The Song the Angels Taught the Monks

Axion Estin iconSince the beginning of Christianity it has been the custom to create new icons and imagery that commemorate Marian apparitions and other unique divine interventions in the world. This is the case with the famous Byzantine icon "Axion Estin" ("It is Truly Meet"), which is the prototype for the latest addition to the Monastery Icons collection, the Queen of Heaven.

During an all-night vigil on the holy mount of Athos in the year 980, as a few monks chanted before an icon of the Holy Virgin they were joined by a monk they didn't recognize and who identified himself as Gabriel. As this monk began to chant a traditional hymn to the Virgin he opened with a new verse the monks had never heard, beginning with "It is truly meet and right to bless thee." As he chanted to the Mother of God her icon began to shine with light.

chantng Athonite monksWhen the monks asking their visitor to write down the words of the new hymn, he took a roof tile and wrote on it with his finger, as though the tile were made of wax. At that moment the angel disappeared, but the icon of the Mother of God continued to radiate light.

This icon stands today in the altar of the main church of Karyes on Mount Athos and is considered the divine protector of the Holy Mountain. The tile with the hymn written on it was taken to Constantinople. The hymn became integrated in the worship books of the Eastern Orthodox Church and is chanted every day in the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom.

Here are the words to this hymn. The opening line is the angelic addition, and the rest of the hymn is attributed to Saint Cosmas the Hymnographer, written in the 8th century:

It is truly meet and right to bless thee,
Theotokos*, ever blessed and all pure Mother of our God.

More honorable than the Cherubim
And beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim.
Who without corruption gave birth to God the Word,
The true Theotokos we glorify.

*(Theotokos. Literally "birthgiver of God")

In commemoration of this angelic visitation, a new portrait of the Holy Virgin was created based on the same pose of the original, also titled "Axion Estin" ("It is Truly Meet"), which are the first words of the angel's new verse. It shows angels adoring the Blessed Mother, while the Divine Child holds a script with the words from the hymn.

To hear an English language rendition of this ancient hymn sung in classic Byzantine style, go to this page on YouTube.