What we can learn from the icon of Saint Irene

The Church has used icons since the earliest days of Christianity. One need only consider the catacombs of Rome, which served as early meeting and worship places for Christians during the tumultuous years of persecution.

Archeological evidence has also uncovered to use of religious images in synagogues throughout the Middle East, of which Dura Europa in Syria is a great example.

Icons have long been recognized as images of theology in which a picture worth a myriad of words portrays a gospel truth or essential teaching of the Church. The icons are a pictorial story, often retelling events from the life of the Saviour, the Theotokos, or the Saints. The icons include many details, bringing to remembrance important aspects of the life of the Saint portrayed therein.

The life of Saint Irene.

“Saint Irene, who was from Cappadocia, flourished in the ninth century. Because of her great beauty and virtue, she was brought to Constantinople as a prospective bride for the young Emperor Michael (8422-867); however, as St Joannicius the Great foretold, it was God’s will that she assume the monastic habit instead. She shone forth in great ascetical labors, and suffered many attacks from the demons; while yet a novice, she attained to the practice of St Arsenius the Great, of praying the whole night long with arms stretched out towards Heaven (see May 8).

God showed forth great signs and wonders in her, and she became the Abbess of the Convent of Chrysovalantou. She was granted the gift of clairvoyance and knew the thoughts of all that came to her. She appeared in a vision to the king and rebuked him for unjustly imprisoning a nobleman who had been falsely accused.

Through a wondrous miracle of Saint John the Theologian, the Saint appeared to a sailor from Patmos, charging him with a most important task. Through the sailor the Saint sent Saint Irene fragrant and wondrous apples from Paradise.

She reposed at the age of 103, still retaining the youthful beauty of her countenance. After her repose, marvellous healings beyond number have been wrought by her to the present day.” (Great Horologion)

The icon of Saint Irene.

She can be recognized in icons by the the presence of some, or all, or the following:

  • The clothing, and sometimes staff, of an abbess (see icon above).
  • Three apples from Paradise, given to St. Irene by a sailor after being instructed by an apparition of St John the Apostle. The apples gave off a divinely sweet aroma, and were shared among the sisters of the convent.
  • Bowing cypress trees, which recall a miracle observed three times by one of the nuns, who saw St Irene levitating during prayer whilst two cypress trees bent down before the abbess. The nun tied scarves to the bowed tips of the trees to prove to the other sisters the miracle had occurred. The scarves are usually shown tied to the trees, and the nun may also be shown spying on the Saint.
  • An angel holding a scroll. This is the guardian angel of St Irene, who appeared to her after she prayed to foreknow the trials of her nun. The angel greeted her saying: “Hail, handmaiden of God, the Lord has sent me that more might be saved through your guidance. I am to remain at your side and disclose the events of the future.”
  • An open scroll held by St Irene, written upon which is some of the preserved teachings and admonishments of the Saint.
  • The Chrysovalantou convent may be shown in the background, especially if the bowing cypress tress are also shown.
  • The inscription of her name: Οσία Ειρήνη Χρυσοβαλάντου (Greek); Saint (or Blessed) Irene Chrysovalantou (English)