GRAIN GODDESS: THE SPORITEL’NITSA KHLEBOV TYPE

Today’s posting is also the result of a reader question.

The inquirer came across a Marian icon showing Mary on a cloud, arms outstretched, above a field of grain.  The icon type that describes is a rather recent Russian type called Спорительница хлебов — Sporitel’nitsa Khlebov.  The first word means  a female who causes something to advance or thrive; the second part refers to bread and to grain crops.  So we can loosely translate it as “She Who Makes the Grain Thrive.”  The name is found variously in English as “She Who Ripens the Grain,” “Provider of Bread” “Provider of the Bread of Life,” “Multiplier of Bread,” and so on.  But the essence of the name indicates that Mary makes the grain thrive, which means people will have an abundant harvest and much bread.

As I mentioned, this is a rather recent icon type.  That, and the fact that it originated in the State Church, accounts for why examples of it are generally painted in the realistic manner, rather than in the stylization preferred by Old Believer iconographers.  The type, in origin, relates to the Starets (Elder) Amvrosiy (Ambrose), who lived at the famous Optina Monastery.  He always faithfully kept Marian festivals by praying before an icon of Mary in his cell.

In the year 1890, Abbess Ilariya (Hilaria) of the Volkhov Convent sent Starets Amvrosiy a newly-painted icon partly based on an “All Saints” icon in her convent, but with the addition of a field of ripe grain and sheaves below the image of Mary.  Amvrosiy gave the new type its “She Who Makes the Grain Thrive” title.  Due to Amvrosiy’s efforts, quite a number of copies of the icon were distributed among his admirers.  Amvrosiy spent his last days at a convent he had helped establish in Kaluga, where he died among the nuns.

According to tradition, the Sporitel’nitsa icon helped to end a drought and famine in the year 1892, so it became known as one of the many Russian supposed “wonderworking” icons.  Its very late date of “appearance” accounts for why it is generally found today mostly in printed reproductions (as in the example shown  above) rather than as old painted icons dating to the late 19th-early 20th century, such as this one:

This icon type always reminds me how little has changed in religion since ancient times.  Essentially the Sporitel’nitsa Khlebov shows Mary filling the role of a “Nature Goddess” who has power over the growth and harvest of grain, which was the role of the Goddess Demeter, also known as Ceres — the goddess of the harvest and of grain in the classical Greco-Roman world.

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