During the 10th and 11th centuries, when the Byzantine Empire was at its zenith, the activity of Saracen pirates was also at its peak. They would raid the Aegean islands, robbing and burning and capturing the people whom they later sold in the slave bazaars of East Lesvos, a wealthy and attractive island which had already become the prize booty of the pirates. In the Mantamados area was located a monastery for men dedicated to the Archangels Michael and Gabriel and All the Angels, whose founding is lost in the depths of the centuries.
The following is the story of the monastery:
As we approach the Monastery of the Taxiarhes (Archanagels) of Mantamado, we note that it has the appearance of a well fortified castle with high walls and a tower. It used to be a truly blessed monastery containing many golden relics, icons, offerings and other church treasures. The monks who used to live there had an angelic demeanor. Gently-spoken and humble, they had an imposing presence and courage which made the pirates afraid to confront them. During numerous attempts to invade the monastery, they encountered vigorous resistance. Thus, the pirates determined maliciously to crush it.
So it was that one spring the pirates’ captain, Sirhan, a fierce and swarthy giant of a man, with sword and hatchet strapped to his belt, summoned his gang and said to them:
“This time, without fail, we are going to enter that monastery. I want only the golden cup (he was referring to the Chalice), that the monks use for the liturgy, so I can drink my wine from it. Everything else is yours.”
So, they set sail for Lesvos. They approached the monastery around midnight and hid behind the trees. They had already learnt the normal routine of the monastery and had waited for a night when a wake would take place in the church. They delayed till they were certain that all the monks were inside the church and the prayer of the monk on guard in the tower was focused on the angelic chant of his brothers, and then they attacked. They first killed the guard-monk and then silently massacred the monks inside the church one by one. They continued to the sanctuary and slaughtered the Mass servers; the abbot was butchered on the Holy Altar!
Inside the sanctuary there was also a young lay brother, Gabriel, who, witness to this evil event, scrambled nimbly to the roof of the monastery to save himself. He was seen by the pirates who tried to follow him to kill him. But, at that moment, a thunderous sound was heard and the roof was miraculously transformed into a tempestuous sea! Above the white caps of the waves, there appeared a huge and fierce soldier with a flaming sword. He advanced towards the pirates who abandoned their weapons and stolen booty and fled panic-stricken.
Gabriel, the only survivor of that tragedy, trembling in awe from the miracle, moved towards the icon of the Archangel Michael and fell to his knees. When he had recovered from the shock, he raised his eyes. But what face did he see? Instead of a painting, the face of the Archangel Michael seemed to be alive and had about it a divine sweetness.
The lay brother felt the desire to portray the face that he saw. “Archangel Michael,” he pleaded, “mediate with the Lord that He may give rest to the souls of my brothers and that He make me worthy to paint your beautiful image!” Immediately, as if enlightened by the Archangel, Gabriel took a sponge and reverently collected the blood of his brothers from the floor and put it in a pot; he then mixed it with white powder and started to fashion the Archangel’s face.
From the outset, Gabriel was aware of the assistance of the Archangel with his work. His hands, which felt as if they were driven by an invisible force, quickly and steadily formed the face of the Archangel Michael with the clay. It was the same face he had seen in the roof of the Church. He was so concentrated on the depiction of the Archangel’s face that he did not notice that he was running out of clay and that he would not be able to form the Archagnel Michael’s body as well. So, when he realized that he had almost run out of clay, he made a thin line for a body and two smaller lines for arms and legs (just like the stick people usually drawn by young children!). It was already daybreak by the time Gabriel had completed the Archangel’s icon. Then, the first villagers of Mantamado started to arrive at the monastery on horeseback. The chilling sight of the murder scene made them shudder. They saw that the pirates were dead and scattered all around the yard. Every one of them had been killed by a sword stroke that split them from forehead to abdomen cutting their bodies in two. The sword strike was identical on each pirate! None of the villagers asked who had done that. Everyone surmised the identity of the avenger. There was no doubt.
“Your grace and your power are great, Archangel!” they whispered, each making the sign of the cross.
The characteristics of the ‘bas-relief’ icon.
Centuries have passed but the ‘bas-relief’ icon still preserves its freshness and remains as if untouched by time and the kisses of thousands of pilgrims. On the cheeks and forehead of the icon, believers place metal coins (for blessing) that leave marks on the face though these marks then fade away. From time to time, the Archangel’s eyes are filled with tears which Christians wipe away with little pieces of cotton. They do the same with the beads of perspiration which occasionally appear on the icon.
Another miracle is that a good and faithful person who approaches the icon to pray may receive an unique reaction from St. Michael the Archangel. The expression on the face of the icon might change to a healthy shade of red and sometimes there is a joyful smile on the face of the icon! But when a bad person approaches the icon, the Archangel Michael’s face darkens and becomes fierce and, on certain occasions, some people are held back from approaching by an invisible force! It is widely believed that the Archangel has appeared many times in the past to the Turks by whom he is respected and revered but also feared.
Bibliography: Information in this article is extracted from the book ‘Poetic History and Miracles of St. Michael, the Archangel of Mantamado’ 4th edition, authored by Fr. Efstratios Dissou, Abbot of the Monastery of the Archangels of Mantamado.