Sunday, January 8, 2012

Iconic Icons: Axion Estin

The original icon

 The original icon without its riza (the metal covering revealing only the faces)

The Axion Estin (Αξιον εστιν), "It is truly meet," is an icon of the Theotokos (Eleusa-style) located in the the Protaton, a church in the Karyes settlement of the famous Mount Athos in Greece, home to many ancient monastic communities.  The event which the icon takes it name from occurred in 980, so the icon was written sometime before then.

The name of the icon comes from the opening words of a Marian hymn in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.  Up until this famous event, the hymn only included the latter half, starting at "More honourable than the Cherubim," which was written in the late 700s by St. Cosmas the Hymnographer, foster-brother of St. John Damascene.  This section of the hymn reads thus:

More honorable than the cherubim,
and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim.
Without corruption thou gavest birth to God the Word.
True Theotokos, we magnify thee.

On June 11, 980, a passing monk who called himself Gabriel was granted hospitality in a cell near Karyes.  During a Saturday night vigil service (the service of Sunday Matins) being prayed before the icon, when the hymn of St. Cosmas was being recited, the passing monk began to chant a new section of a hymn before continuing on to the familiar hymn:

It is truly right to bless thee, O Theotokos, 
ever blessed, and most pure, and the Mother of our God.

The monk from Mount Athos was entranced by the beauty of this new section of the hymn, so he asked the passing monk to write it down: however, no paper or ink could be found.  Undeterred, the mysterious monk inscribed the lines on a stone tile with his finger, and he decreed that the hymn be recited with this addition ever after.  Following this, he disappeared, and with this disappearance, the icon began to radiate light for a while afterwards.

 An icon of the miraculous revelation of the hymn by St. Gabriel

After this event, the modified hymn was spread around all Christians of the East.  The icon was transferred to the Protaton, the main church of the settlement of Karyes, where it is located to this day.  The tile inscribed by the Archangel Gabriel (the traditionally-accepted identity of the passing monk) was taken to Constantinople as evidence of the miracle and in order that the hymn be dispersed throughout the world by St. Nicholas II Chrysoberges (the Patriarch of Constantinople from 984 to 996).

There is little discussion about the icon itself I can find: most sources just related (with varying details, of course) the story I have just related to you.  The most interesting thing about the icon is scroll that the Christ Child is handing to the Theotokos.  Though I cannot tell what the scroll represents, it seems to be an interesting foreshadowing of the miraculously-revealed text connected to the icon.

The revelation of the hymn by St. Gabriel (and thus the icon as well) is celebrated on June 11th, and the icon by itself is celebrated on July 13th.  For a bit more information (and a reflection) on the hymn itself, see this post from The Ever Blessed.  I hope this post was helpful.  Thank you for reading, and God Bless.

St. Cosmas the Hymnographer, pray for us!

Nota Bene: I compiled the story for this post from many sources: Iconograms, The Orthodox Christian Faith, OrthodoxWiki (on the Panagia Axion Estin and on St. Cosmas), Mount Athos, and Wikipedia (the translation of the hymn was taken from here).

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