Our Most Holy Lady, Panagia, Mary the Mother of Jesus Christ has inspired Byzantine artists for nearly two thousand years. Her icons and mosaics give hope to all during the 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic. Her feast day August 15th, known as the Dormition of the Theotokos is celebrated by the Greek Orthodox Church, Eastern Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic Churches.
I am not a theologian or scholar. I would like to share my impressions of the Byzantine Art of the Panagia icons and mosaics on the August 15th Feast day of the Kimisis Tis Theotokou (Dormition of Panagia Mary). The memory of the icon of Panagia on Tinos island was kept alive in my family for over one hundred years. Every generation would say this church is the #1 place to visit. It has the miraculous Panagia Megalohari (great blessings). Pilgrims come here to pray for healing. Tinos is known as a sacred Greek Orthodox Pilgrimage site of the Church of the Panagia Evangelistria in the main town of Hora.
“The Church gives hope and miracles to the sick, as well as hope to the Greek Nation during their fight for freedom in 1821. The discovery of the icon in 1823, during the reconstruction of the church, was viewed as an omen by the revolutionary forces. The Greek revolutionary leaders, such as Kanaris, Miaoulis, Karaiskakis, Makrigiannis, Kolokotronis, Nikitaras and others believed it was their obligation to come to Tinos to worship at the icon. The first schools of Free Greece were begun by the Evangelistria Church.”
My late grandmother Despina from Tseme, Asia Minor, told me her maritime family viewed The Panagia (Virgin Mary) of Tinos as miraculous, saving many maritime boats. “This icon and island of worship was important to Romans (Greek) of the enslaved Aegean islands and Asia Minor. The Church gave them hope that they would be free. Thousands would come every year to worship at the Evangelistria Church. They came to pray for the rebirth and liberation of their enslaved country. Here, in this Church, in this institution, in this island, the still unfree Greeks met the freed children of Greece on free Greek soil. The seeds of revolutionary spirit were cultivated against the Turkish yoke. The pilgrims took this revolutionary spirit back to their country.”1
On our previous trip to Moscow, Russia, we visited the Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812 in Moscow. Russia. The 1812 battle was made famous by Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace. “In an exhibit on the eve of the Battle of Borodino, the icon of Our Lady of Smolensk (Panagia of Smolensk) was carried around the Russian positions to encourage the soldiers and to boost their morale before the general engagement. On the day of the Battle of Borodino, processions of three (Panagia) icons, Hodegetria of Smolensk, Our Lady of Vladimir and the Iveron Theotokos were carried around Bely Gorod, Kitai-Gorod and the Kremlin walls. This exhibit and video of the icon procession brought alive my Greek-American education at St. Demetrios Church in Astoria and our daughter’s education at St. Nicholas Church in Flushing, New York.3
Our guide and friend Irina Chetina of Moscow emailed us photos of the miraculous icon of Our Lady of Eleussa (Panagia of Eleussa). “On April 3, 2020, the Orthodox church celebrates the Glorification of the Holy Lady,” she said. “It is the only one day in the year when the Russian Patriarch transfers the icon of Our Lady Eleussa from his Moscow residence to the Cathedral of Appearance of Christ in Elokhovo (or Elokhovsky Cathedral in Moscow). Usually, hundreds of parishioners arrive for the Patriarch’s service to worship the holy image of the Virgin Mary before which St. Serafim Sarovsky, (one of the most venerated Russian saints) used to pray. Today before going to Elokhovsky church Patriarch Kirill made the Cross procession around Moscow by his car with the prayer to protect people from coronavirus. The procession lasted about two hours.”
“Many times, within the history of Moscow icons of Our Lady (Panagia) saved the city from troubles. In the 14th century image of Our Lady Vladimirskaya protected Moscow from Mongol khan Tamerlane. In the 17c, the icon of Our Lady Kazanskaya helped the Russian army to defeat Polish invaders. In the 19c, the Cross procession with the image of the Virgin Mary helped to resist the epidemic of cholera. In 1941 during the Great Patriotic war, the icons of Our Lady were carried by planes around Moscow and Leningrad, and both cities weren’t invaded by Hitler.” Russian Orthodox have an intense devotion to their Russian Orthodoxy.4
Persons interested in Venice’s Byzantine heritage must take a ride on a vaporato to the island of Torcello, the birthplace of the Venitian people. We went before the pandemic to see the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta. “Visit Torcello,” said Rev. Nicolas Madaro of St. George Greek Orthodox Church, Venice. “The Cathedral has beautiful mosaics.” I was unable to take photos indoors. The photo to buy is the Virgin Hodegetria mosaic. The main apse has an 11th-century mosaic of famous beauty of the standing Virgin Hodegetria, isolated against a huge gold background, above a register of standing saints.5
The most famous Panagia mosaic is in Hagia Sophia. The apse is the semi-dome located behind the altar. The mosaic decorating the apse in Hagia Sophia was completed during the 9th century. It is a representation of the Virgin Mary sitting on a backless throne, with young Jesus Christ on her lap. Set on a golden background, it creates a strong contrast with the dark color of her clothes. This mosaic is very important because it was the very first one created after iconoclasm. It was unveiled on March 29, 867, by Patriarch Photios I and Emperors Michael III and Basil I.6 Hagia Sophia was converted from a museum into a mosque. I saw it in 2019 before the pandemic.
On Sundays, I gaze at the Kimisis Tis Theotokou (Dormition of the Virgin Mary) in the Transfiguration Church, Mattituck, New York. George Filippakis is the legendary iconographer. His work is in over sixty churches in the United States. He will go down in history as one of the greatest iconographers. Mr. Filippakis is from Crete, El Greco’s birthplace. The Dormition of the Panagia is but one of the wall iconographies that is giving us hope during this 2020 pandemic, in a time of isolation.
Virtual services for August 15th are being streamed live, such as the Dormition Church, Southampton, New York and Panagia Soumela Church, New Jersey.
The Byzantine Empire no longer exists in its geographical centers. Byzantine civilization is alive in glorifying the most famous woman who ever lived: Our Lady, Mary, Panagia Despina. A multiplicity of cultures is united into a harmonious and self-confident whole in their veneration of this exceptional person. Panagia Mary iconography and mosaics gives us hope that we will survive pandemic and political upheavals. On August 15th Feast day, The Dormition of Our Lady Mary, Panagia will inspire, give strength and determination to all nations, inheritors of the Byzantine traditions.