You ask what I think is the most “interesting” or “unusual” Orthodox icon. Singling out just one holy image is a trifle absurd, as I’m sure you realize! But if you pressed me on the subject, I might direct your attention to an icon called To Thauma en to Adein, meaning literally “The Miracle in the Chanting”. It’s a narrative icon, and it tells a most extraordinary story, the story of the Revelation of Axion Estin. Do you know it?
According to Holy Tradition, one Saturday night in the year 980 A.D., an elder of Mount Athos left his hermitage to attend an all-night vigil in Karyes, the capital of the Holy Mountain, telling his disciple to remain and chant the service alone. A short time later, an unknown monk calling himself Gabriel entered the cell and joined in the service. During the Ninth Ode of the Canon, after the disciple had chanted the customary words to the Virgin, “More honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, Thee who without corruption barest God the Word and art truly Theotokos, Thee do we magnify”—words composed over two hundred years earlier by Saint Cosmas the Hymnographer (675-760 A.D.)—the visitor began the same hymn again but with the following prelude: “It is truly meet to bless Thee, O Theotokos, the ever-blessed and all-blameless and the Mother of our God.” As he sang, an icon of the Mother of God on the wall of the hermitage began to glow with uncreated light.
Struck by the beauty of these words and marveling at their supernatural effect, the disciple asked his mysterious visitor to record them in writing. The other “monk” obliged by miraculously inscribing the words on a piece of slate, using only his finger, as if the stone were made of wax. He then immediately vanished from sight. The disciple knew at once that this was no ordinary “Gabriel”, but the Archangel himself. The slate was taken to the Church of the Protaton in Karyes, and thence to Constantinople, to the imperial court and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as evidence of the miracle. Meanwhile, the icon of the Mother of God, henceforth known as the Axion Estin (“It is truly meet”), was transferred from the humble cell of the elder to the catholikon in Karyes, where it remains to this day (when it is not on the road being venerated by the faithful), and it’s regarded as the Mountain’s “Protectress” and holiest object. The newer, longer, angelic version of this hymn to the Most Holy Theotokos has ever since been chanted during the Divine Liturgy in all Orthodox churches.
The hermitage where the miracle took place is now called Adein, a Greek word meaning “to sing” or “chant”. Hence the title of this iconic narrative, “The Miracle in the [place of] Chanting”. Clearly depicted (if you zoom in on the image) are both the original words of the hymn, on the chanter’s stand in front of the elder’s disciple, and the new prelude to the hymn, on the piece of slate in the angel’s hands. You can also see the glowing icon of Axion Estin itself on the wall in the background. A Thauma (“Wonder”) indeed!
Here is the complete (combined) text of the hymn:
Ἄξιόν ἐστιν ὡς ἀληθῶς,
μακαρίζειν σε τὴν Θεοτόκον,
τὴν ἀειμακάριστον καὶ παναμώμητον
καὶ μητέρα τοῦ Θεοῦ ἡμῶν.
Τὴν τιμιωτέραν τῶν Χερουβεὶμ
καὶ ἐνδοξοτέραν ἀσυγκρίτως τῶν Σεραφείμ,
τὴν ἀδιαφθόρως Θεὸν Λόγον τεκοῦσαν,
τὴν ὄντως Θεοτόκον,
“It is truly meet to bless Thee, O Theotokos, the ever-blessed and all-blameless and the Mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, Thee who without corruption barest God the Word and art truly Theotokos, Thee do we magnify.”