The Akathist to the Mother of God is a hymn of praise most probably written by Roman the Melodist in the 6th century. This joyous hymn entered the Orthodox consciousness 100 years later, in 626, when a massive besieging army of Persians and Scythians were miraculously turned away from the walls of Constantinople. The relieved citizens believed their deliverance had come through the intercessions of the Mother of God, and so sung St Roman’s praises to her all night without sitting down – and so the hymn became known as the Akathist (Gr. meaning “without sitting”).
This beautiful hymn has inspired Iconographers to depict the Akathist in images no less beautiful than the words which inspired them.
Structure of the Hymn; Structure of the Icon
The Main part of the Akathist Hymn is comprised of 24 stanzas. The stanzas alternate between long and short. Each short stanza is written in prose and ends with the singing of “Alleluia.” Each longer stanza ends with the refrain: “Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded.”Sometimes “Rejoice” is translated as “Hail”; this is probably closer to the Greek word used (Chaíre – Χαῖρε) and explains the name for the service based on this Hymn (and another name for the Icon): the Salutations of the Theotokos.
The stanzas are arranged in an acrostic following the Greek alphabet. Thus, the first stanza, “An Archangel was sent…”, begins with alpha: “Ἄγγελος πρωτοστάτης…” whilst the final stanza, “O All-Praised Mother…”, begins with omega: “Ὦ πανύμνητε Μῆτερ…”
Each stanza presents us with a scene, which as they progress cover the themes of the Annunciation, the Nativity, Christ, and the Theotokos herself, in that order. It is these scenes which are depicted around the outer border of most “Akathist Icons”.
The Mother of God: at the centre, but not the focus, of the Icon
At the centre of the Icon is the Mother of God to whom the Akathist is dedicated. She is surrounded by a number of people, usually between 11 and 15, who hold appear to be bowing down before her, holding scrolls and other objects. These men are various Old Testament Prophets, and the scrolls they hold are their prophecies relating to the Mother of God. The objects they hold are prefigurations of Mary found in the Old Testament Scriptures, but are also some of the titles given to Mary in the Akathist Hymn.
Despite the honour given to her, Mary sits at the centre of the icon directing us to her Son, our God, sitting in her lap.
As in the Icon at the top of the page, where Mary is not holding the infant Christ (Immanuel), then she is sat amid the praise with her hands held deferentially, palms outward, imploring us to give all honour and glory to God. Surrounding Mary’s seat is a mandorla-shaped wreath representing the Tree of Jesse, which climbs up over the Mother of God’s head to blossom forth an image of Christ Immanuel: God Incarnate. (The use of a “mandorla-wreath” to represent the Tree of Jesse is seen in this painted wall of the Sucevita Monastery, built in the 16th century in Romania).
Thus the Theotokos is the subject of the Icon, just as the Akathist is dedicated to her; however, just as the Akathist glorifies God, the focus of the Icon always leads us back to Jesus Christ. In the Akathist, Mary is not just called “All-glorious temple” but “All-glorious temple of Him Who is above the Seraphim” (from Oikos 8, i.e. the 16th Stanza of the Akathist). The praises of Mary are devoid of meaning without Jesus Christ, the Word of God, Who was incarnate within her. Likewise in the Icon inspired by the Akathist, Mary cannot be separated from her Son, shown either seated upon her, or blossoming above her.
While singing in honour of Your Son, O Mother of God, we all praise you as a living temple; for the Lord who holds all things in His hand dwelt in your womb, and He sanctified and glorified you, and taught all to cry to you: Hail, O Bride unwedded!
About the “Saturday of the Akathist Hymn”. The Hymn is usually sung during Lent – this article gives a brief outline of the history.