Within the magnificent Basilica of Christ’s Nativity in Bethlehem, the wonderworking icon of the Most Holy Theotokos, known as Bethlehemitissa, stands out. The sacred Bethlehem Icon of the Panagia is the outstanding icon in the Basilica of the Nativity of Christ in Bethlehem and is located in a prominent proskynitarion on the right side of the southern entrance of the Holy Cave of the Nativity.
The infinite affection which emanates from the eyes of the Panagia’s icon, and her serene gaze, sweetens and exalts the hearts of the faithful. The clothing on the Icon of the Theotokos is covered with luxurious fabrics and precious gems, and makes a distinct impression.
There is no clear historical data concerning the origin of the icon. There is speculation that it came from Russia, and pious tradition particularly links it to the Russian Empress Catherine, who visited the Holy Land and Bethlehem after a miracle performed by the Virgin. She donated her imperial garments in order to clothe the “Mistress of the World” with them. According to tradition, she also gave her jewelry to be placed on the sacred icon, forcing empresses not to wear rubies (or diamonds, according to others) any longer, for this was the exclusive privilege of the “Queen of the Angels.”
Undoubtedly, the Bethlehem Icon has a special place in the hearts of all the Orthodox. The Virgin Mary, the Lady of the Holy Land, is the tender mother who obeyed God’s command and brought our Savior and Redeemer into the world; and at the same time she is the mother of us all and an intercessor before her Son in all our appeals. She is our guardian angel. In our moments of difficulty, we turn spontaneously to face her icon and her grace, always invoking her as “our fervent protector and helper.”