Father Tryphon, Mother of God Hagia Gerontissa
Mary is highly revered in Orthodox Christianity as the Mother of God, or Theotokos,1 and her role on Athos reflects a continuing dedicated tradition of celebration, prayer, and iconography. In this icon, Mary faces to the right in the pose of the “Hagiosorotissa” a celebrated icon type from Constantinople’s Shrine of the Soros (Virgin’s Belt) that depicts the Virgin with hands lifted in prayer; this is also the gesture she deploys in depictions of the Deesis, interceding before Jesus with John the Baptist. Her posture and downturned countenance with elements of chiaroscuro, or dramatic shadowing, suggest a dramatic situation occurring outside the frame. However, her rosy cheeks and delicate hands reinforce her femininity and beauty as the Mother of God, indicated by two pairs of letters to the left and right of her head.the title inscribed in the Greek abbreviations at her head. The Virgin is pictured without the other members of the Deesis, so the object of her attention is unclear, but it is possibly Jesus’ crucifixion, due to her sorrowful appearance, or perhaps she simply reveres Jesus in solemn prayer.
The Virgin Mary holds high esteem on Athos – according to tradition, Mary’s ship due to Cyprus blew off course to Athos and they were forced to stop near where the Iveron monastery is today. Mary loved the land so much that Jesus bequeathed the land to her, and she blessed the peninsula and its people upon her departure. The monks cherish Mary’s special protection of her Garden, the reason why she holds high esteem on Athos.2 Among the more celebrated examples of the Gerontissa icon on Athos is the example in the Pantokrator Monastery.3
The small size of Father Tryphon’s icon indicates that it could have been meant for personal devotion. The smooth, golden background and Mary’s profound emotion realized by Tryphon evoke emotion and stimulate the senses in the viewer. This method of communication characterizes the icon’s Middle Byzantine style.4
Gerontissa, the name of this icon, can be translated as ‘elder.’ It derives from the legendary account of the icon of the same type at Pantokrator Monastery. The Abbot of the monastery, realizing that he was approaching death, asked the celebrant of the Eucharist to proceed more quickly so that he could receive commuion before dying. The priest refused the request, but Mary miraculously spoke through her icon, which was in the sanctuary adjacent the altar, and commanded the priest to do as the abbot had requested.5
Paschalidis, Symeon. The Holy Monastery of Pantokrator. A Pilgrim’s Guide, trans. by E. Tamiolakis, Mount Athos: Holy Monastery of Pantokrator, 2005, 67-73.
Pentcheva, Bissera. “The Performative Icon,” Art Bulletin 88, no. 4 (2006): 631-56.
Speake, Graham. Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise, 2nd edition, Limni, Evia, Greece: Denise Harvey, 2014; originally published by Yale University Press, 2002.
1Speake, Mount Athos. 21, 231.
2Speake, Mount Athos. 27.
3Fr. George Frangos, “The Holy Icon of Panagia Gerontissa, Holy Monastery of Pantocratoros Mount Athos” Agion Oros—Mount Athos, posted July 9, 2013 at http://holymountain-agionoros.blogspot.com/2013/07/0063-holy-icon-of-panagia-gerontissa.html; and Symeon Paschalidis, The Holy Monastery of Pantokrator, 67-73. The text of the legend was originally published in “Narration of the miracle-working icon of the Mother of God named Gerontissa” in Anotera Episkiasi epi tou Atho [Athos: In the Shadow of Heaven], Istanbul, 1861.
4Pentcheva. “The Performative Icon,” 636.
5The text of the legend was originally published in Anotera Episkiasi epi tou Atho [Athos: In the Shadow of Heaven], Istanbul, 1861; cited in Paschalidis, Holy Monastery of Pantokrator, 70.