The Economissa (or Stewardess) Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos depicts the Mother of God seated on a throne, with Her Son on her left knee. St Athanasius of Mt Athos (July 5) stands on her right, holding a model of the Great Lavra. On her left is St Michael of Synnada (May 23). Two angels hold a crown above her head.
The Mother of God has been considered the Stewardess of the Holy Mountain ever since the tenth century when the Great Lavra was being built. St Athanasius of Mt Athos was abandoned by his monks because there was a shortage of food and money. He also left the half-built Lavra, and began walking toward Karyes, intending to ask for advice about whether or not to beg the emperor for the funds needed to complete the building. After about two hours, he saw a beautiful woman standing before him wearing a long blue veil.
“I know your sorrow,” She said, “and I would like to help. Where are you going?”
St Athanasius explained everything that had happened, and She asked, “Have you deserted your monastery for a morsel of bread? Go back! You will have everything you need in abundance, if you do not abandon your monastery.”
“Who are you?” the astonished saint inquired.
“I am the Mother of your Lord,” She replied.
St Athanasius hesitated to believe Her, afraid of being deceived by the Evil One. Then he asked Her how he could be sure that Her words were true.
“Do you see this rock?” she asked, pointing to the side of the path. “Strike it with your staff in the name of the Holy Trinity, and you will know who is speaking to you. Do not appoint a steward at any time, for from this time forward, I shall be the Stewardess of your monastery.”
St Athanasius did as he was told, and the rock split open. A stream of water began to flow out of the crack. When he turned to face the Mother of God and to ask forgiveness for his doubt, She had disappeared.
Returning to the monastery, St Athanasius fournd all the storerooms filled to capacity with food, wine, and oil. The building was completed, and soon the Lavra was filled with monks once again.
To this day, the Lavra does not have a steward. There is, however, a monk who serves as an assistant steward to the Mother of God. The Economissa Icon rests on a throne in the narthex of the main church, and She remains the Stewardess of the Lavra. Pilgrims venerate the Icon before entering the side chapel with the saint’s tomb.
The spring of St Athanasius still flows with healing water.