Thursday, 15 March 2007

Convent of St Mary Magdalene

The Russian Orthodox Convent of St Mary Magdalene is one of those remarkable places one is reluctant to leave once one's there. It was snowing hard when I arrived and the sun was shining brightly when - eventually - I left. While it is by no means as large as the Dome of the Rock on the opposite side of the Kidron Valley, the five striking and (I suspect) recently regilded onion domes of the Abbey Church on the slope of the Mount of Olives make it one of Jerusalem’s most easily recognizable landmarks.

It was built as a memorial to Empress Maria by her son the Russian Czar Alexander III and his brothers. Grand-Duke Sergei, one of the Czar’s brothers, and his wife Grand-Duchess Elizabeth - formerly Princess Elizabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt, grand-daughter of Queen Victoria and sister of the ill-fated last Empress of Russia - presided at the consecration in 1888.

The Grand-Duchess took considerable personal interest in the church and commissioned well-known Russian artists to paint the murals, paintings and many of the fine icons that grace an otherwise fairly straightforward interior.

In 1905 the Grand-Duke was assassinated and the Grand-Duchess responded by founding a convent in Moscow devoted to nursing and charitable work. She herself became a nun. After the revolution, in 1918, the Grand-Duchess together with her companion Sister Barbara and several members of the Russian imperial family were murdered by being thrown into a mine shaft by the Bolsheviks and left to die. Her remains and those of Sister Barbara eventually were eventually brought to Jerusalem. In 1920, they were laid to rest, as the Grand-Duchess wished, in a crypt below the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene. They were canonized in 1981 and their relics were moved into the main section of the church where they rest today in marble open sarcophagi on either side of the iconostasis.

Princess Andrew of Greece (Princess Alice of Battenberg), mother of the Duke of Edinburgh stayed at the monastery in the 1930s. Her wish was to be buried near her Aunt ‘Ella’, the Grand-Duchess Elizabeth whose devotion to the church and to nursing and charitable service she strove to emulate. Princess Andrew died at Buckingham Palace in 1969. Her wish to be buried at the Convent of Saint Mary Magdalene in Gethsemane was finally realized in 1988 when her remains were transferred to a crypt below the church. One of the delightful sisters, once she knew I was English, took me to see her.

The story that attaches to the icon on the right side of the iconostasis is remarkable. Dating back to the 16th century, it comes from Lebanon and from the outset was associated with miraculous occurrences. In the late 1930s it belonged to the Metropolitan of Lebanon who had repeated dreams in which Our Lady told him - eventually in no uncertain terms, I gather - to give the icon to ‘Abbess Mary’ in Palestine. He had no idea who this might be but after an initial reluctance to act, he made inquiries and found there was indeed such a person – an English woman – at the Russian Orthodox Convent of Saint Mary Magdalene in the Garden of Gethsemane. And so the icon changed hands.

A more detailed (and rather more gripping) account of the icon’s acquisition is told by one of the sisters present at the time who went on to become abbess between 1970 and 1983. I will attempt to summarize this account in a later posting.

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