Icons of the Theotokos: Panagia Koukouzelissa

Panagia Koukouzelissa

Panagia Koukouzelissa

Today’s icon, the Panagia Koukouzelissa, is named after John Koukouzelis, the famed chanter of the Lavra monastery on Mount Athos. John was born and raised in poverty in the 12th century, and it was from his humble diet of beans (koukia) and peas (bizelia) that he received his nickname of Koukouzelis.

When John became a young man he traveled to Constantinople to enter the Imperial Army, where Emperor Kominos made John the chief musician of the Court on account of his beautiful voice. Though John was exposed to wealth and privilege, what he truly desired was a life of asceticism, as he confessed when he met the visiting abbot of the Great Lavra. And when he learned that that the Emperor had arranged a court marriage for him, he fled, disappearing into anonymity for a time..

Remembering the Great Lavra, John eventually arrived at Mt. Athos, where he was tonsured as a monk and given the responsibility of shepherding the flocks–achieving the peace he desired. However, one day, a passing hermit heard John’s beautiful chanting and saw how the animals were calmed by it–and promptly informed the Abbot. The Abbot was shocked to see that he hardly recognized the man he once met, but asked John to stay in the monastery, and to begin chanting on Sundays.

One Saturday, John was participating in an all-night Vigil of the Akathist Hymn, and frankly, without much passion. He was sitting across from an icon of Theotokos, when he briefly closed his eyes–and then heard a voice exclaim “Salutations, John!” 

Opening his eyes, he saw the Theotokos standing in front of him, bathed in light. Again she spoke telling him, “Chant for me, and I will not leave you.” Then, she placed a gold coin in his hand, before departing.

Overcome with emotion, John fell to his knees, and from that point on, he began to put his whole effort into chanting. He hung his coin from the holy icon, which then became the source of many miracles and was named the Koukouzelia after him. When John’s unceasing prayer without sitting became such that sores developed on his feet, the Theotokos again appeared to him, restoring him to health. Eventually, John’s ascetic practice was such that he was able to forsee his own death. Receiving the blessing of the abbot he was buried on the monastery grounds, where the icon resides to this day.

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