L’icona della Madre di Dio “delle Tre Mani”, che la Chiesa bizantina onora il 12 luglio, è fra le immagini che destano maggiore curiosità soprattutto per chi, da neofita, si accosta all’arte iconografica. Appare, infatti, quantomeno “strano” che la Vergine sia raffigurata con la terza mano. In realtà tale peculiarità riconduce fino alle lotte iconoclaste che, tra il VII e il VIII secolo, lacerarono la Cristianità. Pubblichiamo un breve testo, in lingua inglese, inviatoci dall’amico Peter J., iconografo che vive negli Stati Uniti, che, in modo succinto, spiega le origini di tale canone.
The Icon of the Mother of God, “Of the Three Hands”: In the eighth century during the time of the Iconoclasts, Saint John of Damascus (December 4) was zealous in his veneration of holy icons. Because of this, he was slandered by the emperor and iconoclast Leo III the Isaurian (717-740), who informed the Damascus caliph that Saint John was committing treasonous acts against him. The caliph gave orders to cut off the hand of the monk and take it to the marketplace. Towards evening Saint John, having asked the caliph for the cut-off hand, put it to its joint and fell to the ground before the icon of the Mother of God. The monk begged Our Lady to heal the hand, which had written in defense of Orthodoxy. After long prayer he fell asleep and saw in a dream that the All-Pure Mother of God had turned to him promising him quick healing.
Before this the Mother of God bid him toil without fail with this hand. Having awakened from sleep, Saint John saw that his hand was unharmed. In thankfulness for this healing Saint John placed on the icon a hand fashioned of silver, from which the icon received its name “Of Three Hands.” (Some iconographers, in their ignorance, have mistakenly depicted the Most Holy Theotokos with three arms and three hands.) According to Tradition, Saint John wrote a hymn of thanksgiving to the Mother of God: “All of creation rejoices in You, O Full of Grace,” which appears in place of the hymn “It is Truly Meet” in the Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great.
Saint John Damascene accepted monasticism at the monastery of Saint Sava the Sanctified and there bestowed his wonderworking icon. The Lavra presented the icon “Of Three Hands” in blessing to Saint Sava, Archbishop of Serbia (+ 1237, January 12). During the time of an invasion of Serbia by the Turks, some Christians who wanted to protect the icon, entrusted it to the safekeeping of the Mother of God Herself. They placed it upon a donkey, which without a driver proceeded to Athos and stopped in front of the Hilandar monastery. The monks put the icon in the monastery’s cathedral church (katholikon). During a time of discord over the choice of igumen, the Mother of God deigned to head the monastery Herself, and from that time Her holy icon has occupied the igumen’s place in the temple. At the Hilandar monastery there is chosen only a vicar, and from the holy icon the monks take a blessing for every obedience.