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Monastery of Panagia Hodegetria

Ruins within ground of Topkapı Palace proposed to be the remains of the monastery

From the Nicholas V. Artamonoff Collection

The Monastery of Panagia Hodegetria (or Hodegon Hodegetria) was located east of Hagia Sophia. Its hagiasma (sacred spring) and famous icon of the Virgin Hodegetria made it an important pilgrimage site in Constantinople. 
Its name, Hodegon (‘of guides’) apparently derives from monks who led blind pilgrims to a miraculous spring (hagiasma) that was able to restore sight. According to a later tradition, Pulcheria founded the Hodegetria (along with the Blachernai and the Chalkoprateia), in part to house important relics. However it was probably built by Michael III, though its hagiasma dates to an earlier period. It later housed the Icon of the Virgin Hodegetria, which according to tradition, was painted by St. Luke himself. This famous icon, though, is not recorded until the 11th century, while its louma (ritual bath) also is not mentioned until the 12th century. Yet the reign of Michael III, which saw the Triumph of Orthodoxy, seems to be a very appropriate moment for the time of their creation. 
In the Palaiologan period, its scriptorium flourished, producing luxurious manuscripts. The Palaiologan emperors were closely associated with the monastery and visited frequently. Andronikos III, for example, died there in 1341. By the Late Byzantine era, the icon of Hodegetria was carried in procession through the streets every Tuesday, attended by large crowds hoping to be cured. Thus, the hagiasma at Hodegon was overshadowed by its icon, just as the hagiasma at Blachernai was similarly eclipsed by its more famous icon. During the late 13th and 14th century, the monastery was granted to the patriarchate of Antioch as a metochion, and served as a residence for Syrian monks visiting Constantinople. 
During the occupation of Istanbul, the French army camping at Topkapı excavated the region in 1922-23, bringing to light the ruins of several structures in the Mangana quarter, including ruins identified as the Hodegon. There was not enough time to excavate the entire region, though the results were later published by Demangel and Mamboury. The ruins discovered as the tentative Hodegon included a hexaconch. Although scholars are divided on its identification, topographical descriptions of the Hodegetria indicate it was vaguely located in the vicinity of these ruins. The hexaconch has subsequently been identified as the hagiasma or possibly baptistery of the Hodegetria . It is also possible that a small chamber down the hill from the hexaconch was the hagiasma. It has also been argued it was located further south.

Plan by Mamboury

Icon of the Virgin Hodegetria

The Icon of the Virgin Hodegetria was housed, at least from the 12th century onward, in the Hodegon Monastery in Constantinople. According to tradition, it was the icon was painted by St. Luke, though this tradition only appeared at a much later date.  The image depicts the Virgin holding the Christ Child on her left arm. She gestures toward him with her right hand while directing her gaze either at the viewer or off into the distance. Christ sits erect and comfortable in her arms, looking directly out of the picture, while holding a scroll on his lap, and blessing with his right hand.

John II Komnenos requested that it be brought to the Pantokrator Monastery and kept overnight near his tomb on the days commemorating his death or that of his wife. In 1187, it was taken up onto the walls to protect the city under siege. According to a later tradition, it was first taken to the walls in the 7th century. During the Latin occupation the icon was kept in the Pantokrator Monastery, but it was later returned by Michael VIII Palaiologos after the reconquest of Constantinople. During the 14th century, it was regularly taken to the Blachernai Palace the Thursday before Palm Sunday, and remained there until Easter Monday. The icon was also paraded on every Tuesday, when it attracted large crowds.

The Hodegetria was the most widely copied of all types of the Virgin. It also appears in other images, including icons of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. A miniature in the Hamilton Psalter may also represent the icon itself. The somewhat more sentimental  Virgin Eleousa  type grew out of the Hodegetria image, in which the balance between reserve and affection was always strictly maintained.

Triptych Icon of the Virgin and Child with Saints

Constantinople, 10th century

Walters Art Museum

The center of this exquisite triptych (three-paneled icon) shows the Virgin holding the Christ Child and pointing toward him with her right hand. This portrait type of the Virgin is known as “Hodegetria,” named after a famous icon in the Hodegon monastery in Constantinople, believed in the Middle Ages to have been painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist. On the wings, two pairs of unnamed saints pay homage to the Virgin and Child. Barely visible traces of pigment and gold remain on this triptych, indicating that it was once brightly colored. The panels of the triptych were cut down at some point, and the wings and central section do not align perfectly, suggesting that this object might be the result of two earlier pieces being joined together.

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Copper-gilt icon of the Virgin Hodegetria

Constantinople, c. 1050-1100

V&A Museum


Inscribed in Greek: “Mother of God, strengthen thy servant Philip the bishop…”

This Byzantine plaque is a type of image known as the ‘Mother of God showing the Way’. It was found on the Venetian island of Torcello, and the inscription, commemorating a 'bishop Philip' is probably a later, Italian addition. This is a good example of the sort of Byzantine object that made its way into Europe between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. The plaque may even have been part of the plunder from the Fourth Crusade, which sacked Constantinople in 1204. Images of this sort were an inspiration to Venetian artists who created similar reliefs as altar furnishings. Byzantine images and object types were an important inspiration for Western European artists and patrons at various times throughout the middle ages.
Embossed copper-gilt plaque representing the Virgin standing on an ornamental pedestal, holding the Christ child in her left arm, and gesturing towards him with her right hand. Christ looks up at his mother, and grasps her mantle with his right hand. Along the top of the plaque is a punched ornamental border, along with a hole in the centre. There are traces of a similar border along the left hand side of the plaque. The plaque has been trimmed at the bottom and the side. It has also been regilded.

Icon of the Virgin Hodegetria of Smolensk

Russia, Late 16th century

State Hermitage Museum

The Virgin Hodegetria (‘she who shows the way’) was the Byzantine name for a ceremonial image of the Virgin and the Christ Child. Soldiers made their vows of loyalty before this icon before setting off to battle. According to legend, the very earliest icon of this type was painted by St Luke himself. It was supposed to have been kept in Constantinople and been the most precious holy treasure in the Byzantine Empire. The depiction of the Virgin Hodegetria appeared in Old Russian art in the 12th century but became particularly popular amongst icon painters in the 15th and 16th centuries. After the fall of Byzantium, Muscovite Russia saw itself as the successor to Byzantine culture and sacred objects and the Virgin came to be described as the patroness and protectress of the Russian lands. There are various depictions of the Hodegetria but the most ceremonial and severe of these is usually known as the Virgin of Smolensk. This type repeats a Byzantine icon which was formerly kept in the Cathedral of the Assumption in Smolensk. This example of the Virgin Hodegetria of Smolensk was painted at the end of the 16th century. The Virgin's fine features, the small head of the Child, the elongated proportions and fine working up of the faces indicate that the author was a highly skilled Moscow artist. In terms of iconography the peculiarity of the Hodegetria is that the Christ Child is shown facing out at the viewer rather than at his mother.

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Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy

Constantinople, 1400

British Museum


The back is mostly bare wood, with two horizontal battens. The subject of the icon is the Triumph of Orthodoxy (the restoration of images in Byzantium in 843 after decades of an official ban on icons, the so-called period of iconoclasm from c. 730). In the centre of the upper register is the icon of the Hodegetria icon (kept in the Hodegon Monastery in Constantinople), which iconophiles believed was painted by the Evangelist St Luke, and whose production was used as a key argument in favour of the legitimacy of icons of the saints. The icon is on a stand, with red curtains, and on each side stand two guardians, wearing red hats and with wings. On the left is Empress Theodora, mother and regent of the infant Michael III (three years old in 843). On the right is the Patriarch Methodios and three other iconophiles. In the register below, from left to right: St Theodosia, holding an icon of Christ (1); St Ioannikios (4); St Stephanos the Younger (5); St Theodore the Studite (6), who between them hold an icon of Christ; St Theodore (7) and St Theophanes (8), known as the Graptoi; St Theophylaktos (10); and St Arsakios (11).

The icon is in generally good condition, but the inscriptions in red are abraded, so that only a few letters of the title are discernible, essentially on the right hand side. Several of the saints’ names are worn.

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