Three-Handed Mother of God


I recently bought this icon at the Odessa flea market. It follows the popular Hodegetria (She who points the way) type, in which Mary holds Jesus with one hand, and with her other hand points at him as the source of salvation. The model-setting icon of Hodegetria was preserved in Constantinople until the fall of the city in 1453, and it was the most revered icon and protector of the city, which became one of the most common types of the Mother of God.

On this icon, even the uninitiated eye notices two unusual things. One is that only the faces, the hands and one foot of Christ are painted, as if it were a dressable figure, whose unpainted surface will be covered with clothes anyway. And that’s exactly what it is. Since the late Middle Ages, icons began to be “clothed”, covered with embossed silver, gilded silver or copper icon covers, “revestments”, which left exposed only the central subject of the depiction, with reference to the biblical place where the Lord commands Moses to prepare the ark of the covenant: “Overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out, and make a gold molding around it.” (Exod 25:11). The purpose of the cover was, on the one hand, to raise the dignity of the icon, and on the other hand, as I wrote earlier, to “remove” it from the believer, to emphasize its not-of-this-worldliness. The icon cover is called in Russian оклад, and in Greek ἐπένδυση, that is, ʻblanket’, but if it covers everything except faces, hands and feet, it is already called риза or ἔνδυμα, that is, ʻcloth’. This kind of small, mass-produced 19th.-c. icon, where the surfaces intended to be covered with riza were not even painted, were called подокладница, ʻunder the oklad’. The nails holding the former cover in place are still visible on the icon. The cover itself was probably torn off because of its copper or silver content, in an age when that was considered more valuable than the icon.

The other unusual thing: how many hands do you see on the picture? Inclduing mine, holding the icon: six, but excluding it: five, which is an overcount for only two figures. Mary hold Christ with two right hands, pointing to him only with her left.

You could explain it by saying that the customer him- or herself decided which hand they preferred, and it was left uncovered by the maker of the riza, but this subjective approach is alien to the use of the icon. The truth is that, in the model for this picture, Mary also had three hands. This is the icon of the Three-Handed Mother of God, Икона Божией Матери «Троеручицы», Παναγία Τριχερούσα, or Bogorodica Trojeručica.

Two Troieruchitsa icons from Russia, 19th c.


This icon type has a peculiar and winding story. Its origins go back to St. John of Damascus (ca. 675 – 749), who was a great defender of the icons during the Byzantine iconoclastic debates. The iconoclastic emperor Leo III thus slandered him to the caliph of Damascus, in whose service John was (in fact, John’s grandfather, as Damascus’s governor, had handed over the city to the Arabs, and therefore the Christian administration remained in place for some time). The emperor forwarded forged letters to the caliph, stating that John had encouraged him to attack the Arabs. The caliph gave credit to the letters, and threw John into prison, where he cut off the treacherous hand with which he had supposedly written the letters as a complementary punishment. John prayed all night in front of the image of the Mother of God, then fell asleep, and by the time he awoke, Mary had miraculously restored his hand to its place. John rejoiced so much that he wrote the hymn In thee rejoiceth every creature in honor of the Mother of God, and he placed a silver copy of his hand on the icon as an ex voto. In the following 19th-c. Russian icon (from Jackson’s auction site) we see both John’s prayer and the ex voto already placed on the picture.


The hymn, which is still sung in the liturgy of St. Basil the Great and in the morning service, has its “own icon”. In the center of it, the Mother of God sits on a throne (“he made your body a throne”), with a church above and a flowering garden around her (“hallowed temple and spiritual paradise”), the “ranks of angels” around her and “the race of man” under her feet. And before her, St. John of Damascus, bowing, and showing the text of the hymn on a scroll.

Novgorod, 16th c. From the church of St. Peter and Paul in Kozheviki. Novgorod, Museum

The original Greek version of the hymn, performed by Nektaria Karantzi:


Ἐπὶ σοὶ χαίρει, Κεχαριτωμένη, πᾶσα ἡ κτίσις • All of creation rejoices in you, O full of grace

Ἐπὶ σοὶ χαίρει, Κεχαριτωμένη, πᾶσα ἡ κτίσις·
Ἀγγέλων τὸ σύστημα καὶ ἀνθρώπων τὸ γένος,
ἡγιασμένε ναὲ καὶ παράδεισε λογικέ,
παρθενικὸν καύχημα,
ἐξ ἧς Θεός ἐσαρκώθη καὶ παιδίον γέγονεν,
ὁ πρὸ αἰώνων ὑπάρχων Θεὸς ἡμῶν·
τὴν γὰρ σὴν μήτραν θρόνον ἐποίησε,
καὶ τὴν σὴν γαστέρα πλατυτέραν οὐρανῶν ἀπειργάσατο.
Ἐπὶ σοὶ χαίρει, Κεχαριτωμένη, πᾶσα ἡ κτίσις
δόξα σοι.
All of creation rejoices in you, O full of grace,
the ranks of Angels and the human race;
hallowed Temple and spiritual Paradise, glory of Virgins;
from you God was incarnate,
and He, who is our God before the ages,
became a little child.
for He made your body a throne
and made your womb more spacious than the heavens.
All of creation rejoices in you, O full of grace;
glory to you!

In Russian, with the male choir of Valaam Singing Cultural Institute:


О Тебе радуется, Благодатная, всякая тварь • All of creation rejoices in you, O full of grace

О Тебе радуется, Благодатная, всякая тварь,
Ангельский собор и человеческий род,
Освященный Храме и Раю Словесный,
Девственная похвало.
Из Неяже Бог воплотися и Младенец бысть,
прежде век Сый Бог наш.
Ложесна бо Твоя Престол сотвори.
И чрево Твое пространнее небес содела.
О Тебе радуется, Благодатная, всякая тварь,
Слава Тебе.
All of creation rejoices in you, O full of grace,
the ranks of Angels and the human race;
hallowed Temple and spiritual Paradise, glory of Virgins;
from you God was incarnate,
and He, who is our God before the ages,
became a little child.
for He made your body a throne
and made your womb more spacious than the heavens.
All of creation rejoices in you, O full of grace;
glory to you!

and in Arabic, the mother tongue of St. John of Damascus, sung by Gabriel Maalouf in the Arab Christian cathedral of St. Nicholas in Los Angeles:


إن البرايا بأسرها تفرح بك يا ممتلئة نعمة • All of creation rejoices in you, O full of grace

But back to the icon. Shortly after this incident, St. John of Damascus withdrew from the caliph’s service and became a monk in the Saint Sabbas Monastery in the Holy Land.

The Saint Sabbas (Mar Saba) Greek Orthodox monastery, named  after its Syriac monk founder (483) next to Kidron Creek, today in the West Bank Palestinian Autonomous Region. After the Crusades, the monastery was burned down by the Bedouins. In 1504 it was bought by Serbian monks who lived here until 1630 with the financial support of the Russian Tsar, who used them as a counterweight to the Greek Patriarchate of Jerusalem. With the end of the Tsar’s support, the Serbs were forced to sell the monastery to the Patriarchate, to which it belongs today. Here lived and is buried St. John of Damascus.

He also took with him the miraculous icon, with the silver ex voto. After his death, the icon was preserved in the monastery. When St Sava (1174-1236), a son of the Serbian king Stefan Nemanja, the first archbishop of the independent Serbian church, and the later abbot of the monastery of Studenica, visited the monastery, they gave him the icon as a gift. Sava brought it to Hilandar Monastery on Mount Athos, reestablished by him for the Serbian monks. The icon stayed there until 1347, when King Dušan took it with him to Serbia, where it was placed in Studenica Monastery. With the intensification of Turkish attacks, sometime in the 15th century, it was sent back to Hilandar, according to the legend, by being placed on the back of a donkey, which went by itself directly to the monastery in Mount Athos. During an abbot election, a quarrel started in the monastery, so Mary took over the leadership of the community. Since then, the icon of the Three-Handed Mother of God has been the abbot of the monastery, and they only elect a vicar for her.

The Three-Handed Mother of God today in Hilandar

Numerous copies of the icon have been made over the centuries, which also copied the silver hand placed on it. One of them was taken by the Russian patriarch Nikon (1605-1681) from his visit to Hilandar, and its veneration also spread in the Russian church. There, the origin of the third hand was no longer clear to many painters, but it could not be ignored because of the authority of the original: so it was simply accepted and continued to be painted as if it were a third hand of Mary. An evidence for this fact is that the “third hand” is also painted on my icon as a real hand, even though it was obviously intended to be surrounded by an oklad. It would have been more faithful to the original to depict the added hand only on the oklad.

The icon of the Three-Handed Mother of God, together with the story of its origin, in the Ukrainian church in Tallinn

This 1845 icon from St. Petersburg is not covered with a riza but with an oklad, which allows you to see the dress of the Mother of God. The “third hand” apparently reaches out from a similar sleeve, although its color is darker than the other two.

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