Monday, 4 November 2013

Marian Monday: Axion Estin

The Axion Estin (It is Truly Meet) is originally the title of a theotokion (Marian hymn) popular in the Eastern Church. Tradition tells us that the hymn has an angelic origin:
During the reign of the emperors Basil and Constantine Porphyrogenitos, a certain Elder and his disciple lived near Karyes, the administrative center of the Holy Mountain. 
One Saturday night, the Elder went to Karyes for an all-night vigil. He instructed his disciple to remain behind and read the service in their cell. As it grew dark, the disciple heard a knock on the door. When he opened the door, he saw an unknown monk who called himself Gabriel, and he invited him to come in. They stood before the icon of the Mother of God and read the service together with reverence. 
During the Ninth Ode of the Canon, the disciple began to sing "My soul magnifies the Lord…" with the Irmos of St Cosmas the Hymnographer: "More honorable than the Cherubim…." 
The stranger sang the next verse, "For He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden…." Then he chanted something the disciple had never heard before, "It is truly meet to bless Thee, O Theotokos, ever-blessed and most pure, and the Mother of our God…" Then he continued with, "More honorable than the Cherubim.…" 
While the hymn was being sung, the icon of the Theotokos shone with a heavenly light. The disciple was moved by the new version of the familiar hymn, and asked his guest to write the words down for him. When the stranger asked for paper and ink, the disciple said that they did not have any. 
The stranger took a roof tile and wrote the words of the hymn on its surface with his finger. The disciple knew then that this was no ordinary monk, but the Archangel Gabriel. Then he disappeared, and the icon of the Mother of God continued to radiate light for some time afterward.

The icon of Axion Estin can be recognised by the following specifics:

  • Mary and Child Jesus, both usually crowned, appear facing to the left side of the viewer, with eyes typically looking directly at the viewer, although some renditions may portray their eyes gazing upwards to the heavens, or downwards to the earth.
  • Mary's left hand supports the sitting Child Jesus, while her right hand holds Jesus's right arm or hand, which holds a parchment, open or rolled.
  • Alternatively, Mary's right hand and Jesus's right hand may be holding that same parchment.
  • If open, the parchment reads: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me." (Luke 4:18)
  • There is usually a pair of angels near Mary's head who are touching Mary's crown, or crowning her. This indicates that the queenly status of Mary is bestowed upon her in Heaven, whereas Jesus's kingly status is inherent, not given.
  • If the icon is coloured, Mary is usually depicted wearing her usual Theotokos garments: red veil covering a blue robe underneath. In iconography, red is the colour of divinity and blue is the colour of humanity, a fitting representation of the human Mary clothed in divinity (adult Christ, such as in the icon of Pantocrator is usually depicted wearing the colours in an exactly opposite manner: the divine Christ clothed in humanity). However in this icon, Child Jesus usually wears white.

Below is an English-language rendition of the Byzantine hymn of Axion Estin — thanks to St. Peter's List for finding it and posting it first:


It is truly meet to bless thee, O Theotokos,
ever blessed, and most pure, and the Mother of our God,
more honorable than the cherubim,
and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim,
who without corruption gavest birth to God the Word.
True Theotokos, we magnify thee!

The Eastern Church commemorates the icon on June 11 and July 13. The appearance of the Archangel Gabriel to a monk on Mt. Athos, and the revelation of the hymn "It is Truly Meet" is commemorated on June 11.

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