If people are puzzled by ordinary icons, what are they to make of something like this one?
This is the Okovetskaya icon of Mary, also known as the Rzhevskaya.
You will recall that the manifestation of a Marian icon as chudotvornaya — “miracle-working” — is called its yavlenie — its “appearance.” There are over 600 such Marian icons generally recognized in Russian Orthodoxy, and that does not include images that are known only locally.
In the lore of icon “appearances,” one motif is that of the icon appearing in a tree. The Okovetskaya-Rzhevskaya icon is one of these.
It is said to have appeared in a forest near Okovtsy Village near Rzhev (thus its title), In Tver Province, on May 26th in the year 1539. Here is the tale in brief:
Four thieves made a pact. Two were to steal two cows, and the others were to steal two horses. They were then to meet in the woods and exchange their ill-gotten animals. The first pair managed to pilfer the cows, but when they went to the place in the forest where they were to trade for the horses, there was no one there. Instead, they saw an odd sight. In one tree there was an iron cross nailed up, and close to it was another tree in which they saw an icon hanging.
This frightened the thieves, and they left quickly. But the story of the icon in the tree became known, and a large number of villagers went in a group to investigate. They found the iron cross, and nearby was an icon hanging in another tree. When they took the icon down from the tree, suddenly there was a loud sound like a powerful wind, and the icon began to glow with a bright light.
As is the case with these tales, the icon soon began to work miracles, healing about 170 people. Eventually the image, having become famous, was taken ceremoniously to Moscow, and after a time was returned to the church built for it near the site of its appearance.
There are essentially two Okovetskaya-Rzhevskaya icon types: the first is the one shown here, which shows the cross hanging in one tree, and the Okovetskaya icon hanging in the other. The second type is that of the Okovetskaya image alone, which depicts Mary holding the child Jesus, and beside them stands St. Nicholas.
In the first type, the cross is conventionally depicted as an icon hanging in a tree. Behind it are the walls of Jerusalem, below it are the skull and bones of Adam (buried, according to legend, on the future site of the Crucifixion), and above it the sun darkened and the moon red as blood.
Icons of the second type show Mary and her child in various positions from example to example, so those alone are not the key to identification; the key is the presence of St. Nicholas with them, dressed in the robes of a bishop.
There is another and better-known icon that also has the “appearing in a tree” motif in its origin story — the Zhirovitskaya; but I will save that for another day.