I have talked often about a term relating mostly to Marian icons: явление — yavlenie. It means “appearance.” Specifically, it means when an icon later held to be “wonderworking” in Eastern Orthodoxy first first appears miraculous. That is a significant point. It is not when the icon first appears in the usual sense, but when it first appears to be miraculous.
So an icon may be known for many years, but it is only when it shows itself to be miraculous (in Eastern Orthodox belief), “wonderworking” — chudotvornaya — that it is said to have “appeared.”
Today’s icon is such an image. It was kept in the Monastery called Vatopedi on Mount Athos, which is a mountain of monastics in Greece, a mountain believed to be the property and under the protection of Mary. Traditionally, women are not allowed on Athos.
The icon was of Mary and the Christ Child. It was not considered particularly special until the day when it is said to have “appeared.” According to the origin story, it did not look as it once did after its appearance. The figures of Mary and Jesus within it are believed to have changed their positions, making the icon look quite different. If that seems strange to you, well, strange is the stuff of which “appearance” stories are made.
Here is the icon, called the OTRADA ILI UTYESHENIE, “JOY OR CONSOLATION,” as the title on it tells us. One may find either or both titles on an image of the type. It is also called (in Russia) the Vatopedskaya (“of Vatopedi”) icon, and in Greece it is called the Paramythia, the “Consolation” icon.
In the example above, only the central image follows the type of the original icon. The images of Genadios at left and of John the Forerunner (the Baptist) at right are additions.
As I was saying, the origin story relates that the icon did not originally look as it does now.
The traditional account says that in the year 807, a gang of pirates landed near the Vatopedi monastery and hid in the bushes, waiting for morning, when the gates would be opened. Then they could rush inside, subdue the monks and plunder the place. Matins had ended, and the Abbot was praying, as was his daily custom, before an icon of Mary.
Suddenly he heard a voice telling him not to open the monastery gates that day, but instead to go to the walls and disperse the robbers. He looked about to see where it was coming from, and to his amazement, he saw that the images of Mary and the child Jesus within the icon had come to life. But as he watched, he saw the child Jesus stretch out his hand to cover his mother’s mouth, saying severely, “No, my Mother, do not tell them; let them be punished.”
Mary, however, grasped her son’s hand, and holding it away from her mouth, turned her face from it and repeated the warning to the Abbot.
At once all the monks were called, and they were told what Mary had said. The monks were surprised to see that the positions of the Mother and Chld in the icon had changed, and they went to the walls and dispersed the pirates. And so the monastery was saved.
This icon type is characterized by Mary holding the hand of her son away from her mouth in the supposed “new” position of the icon figures.
The motif of the merciful Mary saving humans from the wrath her son — “staying the hand” of Jesus — is very much in keeping with the general beliefs of both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians in the Middle Ages, and partly accounts for the high veneration in which Mary was held.
In this particular example of the Otrada type, the image of Genadios at left bears not only his title inscription, but also these words:
“He heard a voice from the icon of the Most Holy Mother of God: “Do not open the gates of the monastery today.”
Examples of this icon type began to appear in Russia in the 19th century.