The Pokrov or “Protection of the Mother of God” is a church festival that is celebrated in Russia on October 1st. Its origin lies in the story that in the year 902 (some say 911) c.e., the people of Constantinople gathered in the Church of the Vlakhernae (Blachernae), fearing a military invasion; some say the invaders were saracens (muslims), some say a fleet of northerners from what was then called Rus. During the all-night prayer vigil, Андрей Юродивый — Andrei Yurodivuiy — Andrei the “Holy Fool” — supposedly had a vision in which he saw Mary standing in the church, taking off her veil, and holding it over the congregation as a covering sign of her protection. With her were various saints and angels.
The Vlakhernae Church was the repository for several supposed relics of Mary — her veil, her robe, and at least a portion of her belt.
The Feast of the Protection/Covering was promoted in Russia by the 12th-century Andrei Bogoliubskiy (later declared a saint), who is said to have had his own vision of Mary protecting Russia, so the Pokrov is also seen as a “national” icon.
Let’s look at the title inscription:
ОБРАЗ ПОКРОВА ПРЕС[ВЯ]ТЫЯ Б[ОГОРОДИ]ЦЫ
The bracketed letters are those omitted by abbreviation.
Transliterated, it is:
OBRAZ POKROVA PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI
You should remember the word Obraz, meaning “image.”
Pokrova is the “of” form of Pokrov. Pokrov means “protection,” but also “covering” or “shroud.”
Presvyatuiya, as you will recall from previous postings, is the “of” form of Presvyataya (f.), “Most Holy.”
Bogoroditsui is the “of’ form of Bogoroditsa, meaning “God-Birthgiver,” or in English order, “Birthgiver of God.” It is the Slavic equivalent of the Greek Theotokos. Because “Birthgiver of God” is awkward in English, it is usually loosely translated as “Mother of God.” So, putting all of this together, the inscription reads:
” IMAGE OF [THE] PROTECTION OF [THE] MOST HOLY MOTHER OF GOD”
The Pokrov may be sparingly depicted, with only a few figures, sometimes only with Mary holding her veil; but many examples are quite detailed, such as that shown here:
We see Mary appearing in the air in the center of the church (it is an interior view), with apostles at left and John the Forerunner (Baptist) at right with more saints, including various Church Fathers, and above them are angels. In this example Mary looks toward Jesus at upper left. She holds a scroll, which the podlinniki tell us should read:
Царю небеснии сыну и боже мой приими всяаго человека призывающаго имя твое и мое на всяком месте…
“Heavenly King, my son and God, receive every man who calls on your name and mine in every place…”
Below, crowded between the fellow on the ambo (dais) and the separate scene at lower right, stands the Holy Fool Andrei (Andreas/Andrew), pointing out the vision to his disciple Epifaniy (Epiphanios)
There are two odd things about the Pokrov type: first, it is given far more importance by Russians than by Greeks. Second, it contains scenes some four hundred years apart.
The Pokrov, as already mentioned, is said to have happened in the early 900s. But that fellow in deacon’s garments standing on the dais at lower center is Roman (Romanos) the Melodist, called in Russia Роман Сладкопевец — Roman Sladkopevets — “Roman the Sweet-singer” — who lived in the late 400s-early 500s c.e. His story is that he led the singing in an all-night vigil, but after the others left he was unhappy with his talents, and prayed to have a voice worthy of singing the praises of Mary. He fell asleep in the church and had a dream in which Mary appeared to him and gave him a scroll to eat (that is the scene at bottom right). He awoke, and later again sang in the church, and all were amazed at his voice. He wrote a great many church melodies with words (kontakia).
To the left of Roman stands Patriarch Tarasiy (Tarasios) of Constantinople, and to his left is the byzantine Emperor Leo VI, in whose reign the pokrov supposedly happened; and just above Leo is his wife, Empress Zoe.
Here is a rather grand rendition of the “Pokrov” icon that adds the figure of Jesus with angels and seraphim above Mary. This example places Emperor Leo at lower left, and wife Empress Zoe at lower right. On the church we see the five domes of a Russian-style church, and at right an additional dome on the bell tower.
Here is a version painted with more flatness of color and less sparkle.
Now we have to consider why the Pokrov was considered an important festival in Russia. The reasons might surprise you.
First, coming in the autumn, it happened when the harvesting of crops had ended, and ordinary people finally had time for other things, chief among them weddings. So the Pokrov marked the beginning of the “marrying season” in Russia.
This, of course, put the thought of future marriage in young girl’s heads, and so on the Pokrov they would light a candle before the icon in church. It was said that the first girl to light her candle would be the first to marry. Prayers were said to “Father Pokrov” (note how the festival is anthropomorphized) and Paraskeva Pyatnitsa (a patron of marriage), asking that the girl’s head might be “covered” (thus the connection with Mary covering the congregation with her veil). But by this they were asking to be married, because married Russian women covered their hair in public.
So this concept of pokrov — of covering — took on a symbolic meaning in Russian life, and was associated with nature, because the October date of Pokrov made it the time of year with the earth began to be covered in dead leaves, and the early snow fell to protect the ground through the harshness of winter, white as the cloth covering a maiden’s head at marriage.
There is much more to be said about the Pokrov and the customs and beliefs associated with it in Russian folk life. If such things interest you, an excellent book to read is Ivan the Fool: Russian Folk Belief, (Glas, English translation 2007) by Andrei Sinyavsky. The book is rich in information relating to icons in Russia.
The liturgical phrase generally associated with the Pokrov is the kontakion for the feast, tone 3, generally found on the scroll held by Roman the Melodist:
“Дева днесь предстоит в Церкви, и с лики святых невидимо за ны молится Богу: ангели со архиереи покланяются, апостоли же со пророки ликовствуют: нас бо ради молит Богородица Превечнаго Бога”
“The Virgin today stands in the church, and with choirs of invisible saints prays to God for us. Angels and bishops [literally arch-priests] venerate her, apostles with prophets rejoice, because for our sake the Mother of God prays to the God before the ages.”
In icons of Roman shown alone (not Pokrov icons), the text on the scroll he holds is usually the Christmas (Nativity) kontakion, considered his first composition:
“Дева днесь Пресущественнаго раждает, и земля вертеп Неприступному приносит, Ангели с пастырьми славословят, волсви же со звездою путешествуют, нас бо ради родися Отроча Младо, Превечный Бог”.
“The Virgin today gives birth to the One Above all, and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable; angels with shepherds praise, and Magi journey with the star. For our sake is born the youthful boy, God before the ages.”
The story that Mary gave Romanos a scroll to eat, after which he could sing and compose well, relates to the word for his verse/hymn form, and later to that of others as well — kontakion. It is said to come from the Greek κόνταξ — kontax — meaning the wooden rod around which a scroll was wound. It could thus be used to mean a scroll or a writing on a scroll, and so from the legend of the scroll Romanos supposedly ate, we get kontakion as a name for the verse/hymn form. At least that is the supposition.
As you can see from the examples on this page, the saints and their numbers in Pokrov images vary from icon to icon of the type.
As mentioned earlier, the Pokrov is celebrated on October 1. Further, Andrei the Holy Fool is celebrated on October 2nd, and Romanos the Melodist is celebrated on October 14th.