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Mount Athos and Mary

Mount Athos and Mary

– Father Johann G. Roten, S.M.

The monks’ republic situated on the peninsula of Mount Athos in the north-western region of Greece was founded in 963 and is home to twenty monasteries with Orthodox monks from many countries, especially from Greece, Serbia, Rumania, Russia, and Bulgaria.

The Mount Athos is known to the inhabitants as the Garden of the Mother of God. According to the tradition of the Holy Mountain, Mary the Mother of Jesus set foot on the island by providential chance. Invited by Lazarus (Martha’s and Mary’s brother) to visit him on Cyprus, her ship was blown off course and alighted on the east coast of Mount Athos, at the location of a pagan temple and oracle of Apollo. As Mary went to shore, the pagan idols called on the people living in the neighborhood to meet the Holy Mother of God. The inhabitants converted to Christianity, and Mary fell in love with the island, so much so that she besought her Son to grant her the island as her personal domain. The prayer was granted, and before Mary departed she blessed the residents and announced that the Holy Mountain was hers.

There is a strong belief among the monks living on Mount Athos that Mary through the centuries continued visiting her island to manifest herself as its patron and protector. Gregory Palamas, in his Life of St. Peter the Athonite (PG150, 1005, 11) records the Virgin’s words and promise for those living on the “mountain that I have chosen out of all the earth.”

In Europe there is a mountain, very high and very beautiful, which extends towards the south and very deeply into the sea. This is the mountain that I have chosen out of all the earth, and I have decided to make of it the country of the monastic order. I have consecrated it to be henceforth my dwelling: this is why people will call it the "Holy Mountain." All who shall come to live there after having decided to fight the battle against the common enemy of the human race will find me at their side throughout their lives. I will be their invincible aid, I will teach them what they must do and what they must avoid. I myself shall be their tutor, their physician, their nurse. I shall take care to give them both food and the care that their bodies require, and that which is necessary for their souls, to inspire and invigorate them, so they depart not from virtue. And all who finish their lives on this mountain in a spirit of love for God and repentance, I promise to recommend to my Son and God that He accord them complete remission of their sins.

Many a title of Our Lady is related to her presence on the island which she calls her garden. Thus, she is:

- archetype of monasticism
- paradigm of Christian holiness
- abbess of the Holy Mountain
- the monk’s guide to the Kingdom of Heaven

The most tangible form of her presence is to be seen in the many Marian icons and their reputed miraculous character. Athos, the sacred Garden (paradise revisited!), is overflowing with holy images of the second Eve. Here are some of the most outstanding ones:

- Axion estin (It is truly meet…) is the name given to the icon of the Virgin Mary before which, according to tradition, the hymn of Axion estin was revealed by the Archangel Gabriel. Appearing in the guise of an ordinary monk, he sang the hymn and then wrote it with his finger on a roof tile.

The icon Axion estin is a representation of the Eleousa or Virgin of Tenderness. It is located in the katholikon (main Church) of Karyes, known as the Protaton. The icon is considered the protector of the Holy Mountain and its holiest object. The story of the apparition of the Archangel Gabriel eludes precise datation. It has the founding qualities of the so called acheiropoeta.

- Portaïtissa, Our Lady of the Gate. It is located at the monastery of Iviron. Legend tells that the icon escaped iconoclasm during the reign of Theophilos (829-842) and traveled of its own power to Mount Athos where it arrived in a pillar of fire. It was first placed in the katholikonof Iviron but moved of its own volition to a place over the entrance gate of the monastery. This happened three times. Finally, Our Lady appeared to Fr. Gabriel asking that a chapel be built for the icon next to the gate. Here is Mary’s reasoning: “For I have not come here for you to guard me, but for me to guard you.” Thus, a chapel was built, and the icon became Our Lady of the Gate.

- Tricherousa, Our Lady three-handed, at the monastery of Chilandar. The icon is said to date from the period of iconoclasm. According to Athonite tradition it belonged to John of Damascus (8C) whose hand had be cut off by the Caliph but was subsequently restored. In gratitude John had a silver hand attached to the icon. The icon reached the Mount Athos in the fourteenth c. (1371). In a dispute over the election of the abbot the icon miraculously removed itself from its assigned place in the chancel of the katholikan, and positioned itself above the abbot’s throne. This happened three times, and in a vision to a hermit, Our Lady explained that in order to settle the dispute over the new abbot, she henceforth would assume the role of the abbot. To this day the abbot’s throne is occupied by the icon of the Tricherousa, and the monks elect only a deputy abbot.

- Holy Zone, or girdle of the Mother of God, is reputedly the only surviving relic of her earthly life. Supposedly fashioned by the Virgin herself, it is made of camel’s hair, and is now in three pieces. According to legend, Mary gave the girdle to St. Thomas at the moment of her Assumption. The relic was brought from Jerusalem to Constantinople in the fourth century, developed healing qualities, and changed hands several times! It was presented to the monastery of Vatopedi by the Serbian prince Lazarus (1372-89). There, it has performed many miracles, especially by healing barren women.

- Ephor, the Mother of God as “Overseer” of Athos. Her role is symbolized in a nineteenth-century Russian image and a more recent icon which portrays her dressed as an abbess, with a purple cloak and a pastoral staff, standing on clouds, over the whole territory of the island.

As mentioned, these are only some of the most outstanding and typical icons. Nearly each one of the monasteries has at least one or several miraculous images of Our Lady. Here are again some examples:

- The Koukouzelissa at the Great Lavra
- The Phoveraprostasia at Koutloumousiou
- The Gerontissa at Pantokrator
- The Glykophilousa at Philotheou
- The Gorgoypekoös at Dochiasiou
- The Myroveitissa at Dionysiou

Several monasteries are dedicated to the Mother of God and events of her life: Vatopedi and Philotheou to the Annunciation; the monastery of Saint Paul to Mary’s Purification; Chilandar to the Presentation; and Iviron to the Virgin’s Dormition.

All About Mary includes a variety of content, much of which reflects the expertise, interpretations and opinions of the individual authors and not necessarily of the Marian Library or the University of Dayton. Please share feedback or suggestions with


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