According to church tradition the icon of Panagia Soumela took its name from the Monastery of Soumela in Pontos of Asia Minor. The name “Soumela” comes from “Stou Mela”, i.e. “at the mount Melas” and consequently signifies a particular locality in Pontos. The icon of Panagia that bears the name of this historic Monastery had been kept there for centuries. Yet, according to ancient tradition, it was more ancient than the Monastery. It was painted by St Luke the Evangelist and was originally kept in Athens being called “Atheniotissa.” It was brought to Pontos for the sake of safe keeping by two monks who are also said to be the founders of the Monastery of Soumela, St. Barnabas and St. Sophronios and hence its new name.
There are two views concerning the time of this event. In the first view it occurred in the 4th century. In the second view it happened in the 10th or 9th century. Recently a compromise has been propounded. This icon of St. Luke was kept in the Monastery of Osios Lukas in Biotia. It was carried to Athens by Ananias, the student of Osios Lukas, after the death of his teacher. Then later, when the Saracenes destroyed the city of Athens in the 10th (or 9th) century the holy monks Barnabas and Sophronios brought the icon to the Monastery of Soumela in Pontos for safe keeping.
The Monastery of Soumela, which had been founded in the 4th century by a Pontian Monk Christopher of Trepizond, suffered destructions and renovations through the long and turbulent history of Pontos, but the icon of Panagia remained intact. The heyday of the Monastery was in the era of the Byzantine empire of Trepizond, when it became the spiritual center of Orthodox Hellenism (see the historical section below) acquiring special privileges from the Komnenoi emperors. These privileges were preserved during the Turkish occupation by means of firmans granted by the Sultans and thus at that time also it stood as a notable center of Hellenic paideia for the enslaved Christian nation.
During the First World War the Monastery was destroyed, but the holy icon of Panagia remained intact.When in 1922 the Greek Pontians were violently expelled from Pontos the monks hifd the icon with other valuable vessels in the rocks of mount Mela. Later on the Turks allowed, following conversations of the governments of Greece and Turkey (Benizelos and Inonou), the monk Ambrosios to visit the ruined monastery of Soumela and retrieve the holy icon and the rest of church valuables and bring them to Athens. In 1951, the holy icon of Panagia Soumela, that had been kept in the Byzantine Museum of Athens, was transferred to the new Monastery of Soumela that was constructed on one of the slops of mount Bermion of Macedonia where it is kept today.
by Protopresbyter George Dion. Dragas, DD PhD