00066   Mother of God of Philermos.  Greek icon, 16th c.    Notes
From : Rev. Egon Sendler SJ, Les icônes byzantines de la Mère de Dieu, Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 1992

There seems to exist a high level of interest for this icon. One of the factors for it may well stem from the popular belief that the image shown on the icon strongly resembles the face of the Holy Virgin during her life on earth.

Historical accounts of the icon could be found in 2 articles. The 2nd, however, has disappeared. I therefore have taken the liberty to reprint below the 1st article which appeared in The Sunday Times, Malta, April 26, 1998.

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Our Lady of
Reprint of the Article in The Sunday Times, Malta

Our Lady of Philerme, Protector of the Order Feast, September 8 Our Lady of Philerme / Phileremos / Philermos / Filermo / Filérimos / Filéremos The Phileremos Madonna was considered by the Knights as their most precious possession. Touch image to enlarge. It got its name from the sanctuary on Mount Phileremos (Moní Filérimos) in Rhodes which was already the centre of a popular cult before the Knights conquered the island in 1306-9. The Rhodians, who venerated it under the title of ('The Mother of God of Phileremos') piously believed that it was painted by St. Luke and brought to Rhodes from Jerusalem about the year 1000. Its fame as a wonder-working image was known all over the Aegean.

Fifteenth century travellers' accounts mention the citadel on Mount Phileremos and report on the icon with its sanctuary and adjoining monastery on which the Knights lavished their munificence. Two new chapels were added to the sanctuary by Grandmaster Pierre d'Aubusson after the siege of 1480 which, according to the eye-witness account of Guillaume Caoursin, had been settled in favour of the Knights by the intercession of the Virgin and St. John the Baptist. During the siege the icon had been transferred for safety inside the walls of the city and the same precaution was adopted in 1513 when there was a threat of an invasion, and in the siege of 1522. On the latter occasion it was placed in the church of St. Mark.

After the loss of Rhodes, the icon followed the Knights on their seven year exile and, between 1524- 27, it was venerated in the collegiate church of SS. Faustino and Giovita at Viterbo. In Malta it was placed in the church of St. Lawrence at Birgu where it escaped damage when the church was destroyed by fire in 1532. After the building of Valletta, it was transferred first to the church of the Virgin of Victories and subsequently to the conventual church when a chapel had been prepared to receive it.

The icon was venerated behind a crystal panel and it had four silver 'dresses' set with pearls and precious stones. After the Napoleonic conquest of Malta in 1798, it was one of the few treasures that Grandmaster Ferdinand von Hompesch was permitted to take out of the island. On 12 October 1799, after the resignation of Hompesch, it was presented, together with the relics of the Hand of the Baptist and a splinter of the True Cross, to Tsar Paul I who had, meanwhile, been elected Grandmaster by a few rebel knights. Though the election was completely irregular, it was accepted in the hope that Paul's influence might regain Malta for the Knights. The presentation was made by the Order's representative, the Count de Litta, in the imperial residence of Gatchina about 40 kilometres outside St. Petersburg.

After Paul's death in 1801, the icon, covered with a gold riza set with precious stones, was transferred to the Winter Palace at St. Petersburg. It survived the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 because, when the palace was stormed, it was in a church at Gatchina, together with the other relies of the Knights, for a celebration in their honour on 12 October. In 1920, the icon and the relics somehow found themselves in the luggage of the dowager empress, Maria Feodorowna, who had sought asylum in her native Denmark. Before she died in 1928, the empress entrusted them to her daughters, the Grand duchesses Xenia Alessandrowna and Olga Alessandrowna, who passed them to the President of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Bishops in Exile, Archbishop Antoniye of Kieff and Galizia. They were taken to the newly built Russian church in Berlin but, in 1929, they were transferred to Belgrade where in April 1932 they were officially consigned to the custody of Alexander I of Yugoslavia. They were kept in the chapel of the royal palace of Dedinje until 1941 when owing to the threat of the Nazi invasion they were, apparently, sent to the Orthodox Monastery of Ostrog, near Niksic, in Montenegro.

The original icon of Our Lady of Philermos, now in the National Museum of Cetinje, Montenegro. The icon is in good condition, with both the painting and its precious covering still intact. This is quite surprising considering all it had been through and the poverty of the people in the places where this precious treasure had been preserved. It measures 50 by 37cm and has a rich gold covering which leaves only the face of the Virgin exposed. On the gold covering there is the eight-pointed cross in enamel that radiated round the head of the Virgin. A precious halo surrounds the face, decorated with a row of precious stones and adorned with nine huge rubies alternating with diamonds set in a flower pattern. One of the rubies is missing but it seems it had been missing even when it was handed to King Alexander.

The robe of the Virgin has a neckline with a double tow of diamonds, a necklace of sapphires and diamonds, and hanging from it, six sapphires in the shape of drops. The central sapphire is missing and seems to have been replaced with an earring. Surrounding the picture is a gold frame, with winged angels at the corners, and trophies of the Order in the middle. Now that the icon has been found, a serious iconographic and stylistic study is possible and indeed desirable. This has been impossible till now, as it had only been known through copies. Article in: The Sunday Times, Malta, April 26, 1998.

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