About the year 910 AD an army of countless Arabs from Syria conquered Crete and Sicily and all the Greek Islands. Some of them came to the Monastery of Vatopedi, on the eastern coast of the Holy Mountain (Mt.Athos) to raid it. When the Caretaker of the holy Altar (Vimataris) saw them coming, he took the Holy Wood (from the Cross on which Jesus was crucified) and a precious icon of the Virgin called Ktitorissa, hid them in a shallow well under the Holy Altar and lit a candle in front of them. He then skillfully camouflaged the well with stones and branches and ran into the woods to hide. However, the invaders caught up with him, took him and many others prisoners and sent them to Crete, looted the Monastery and left.
The other monks were away at various chapels scattered around the Monastery when this thing happened. When they returned they saw the Monastery in ruins they were extremely upset but they stayed there until three brothers, Athanasios, Nicholas and Anthony came from Adrianopol (972) with three thousand gold florins (flouria) each to become monks. They rebuilt the Monastery and it started to flourish again.
When Nikiphoros Phocas, who built the Lavra of Mount Athos, became a Byzantine Emperor (963-969), he amassed a large army, liberated Crete and freed the captives, especially the Vimataris of Vatopedi, who returned after seventy years to his Monastery on the Holy Mountain. However, he could not recognise any of the monks, since they were all new. None-the-less he told them a story of how he hid the icon of the Virgin, the Ktitorissa, and the Cross of the Holy Wood in the well. He opened it and to their surprise they saw the icon and the Cross standing on the water, and the candle in front of them still burning after all these years!
They took them out of the well and placed them at their original place. Since then, every Monday evening after the vespers, a Paraclesis is chanted to the Theotokos, on every Tuesday a divine Liturgy is celebrated in the main church (The Katholikon). The fact that these services have been going on for nine centuries is evidence of the truthfulness of the event.
Monk Sabbas, the Vimataris who placed the icon and Cross in the well, returned to his job as deacon and after a few days departed this earth for the heavenly kingdom.
The icon of the Ktitorissa is found today in the main church on the upper throne, and the Cross, as is the custom, behind the Holy Altar. It is that the Emperor Constantine the Great made this Cross in the form of the Cross that he saw in the heavens at the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, when he defeated Maxentius and became the Roman Emperor. For this reason the Cross is also known as “The Cross of King Constantine”. The icon of the Ktitorissa is also known as “Vimatarissa”.
by Fr.Evagoras Constantinides
“The Story of the Virgin”, InterOrthodox Press, Berkeley, CA 2009