CAN WE TALK? THE “CONVERSATIONAL” ICON OF MARY

Today we will take a look at another Marian icon.

Беседа — Beseda — is Russian for “talk” or “conversation.  So you can guess what the title of today’s icon means.  It is called the Besednaya (Беседная) icon.  So of course it means the “Conversation” icon, or we could call it the “Conversational” icon of Mary.

Here is one example of the type:

(Courtesy of the Icon Museum, Kampen: ikonenmuseumkampen.nl)

(Courtesy of the Icon Museum, Kampen: ikonenmuseumkampen.nl)

Though time has made it a bit difficult to distinguish, the icon depicts Mary sitting on a log, with the Sexton (Ponomar) Iuruish kneeling before her, and St. Nicholas (Nikolai) of Myra standing by, dressed in his bishop’s robes.

The origin story tells us that the event depicted supposedly took place in the year 1383, when Mary appeared to  the Sexton Iuruish (a nickname form of Georgiy, “George”).  St. Nicholas was with her.  She was sitting on a pine log, and told the Sexton that instead of placing an iron cross atop the church, newly-constructed in honor of the “Tikhvin” icon, a wooden cross should be used.  This little discussion is the reason for the “Conversation” title.  An alternate title for this type is “The Appearance of the Most Holy Mother of God to the Sexton Iuruish.”

Here is another example:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Now it is obvious from this brief account that one cannot discuss the Besednaya type without some mention of the “Tikhvin” icon, because in their origin stories, the two are connected.

We see that more clearly if we look at an old pattern for the “Conversation” type.  Such patterns were made by tracing the outlines of an icon in a sticky substance and then pressing a paper to it, so that the image was transferred in reverse.  Such patterns could then be used in creating new icons:

We can see that even the inscriptions are reversed.  But if one were to take such a pattern and make little needle holes all along its outlines, then one could use it as a stencil.  When placed over the blank surface of an icon panel, one could then pounce charcoal dust through the holes and scratch the stenciled image so produced into the gesso of the panel, making a permanent outline of the image to be followed in painting the new icon.

The essential Besednaya type takes up a good part of the right side of this pattern, but there are also other related images shown at the top and at the left side.  To understand those we now have to turn to the origin story of the “Tikhvin” icon.

Here is an example of the “Tikhvin” type:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

We can tell its identity not only from its form, but also from its inscription, which reads Izobrazheniya Obraza Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui Tikhvinskiya — “Representation of the Image of the Most Holy Mother of God of Tikhvin”  Mary has the usual three stars on shoulders and forehead, representing virginity before, during, and after the birth of Jesus.

The “Tikhvin” image is one of the most prominent of the so-called “miracle-working” icons of Mary.  It’s origin story (remember that these are just stories for the most part, not reliable history) relates that it was originally brought from Jerusalem to Constantinople by the Empress Eudocia (Evdokiya) in the 5th century. It was said to have then been kept in the Church of the Vlakhernae, and during the Iconoclastic controversy was hidden away in the Resurrection Monastery. But some 70 years before the fall of Constantinople, the icon is said to have disappeared.

When merchants from the great city of Novgorod in Northern Russia were visiting Constantinople seventy years before its fall, the Patriarch of Constantinople engaged them in conversation, asking about rumors of a miraculous icon that had appeared in Russia.   The merchants told him of the appearance there of the “Tikhvin” icon, and the Patriarch concluded that the “Tikhvin” image was the icon of Mary that had mysteriously disappeared from Constantinople.  Talking of the missing icon, he remarked, ” “But now, due to our pride and unrighteousness it has left us completely.”

That remark is very much in keeping with the belief common in traditional Greek Orthodoxy and Russian Orthodoxy that icons of Mary behave like conscious, living beings, deciding where they wish to be, and moving themselves to a different location whenever desired.  It also reveals how Russians blamed the fall of Constantinople on the “sins of the Greeks,” which of course led to Russia becoming the new center of the Eastern Orthodox World, and Moscow the “Third Rome.”

It is said that the Tikhvin icon first was seen in Russia in 1383, when it was sighted by fishermen working their nets on Lake Ladoga.  They saw a bright light in the air, and looking closer, they saw the icon of Mary flying over the lake.  That is the scene depicted here:

Here is a painted icon of the appearance of the Tikhvin icon over Lake Ladoga:

(Courtesy of the Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, MA)

It went out of their sight, and later it appeared some 30 versts from the lake (a verst is the old Russian mile, which was equivalent to 0.6629 miles or 1.0668 kilometers).  There the icon was placed in a chapel and supposedly performed miraculous healings, but then it left again.  It made more stops on its journey, worked more miracles, but continued to move on.  Eventually the icon decided to settle in a swampy place near the Tikhvinka River, and when it appeared there, a church was built to house it.  But being made of wood, the church burnt three times, though the icon was said to have been undamaged.  Great Prince Vasiliy Ivanovich (1505-1533) then ordered that a stone church be built.  It was nearly completed when the arches collapsed on 20 workers.  But when the stones were cleared, all 20 were said to have been found alive.  Ivan the Terrible visited the icon, and had a monastery built there.

There is much more to the story of the “Tikhvin” icon, but that is enough for our purposes today.

Now back to the tale of the Sexton Iuruish.  When it was time to consecrate the church at Tikhvin where the icon was kept, and to install the cross on the dome, Iuruish was sent out to the people in the surrounding area to announce the event so that they might be present.  On his way back, some three versts from the church, he saw Mary sitting on a pine log, and St. Nicholas standing there with her.

Mary told Iuruish to inform the authorities that they were not to install an iron cross on the dome of the church, because her son Jesus was not crucified on an iron cross, but on one of wood.

Iuruish went to the church officials and told them of Mary’s appearance and wishes.  That is the scene shown here:

tikhdet3

 

But when Iuruish told his tale of Mary appearing to him and talking with him, they did not believe him.  They sent the workman up to the dome to fasten the iron cross atop it.  But when he got up there and began his task, a great wind arose, blowing the dome off the church and the workman to the ground (though he was not harmed).  Here is that scene:

Having seen the results of not believing Iuruish, the church authorities decided to install a wooden cross on top of the church.

Later a chapel was also built on the site of the appearance of Mary and Nicholas to Iuruish, and from the log on which she sat, a cross was made for it.  In 1515 a monastery was established there called the “Nicholas-Conversation” (Никольско-Беседный–Nikol’sko-Besednuiy) Monastery.

If you look at top center of the pattern for the expanded Besednaya icon, you will see it has a small image of the “Tikhvin” icon.

The Besednaya type is easy to recognize, with Mary sitting on a log or bent tree, usually with flourishing branches coming out of it, or on what appears like a stump with fantasy foliage loaded with fruits or flowers coming out of it, as in the pattern example shown above.

 

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