Writing "The Hermit, The Icon and The Emperor"
by Chrissi Hart
I never dreamed that Conciliar Press would be interested in another book after accepting Under the Grapevine for publication, but I optimistically set out to write The Hermit, The Icon and The Emperor: The Holy Virgin Comes to Cyprus.
When I traveled to London, England in May 2005, my mother handed me a framed paper icon of the Eleousa of Kykkos and said, “Would you like to take this back with you?” Would I? Of course I would! This planted the seed for my story.
She didn’t know that I was already planning my second picture book about this sacred icon that is housed at the Holy Monastery of Kykkos, one of the most significant spiritual centers in Cyprus. I felt that God was sending me an affirmation to write this story.
When I returned to the US, I plucked the Handbook of Kykkos Monastery from my bookshelf that I had purchased on my pilgrimage in 2000, and began my research on this thousand-year-old legend of The Royal and Holy Stavropegic Monastery of Kykkos. The Byzantine Emperor, Alexios I Komnenos founded the monastery in the eleventh century when Cyprus was part of the East Roman Empire.
The main treasure at Kykkos Monastery is the miracle-working icon of the Eleousa, the merciful Mother of God, written by Saint Luke the evangelist and first iconographer. It is one of three original icons commissioned by the Virgin Mary and is also known as the Kykkotissa. The Holy Virgin held and blessed these icons when she said, “The grace of the One born of me be with them through me.” It is her touch that provides the panel with miraculous power. For this reason, the Eleousa is believed to be grace-filled and is a symbol of great pride and salvation in Cyprus.
According to legend, the Archangel Gabriel gave Saint Luke the boards from the Tree of Knowledge in Paradise on which he wrote the icons seven years after the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Icon of the Eleousa is famous throughout the Orthodox world for answering prayers for rain in times of drought and for protecting sailors. I was intrigued with the wooden model ships hanging from various points around the monastery, which are offered in supplication to the Theotokos. The first account of the Kykkotissa as a miracle worker is in the fire of 1365 when a paralytic saved the Icon.
The dynamic image of the Eleousa, with the Holy Virgin’s distinctive crimson red veil and bare footed kicking Christ child held on her left arm, has been replicated over hundreds of years. Other Kykkotissa style icons can be found at The Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mt Sinai, Egypt and in Southern Italy.
On my last visit to Cyprus I was able to reverence the precious icon, which sits to the left of the royal gate on the icon screen at Kykkos Monastery. However, a heavy curtain exposing a gleaming silver cover encrusted with a large rectangular emerald and diamonds around the Theotokos’ wrist, veils two thirds of the icon. I joined the long line of people waiting to reverence the icon and gazed in awe at a sacred panel painted by saintly hands and imagined the presence of the holy Virgin radiating her grace behind the veil.
Monks at Kykkos Monastery admonish pilgrims with the statement, “Holy Virgin held this icon in her hands,” which I wove into my story. The most holy monks have witnessed the Holy Virgin walking around the monastery, with a golden halo around her head. Thus, the princess in the story announces her dream of a beautiful lady “with a golden sun around her head.”
Although the story of the Eleousa of Kykkos is an integral part of my Greek-Cypriot heritage, I needed to find an historian with whom I could consult. I explored online and located Professor Annemarie Weyl Carr, now Professor Emeritus of Art History at Southern Methodist University, Texas. For over ten years, she researched the Kykkotissa and was the expert I sought. I felt blessed to find her, and realized that God truly provides!
About the same time, I contacted Dr. Andreas Jakovljevic, Director of Kykkos Monastery Research Center in Nicosia, Cyprus, who gave me his scholarly books. He is my sole contact with the Monastery.
Professor Carr describes the Kykkotissa “As one of Orthodox Christianity’s longest-lived and most active cult icons.” I was impressed by her views of icons as dynamic, not static, endlessly renegotiating their lives, finding new meanings to answer the new needs of their devotees. She reflects on the questions that the Kykkotissa poses for the historian of icons, beginning with the question most often asked – Why is the Kykkotissa veiled?
When the icon was at the Imperial Palace in Constantinople, it stood open and was not veiled. Since the mid-eighteenth century, however, the holy faces of the Christ Child and the Virgin Mary have been hidden from view by a silver jewel encrusted cover, possibly to inspire more reverence, or because those who attempted to lift the veil were punished.
King Erekle II of Georgia donated the heavy embroidered silk veil that covers the wonderworking icon with the following inscription translated by Niko Chocheli:
“O Lord God, hope of Christendom, know and remember that we put our hopes in you.
Your slave Erekle II, King of Upper Iberia, Daria and daughter Tatiana, wishing to donate to the heavenly Mother of God, this gift for preserving and strengthening our Kingdom. 1780.”
The spiritual and historical connection between Cyprus and Georgia became apparent to me through this inscription on the veil. Both countries come under the sovereign protection of the Holy Theotokos along with her garden, Mount Athos. The Holy Virgin Mary did indeed go to Cyprus when she visited Saint Lazarus and graced the island by her presence. But this is another story.
After Christ brought him back to life, Lazarus fled Bethany and sought sanctuary on the island where he lived another thirty years. He became Bishop of Kitium, now known as Larnaca, where his church displays his precious skull in a glass covered case.
Hymns dedicated to the honor of the Mother of God of Kykkos, glorify her as “the Queen of all the world, joy of all the angels and mediator of all the sinful. She is the pride of the Cypriots, boast of the Orthodox, victory and trophy of the emperors against the visible and invisible enemies, glory and wealth.”
My research led me down fascinating avenues while exploring ancient Cyprus and Byzantine culture and history. Anna Comnena’s The Alexiad, provided vivid details about her father, Emperor Alexios Komnenos as well as Boutoumites, the esteemed general in my story. The characters in my book are real historical figures. Tracy Barrett’s Anna of Byzantium, is a fascinating fictionalized story of Princess Anna Comnena you may want to check out.
The icon’s legend is described in several narratives written for adults, but I felt it was important for children to learn about the legend in language they could understand. I hoped that such a story would inspire and capture the imagination of young minds and interest them in the glory of Byzantium. In writing this story, I also connected with Cyprus – my beloved birthplace.
Let me share this anecdote with you of how my writing was inspired. One Sunday while at church, I was singing the Axion Estin hymn in the choir and visualized the journey of an icon. I saw Isaiah step ashore carrying the precious icon high in the air to a supernatural welcome. It was as if the very person depicted in the icon emerged from the wooden panel and stepped onto Cypriot soil. And then the pine trees bowed in reverence and the seashells rose out of the sea and followed the procession up to the top of Kykkos’ hill.
I realized that there were gaps in the legend of the Kykkotissa: Who was the princess? What type of bird sang the prophetic song? Where was the icon housed at the Imperial Palace in Constantinople? Where were the other two original icons by Saint Luke?
Historians have questioned whether the Emperor was Alexios Komnenos or Isaac Komnenos, and have described the latter as a whoremonger who did have a beloved daughter. However the historical link between Boutoumites and Alexios Komnenos makes it more likely that the founder of the monastery was the Byzantine Emperor Alexios Komnenos. He is depicted in mosaics and frescoes throughout the monastery and also in Ephraim the Athenian’s narrative and in Maicharas’ chronicles of Cyprus.
Alexios Komnenos’s first daughter was Anna Komnena, the world’s first female historian and the princess in The Hermit, The Icon and The Emperor. No one knows how old the princess was when she became ill, thus it is left to the artist’s imagination as to how to depict her in the book.
As for the icon itself, it is not known where it was housed at the Imperial Palace in Constantinople; although it was likely to be somewhere prominent. There appear to be differing accounts regarding the other two original icons written by Saint Luke. The Great Synaxaristes states that one icon is at the Monastery of the Great Cave in the Peloponnesos, and the other is at the Monastery of Soumela at Kastania in Northern Greece.
It took six months to research and write The Hermit, The Icon and The Emperor. My mentor Judy Wolfman helped critique my final manuscript after I had revised it multiple times. The manuscript then went through the editorial process until it was finally polished. When my editor Jane Meyer asked for several adjectives to describe the “look” that I wanted in the artwork, I knew that it had to be, “Beautiful, Byzantine, rich, detailed, colorful, and spiritual.” I could already visualize and feel the book in my hands.
It was as though I was led by God’s hand from beginning to end and given all the assistance I needed. Niko Chocheli’s rich, Byzantine iconographic art style was a perfect fit for the text and I therefore suggested him as a possible illustrator for the book.
The Hermit, The Icon and The Emperor: The Holy Virgin Comes to Cyprus was published in November 2008 by Conciliar Press Ministries, with rich, jewel toned Byzantine illustrations by Niko Chocheli. It is a book for children and adults of all ages, that tells the story of the most important and sacred icon of the Mother of God in Cyprus, inspired by the Holy Spirit in both word and image. To preview the book or see the photo gallery of Kykkos Monastery, please visit www.chrissihart.com. For a virtual tour of part of Kykkos Monastery visit, http://cyprus.arounder.com/it/chiese/panagia-tou-kykkou/CY000006237.html
Through the intercessions of the Theotokos, O Savior save us.
Comnena, A. Trans. By Sewter, E.R.A. (1969). The Alexiad. Penguin: New York.
Barrett, T. (1999) Anna of Byzantium. Laurel-Leaf Books.
Hein, E, Jakovljevic, A and Kleidt, B. (1998). Cyprus: Byzantine Churches ad Monasteries, Mosaics and Frescoes. Melina-Verlag, Ratingen.
Jakovljevic, A. (1996) Ephraim the Athenian: A Narrative of the Founding of the Holy Monastery of Kykkos and the History of the Miraculous Icon of the Mother of God. Research Centre of Kykkos Monastery: Nicosia.
Jakovljevic, A. (1998) The Miracles of the Mother of God at the Holy Monastery of Kykkos. Research Centre of Kykkos Monastery: Nicosia
Kokkinoftas, K. and Theocharides, I. (1995) Handbook of Kykkos Monastery. Kykkos Monastery Research Centre. Nicosia
Maguire, H. (1997) Byzantine Court Culture from 829 to 1204. Harvard University Press. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.
Makhairas, L. (1932) Recital Concerning the Sweet Land of Cyprus entitled ‘Chronicle’ ed. And trans. R.M. Dawkins. Oxford Clarendon Press.
Sherard, P. (1965) Constantinople: Iconography of a Sacred City. London Oxford University Press, New York, Toronto
The Great Synaxaristes of the Orthodox Church. October. (2002) Holy Apostles Convent: Buena Vista, Colorado.
Weyl Carr, A. (2004) Reflections on the Life of an Icon: The Eleousa of Kykkos. Ebetiritha series of Research Centre of Kykkos Monastery: Nicosia.
Weyl Carr, A. The Holy Icons: A Lusignan Asset? In: Weiss, D.H. & Mahoney, L. France and the Holy Land: Frankish Culture at the End of the Crusades. The John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore.