The holy icon of “Axion Esti”

24 October 2012

The Holy Temple of Saint Demetrius – protector of the city of Thessaloniki, on the occasion of the 100st anniversary of the Liberation of Thessaloniki (1912-2012) and after the acts of our Most Holy Bishop Anthimos towards the Holy Executive of the Holy Mount Athos, received the thaumaturgic icon of “Axion Esti”, which is found in the Most Holy Temple of Protaton. This is an important decision of the Holy Diocese of Thessaloniki and of the Fathers of Mount Athos within the frames of the support of people’s religious faith.
The Holy Icon arrived on 13th October 2012 at 16:30 at the place in front of the White Tower, where a procession towards the Holy Temple of Saint Demetrius will be formed.
The “Axion Esti” will remain in Thessaloniki during the whole period of the fests of Saint Demetrius in order to bless and sanctify the holy clergy and the pious people.

The history of  Protaton and the Holy icon of  “Axion Esti”

Today Karyes consists of the church of Proraton the Mansion of the Holy Assembly, nineteen buildings housing an equal number of depu­tations of the holy monasteries called Konakia (as the monastery of Koutloumousiou is very close to the capital it has no Konaki), a few build­ings housing shops and inns, the government of­fices including the seat of the governor of Mt Athos, the police station, the dispensary, the post office, as well as eighty-two kellia in and around Karyes inhabited by Greek, Russian, Bulgarian, Rumanian and Serbian monks. The viIlage of Karyes situated on a site full of trees and shrubs was much smaller a thousand years ago and was then called “Messi” (the Middle One). In the lIth century it was mentioned as the Lavra of Karyes and in the late 14th century as the skete of Karyes. Today Karyes is the headquarters of the Greek authori­ties of Mt Athos, namely the governor and the police chief. Today governor is Me. S. Papada­tos and secretary Mr. B. Tsingas. But what really gives this township its character is that it is the seat of the Administration of this monastic state.

The twenty representatives of the monasteries assemble at regular invervals in the Mansion of the Holy Community and decide about matters concerning the interests of the HolyMountain. The Community of today has succeeded the old Congregation and the Protepistate has replaced the Protos. They sit at a semicircular table-facing a small crescent shaped table close by, at which sit the secretary general (now father Panteleimon) and the clerks. The Protepistate, sitting on a kind of throne, calls the meetings to order, directs and adjourns them.

The Protepistate and three more dignitaries form the Holy Epistasia, the authority which executes the decisions of the Holy Community, whose terms of office is one year. It is they who receive the visitors and issue the licences to stay. The secretary collects the names and the local police memos, prepares the licences and presents them to the Holy Epistasia for signing. This licence is of great value to the visitor. Without this a visitor will be given no food or shelter in the rnonasteries. In the meanwhile the “seimenis”, a young­ster with a sparse beard, wearing a small cap but the clothes of a layman offers the visitors the traditional “ouzo”, a spoonful of jam and a glass of water. This is invariably the custom on Mt Athos. “Eulogite” (Bless ye), says the visitor raising his glass. “The Lord”, is the answer.

From time to time there are among the visitors royalty or patriarchs. The Ecumenical Patriarch  Athenagoras, King Paul of Greece and Constantine the Crown Prince visited the Mountain during the celebration of its Millennium in 1963.

Right in the centre of Karyes is the cathedral, called the Protaton.

It is the only ancient basilica on Mt Athos. According to the local tradition, it was originally built by Emperor Constantine the Great, (306-337) destroyed by Emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363) and restored by Emperor Ni­kephoros II Phokas. It is basically an edifice da­ting from the 10th century, its exterior having only recently been restored. It is weIl-known for its famous murals which mark it out as a wonderful and unique Monument of Athos. Their recent cleansing allows one to examine them almost in their original beauty. They were painted in the early stages of the Macedonian School, by Emmanuel Panselinos, the chief representative of this school of painting. We have here a very elegant style, born in Constantinople, the main characteristics of which are its wide stretching design, its freedom of expression, its realism, its vividness of move­ment and gesticulations, its sensibility, which often reaches heights of dramatic passion. As the most characteristic murals we must mention those of “Anapesson” (the fallen-back-one), the Birth of Christ, the Baptism, the Presentation of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist with the Prochoros, military saints and others. The icons of the rood­screen belong to the Cretan School, the main characteristics of which are conservatism restrained movement and gesticulations, a certain serenity and expression or deep emotion, the shape or the countenances, the light on the protruding features or the faces etc.

The icon or “Axion Esti”, which is said to be miraculous, is kept in the sanctuary. This is the most saintly icon of the whole monastic state. Placed on a throne behind the altar, it is about 3′ l’ by 2′ 2″ in size. The centre of the icon is domi­nated by the Virgin holding the Child Jesus, while its oblong perimeter is occupied by twenty small medallions, each picturing the patron saints of the monasteries of Mt Athos. The following story is told about this icon. North-east of Karyes, in the direction of Pantokratoros monastery and at a place called Sakkos, there were a few kellia, one of them dedicated to the Assumption of the Bles­sed Virgin. One Saturday afternoon the Elder of this Kelli before starting for Karyes, where he intended to attend the vigils at the church of the Protaton, instructed his hypotaklikos to read the vespers himself. That evening a young monk who was a complete stranger appeared at the kelli and begged leave to stay for the night, which was granted. During matins next morning, the hypotaktikos was preparing to chant Kosmas’s hymn to the Virgin Mother before her icon. This begins with “ Την τιμιωτέραν των χερουβείμ” but he was in­terrupted by the visitor who started chanting the then unknown hymn “’Αξιον εστίν ως αληθώς μακαρίζειν σε την Θεοτόκον, την αειμακάριστον και παναμώμητον και Μητέρα του Θεού ημών”.

Having finished this he continued with that of “Την τιμιωτέραν των χερουβείμ.” Greatly moved, the hypotaktikos begged the guest to write down the hymn for him. Finding no paper or ink he produced a marble slab on which the stranger carved the hymn with his bare finger. He ordered the monk that the hymn should thereafter be sung in praise of the Virgin. He then vanished. When the elder returned and was told what had passed between the hypotaktikos and the stranger, he at once notified the Assembly of the Elders at Karyes. Those had both the icon of the Virgin before which the angel-carved hymn was first sung, as well as the marble slab brought to the Protaton. The icon was placed on a throne in the sanctuary, with a hanging lamp burning before it day and night while the marble slab was sent toConstantinopleand both the Emperor and the Patriarch were accordingly informed. Furthermore they communicated the event to al1 the fathers on theHolyMountain, whom they instructed that the hymn should be sung henceforth. The kelli in question was named “Axion Estin” and its locality is still called “the Pit of Singing”.

It is in this church that the deputies of the twenty monasteries, many monks of the capital and visitors attend services. On the right and left sides of the nave there are the twenty pews, reserved for the representatives of the monasteries.

South-east of the Protaton and not too far from it is the ancient tower housing the library of the holy Community. Besides its historical archives, this contains 82 manuscript codices, 42 of which on parchment, as well as several printed works. This is also where the first Ritual of the monastic state, written on a goat’s skin, is kept. That incidentally, is where it derives its name of” Tragos”.

The town of Karyes is crossed from east to west by one main street. There are smaller lanes branch­ing off left and right and leading to various konakia and kellia. Along those alleys there are small workshops, or shops full of crosses, rosaries, seals and holy-water cups, icons, mortars and pestles. These things are sold to the visitors by the monks. The carvings of Mt Athos are really wonderful and well-known both inGreeceand abroad.

All of a sudden, the “merchant” or “craftsman” locks up his shop or workshop and dashes into the chapel of his kelli to pray. The chapel is the centre of his home, indeed the reason for its existence. And neither the time they devote in it, nor the money spent out of their frugal budget on decorating it is negligible. Even its exterior can easily be discerned. There is invariably a small slate-covered dome rising above the roof of each kelli.

The black dressed capital does not lack the smiles of life. There are a few pots with flowers on some balconies. You can sometimes see curtains adorning some of the windows. The houses, usu­ally surrounded with gardens, are old but mostly in a good state of repair. There are even a few new buildings.

Out of these houses the monks appear. They walk slowly and calmly. They wear rich beards, often snow-white quite a contrast to their black robes. There is something of an aristocrat about them and they give the impression of living inByzantium. Nothing shocks them, nothing moves them. In answer to a visitor’s greeting they bow their heads nobly and murmur. “O Kyrios” (the Lord). This is their reply to the visitor’s “Evlogite” (Bless me), which again is the appropriate thing for the first person to say. Other ways of secular greetings are out of place here. The quietness of Karyes is particularly impres­sive. After all, silence is a distinctive mark of the whole Mt Athos. Everything reposes in the arms of silence, departed from secular life and its noisy worldly pursuits.

From the book: Athos: history, monuments, life,Thessaloniki: Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, 1970.