, greeted them warmly, offering them traditional Athonite hospitality and then, after learning of their interest in iconography, took them to the skete’s icon-painting studio. Hung on one of the walls was a copy of the Iveron Icon of the Virgin Mary. As soon as he entered the studio, Br. Joseph felt an overwhelming attraction to this particular icon. He later described how his heart felt as though it had ‘leaped’ or ‘turned over’ on seeing it and so he asked repeatedly if they would let him buy this Icon, but was told, also repeatedly, that it was not for sale at any price as it was one of the first icons which had been painted at this skete.
During the singing of “It is Meet”, the angelic hymn to the Mother of God, that night in the church of the skete he fell to his knees and begged the Virgin Mary to make it possible for him to buy the Icon and take it back with him into the world, where, he told Her, “we have need of You.” He immediately felt assured that his prayer would be answered. The next morning, as he and his friend were about to depart, the abbot approached them holding the Icon and told him that it pleased the Virgin Mary for Her Icon to go with him to North America. As Joseph and his companion departed by boat to Daphne, a port on the western shore of the peninsula, Joseph heard an inner voice telling him to go to the Iveron Monastery and touch his Icon to the original wonder-working Iveron Icon.
They did so but on arrival at the Iveron Monastery they had to wait three hours before a monk came to open the church which houses the original “Portaitissa.” Joseph asked the monk to open the protective icon case so that his copy could be placed upon the original Portaitissa so as to receive a blessing from the Blessed Virgin. Though somewhat surprised by this request, when it was explained to him that Joseph and his companion wished to take the blessing of the Virgin Mary to the West where Her intercession was much needed the monk readily agreed.
On his return to Montreal, Br. Joseph placed the Iveron Virgin Mary in his icon corner where he began to read a daily Akathist standing before his newly-acquired Icon.
Then, three weeks after his return home from Mt. Athos, on Nov. 24, 1982, at about 4:00am in the morning, Joseph awoke to the sensation of a very strong perfume. He at first thought that this fragrance emanated from the relics but later, when he stood before the Icon to say his morning prayers, he noticed that the hands of the Virgin Mary were streaked with some kind of oily substance. Assuming that his friend, with whom he shared his house, must have spilled some olive oil onto the Icon while adjusting the flame of the vigil lamp that hung before it, he asked his friend about it but the friend denied even touching the lamp.
Later, when Joseph wiped the Icon, he discovered that it was the icon itself that was the source of the wonderful fragrance, which had by now filled the whole house, and so he sought the advice of a local Orthodox clergyman who advised him to take the Icon to church where it was placed on the altar. During Divine Liturgy myrrh once again flowed, though this time from the hands of the Christ Child. Since then, except for several days each Holy Week when the Icon remains perfectly dry, the myrrh continued to flow almost uninterruptedly throughout the fifteen years.
Wherever the Icon goes questions and doubts surround it. In Miami a sceptical scientist was astounded when he checked over the Icon and discovered that the back of it remained perfectly dry even though myrrh was seen to be coming from the front. The flow of myrrh is not constant, sometimes in great abundance, at other times less so. Once, during the consecration of a bishop in Montreal, there was such an abundant outpouring of the myrrh that it streamed down onto the floor from the analogion where it stood. And once, in Florida, the myrrh was seen to rise up from the hands of both the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, so much so that it seemed to be being pressed through from behind. Nobody has ever been able to regulate the flow of the myrrh, it appears by the will of God alone and His Holy Mother.
The Icon was kept in a frame measuring roughly thirty by forty five centimetres and about five centimetres deep. At first the myrrh only flowed from the hands of the Virgin Mary or from the star on Her left shoulder or, just occasionally, from the hands of the Christ Child. But then, in Great Lent 1985, myrrh was even seen to exude from both the frame and the glass of the Icon and in such quantities that the cloth of the analogion, which supported it, became totally saturated. Because of this a layer of cotton wool was always kept at the base of the Icon in order to absorb the myrrh. Pieces of this myrrh soaked cotton wool was then regularly distributed among the faithful.
Whilst several cases of physical healing as a result of praying before the Icon have been recorded among Christians of all denominations, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant, it seems that the purpose of the Virgin Mary is rather for the healing of souls. Standing in front of the Icon many people have later testified to having experienced compunction, repentance and consolation.
On Holy Monday each Holy Week, as mentioned earlier, the flow of myrrh would cease altogether and then, after Divine Liturgy on the morning of Great Saturday, a light dew of myrrh would begin to form again, not just on the Icon itself, but also on its case and protective glass. Then, during Matins for the glorious Resurrection of Our Lord, when the clergy and faithful process around the church holding icons and banners, the Icon would start to exude myrrh in such quantities that the hands of whoever was carrying it become covered in the sweet smelling myrrh.
Such miracles have been witnessed many times in the Orthodox Church over the (almost) two millennia of its existence. Back in the 19th century in Moscow, for instance, the ‘Surety-of-Sinners’ Icon exuded myrrh which was used to anoint the sick that they may, and often did, receive healing. And in the Tolga monastery in Yaroslavl, there was a myrrh-streaming icon of the Virgin Mary. Of course, we have already heard of the miracles of the original Icon in the Iveron Monastery. Many such other cases have been known down through the years. It has been observed that such miracles tend to occur in the Church in times of great tribulation such as in the persecutions of Apostolic times and especially so in Russia recently where the Church for 70 years suffered cruel persecution under the Atheistic Communist Regime. It seems the miracles may be sent to strengthen the faithful and prepare them to endure future trials.
When asked why he thought he was chosen to receive the Icon, Br. Joseph replied that he was at a loss to explain this because of his many weaknesses, but that he felt it was perhaps because God often reveals himself through the very least of His servants. He felt that, as a convert to Orthodoxy, he was the “least among his brethren.” He also regarded himself as merely the custodian of the Icon and not its owner, that it properly belonged to the entire body of the faithful. From his childhood his mother, who had been a devout Roman Catholic, had taught him to love the Most Pure Virgin, and so he always prayed to Her, though never asking Her for any signs or miracles.
In 1997. whilst making preparations to celebrate its 15th anniversary, the Church in Canada, the ‘Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia’, was shocked by the news of the tragic death of Brother Joseph, the icon’s guardian and who had accompanied it on numerous trips to parishes all over Canada, the United States, South America, Australia, and Europe. On the night of October 31st 1997 Br. Joseph was found murdered in a hotel room in Athens. Somewhat ironically, he was allegedly murdered by an illegal immigrant from Romania whom he had tried to help whilst staying in Athens that year.
Round about the same time as Brother Joseph’s death the Montreal Icon itself mysteriously disappeared. Though widely rumoured to have been stolen it seems this is not the case, though its whereabouts are unknown. What is known is that Brother Joseph had not taken the Icon with him on his fateful trip to Greece. We can only trust to God and to Our Holy Lady that her Icon is safe and working to the good of those around it; after all, as She told the blessed Gabriel, her Icon does not need our protection but will protect those who look upon it.
A More Recent Mystery
October 26th is the commemoration of the Iveron Icon of the Mother of God and so it is all the more surprising that on the eve of this year’s commemoration (2013), in the Black Sea coastal district of Sochi, on the border between Russia and Georgia, a 19th century copy of this very Icon washed up on the shore, reminiscent of the original Icon’s mysterious appearance off the coast of Mount Athos in the year 1004.
It was found by a female tourist who took it to the nearest Church, which turned out to be the Church of St. Nino, the enlightener of Georgia. You will recall that the original Iveron Icon is housed in a Georgian Monastery on Mount Athos after being brought ashore by St Gabriel, a Georgian monk. The Georgian link seems quite robust.
The icon, dating back to 1896 whence it was painted by Archpriest Alexander Smirnov, has carved insertions of silver, gilding and stones. Although slightly tarnished by sea water the image of the Mother of God can be clearly seen according to reports from the Sochi administration’s press office. The icon is to be restored and will remain for a while in the chancel of the Church of St. Nino until it is decided what to do with it long term. It will be interesting to see whether or not any miraculous events are linked to this copy; it has a long and distinguished reputation to live up to.
“As long as you see my icon… the grace and mercy of my Son shall never be lacking”