Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Byzantine Feast of the Protection of the Mother of God

On the Julian Calendar, today is October 1st, and in the Byzantine Rite, a feast known as the “Protection (or “Intercession”) of the Most Holy Mother of God.” It is particularly important among the Slavs, celebrated as a national holiday in Ukraine, and a legal holiday in parts of Russia and Belarus. Liturgically, it is kept almost on a par with the group of major feasts of Our Lord and Our Lady known as the Twelve Great Feasts, but without a Forefeast or Afterfeast, the Byzantine equivalents of the Roman Rite’s vigils and octaves.
In the 5th century, the Byzantine Empress St Pulcheria built a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in a suburb of Constantinople called Blachernae, which was later enclosed within the city walls. This would become the city’s most important Marian shrine, and among all of its churches second in importance only to Hagia Sophia. Shortly after its construction, two citizens of the imperial capital were said to have found the robe of the Virgin Mary while visiting the Holy Land, and to have brought it back to the city and enshrined it in this church; an ancient icon of the Virgin was also housed there, of the type now called from it Blachernitissa. Later writers tell of a miracle which took place in the church so often it came to be known as the “habitual miracle.” This tradition found its way to the West, and is recorded in the rubrics of the Missal of Sarum, as an explanation of the custom of celebrating a Mass in honor of the Virgin every Saturday.
An icon now kept in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, long believed to be original Blachernitissa, now generally thought to be a copy. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
“In a certain church of the city of Constantinople, there was an image of the Blessed Virgin, before which there hung a veil which covered the whole image. But on Friday after Vespers, this veil withdrew from the image, with no one moving it, by a miracle of God alone, as if it were being born up to heaven so that the image could be fully seen. Once Vespers had been celebrated on Saturday, the veil descended once again before the image, and remained there until the following Friday. Once this miracle had been seen, it was decreed that that day should always be celebrated in honor of the Virgin.”
On several occasion, the Virgin of the Blachernae had interceded to save Constantinople from various attacks and sieges; in 860, a fleet of the Rus’, not yet converted to Christianity, had been sunk by a storm when the Patriarch of had touched the Virgin’s belt to the waters of the Bosposrus.
According to the traditional story, in the year 910, Constantinople was besieged once again, by either the Saracens or the Rus’. On the night between a Friday and Saturday, a special vigil was held in the Blachernae church to beg the Mother of God once again for the intercession; a “holy fool” called Andrew was present for this, with a disciple of his called Epiphanius, as well as the patriarch and the imperial family. In the very early hours of the morning, Andrew beheld a vision in which the church’s dome opened up, and the Mother of God descended into it, together with many angels and saints, who knelt down before the royal doors of the iconostasis and prayed for all those gathered in the church, and all those who asked Her Son for Her protection. When She finished praying, the Virgin then took off Her veil, and spread it over everyone in the church.
One of the best examples of the icon for this feast is this one from Novgorod, one of the oldest cities in Russia, painted ca. 1565. 
Public domain -image from Wikimedia Commons.
In the upper register, the church of the Blachernae is represented in the typical Russian style, with three of the classic onion domes. At the upper left is shown an equestrian statue of the Emperor Justinian on a column. This column and statue stood on the western side of a great public square in Constantinople called the Augustaion, between Hagia Sophia and imperial palace, until 1515, when they were destroyed by the Ottomans. Two of the church’s domes, the roof, the Emperor’s robe, the seraphs supporting Christ, and the Archangel Michael (to the left) are all painted in red, in accordance with a well-known, although now archaic, feature of the Russian language, that the word “krasni” means both “red” and “beautiful.”
Beneath Christ, the Virgin’s robe, also red, is stretched out over the crowd in the church by the Archangels Michael and Gabriel; to either side of Her are shown the various orders of Saints, all of them standing on clouds.
In the lower register, at the far left is seen the Empress Theophano with her attendants; she was the first of the four wives of the Emperor Leo VI “the Wise”, and is venerated as a Saint in the East. (In reality, she had died in 897, and by 910, Leo was on his canonically illicit fourth marriage.) Leo himself stands on an elevated pulpit; note that both emperor and empress are wearing red cloaks. There follows a group of deacons and subdeacons, and on the opposite side, a group of priests in white. Next to them is the Patriarch, Euthymius I; an acolyte at the base of his pulpit holds his crosier. At the far right, St Andrew, looking much like John the Baptist, points out the Mother of God to Epiphanius, asking him if he sees Her, to which he replies, “I do, my spiritual father.”
The man in the middle of the lower register, wearing a red stikharion and crossed stole, is one of the great hymnographers of the Byzantine liturgy, St Romanos the Melodist, who lived in the 6th century (ca. 490-556). He is included here in part because his feast day is also on October 1st. As is the case with many of the great composers of the Byzantine liturgy, a considerable number of texts have been attributed to him incorrectly or dubiously; traditionally, he was long said to be the author of one of the most famous hymns (or rather, collection of hymns) in honor of the Virgin Mary, known as the Akathist. (Scholars now generally ascribe it to a later period than that of Romanos.) One of the dominant themes of this composition is the protection of the Virgin; its opening words are “I, Thy city, as one delivered from fearful things, record for Thee, o Mother of God, my defender and leader, these words of victory and thanksgiving; but do Thou, as one that hath invincible might, free me from dangers of every kind, that I may cry out to Thee, ‘Rejoice, o unwedded Bride!’ ”
The Slavonic tropar of the feast: “Protected by your appearance, o Mother of God, today we your devout people solemnly celebrate. Gazing upon your most pure icon, we fervently say: Protect us with your holy veil, and deliver us from all evil, imploring your Son, Christ our God, to save our souls.”

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