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THE ICON OF OUR LADY OF PHILERMO

Our Lady of Philermo, pray for us.
The MADONNA OF PHILERMO is an ancient sacred icon painted, according to legend, by Saint Luke, which had travelled miraculously across the sea from Jerusalem to Mount Phileremos on the island of Rhodes, where it was kept in a shrine, which later became a sanctuary.  From earliest times the icon was venerated as an object of great devotion. Christianity was brought to Rhodes by Saint Paul (as later to Malta) so the Christian community on this island was of great antiquity.

When the knights of the Order of Saint John conquered Rhodes in 1309, the Philermo Madonna soon became one of their most treasured possessions, and ever since they have held her in special veneration.  They observe her feast on the Birthday of Our Lady (8th September, kept also as the observance of the raising of the Ottoman Siege of Malta in 1565, attributed to Our Lady’s intercession), and they invoke her by the title of Our Lady of Philermo in the prayers of the Order and in the bidding prayers at Holy Mass.
The Grand Magistral castle and Porte d'Amboise on the mount of Phileremos.
After the loss of Rhodes to the Ottoman Turks in 1524 the icon accompanied the Knights on their peregrinations in search of a new home until they finally settled on Malta in 1530.  On arrival there it was kept in the church of Saint Lawrence in Birgu, and subsequently in the newly built city of Valletta, firstly in the church of Our Lady of Victories (the Victoria Church) and eventually in a special chapel in the Conventual Church of Saint John.  The icon was honoured with four sets of dresses, the oldest with the arms of Grand Master Philippe Villiers de l’Isle Adam (1464–1534), these were made in silks and velvet set with pearls and jewels.
The festal dress of Grand Master Villier de l'Isle Adam.
Made in the 16th century and added to in the 18th,
this was in use on feast days on Malta until the Knights left.
When the Knights were expelled from Malta by Napoleon in 1798 the Grand Master of the Order, Ferdinand von Hompesch, took the icon with him, and on abdicating the following year, sent it to Russia, together with the relics of the hand of Saint John the Baptist and a splinter of the True Cross, where the Knights gave it to Tsar Paul (who had been illegally elected Grand Master by a group of rebel knights, and supported in the hope that he might assist in regaining Malta for the Order.)  Having survived the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna took the icon with her to her native Denmark where she sought refuge in 1919.  Before her death in 1928 she entrusted the icon and relics to her daughters, who sent them to Belgrade via the president of the Synod of the Russian Bishops in exile in Berlin.  
A photograph of 1932, one of the last times it was seen before being lost during the War.
Note that the central stone now missing in the collar is still present at this period.
In 1932 they were consigned to the custody of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia, who kept them in the chapel of the Royal palace in Dedinje.  In 1941, with the threat of an impending Nazi invasion, the icon and relics were sent to the orthodox monastery of Ostrog in Montenegro.  From this time all trace of them was lost until, in 1993, the icon was discovered in the storerooms of the National Museum at Cetinje, Montenegro.  It was confirmed as truly being the lost icon by the Italian scholar Giovanella Ferraris de Celle in 1997, and remains on display in the Museum.
The image of the Phileremos Madonna represents  the face of the Holy Virgin, without the Divine Child, in a fine and entirely Byzantine style.  The icon, which measures 44 by 36 centimetres, has been much mutilated, with only the beautiful face surviving, beneath a finely painted veil of tightly pleated linen.  It is set within a much later wooden panel. The stunning Russian plate, with the eight pointed cross of the Order of Malta in white enamel, is made of gold in the french empire style, with rubies, sapphires and diamonds from the Imperial collection, and has surprisingly survived its many travels.  The face is covered with a rock-crystal “glass” which may be the original recorded during its time in Malta.

During restoration in 2002 the plate was removed, and the photographer Stefan Vasiljevic was allowed to photograph the icon in detail.  He took pictures in various states, with and without the crystal and the plate, including details of the black paper which covers the icon beneath the plate.  The pictures of the original icon shown here are from this study.
The icon with the russian plate.
The icon uncovered, with the paper intended
to protect the paintwork from the gold plate.
The icon fully uncovered. The holes are made by the rivets holding the
jewels of the plate, which, unusually, was applied tight to the surface.
The damaged parts of the original icon have been cut away over time,
and the panel set within a much later wooden panel.
One can just see the painted folds of the linen veil to the sides of the face.
A copy, commissioned by Tsar Nicholas I in 1852 for processional use, has survived and is kept in the Basilica of S Maria degli Angeli at Assisi.  It has been repainted several times in a very inept manner, lastly, ironically, by a Turkish painter in Rhodes in the 1920s, having been taken there, in the absence of the original, by the Italian government which attempted to restore the shrine during the occupation of the island.  Our Lady wears an unpleated red veil, and it is this icon which has been frequently copied in the churches and associations of the Order of Malta, sadly bearing little resemblance, apart for Our Lady’s pose, to the exquisite and holy original, happily once again revealed to the world.


The Russian copy in its present state in Assisi.

In 2009 a full-size copy of the icon was painted in traditional egg tempera by an icon painter in Bulgaria, and given anonymously by a friend of the Order to the Grand Priory of England at Easter 2010.  It was blessed by the Prelate of the Order, Archbishop Angelo Acerbi, on 8th April 2010 in the chapel of Merton College, in the presence of the Prince and Grand Master, Fra' Matthew Festing, during the international meeting of the professed of the Order held in Oxford. The painter was able to study the photographs from Montenegro, and base the design and colours of the veil on the original. As there is no surviving evidence of the background, she decided to leave this in plain gold. The icon is housed in the Chancellery of the Order in London. Please pray for the donor and his family. 

The Grand Priory also possesses a large piece of rock from Mount Phileremos which is venerated in the Conventual Church.
The Grand Priory of England's copy.
Collect for the Feast of Our Lady of Philermo 
Instituted by Pope Sergius I (686 - 701) as the Birthday of Our Lady, 
and a Solemnity of the Order, kept on the 8th September. 
  
WE BESEECH YOU, O LORD, to impart upon your servants the gift of heavenly grace : 
that as the childbearing of the blessed Virgin was to us the beginning of salvation; 
so may the celebration of her Nativity bestow an increase of peace.  
Through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
God for ever and ever.  Amen.

Our Lady of Philermo, pray for us.

Some stamps issued by the Grand Magistry, bearing the image 
of both the original and Russian copy of Our Lady of Philermo.


Photo credits: All modern images of the true icon © Stefan Vasiljevic 2002. 
Image source credit: Brotherhood of Blessed Gerard website: www.smom-za.org
Text: The late Colonel Tommy Pace RAMC, Knight of Magistral Grace, and others.