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-streamiing” 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. 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.”