A SINGING STRANGER: THE “IT IS FITTING” ICON

Today we will look at another of the famous so-called “miracle-working” icons from Mount Athos, the strictly male monastic mountain found on a peninsula jutting into the Aegean sea in Macedonia, northern Greece. There are 20 monasteries on what is known as the “Holy Mountain,” and the whole place is considered the “property” of Mary, who is its spiritual abbess.

The Athos “wonderworking” icons became popular in Russia as well, though the Greek Orthodox do not seem to have the same fondness for “wonderworking” icons originating in Russia, which are far greater in number.

As you can see, this rendering of the Athos icon Dostoino est “It is Fitting” shows the influence of Western European art, not the traditional old Russian stylization. In fact Russian icons of the Dostoino est type in general are painted in the more “Italianate” manner. The reason is that the “It is Fitting” icon did not gain popularity in Russia until the second half of the 19th century, long after the State Orthodox Church had adopted western European realism following the schism with the Old Believers:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: http://www.russianicons.net/)

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: http://www.russianicons.net/)

The origin story of this icon type relates that the icon, in the 10th century, was kept in the cell of a priest and a novice living not far from Karies. On June 11, in the year 980, the priest went to attend an all-night vigil at a Karies church, leaving his novice alone to perform his own worship service there in the cell.

As day darkened into night, the novice heard a knock at the door. Opening it, he found a stranger, also a monk, standing there. The stranger asked to spend the night in the cell, and the novice consented. When the time to perform the service came, both the novice and the stranger went before an icon of Mary that at that time was called “Miluiushaya,” “Merciful.” When they reached a certain point in the service, the novice intoned the Marian hymn, “More Honorable Than Cherubim.” But suddenly the stranger began to sing, in the sweetest voice, a hymn to Mary that the novice had never heard:

It is truly fitting to bless you, O Birthgiver of God,
You the ever-blessed, and most pure, and mother of our God.
More honorable than cherubim,
And incomparably more glorious than the seraphim,
Who without corruption gave birth to God the Word,
You the true Theotokos, we magnify you.”

(Достоино есть яко воистину блажити Тя Богородицу,
Присноблаженную и Пренепорочную, и Матерь Бога нашего!
Честнѣйшую Херувимъ, и славнѣйшую безъ сравненiя Серафимъ,
безъ истлѣнiя Бога Слова рождшую,
сущую Богородицу Тя величаемъ!)

And then the stranger finished by adding “More Honorable than Cherubim.”

The novice was amazed, and said that he was accustomed to singing only “More Honorable Than Cherubim.” Neither he nor his ancestors were familiar with the stranger’s hymn. He asked the guest to write it down. But when the stranger asked for pen and paper, the novice replied that he had none. So the stranger requested instead a slab of stone. The novice brought one and gave it to the him, and he began to write upon it with his finger, and the stone softened at his touch like wax, forming the words of the new hymn.

When he had finished writing, the stranger said, “From now on, sing it thus, you and all Christians.” Then suddenly he vanished in a flash, and the novice realized that the sweet singer had been an angel. Tradition considers the angel to have been the Archangel Gabriel. And so the “Miluiushaya” icon was given a new name, the beginning words of the stranger’s hymn, Axion estin (in Greek) and it Church Slavic it is Dostoino est — “It is Fitting.”

Now let’s read the icon. First, there is the image of Lord Sabaoth, God the Father, at the top:

He is surrounded by winged heads, very “Western” images of cherubs. The white ray extending downward from his mouth shows that he is breathing forth the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. At left is the Archangel Mikhail (Michael), and at right the Archangel Gavriil (Gabriel). In the left rectangle is the standard abbreviation MP (Meter/Mother) and at right the second part of Mary’s title, ΘΥ (Theou/of God). This title is commonly found on all icons of Mary, whether Russian or Greek.

The scroll in the hand of the Christ Child (Christ Immanuel) has a text often held by Immanuel in various icons:

It bears the words of Luke 4:18, taken from Isaiah 61:1:

ДУХЪ ГОСПОДЕНЬ НА МНЕ ЕГОЖЕ РАДИ ПОМАЗА МЯ БЛАГОВЕСТИТИ НИЩЫМЪ ПОСЛА МЯ…
Dukh gospden na mne egozhe radi pomaza mya blagovestiti nishchuim posla mya…

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he has sent me….

Now let’s take a look at the scroll found at the base of the image, an addition to the basic image that tells the viewer something about the original icon and of this particular copy:

The scroll reads:

“Before this wonderworking icon the holy Archangel Gabriel sang ‘It is fitting that truly we should bless…’ etc. It was kept on the Holy Mountain Athos at the Protaton Church; it [meaning the copy] was sent with the blessings of the Russian Panteleimon Monastery on Mount Athos to the Alexeiev-Arzamas Convent.”

Arzamas is located in the Nizhniy-Novgorod Oblast in Russia.

The title of the “It Is Fitting” icon is found variously translated into English as “It Is Meet,” “It is Worthy,” etc.

For completeness, here is the “Axion Estin” hymn in Greek:

Ἄξιόν ἐστιν ὡς ἀληθῶς,
μακαρίζειν σε τὴν Θεοτόκον,
τὴν ἀειμακάριστον καὶ παναμώμητον
καὶ μητέρα τοῦ Θεοῦ ἡμῶν.
Τὴν τιμιωτέραν τῶν Χερουβεὶμ
καὶ ἐνδοξοτέραν ἀσυγκρίτως τῶν Σεραφείμ,
τὴν ἀδιαφθόρως Θεὸν Λόγον τεκοῦσαν,
τὴν ὄντως Θεοτόκον,
σὲ μεγαλύνομεν.

You should also be aware that there are more elaborate icons, quite different from the example above in appearance, that are also given the Dostoino est title, but they are less common.  Here is a 16th century Russian example:

 

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