Stolen 700-year-old icon comes home

A smashed window and an arch-shaped hole were all that could be seen in the place where the Elona Monastery’s greatest treasure had been pried from its cradle of pine and resin. The Mother Superior ran to the Greek Orthodox priest assigned to the monastery for the busy week around the August 15 feast day of the Virgin Mary – when thousands come to see the 700-year-old icon of the Madonna and Child that some believe has graced their mountainous patch of southern Greece with miraculous powers. Police arrived within minutes. A mountaineer’s rope hung limp against the 39-meter rock face. Somewhere in these woods during the night the thief had slipped away with the icon, police say. Photos and details of the icon were posted on Interpol’s stolen art watch list. By mid-morning on August 19, forensic teams at the Elona Monastery had found traces of DNA. Roadblocks were set up around the nearby regional center of Leonidio, about 120 miles (200 kilometers) southwest of Athens. The thief – or thieves – most likely entered the monastery with pilgrims and then hid until dark. Only one window to the chapel is without bars, as it looks out on a vertical drop of almost certain death. But that was the way both in and out. Footprints and smudges from the rope showed the daring descent along the whitewashed walls. There was little worry about being caught in the act. The only people at the monastery were three elderly nuns who remain as caretakers. Most scholars say the icon dates from the 14th century and is rendered in a style common to Greek icons since early Byzantium. Tradition says the monastery was built after shepherds saw an icon glowing on the cliffs. Nearly five weeks after the Elona icon theft, police intercepted a phone call and had a suspect: a 28-year-old Romanian man. «Yes,» he said over the phone, «I have the icon. It is safe. Let’s discuss a price.» Police say the suspect had been in contact with a private collector in Athens. But any deal apparently fell through. He then moved on to a bishop in southern Greece. A ransom price was set at 1 million euros ($1.28 million), police said. Agents closed in, on September 21, on a home in the village of Faraklo near the southeastern tip of mainland Greece. The icon was found hidden in a stone wall of a nearby church, protected by old clothes and a wooden box. Police also found more than 230 pieces of jewelry and other offerings left by worshippers at the monastery. Police claim the Romanian confessed to the robbery, but no other details have been made public. The investigation is not over, officials said. Last Sunday, the icon returned home. Thousands of people lined the narrow road to the monastery. An honor guard snapped to attention as the icon was carried on the last leg of its return journey by Public Order Minister Vyron Polydoras. Worshippers showered him with petals. Bars are planned for the window facing the cliff.