This is the “Fiery-faced” icon of Mary, also known as “Fiery Visage” and “Seen in Fire.” Its Russian title is Ognevidnaya — ОГНЕВИДНАЯ.
Historically, there is little that can be said about this icon, because its origin and the date of its “appearance” are unknown. It depicts Mary without the Christ Child, seen shoulder length to half-length. It is found in Russian iconography of the 18th-early 20th century, frequently on multiple icons of Mary, that is, icons that depict more than one “wonder-working” icon of Mary on the same painted panel.
The icon is likely based upon the symbology that equates Mary with the Burning Bush seen by Moses in the Old Testament — the bush that burned with fire but was not consumed.
The connection here is that Mary was pregnant with Jesus, who is considered filled with the fire of divinity, as we see in the Ode 4 Second Canon Irmos of the Canon for the Festival of the Transfiguration of Jesus:
Thou have preserved the bush unharmed, O Master, though it was united with fire, and you have shown to Moses your flesh shining with divine brightness, while he sang: Glory to Thy power, O Lord…You were revealed as an immaterial fire that does not burn the material substance of the body, when you have appeared to Moses and the apostles and Elijah, O Master Who art one in two natures and both of them perfect.
So, Mary was filled with the fire of divinity (thus her fiery red face in this type) but was not harmed by having Jesus within her — the bush that burned but was not consumed.
We also find that Mary, in the Akathist Canon, is referred to thus:
Радуйся, престоле огненный Вседержителя.
“Rejoice, burning throne of the Almighty”
Огнеобразная колеснице Слова
“Fiery chariot of the Word.”
Here is a typical example of a multiple icon from the 19th century. This example is a four-part icon, which was particularly common, but sometimes even more icon types were included on a single panel.
The types in this example were very popular in that period. They are each identified on this panel in the Vyaz (Slavic linked calligraphy) inscriptions at top and bottom. They are, from upper left:
1. От Бед Страждущих — Ot Bed Strazhdushchikh –“Of the Suffering from Distress,” sometimes given the fuller title Избавление От Бед Страждущих — Izbavlenie Ot Bed Strazhdushchikh — “Deliverance of the Suffering From Distress.” In the Moleben to the Mother of God are the words Богородица Владычица, поспеши и от бед избавь нас “Lady Mistress, hasten and from distress deliver us.”
4. Утоли Моя Печали — Utoli Moya Pechali — “Soothe My Sorrows” Mother of God. It is said that this icon was brought from Belarus to Moscow by Cossacks in 1640, and was placed in the Church of St. Nicholas in Pupuishev. A commemoration of the icon was established after a noblewoman was said to have been healed of paralysis of the legs by the icon. According to the origin story, Mary appeared to her and told her to pray before the icon Utoli Moya Pechali” — “Soothe My Sorrows” — which was to be found in the St. Nicholas Church in Moscow. The woman journeyed to Moscow and asked for the icon, but it was not discovered until the priest brought some neglected old icons down out of the bell tower, one of which was the “Soothe My Sorrows” image. This motif of Mary appearing in a dream and revealing a miracle-working icon, often one that has been forgotten or neglected, is common in the hagiography of Marian icons. A prayer service (moleben) was held before the image, and supposedly the woman was able to walk out of the church healed. This was on January 24, 1760. A number of other supposed miracles are also attributed to this icon.
Incidentally, the four small border images depict at left the Guardian Angel and St. Peter, at right Venerable Vasiliy (Basil) Pariyskiy (Василий Парийский) and St. Paul.
The Eastern Orthodox icon cannot really be understood until one realizes that it is a manifestation of a pre-scientific and extremely uncritical and credulous worldview that in modern times would simply be described as gullible. The most fantastic things were (and still often are) believed about icons and the saints represented in them. I have mentioned before how many Marian icons were considered as “persons” that could move from place to place on their own volition, and we can add to that all sorts of other odd manifestations such as the “streaming” of fragrant oil called “myrrh” from the surface of an icon (not the same as the resin myrrh), as well as being able to speak (as in the “Unexpected Joy” image) and to bleed (as in the Iverskaya/Iveron image).
Today we would think of such a mindset as being quite medieval, and in that we would not only be correct, but we would also have grasped something of the essential nature of the icon and the reason for its continuation through centuries.
Considering critical investigation of a “miracle” blasphemous, the Orthodox Church is generally extremely reluctant to permit scientific examination of phenomena such as, for example, the mirotochenie icons — the “myrrh-streaming” icons, that are said to exude fragrant, miraculous oil. But in cases where such examination did happen in one way or another, the not surprising conclusion was that there is a tendency for the substance on Russian “myrrh-streaming” icons to be sunflower oil with a little fragrance added, and for oil on those exhibiting the “miracle” in Greek regions to be primarily olive oil. For a scientist who knows that Russian agriculture produces sunflower oil while Greece produces olive oil, this odd geographical division leads to a rather obvious conclusion about the nature of the phenomenon.
There is an amusing account of one such “myrrh-exuding” icon from the reign of Tsar Peter I. It was reported that a Marian icon in one of the city cathedrals had begun to weep, supposedly to lament the changes Peter was making in Russia. There is an apparently apocryphal story that Peter sent this no-nonsense message to the rector of the cathedral:
“Приказываю чтобы отныне богородицы не плакали. Если богородицы еще заплачут маслом, то зады попов заплачут кровью”.
“I decree that from henceforth the Mother of God shall not weep. If the Mother of God still weeps oil, then the priests will weep blood.”
Not surprisingly, the icon immediately ceased exuding oil.
A similar story relates to the supposedly myrrh-exuding bodies of dead saints kept in the noted monastic site the Pecherskaya Lavra. In 1854 a monk-guide showed Tsar Nicholas I a myrrh-exuding skull there. Nicholas suddenly and unexpectedly asked the monk pointedly, “When was the last time you poured oil in this skull here? The monk, caught off-guard, replied, “On Friday, your Imperial Majesty.”
Instances of myrrh-exuding icons, which used to be rather few, have greatly increased since the fall of the Soviet Union and the resurgence of Russian Orthodoxy and its influence in Russia, along with the increase in a kind of fanatical church-state nationalism.
“Myrrh,” by the way, is also a term used in Eastern Orthodoxy for a special fragrant anointing oil (chrism) used at baptism and for converts, as well as for anointing sacred objects. In the Greek Church it is now compounded of olive oil as well as a mixture of up to some 57 other oils as well as various spices, resins, etc., consecrated by the Patriarch.
With all that in mind, today I would like to talk about the Marian icon called the Pochaev (Pochayiv) — in Russian the “Pochaevskaya” Mother of God. Here is an example of the type in the “westernized” or “realistic” manner favored by the Russian State Church. The ornate incised and gilded borders colored in imitation of cloisonné work are typical of many icons painted in the latter years of the 19th and beginning years of the 20th century.
The inscription at the base of the icon reads “Representation (Izobrazhenie) of the Mother of God Pochaevskaya”
I first encountered the Pochaev icon type many long years ago in a small museum collection as a very simply-painted and then untitled “folk icon,” which I was pleased to be able to identify. That example was the first of two main types. It did not include the “footprint” motif added below in the second type and seen in the example illustrated here.
You will recall that when a supposedly miraculous (chudotvornaya) icon first becomes known by manifesting itself as a miracle-worker, that manifestation is referred to as its “appearance” (yavlenie). So here is the traditional tale of the “appearance” of the Pochaev icon:
The site of the appearance is Mount Pochaev in the western Ukraine. It is said that two monks from the Pecherskaya Lavra (monastery) in Kiev settled in a cave on the mountain when it was still uninhabited. One of the monks was climbing to the summit when he saw a pillar of fire, which on closer approach turned out to be Mary appearing on a rock, surrounded by flames. He called to the other monk who also witnessed the event, and a nearby shepherd named Ioann Bosoy (Босой/Bosoy means “barefoot”) ran up the hill and also saw the apparition along with the two monks.
After that appearance, the impression of Mary’s right foot remained in the rock, along with a spring filling it with water. That is what is depicted at the base of the icon shown here. The “footprint in stone” motif is found in many places in the world, and such a supposed print from a body part is technically called a petrosomatoglyph. It is found (though of course attributed to other supernatural or legendary persons) in the folklore of Hinduism, Buddhism, and even the Fairy Faith in the Celtic countries, etc.
The story continues with the visit of the Metropolitan Neofit to a woman named Anna Goyskaya at Orla/Urlya estate, several miles from Pochaev. He gave Anna an icon brought from Constantinople, and it stayed in her private chapel for some 30 years.
It was not long before servants saw the icon surrounded by light, and so Anna, also seeing the light, put a perpetual lamp burning before it. Then the icon supposedly healed Anna’s brother Philip of his lameness (or of blindness from birth, depending on which account one reads).
In 1597 she gave the icon to the monastery on the mountain where the monks had earlier settled, which was now under the leadership of St. Job. She also gave lands and money. The monks built a new stone Dormition church to house the icon, for which Anna also gave funds.
After Anna died, the mountain on which the monastery lay was inherited by Anna’s nephew (some accounts say grandson), Andrei Firley (Andrzej Firlej), a convert to the Lutheran Church and very opposed to Eastern Orthodoxy. He took the icon to his home. There he supposedly invited guests to witness his wife, dressed in Orthodox priestly robes and holding a chalice, as she shouted insults at Mary and at the icon The result (common in such tales) was that she was punished, in this case by being tormented by an evil spirit. She was only relieved of the problem when her husband returned the icon to the monastery in 1644 (apparently due to a court decision, which is left out of some accounts), after which the miracles, including healings, once more began.
There are other associated tales, one of which is that a monk of the Pochaev Monastery was taken captive by Tartars and imprisoned. He began thinking of his beloved monastery and of how he would miss the celebration of the Feast of the Dormition there, and he prayed to Mary for help. All at once the walls of the prison vanished, and he found himself on the road thronged with people outside the Pochaev Monastery, all there for the celebration of the Dormition.
Another such tale is that in 1675 the Pochaev Monastery was under siege by the Turks. The monks prayed before the icon for deliverance, and as they sang the Akathist to the Mother of God, which begins, Взбранной Воеводе победительная (Vzbrannoi Voevode Pobeditelnaya) — “O Victorious Leader” — suddenly Mary appeared above the monastery, holding her omophorion (mantle) over it as if to protect it, and surrounding her were many angels in warrior garb, holding swords of lightning. Also with them was St. Job of Pochaev (died 1651). The Turks first shot a volley of arrows at the apparition, but the arrows feel back down on them, killing some. They ran in fear and were defeated. A Pochaev monk visiting Constantinople years later was supposedly asked by a Turk if his goddess still lived at Pochaev, adding that his father and others were killed at Pochaev on that day of the apparition.
About 1791 the monastery and the Pochaev icon came under the control of the Uniates — Greek Catholics. While under Uniate control a certain Count Nicholas Potocki was so angered at his coachman when his coach overturned on the road that he fired his gun three times at him. The poor fellow prayed to the Mother of God of Pochaev, and lived — the gun misfired. Supposedly Potocki was so impressed that his coachman survived the attempt to kill him that he endowed the monastery with the new three-altar Dormition cathedral (built in 1771-1783), in which the Pochaev icon was placed. And then in 1831 it came back under Eastern Orthodox control. in 1832 a blind girl who came to Pochaev with her grandmother and bathed her eyes in water in the “foot” depression in the stone was supposedly healed. The spring of clear water that fills the “footprint” is said to be miraculously exuded by the rock, and never to fail.
There are other related and supposedly miraculous versions of the Pochaev image, including a larger icon also kept at the Pochaev monastery that, like the example shown above, depicts the footprint of Mary in the stone at the base of the icon. It is said to have healed the people of Kiev during a cholera outbreak in 1848. Another was kept at the Church of St. Dmitriy in Moscow, and yet another at a convent near Tobolsk in Siberia, supposed also to have healed inhabitants from cholera in 1848.
It is not hard to see that the Pochaev icon was enlisted by tradition to play a propagandistic role in politico-religious conflicts in the Ukraine, which was in contention between Catholicism and Protestantism from the West and Russian Orthodoxy from the East. Keep in mind that historically no separation existed between the Russian Imperial power and the influence of Russian Orthodoxy, and that is why Russian icons frequently play a role that is religio-political in nature. It is the old “God is on our side” syndrome. The Ukraine, unfortunately, is once again a contended region, struggling between free self-determination and Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s seeming wish to bring back the autocratic days of the old Russian Empire.
To repeat, there are variants of the Pochaev icon. There are the two main types: The first shows Mary holding the Christ Child on her right arm and a white cloth in her left hand. The second — the “footprint” variant shown in this posting — uses the first image (sometimes set on a base of clouds) but adds below it a depiction of the footprint of Mary in the stone on Mt. Pochaev.
An additional variant uses the first type, but adds to it three half-length saints below (Great Martyr Catherine, Martyr Paraskeva, Martyr Irene), two full-length saints at left (Prophet Elias and Martyr Menas), and two more full-length saints at right (Protomartyr Stephen, Venerable Avraamiy). There is also a type depicting the “original” appearance of Mary in flames to the monks and shepherd at Mt. Pochaev.
There are said to now be some 300 supposedly “miracle-working” copies of the Pochaev Mother of God. One of the most recent of these — noted from the last half of the 20th century — is the Почаевская Астанайская / Pochaevskaya-Astanaiskaya, the Astana-Pochaev icon, of the city of Astana in Kazakhstan. It is a copy of the “footprint” variant, and is sometimes titled the Tselinogradskiy image, after the former name of the city of Astana — Tselinograd. You will recall from previous postings that the suffixes -skaya and -skiy indicate that an image is “of” a certain place, so Tselinogradskiy means “of Tselinograd” and Astanaiskaya means “of Astana.”
Very strange things are happening in Russia. A sect has even appeared that venerates an image of Vladimir Putin, and one woman in Nizhniy-Novgorod claimed that an image of Putin has “streamed myrrh” like other supposed “miraculous” icons. One can only hope that sanity wins out over thuggery, and that Russia will not continue to repeat the mistakes of the past by supporting arrogant autocrats and the churchmen who back them up in their bullying.
The new face of Russia, sadly, is the old face of Russia. Why does it keep making the same foolish, terrible mistakes?
Today I read a news article mentioning a historian’s initial puzzlement at an illustration in a 16th-century military manual by Franz Helm. It depicts a pigeon and a cat with seeming “jet packs” with flame exhaust strapped to their backs. Perhaps rockets?
The illustration did not puzzle me for a moment, nor would it puzzle anyone who has read the Russian Primary Chronicle and its account of the life of the very unsaintly Russian Orthodox saint Princess Olga of Kiev.
Here is a very Westernized icon showing the Evangelist John (Ioann) and Princess Olga. It was likely painted for a husband and wife who had those saints as their “name saints.” Look at Olga, all sweetness and light. But according to the Primary Chronicle, she could be absolutely vicious and completely unforgiving.
What did Olga do?
Well, first she married Prince Igor of the Rurik Dynasty. In 945, Igor went to obtain tribute from a tribe called the Derevlians, but he was very greedy and demanded a great deal, which he then violently took. Making matters worse, on his way home he turned back to demand even more. The Derevlians saw there was no satisfying his wolfish greed, so they came out of their city of Iskorosten and killed him.
That left Igor and Olga’s son Svyatoslav as heir to the rulership of Kiev. But Svyatoslav was only three, so Olga became regent, ruler in his place.
Meanwhile, the Derevlians, perhaps trying to make amends (the Chronicle ascribes another lesser motive), sent representatives — twenty of them, to Princess Olga asking her hand in marriage for their good Prince Mal, proposing a union that would have united the two factions. They came to Kiev by boat.
When Olga heard their proposal, she lied to them and told them she was pleased. But she asked them to return to their boat, saying that on the next day she would, to honor them, have them carried to her in their boat.
That seemed a flattering prospect, so the ambassadors left, and the next day they were carried, sitting richly dressed and still in their boat, to a hall where Olga sat. However, Olga had previously ordered a large hole to be dug in the hall, and when the Derevlians were carried in, they were dropped, boat and all, into the hole. Olga, peering in, asked them if the honor shown them was to their taste, then she had them buried alive.
Next, Olga sent a message to the Derevlian land, telling them that if they would send their most distinguished men, the people of Kiev would be impressed by them and would permit Olga to go with them to Prince Mal in honor. So the Derevlians sent their most important authorities. When they arrived, Olga told them she would give them an audience after they had gone to the bathhouse and had bathed. When they entered the bathhouse, Olga had the doors locked and the bathhouse set on fire. They all burned to death.
Then Olga sent a message back to the Derevlian land, saying that she was coming to them, but that they should prepare a great quantity of honey mead so that Olga might mourn at the grave of her husband. When Olga arrived among the Derevlians, she went to Igor’s tomb and lamented, then asked those in her retinue to prepare a funeral feast in which the Derevlians were invited to join. They were served mead by Olga’s followers, and when they were very drunk, she had her followers kill them, and she “went about herself egging on her retinue to the massacre of the Derevlians. So they cut down five thousand of them; but Olga returned to Kiev and prepared an army to attack the survivors.”
When Olga threatened them with her army, the Derevlians, now realizing the kind of person they were dealing with, offered her tributes of honey and furs. But Olga asked instead for something else:
“Give me three pigeons,” she said, “and three sparrows from each house. I do not desire to impose a heavy tribute, like my husband, but I require only this small gift from you, for you are impoverished by the siege.”
The Derevlians, relieved and encouraged by this, gladly took three pigeons and three sparrows from every house, and sent them to Olga to fulfill her request. Olga told them that they could go back to their city now that she was satisfied, and said that the following day she would return home. When the Derevlians returned to Iskorosten and reported this to the people, everyone was very happy.
Now, however, comes the horrible event that explains the “jet pack” on bird and cat in the 16th-century illustration:
Now Olga gave to each soldier in her army a pigeon or a sparrow, and ordered them to attach by thread to each pigeon and sparrow a piece of [incendiary] sulfur bound with small pieces of cloth. When night fell, Olga bade her soldiers release the pigeons and the sparrows. So the birds flew to their nests, the pigeons to the cotes, and the sparrows under the eaves. The dove-cotes, the coops, the porches, and the haymows were set on fire. There was not a house that was not consumed, and it was impossible to extinguish the flames, because all the houses caught on fire at once. The people fled from the city, and Olga ordered her soldiers to catch them. Thus she took the city and burned it, and captured the elders of the city. Some of the other captives she killed, while some she gave to others as slaves to her followers. The remnant she left to pay tribute.
Delightful lady, huh?
Sometime between 948-955, Olga went to Byzantium, to Constantinople, which the Russians called Tsargrad (“Emperor-City”). Constantine, the ruler at that time, was impressed with her cleverness, and wanted to make her his wife and Empress. Olga, still a pagan, requested to be baptized into Christianity by the Emperor himself. Constantine was willing to comply, so he baptized her and Olga became a Christian.
Then Constantine formally proposed marriage to her.
Her response, however, was “How can you marry me, after baptizing me yourself and calling me your daughter? For among Christians that is unlawful, as you yourself must know.”
Constantine remarked, “Olga, you have outwitted me.” So he sent her back home loaded with gifts.
When Olga’s son Svyatoslav had grown and taken on rulership, Olga asked him to become a Christian, saying that if he did his subjects would convert as well. He, however, preferred to remain pagan.
The Primary Chronicle ends the tale of Olga by calling her “the precursor of the Christian land, even as the dayspring precedes the sun and as the dawn precedes the day. For she shone like the moon by night, and she was radiant among the infidels like a pearl in the mire, since the people were soiled, and not yet purified of their sin by holy baptism. But she herself was cleansed by this sacred purification. She put off the sinful garments of the old Adam, and was clad in the new Adam, which is Christ… She was the first from Rus to enter the kingdom of God, and the sons of Rus thus praise her as their leader, for since her death she has interceded with God in their behalf.
In 1547 Olga was officially “glorified” as a Russian Orthodox saint, and was given the title Ravnoapostolnaya — “Equal to the Apostles.”
Well, I doubt that Olga was any less of a tough customer after conversion. There seems little evidence of it. The illustration below is likely closer to representing her dark personality than the pious image in the icon shown earlier:
The inscription just to the right of Olga’s head reads SV[yataya] KN[yagina] Olga — “Holy Princess Olga.”
Though Olga failed to convert her son Svyatoslav, her grandson Vladimir became a Christian and ordered his subjects — under threat — to become Christian as well in 988 c.e., the date of the “conversion of Russia.”
Today I want to talk about icons of the Dormition, Uspenie in Slavic, Koimesis in Greek. It means “Falling Asleep.” The Dormition icon represents the death of Mary, mother of Jesus. We have already seen that many icons incorporate apocryphal elements. The Dormition type is based entirely on such “pseudepigraphal” writings, or to avoid the euphemism, writings forged under the names of noted figures in Christian history.
Here is an elaborate version of the Dormition:
In the center is Mary lying on a bier. In the sky above we see the Apostles arriving on clouds moved by angels, to be present at her death:
And then we see them after arrival, standing around her bier. So they are represented twice in the icon, to show two stages of time.
Directly above Mary stands Jesus, who holds Mary’s soul, depicted as an infant because she was just born into Heaven, on his left arm. Above Jesus is a red, winged angel of the cherubim rank.
The fellow whose head is visible at lower right in the image above is Dionysius the Areopagite. He wears the stole of a bishop, and often shown also are Timothy (the one known to the Apostle Paul) and Hierotheus. Some examples also include James, while other examples include saints of later periods.
In the clouds at the top, we see two angels waiting on the other side of the opened doors of Heaven. Their hands are covered with cloths, which is a sign of veneration for a sacred object or person:
Just below Mary’s bier is a man with his hands reaching upward. This, according to the old story, is Athonios (Iephonias in Greek examples), a Jew jealous of the honor shown Mary, who tried to push over the bier but was prevented from doing so by an angel with a sword, who cuts of Athonias’ hands. In this example his hands have not yet been cut off. In some examples, however, his hands are shown severed from his arms. This is an example of the anti-Semitism that one sometimes finds in Christian history and in Eastern Orthodoxy.
Those familiar with the New Testament will recognize that the story of the Dormition is nowhere found in it. It actually comes from extra-biblical spurious writings, primarily represented by the Account of St. John the Theologian of the Dormition of the Mother of God, a Greek text that is usually dated to the 6th century, though some would date it earlier (and which of course uses the name of the Apostle John to give a semblance of veracity). However Epiphanius of Salamis, who died c. 403, wrote in his Panarion 79:11, that nothing certain was known of the death of Mary, quite in contrast to the later, elaborate tale of the Dormition, in which we find the account of why and how the Apostles were brought to witness Mary’s death:
And she prayed, saying: My Lord Jesus Christ, who did deign through your supreme goodness to be born of me, hear my voice, and send me your apostle John, in order that, seeing him, I may partake of joy; and send me also the rest of Thy apostles, both those who have already gone to you, and those in the world that now is, in whatever country they may be, through your holy commandment, in order that, having beheld them, I may bless your name much to be praised; for I am confident that you hear your servant in everything.
And while she was praying, I John came, the Holy Spirit having snatched me up by a cloud from Ephesus, and set me in the place where the mother of my Lord was lying… And the three virgins came and worshipped… And the holy mother of God answered and said to me: The Jews have sworn that after I have died they will burn my body. And I answered and said to her: Your holy and precious body will by no means see corruption…
And the Holy Spirit said to the apostles: Let all of you together, having come by the clouds from the ends of the world, be assembled to holy Bethlehem by a whirlwind, on account of the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ; Peter from Rome, Paul from Tiberia, Thomas from hither India, James from Jerusalem. Andrew, Peter’s brother, and Philip, Luke, and Simon the Cananaean, and Thaddaeus who had fallen asleep, were raised by the Holy Spirit out of their tombs; to whom the Holy Spirit said: Do not think that it is now the resurrection; but on this account you have risen out of your tombs, that you may go to give greeting to the honour and wonder-working of the mother of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, because the day of her departure is at hand, of her going up into the heavens. And Mark likewise coming round, was present from Alexandria; he also with the rest, as has been said before, from each country. And Peter being lifted up by a cloud, stood between heaven and earth, the Holy Spirit keeping him steady. And at the same time, the rest of the apostles also, having been snatched up in clouds, were found along with Peter. And thus by the Holy Spirit, as has been said, they all came together.
Now obviously this is not an historical event. It is mythmaking, a part of the ever-increasing veneration of Mary that occurred in the Church after the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire under Constantine and the influx into the Church of large numbers of pagans, accustomed to a mother goddess, who found in Mary a replacement. The earliest written example of Marian veneration is found on a damaged papyrus that dates no earlier than the 4th century to the second half of the 3rd century, and comes, not surprisingly, from Egypt, where formerly the Goddess Isis was very prominent, whose worship also spread into Rome:
The emended Greek version of the prayer (I have added an interlinear translation) reads:
Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν Beneath your
καταφεύγομεν We flee for refuge
Θεοτὸκε· τὰς ἡμῶν O Birth-giver-of-God; our
ἱκεσίας μὴ παρ- petitions do not
ίδῃς ἐν περιστάσει despise in need
ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ κινδύνου but from peril
λύτρωσαι ἡμᾶς deliver us
μόνη ἁγνὴ Only Pure [One]
μόνη εὐλογημένη. Only Blessed [One]
There are generally two versions of the Dormition icon. The first, like that above, shows the Apostles arriving on clouds as well as the scene of the angel cutting off the hands of Athonias. The second simplifies the type by omitting those elements.
The Dormition of the Mother of God is one of the major festivals of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and is found both in icons of the major Church festivals and, as we have seen, as a separate icon type.
A widespread, popular apocryphal tale of Mary descending into Hades before she ascended to Heaven came into Russia from the Byzantine Greek world, via Bulgaria. In it, Mary goes to the Mount of Olives and calls the Archangel Michael to take her down to Hades so she might see the torments sinful Christians were suffering there. Michael then acts as her guide through Hades (“Hell”), and shows her its various regions and gruesome tortures, much as Dante is led through Hell by the Roman poet Virgil. The difference is that Mary then beseeches God to be merciful, but he only relents to a certain degree, holding off the tortures of the condemned to give them a rest between Easter and All Saints Day (or Good Thursday through Pentecost– accounts vary) Oddly, it is specifically mentioned that Mary refuses to intercede for “the unbelieving Jews” in Hades, which no doubt contributed to the unfortunate antisemitism that so often appears in Slavic countries. It is likely that Dante got the idea for his guided tour through Purgatory, Hell, and Heaven via this apocryphal tale as brought to Italy by Bulgarian Manicheans. The tale of Mary’s descent to Hades is mentioned in Dostoevskiy’s novel The Brothers Karamazov.
I often talk of how haphazard the very large list of officially-recognized saints in Eastern Orthodoxy is. There has never been any systematic investigation by the Eastern Orthodox Church of whether a given saint actually existed or whether the tales told of the saint have any historical validity. Instead, a great deal of it comes down through tradition, and tradition, as any museum curator can tell you, is notoriously unreliable.
Today I want to discuss one of the child saints popular in Russian Orthodoxy, “Righteous” Artemiy Verkolskiy (Праведный Артемий Веркольский). Artemiy (Artemius in Latinized form) is said to have been a 12-13 year-old peasant boy born at the village of Verkola in the Arkhangelsk region of Russia in 1532. He was out plowing in the fields with his father Kosma in the summer of 1545 when the sky grew dark and the growl of thunder was heard. Suddenly a bolt of lightning struck and the boy fell to the ground, dead.
The peasants were very troubled by the manner of Artemiy’s death, and thought it must be a punishment from God for secret sins of one kind or another, and given the manner in which Heaven had punished the boy, the villagers refused to give him a “Christian” burial. Instead, his body was taken far into the forest, laid on moss, and covered up with sticks and brush. Then a simple wooden fence was built around the pile.
Over 30 years later, the story goes, a cleric of the local church of St. Nicholas, named Agafonik, was out in the forest when he is said to have seen a light amid the trees. He went to see what it was, and found that the light was shining above the pile of decaying brush where Artemiy had been laid. He went through the old fence, pulled away the rotting wood, and beneath it he found the body of the boy lying uncorrupted. Now in Eastern Orthodoxy, a body that has not decayed is generally considered a sign of sanctity, as it is in Roman Catholicism. BUT it depends on what its associations are, and what signs are said to accompany it.
In folk belief, there may be in some cases unpleasant signs that the uncorrupted body is instead an Упирь “Upir” (Serbian вампир “vampir“) — a vampire, the characteristics of which vary in folklore from region to region. So whether an uncorrupted body is considered a saint or a vampire depends on what events accompany it. If presumed healings, etc. happened, it was said to be the body of a saint; if livestock or people began to die, etc., it was a vampire. We should not be surprised at this, because we can see from the uneasiness of the peasants at the story of how Artemiy died that they themselves did not know at first if he had been evil or good, though they concluded the former. It was only from subsequent supposed events attached to his name that he was determined to be a saint. We are not dealing with science here, but with popular beliefs among the uneducated.
In Artemiy’s case, it is said that the men of the village discussed what to do, and eventually they decided to take up the body and place it — covered over with birchbark — in a coffin in the porch of the Church of St. Nicholas.
In 1583 the son of a local peasant named Kallinik fell ill during an epidemic that was raging in the area. The father put birchbark from Artemiy’s coffin on the boy, and the boy, it is said, was healed. This upped Artemiy’s stock considerably, and other healings are said to have followed. A chapel was built, and the remains of Artemiy, placed into a new coffin, were transferred to it. Eventually Artemiy made his way, in the 17th and 18th centuries, into lists of saints, and then became an officially-accepted saint in Eastern Orthodoxy, though the precise chronology of events in his story and in his acceptance is rather confused.
Here is a lubok (лубок, a print popular with the lower and middle classes) showing Artemiy Verkolskiy and scenes from his hagiography:
The inscription in the arch above Artemiy’s head reads, “Image of the Righteous Artemiy Verkolskiy, Wonderworker.” Though not all luboks were of religious subjects, this one is and functioned as an icon.