Today I would like to discuss palladium icons.
What is a palladium? The name originates in Greek myth. There was, it is said, an ancient wooden image of the goddess Athena kept in the city of Troy, and the image — said to have fallen from heaven — was the great protector of the city. By extension, a palladium is any image believed to protect or ward off evil from a city or country.
This notion of a palladium did not end with the fall of the classical world. It was adopted by Byzantine Christianity — which we now call Eastern Orthodoxy. According to the story of Aeneus, the Troy palladium was eventually brought to Rome. Whatever the truth of the matter, when the Emperor Constantine (considered a saint in Eastern Orthodoxy) founded Constantinople, a statue of him was placed on a hundred-foot stone pillar there. In the hand of the statue was an image of the goddess Tyche, who was believed to protect a city; the Romans called her Fortuna; and it is said that within the pillar itself was placed a mixture of “pagan” and Christian relics, among them an axe used by Noah, the ointment container used by Mary Magdalene, pieces of the loaves from the miraculous feeding of the multitude by Jesus, and notably the Palladium image of Athena that Aeneas had supposedly brought from Troy to Rome.
Now we need not concern ourselves with the authenticity of these items; what is important is that they were believed at the time to be genuine, and belief can be a powerful force.
So not only did the “New Rome” Constantinople continue the notion of a city-protecting image, but it also transferred that notion from the pre-Christian “pagan” world into the new Christian world of Byzantium.
Not surprisingly, when Eastern Orthodoxy came to Kievan Rus and that state was converted to Christianity by edict of the Great Prince Vladimir in 988 c.e., this notion of a city-protecting sacred object was not abandoned. But now, instead of an image of the warrior Goddess Athena, the new protecting images depicted Mary, called “Mother of God” in Eastern Orthodoxy.
That is why we find the icon as palladium repeatedly in Russian history. Let’s take a look at some examples of palladia:
Here is the very well-known image known as the Znamenie or “Sign” icon of Mary:
In the 1100s there was a very important merchant city-state on the long trade route from northeastern Europe (think northern Germany and Scandinavia) down to Constantinople. It was the city of Novgorod (literally “new town”), called Novgorod the Great, which gives you an idea of its significance. All kinds of wares and valuables passed to and fro through the city, which made it a rich prize.
About 1169-1170 it was attacked by the forces of Great Prince Andrei Bogoliubskiy (see my article on the “Bogoliubskaya” Mother of God icon). To protect the city, the icon of the “Sign” Mother of God was taken from its place in the Transfiguration Church to the walls of the city, facing the attacking Suzdalians.
The Suzdalians shot a great volley of arrows at those on the walls, one of which struck the face of Mary. According to the legend, the icon turned its face away from the Suzdalians toward the city, and began to weep. At the same time the attackers were seized by a great fear, their sight was obscured, and they began to fight one another. Seeing this, the Novgorodians opened their gates and poured out upon the Suzdalians, defeating them at this moment of great weakness. The Novgorodians were said to have been assisted in their attack on the Suzdalians by saints and angels.
Not only are there countless renditions of the “Sign” Mother of God icon, but there are also old icons depicting the attack of the Suzdalians and their repulsion buy the icon.
We see from this not only how an icon may be used as a palladium, but also another example of how, in Russian (and Greek) Orthodox tradition, icons can behave like living beings. The icon is “wounded”; it “turns its face”; it “weeps.” We also see the intimate historical connection between Church and State, which extended from the conversion of Russia in 988 c.e. up to the fall of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and the Russian Revolution. Now, unfortunately, we are seeing a revival of that old Church-State bond, in spite of all the trouble it has caused over the centuries.
The city-state of Novgorod flourished long as a republic, and was never conquered by the Mongols. Nonetheless, in 1478 Novgorod was taken over by the greater power in Moscow, and its importance faded.
The battle of the Novgorodians and the Suzdalians is not the only instance of the “Sign” icon used as a palladium. When a great fire broke out in 1566 (remember that wooden construction was common in those days), Metropolitan Makariy again went to the church, prayed before the icon, then carried it in formal procession along the Volkhov River. It is said that the wind then changed direction, and the fire was halted.
When the Swedes captured and plundered Novgorod in 1611, it is said that some of them came to rob the church where the icon was kept, but every time they tried to enter, they were pushed back by an invisible force, so the church was left unharmed.
In 1636 it is said that a silvermith named Luka Plavisshchikov hid in the church one evening after the service, planning to rob it; by night he took the silver vessels from the altar, as well as money, and then went to the icon to rip off the valuables with which it had been ornamented. But when he touched the icon, he was knocked unconscious to the floor. The next morning the church sexton saw him lying there before the icon, and thought he was drunk. It is said that the thief lost his mind for some time, but eventually recovered and told the story of his attempted robbery and of how the icon prevented it.
The next great palladium icon is also the most famous icon of Russia — the “Vladimir” image of Mary. Here is a rendition of it in the later “red” style that was popular in the late 18th and 19th centuries:
Icons painted in this “red” style can vary from a simple and very folkish manner to more sophisticated renditions. The example shown here is one of the finest in this style that I have seen. These “red” icons should not be cleaned, if it can at all be avoided, because the gold backgrounds are the result of a tinted varnish over a metal leaf background, not real gold leaf; so if that varnish is removed, the color of the background changes completely, from the intended gold to silver.
But back to the original image of the type:
It has an extensive story, but here are a few highlights: In 1164 Great Prince Andrei Bogoliubskiy took it in his military campaign against the Volga Bulgars and his victory was attributed to the help of the icon.
After Andrei was killed by boyars in 1173, the city of Vladimir broke out in looting and chaos. A priest named Nicholas then took the Vladimir icon in procession through the streets, and the outbreak subsided.
At the end of the 14th century, with the invasion of Russia by Tamerlane, the icon was taken from Vladimir to Moscow, much to the dismay of the people of Vladimir, who were said to have wept and cried to the departing icon, “Where are you going from us, O Most Pure One? Why are you leaving us orphans?”
Along the way to Moscow, crowds lined both sides of the road kneeling and shouting, “Матерь Божия, спаси землю русскую!” — Mater Bozhiya, spasi zemliu russkuyu — “Mother of God, save the Russian Land!” When it reached Moscow, the icon was greeted there by all the clergy of the city, as well as the nobles and the family of the Great prince.
As a result of all this, Tamerlane, sleeping in his tent, is said to have had a dream in which he saw Mary in a blaze of light, surrounded by angels with fiery swords. He awoke in great fright, summoned his council, and told his dream, asking what it meant. They told him that he had seen the Protectress of the Russian land. Tamerlane, regarding all this as a very bad sign, then turned his forces back and gave up the attack. The icon is said to have again protected Moscow from the Tatars in 1408, as well as several times in later years.
Finally, today, we come to the latest of these three famous palladium icons, the “Kazan” icon of Mary. Here is just one of countless renditions:
The Kazan icon is said to have appeared after its existence was revealed in a dream (you will have noticed by now that this “dream” motif is very common in the tales associated with icons). It is said to have saved Russia during the “Time of Troubles” in 1605-1612, when the country was invaded by the Poles, who even took control of Moscow. A special commemoration of the saving of Moscow by the icon was set on October 22 annually. That date is significant also because, during the French invasion of Russia under Napoleon, it was on the October 22nd memorial of the icon that the first major Russian defeat of the French in battle took place. It is said that thanks to the Kazan icon, on that day snow and freezing weather began that was so severe an obstacle to the French troops that it led to their ultimate defeat.
It is not difficult to see the psychological value in war of palladium icons that are supposed to be divine protectors of a city or country, and that of course contributes to the attribution of victories to them. Defeats receive far less attention. There was, for example, a “new” icon that was painted at the time of the Russo-Japanese War of 1914-1905 by Pavel Fedorovich Shtronda.
The story is that Mary appeared to an old sailor in Kiev in a dream (again, that dream motif!) on December 11, 1903, telling him that a war was coming, and that an icon should be painted of her as she appeared in the vision, and sent to the church at Port Arthur on the Pacific Coast. She promised it would protect and bring victory to the Russian troops there. The cost of painting the icon was paid by thousands of donations by those who heard the tale of the old man’s vision. Two months after the supposed vision, the war began. But when the icon was sent, it only got as far as Vladivostok, because Port Arthur itself was under siege, surrounded by Japanese troops. An attempt was made by a retired captain to bring the icon into the city, but on January 11th of 1905 he reported that the icon could not be delivered because Port Arthur had already fallen to the Japanese.
The Port Arthur icon fell completely from notice as a consequence, until it was said to have been found in an antique shop in Jerusalem by some pilgrims from Vladivostok in February of 1998. On May 6, 1998, the icon was received back in Vladivostok. There are not many copies of this Порт-Артурская — Port-Arturskaya — “Port Arthur” icon, and those that exist are likely to be quite recent. Being a “State Church” icon, it is painted in the Westernized manner.
It is interesting that the notion here is that the icon — like a person — has to be actually present in the city to protect it. In any case, these palladia may or may not “work.” The believers will say something like “It is due to whether the people sincerely repent or not,” but most of us will see the victories supposedly won by palladium icons as just a reflection of the ironic remark by Higgs in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon: “As luck would have it, Providence was on my side.”
And that brings us back full circle to the statue of Constantine, standing atop its pillar in Constantinople, holding a miniature image of the Goddess Tyche (Τύχη) on its outstretched hand. Tyche is Luck, she is Fortune. And she might protect your city, or as history has demonstrated, she might not. It’s all a matter of luck — “As luck would have it, Providence was on my side.”