In a chapel close to the main entrance of the monastery of Iviron, behind red decorated doors the famous icon Panagia Portaitissa can be venerated. A friendly monk who was on guard kindly gave me a postcard of the icon.
“Holy wonder-working icon of Panagia Portaitissa”, I read at the back of the postcard. Our Lady of the Gate. It had travelled to Athos on its own from Nicaea, the ancient city that the Turks call Iznik today, to escape the iconoclast ruler Theophilos. And later it was put in the katholikon but three times it moved itself outside the church over the gate. There is still a special entrance for the icon. For who knows it might want to escape again sometime. A monk had a vision in which the Virgin appeared and told him to build a special chapel for the icon. And so it happened. One of the miracles is the scar on Maria’s face, that bled.
Norwich writes that mentioning the fact that the icon is almost certain from the fourteenth century, and that Iviron was not yet build in iconoclastic times is not only a matter of bad manners, but even worse: it is to miss the point. We wouldn’t like to miss the point or misbehave.
The intimate relation between Russia and Athos, between worldly and spiritual powers, was illustrated by the recent visit of President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin to the monastic Republic. He came to celebrate a thousand years of Russian presence. So there are many stories to be told between the two. One is about the Panagia Portaitissa.
In the seventeenth century an exact copy of the Panagia Portaitissa was made. It was placed in a chapel in the Kremlin wall in Moscow; the Iviron Chapel at the Iberian gate. It was centrally situated right on the main entrance to the Red Square and venerated by all who entered the square.
H.G. Wells wrote in his 1920 book Russia in the shadows: “The celebrated miraculous shrine of the Iberian Madonna outside the Redeemer Gate was particularly busy. There were many peasant women, unable to get into the little chapel, kissing the stones outside. Just opposite to it, on a plaster panel on a house front, is that now celebrated inscription put up by one of the early revolutionary administrations in Moscow: “Religion is the Opium of the People.” The effect this inscription produces is greatly reduced by the fact that in Russia the people cannot read.”
The devotion irritated the Bolsheviks, they needed a broader approach for heavy military vehicles (parades!) anyway, so they destroyed the gate, the chapel and moved the icon in 1929. Instead they erected a statue of a worker.
The icon was moved to the Cathedral of the Resurrection in Sokolniki, also in Moscow.
But both the Iberian gate and the Iviron chapel were rebuild in 1996 and a new copied icon was flown in from Athos.