Sumela Monastery: Cliffside Miracle of the Black Sea
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The legend tells us that angels carried an icon of the Virgin Mary to a cave on this mountainside in the 4th century. Crafted by St. Luke, one of Christ's disciples, the icon is believed to have miraculous powers. It inspired the creation of this numinous monastery – a miracle in itself.
The icon was discovered by two priests, Barnabus and Sophronius, as they travelled from Athens to Trabzon in the late 300s. Taking it as a sign, they decided to honor the Virgin Mary by building a church around the cave – a sacred hollow that can still be seen today. Over the centuries, the monastery gained considerable wealth and was expanded into the large and intricate complex that graces the cliffside.
In 1923, during the Turkish-Greek population exchange, the monks departed and the monastery abandoned. Forbidden to take anything with them, the monks hid the famous icon under a chapel floor. It was later secretly retrieved by a courageous monk and sent to the safely of a monastery in Greece. And just in time. Soon, vandalism, looting, and a 1930s fire took their toll on the forsaken Sumela Monastery.
Today, as this mystical structure is being restored, its Greek name continues to be a mystery. "Melas" means "dark" or "black," and many consider this to be a reference to the dark hues of the beautiful woods and mountains surrounding the monastery. But others believe it refers to the color of the icon itself, with its cracked, dark wooden surface. If so, this would be one of the rare and miraculous Black Madonnas that inspire ardent devotion by believers and pilgrims worldwide.
The mysterious Black Madonnas
Statues and paintings of Mary depicted with dark skin were created in Europe in medieval times and earlier. These enigmatic Black Madonnas have kept their secrets well. Some historians believe their color has cultural roots, while others think it could be a result of a sooty residue, perhaps from centuries of burning candles. Some believe they're a divine mystery – and ultimately inexplicable.
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