Saturday 14 December 2013

Z is for Zoodochos Pigi

Zoodochos Pigi (Ζωοδόχος Πηγή): Mary the Life-Giving Source 

 From a 2014 calendar, - a very popular modern version of the icon.

I have to confess that my motive for investigating Mary as Zoodochus Pigi was that it offered an easy entry for the rather difficult letter “Z”   in the proposed ABCs section of the blog! That and the fact that I have always disliked the icons depicting Mary in this role made for an inauspicious start.
 Happily, it turned out to be far more interesting than I had anticipated – nothing like an archetypal symbol and a political myth involving a Byzantine emperor to encourage a little interest…
Water, Mary, and Leo
Water as the source of life and therefore something sacred is certainly nothing new in religious observance so Mary, the Mother of God, as a Life Giving Source is no surprise. That The Life Giving Source is a still functioning spring in the crypt of an Orthodox church in present day Istanbul was.

The spring today in the Istanbul suburb of Balikli (Alessandro 57, Wikipedia)

How it became associated with Mary and the Byzantine throne is quite a story.  It seems that sometime before 457 a certain Leo was walking on the eastern outskirts of Constantinople when he heard a blind beggar asking for water. He immediately began a hunt for a spring in a nearby wood. Just as he was about to give up he heard a voice telling him there was water nearby; the voice spoke again, calling him Emperor. Upon reaching the spring he was instructed to anoint the blind man’s eyes with the water. Of course his sight was restored and Leo understood it was the voice of Mary.  He did become Emperor, from 457 to 474 and built a church over the spring to commemorate the miracle and the prophecy.
Leo 1 who by all accounts was a good and pious emperor (one of the few to die in peacefully in bed) had faced a problem upon ascending the throne: his rise to power was not dynastic. The story of Mary’s recognition of him as emperor before the fact became part of his legend and a seal of legitimacy. (1) A cynic might suggest that the church dedicated to Mary was something of a quid pro for a manufactured myth but it is always dangerous to try to speculate about the sincerity of a true believer.
 Leo went a step farther to legitimatize his rule; he was the first emperor to have himself formally crowned by the Patriarch, thus bringing the close partnership between church and state even more into focus. The church built over the spring became a point of a yearly pilgrimage to remind his subjects not only of his connection with Mary but also to symbolize his legitimacy through the Church and his partnership with it(2). Other emperors would follow suit.
The custom was for the emperor to arrive at this church annually on the Feast of the Ascension. In his ceremonial robes he would enter the church hand in hand with the Patriarch.  
The original Zoodochus Pigi was an important pilgrimage site throughout Byzantine history and beyond, - its miracle cures all attributed to Mary as the Life Giving Source.
The Rest
Many churches built in Greece today are named after this one. It is a common practice to name Greek Churches after venerable ones from the old capital. And it should not be surprising that churches with this name are almost always in close proximity to a never failing water source or a water riddled cave.
The Icon

 The Naxos Icon of Zoodochis Pigi  from from Wikipedia images

In this older and very political icon Mary, holding Christ, is seated in a goblet; water flows from the goblet into a pool lower down. She is framed by angels on her own level. Below, the emperor and his retinue stand on the left of the pool and the Patriarch with his on the right, - equals in rank and size, acting both as guardians and recipients. Constantinople is depicted in the background.
  At the bottom, a madman, a blind man and others are being cured by the waters. Note that their source is a smaller and lower pool flowing from the pool where the emperor and patriarch draw their water! Christianity in this life was not  about social equality. They are also tiny –reflecting their importance in comparison with the patriarch and the emperor who are larger than them but smaller than Mary who is the largest figure of all.
The next icon is printed with the kind permission of a church in Austen Texas: .

Mother of God of the Life-Giving Spring by Vasiliki Oldziey
 Like the icon at the beginning, only her torso and head are depicted somewhat like icons of ascetics who have overcome any need for a body from the waist down. While symbolically correct, I have always found this disturbing and unattractive.
 Mary’s role as the Source has been preserved in these modern icons, but not the political myth.  There is no longer any recognizable representation of the Byzantine hierarchy or the story of Leo and Constantinople has been replaced by two trees. They have been filtered out over time, leaving the water archetype in place, - the pool now a cross shape  and the recipients  equal in size. Fair enough, but not nearly as interesting from an historical point of view.
Feast Day
The feast of the Life-giving Spring commemorates the consecration of the Church outside of Constantinople. It is celebrated on the Friday of Bright Week, the first Friday after Easter. The hymns to Mary are quite beautiful.


(1)There are other versions. There always are. An account by Procopius from the 500s has the Emperor Justinian being told of the Mary’s miracles at the spring and ordering a church built on the site using leftovers from the recently completed Ag Sophia. Possibly untrue! Procopius is something of a tainted source himself, but that is another story.
(2)  Any Byzantine emperor’s legitimacy or lack of it is a complicated topic. Enough to say that any new emperor would have paid a fortune for a miracle like Leo’s.

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