The blue handed Virgin of Madaba

A trip that Canahan made to an art exhibition in Bruges has inadvertently solved a mystery involving a miraculous Virgin in Jordan.

The Virgin in question is at St. George Greek Orthodox church in Madaba, Jordan, my spiritual home when in Jordan. (I wrote about it here.) The Virgin has been credited with healing miracles and is said to be sought out by Moslems as well as Christians. Two hands hold the Christ child and a third blue hand was discovered to have appeared on the painting one day after a church service.  No one knows how long it was there before the discovery. There seems to be fire shooting out of her thumb.

I searched all over for an explanation of the “blue hand”, but now it turns out the original hand was silver, not blue, and the name of the original image was the Tricheroussa, or three-handed virgin.Here’s the connection with the art exhibition:

Canahan’s art exhibition at Bruges featured  a 1506 wood relief sculpture of St. Luke Drawing Mary by Jacob Beinhart.   There is a tradition that St. Luke painted both Mary and Jesus, but Canahan notes a reference saying: “This has been proved incorrect.” Checking further, I found that the “Guild of Saint Luke” was a common name for painters’ guilds in Europe’s Low Countries.  Saint John of Damascus of the Monsour family–that name should be familiar, in Jordan as well as Chicago–was the one who credited St. John with painting the Virgin’s portrait. Wikipedia tells the rest of the story:

In the early 8th century AD, iconoclasm, a movement seeking to prohibit the veneration of the icons, gained some acceptance in the Byzantine court. In 726, despite the protests of St. Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople, Emperor Leo III issued his first edict against the veneration of images and their exhibition in public places. A talented writer in the secure surroundings of the caliph’s court, John of Damascus initiated a defense of holy images in three separate publications. “Apologetic Treatises against those Decrying the Holy Images”, the earliest of these works gained him a reputation. Not only did he attack the emperor, but the use of a simpler literary style brought the controversy to the common people, inciting revolt among those of Christian faith. His writings later played an important role during the Second Council of Nicaea which met to settle the icon dispute.

To counter his influence, Leo III sent forged documents implicating John of Damascus in a plot to attack Damascus to the caliph. The caliph did not suspect the forgery, and ordered John’s right hand to be cut off and hanged publicly. Some days afterwards, John asked that his hand be given back to him, which was granted. He prayed fervently to the Theotokos in front of her icon, and his hand was supposedly miraculously restored. Being grateful for this healing, he attached a silver hand on this icon, which is since then known as “Three-handed”, or Tricherousa.

Yeah, right, “Obedezco pero no complo“.  A most excellent miracle, indeed.  Then John stops his rabble-rousing and retires to a monastery, and all is copacetic.

So here she is, the Tricherousa, a three handed icon that was sent originally from St. John’s Mar Sabbas monastery east of Jerusalem to a Serbian Orthodox church in Greece, then was introduced to Moscow, and from there widely copied.

Somewhere along the line, the three-handed virgin made to Madaba,  but now with a blue hand shooting fire, and a tradition of healing so powerful that her icon needs a glass case with padlocks.

Posted in Art, Jordan. 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “The blue handed Virgin of Madaba”

  1. canehan Says:

    Anotehr coincidence – I visited Mar Saba in 1974. A wonderful place. The “new” church inside dated from 600-something, and was packed with icons. The “original” church from 500-something. This was simply a cave fitted out with an altar and choir stalls, and included a niche full of skulls of monks killed by invaders around 700.

    There were only 13 elderly monks in the huge establishment then. Young Greek men, one of whom showed me around, spent six months or a year there voluntarily helping with upkeep and day-to-day tasks.

    The Venetians had recently returned to the monastry the remain of St. Saba, which they seized and took to Venice several hundred years before.

    Sorry all these timings are so vague, don’t havce time to look them up now. But Mar Saba – of which I have David Roberts etchings on my wall – could be the subject of a good post. You or me ?

  2. Nijma Says:

    I’d love to hear about it.

    My only venture to The Other Side was in 2000–a brief foray over the King Hussein bridge into Bethlehem for the midnight Christmas Eve service. We were treated to a visit from Yasser Arafat on this, his last Christmas on this earth, grinning impishly at the warm welcome he received from the standing-room-only crowd. My family still Brings This Up whenever they want an example of foolhardy risk-taking ventures that illustrate my questionable judgment. Oh, if only they knew!

    Christmas Eve of 1999 found me at Mount Nebo after a warning phone call from the embassy. (“Of course we can’t tell you not to go…” the voice had said.) At 11:58 there was a flash and the sound of an explosion in the general direction of the roof. At 12 midnight on the dot, Prince Hassan entered. For the duration of the service, a uniformed gentleman stood in the middle of the church with a machine gun pointed at the entrance. There were later 16 arrests associated with the plot, one in Canada.

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