Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Most Holy Virgin of Philermo

Yesterday was Palm Sunday and was the first day of the most holy week of the year for all Christians, a week for praying and reflection. Observing this holy week there will be no postings on the blog, but this one published today.
In a blog dedicated to the genealogy it is appropriate to publish a note about the mother of the main character of this Holy Week, the mother of all mothers.  
This is the story of the closest image we have of an actual representation of Jesus’ mother, the icon of the Most Holy Virgin of Philermo. It is a Byzantine icon [Tempera on wood, 44 x 36 cm] and is one of the most important Christian relics that has completed an incredible journey for the last 1,000 years.
Tradition tells us that St. Luke, the Evangelist, was a skilled artist and loved painting. One of his works of art was this icon. It is strongly believed to bear a very close resemblance to the Virgin Mary and this accounts for the outstanding veneration which has accompanied the icon throughout the centuries.

St. Luke painting the Virgin

The Knights of St. John obtained this icon when the crusaders gained control of Jerusalem in the XI century. When crusaders lost the Holy city to Saladin the members of the Order of St. John brought the icon to the city of Acre, their last stronghold in Palestine.  When the Christians were defeated in Acre, the Knight of St. John took their relic on their retreat to Cyprus and finally to island of Rhodes (Greece).
Other historians mention that the icon was already in Rodhas when the Knights moved there, and there is a local oral tradition that states the icon was brought by a monk who came from Jerusalem about the year 1000. As none of the stories can be verified I prefer the first version that is more romantic and beautiful.
But we know with certainty that the Knights of the Order of St. John built a church over an older Byzantine church at the Filerimos mount (that is the correct name in Greek but it is better known as Philermo or Filermo). The precious icon was located in that church from 1306 to 1480, where it was an object of popular devotion and was revered by both Orthodox and Catholic Christians. Its fame as a miraculous image was known all over the Aegean.
During the Ottoman siege of 1480 the chapel was no longer a place of security for the relic and the image was brought within the defenses of the city of Rhodes, where it was carried round the walls of the capital where the troops were fighting on the heroic defense.
After the loss of Rhodes in 1523, the icon followed the Knights on their seven year exile in Italy and France. A few years later the Knights of Jerusalem received the Island of Malta from the emperor Charles V and moved the sacred image to the church of St. Lawrence where it escaped damage when the church was destroyed by fire in 1532. 

A representation as a Bizantine icon painted by myself (Acrylic on canvas)

Finally the image was moved to the Cathedral of St. John in the city of Valletta (Malta) from 1578 to 1798. The Knights of Malta credited this image for protecting them and giving them an incredible victory during the long Ottoman siege in 1565.
When Napoleon occupied Malta in 1798, robbers removed the gold lid and jewelry that covered the icon. But the painting did not get destroyed, and it was one of the few treasures that Grandmaster Ferdinand von Hompesch was permitted to take out of the island.
The icon travelled through Trieste and arrived in Russia together with many knights of the Order of Malta that took refuge over there. Tsar Paul I welcomed the icon with honors, gave it a rich decoration of gold and precious stones and located it in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, where it stayed until the October Revolution in 1917.
During the civil war the image was hidden at the Kremlin in Moscow, and finally Maria Fiontorovna, the Tsar’s mother, travelling through Estonia managed to transfer the icon to Copenhagen in 1919. The icon remained in Denmark from 1919 to 1928.
By order of the Queen of Russia the relic was handed to Russian Church bishops that moved it to the Orthodox Church in Berlin, where it stayed from 1928 to 1929. But in 1929 the Russian bishop Hrapovicky handed the image to Alexander I Karadjordjevic, King of Yugoslavia,  as token of appreciation for the helping the large number of refugees coming from Russia.
The royal family kept the relic in their palace in Belgrade from 1929 to 1941, but during the Nazi occupation, the icon disappeared from the Royal Palace and for many years there was no trace of it. Nobody knew what happened with the icon after that and it was thought that it had been destroyed in an German bombing on Belgrade.
But just before the German occupation, the image had been moved to the Orthodox Monastery of Ostrog, near Niksic, in Montenegro where it was jealously guarded by the monks. During Tito's rule the Yugoslavian communists stormed the monastery in 1952 and confiscated the sacred image that was in secret taken back to Belgrade. 
In 1978 the government decided to return the icon to Montenegro, handing over secretly the icon to the museum of Cetinje, where they were kept in the reserve collection and never exhibited, therefore nobody knew the image was safe.
In 1993 the Bishop of Montenegro confirmed that the image was in Montenegro and researchers were allowed to see the icon, and since 2002 the icon is located at the National Museum of Montenegro.
The Order of Malta, rightful owner of this precious icon has made attempts to recover it, but the museum is asking an incredible amount of money to return it.
The icon is in good condition, with both the painting and its precious covering still intact. This is quite surprising considering that over the last 1000 years this image has survived fires in churches, six or seven ottoman sieges, robbers and countless moves all over the Mediterranean, from Palestine to France and also all over the continent from Russia to Denmark. Just the survival of the image on these conditions attests to its sanctity. In 1987 the Holy See has decreed September 8th as the celebration day for the Virgin of Philermo.

This is the image without the golden cover which Tsar Paul I of Russia has given it.