In a previous posting I mentioned that one of the motifs found in origin stories of Marian icons regarded as “miracle-working” in Russian Orthodoxy is the “icon in a tree” motif. Here is another icon in that category:
This icon shows the “appearance” or “finding” (обретение —obretenie) of the Zhirovitskaya image. It is painted in the “western” realistic manner favored by the State Church rather than the stylized manner preferred by the Old Believers.
The Zhirovitskaya icon is said to have “appeared” in the year 1470. You will recall that in Russian Orthodox icon lore, the “appearance” (Явление — yavlenie) of an icon means its first “supernatural” manifestation resulting in its recognition as a miracle-working image.
The events are said to have happened near the little village of Zhirovits, in Grodno province of what then was part of the Duchy of Lithuania, but now is in eastern Belarus. Two shepherds were in a wood belonging to the well-to-do Orthodox believer and grandee Alexander Soltan when they noticed a bright light coming from a pear tree growing by a stream at a hill. They went closer, and saw that the light was coming from a small image of Mary holding the Christ Child. As they looked more closely, the light gradually dimmed and then disappeared, but the icon remained.
It was a small stone image, carved in relief in jasper. The two shepherds bowed to the icon, then took it down from the tree and brought it to Alexander Soltan, telling him of its “miraculous” appearance.
He did not take the story very seriously, but nonetheless put the icon in a chest, which he locked.
The next day he had guests. During conversation, he told them of the shepherds’ tale and the little stone icon. They expressed a desire to see it, but when he went to the chest and unlocked it, there was no icon inside. It was gone.
Some time later the shepherds were again in the wood, and again they saw the icon in the same tree. Once more they took it down and brought it to Alexander Soltan. This time he took it very seriously, and vowed to built a church to house the image, which he did.
A settlement formed around the wooden church he built, but in 1560 the church caught fire and burned to the ground. Everyone thought the icon kept in the church was lost.
It happened that some peasant children coming home from school passed the site where the church had stood. They saw a very strange thing there, a beautiful woman glowing with light and sitting on a rock. They hurried on and told of what they had seen, and the news came to the village priest.
He went to investigate, and saw the rock but no lady. On the rock a candle was burning, and beside the candle was the little stone icon, quite unharmed.
It was placed in a temporary site until the villagers had a new church constructed, this time of stone, and the icon was placed within it.
By the time 100 years had passed, there was an Eastern Orthodox monastery near the church. But in 1613, the monastery was captured by “Uniates” (Eastern Catholics), who nonetheless continued to treat the icon with great respect. “Uniates,” by the way, is a term now largely used by Eastern Orthodox to refer to Eastern Catholics, and it has taken on derogatory connotations.
I have mentioned the unfortunate anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe previously. It is noteworthy that the village of Zhirovits, at that time under the control of the Polish king Casimir, became a place in which by law, Jews could not live. Nor could they even stay overnight if journeying, but had to pass through barefoot and bareheaded. Every now and then in the study of icons one discovers such enmity toward Jews, which can be traced back through Church authorities such as John Chrysostom, and even into the anti-Jewish sentiments expressed here and there in the New Testament. It is one aspect of the dark side of Christian history.
In 1839 the region came back under Eastern Orthodox control, and the icon was to be found in the monastery Church of the Dormition, built on the site where the icon first “appeared.” It was placed in the iconostasis, just to the left of the “Tsar Doors.”
The church was a site of pilgrimage (and of course of income for the monastery), and pilgrims would come to dip water from the spring to take home with them, and also pieces of a large stone called the “Footprint of the Mother of God.”
As in Western medieval Europe, a supposedly “miraculous” object or relic was sure to draw pilgrims, then the equivalent of the tourist trade of modern times.
It is said that in 1915 the icon was taken to Moscow and placed in a church there. But during the Communist era — in 1922 — it was smuggled out, so it is said, in a jar of jam — and now is again in the Dormition Cathedral on the site of its first appearance, in Zhirovits/Zhirovichi, Belarus.
The “original” Zhirovits image, now set in an ornate surround, does not look like much. One can barely make out what the image is, so rough is the carving on it.