HORSES, BIRDS, AND THE KONEVSKAYA ICON

In northwestern Russia lies the large lake called Lake Ladoga.  On its western side is an island called Konevets (Коневец,), the site of the Konevskiy Monastery.

According to tradition, near the end of the 14th century a Russian from Novgorod named Arseniy (died 1444) ) went to the far-off monastic community on Mount Athos, in Greece.  There he spent some three years.  When he decided to return to Russia in 1393, an Athos abbot and elder named John gave him an icon of Mary and the Christ Child to take back with him.  Arseniy looked about Lake Ladoga (then called Nevoozero), and decided to establish his monastic cell on Konevets Island after a storm blew him ashore there (he saw that as a divine sign).  Gradually others joined him, and that was the beginning of what became the Konevets/Konevskiy Monastery there.

When Arseniy first came to the island, he found that the Karelian people living on the mainland brought their cattle there to graze from spring to fall.  Now it happened that on the northwestern side of the island there was a huge stone considered to be the sacred abode of spirits.  Each year the people would leave a horse as a sacrifice to the spirits who manifested in the stone, in thanks for keeping watch over the cattle during the grazing season.  And each year when they came back, the remains of the horse would have entirely disappeared, showing the approval of the spirits.

Arseniy, of course, did not care for this “pagan” notion, so he went to the stone — called the “Horse Stone” (Конь-Камень/Kon-Kamen), taking with him the Marian icon he had been given on Athos.  Once there, with the power of the icon and of his prayers, so the old story goes, he is said to have driven the spirits out of the Horse Stone, and they could be seen leaving in the form of a flock of black ravens that rose into the air and flew all the way across the strip of land to the west to Vyborg, on its bay at the eastern side of the Gulf of Finland.

Here is an old map showing Konevets Island in Lake Ladoga, and Vyborg/Viborg to the far west (and slightly south) of it.  At the the bottom right is St. Petersburg:

Here is a photo of the Horse Stone, with the Orthodox chapel built atop it to show the dominance of Russian Orthodoxy over the old beliefs:

Now on to the icon itself, known as the Konevskaya image, after the name of the Island and Monastery (and the saint, who is known as Arseniy Konevskiy).

This is a copy of the Konevskaya icon, dated 1873, and of course we can see by its style that it is painted in the “Westernized” manner of the State Church:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Now the interesting thing about this image (one of the supposed “miracle-working” Marian icons) is that we can find an early example of an Italian painting almost identical in form, but with obvious Italian characteristics in style, dating to the 14th century, and attributed to the painter known only as the “Master of the Sterbini Diptych.”  All we know about this painter is that he is believed to have worked on the Adriatic coast, either in Venice or one of the other cities of the region.  His work shows the cross-fertilization between Byzantine icon painting of the time and Italian painting of trecento (1300s) Italy.  We even see in this example hints of the style of Giotto:

The motif of the Christ Child with a bird is frequent in Western religious art, with various symbolism attributed to the bird (the soul, resurrection, the Passion, the Holy Spirit, etc.), but one must also keep in mind that birds on a string were once given to children as playthings.

In the case of the many copies of the Konevskaya icon (which began to multiply in Russia in the 16th century), one sometimes finds examples with one bird, while others (as in the 19th century example on this page) depict two birds.  The presence of a bird or birds in the Konevskaya (Коневская ) icon type accounts for its alternate name, the “Dove” icon (Голубицкая/Golubitskaya).  Golub (Голубь) in Russian means “dove.”  The icon presently kept as the “original” Konevskaya icon in the New Valaam Monastery in Finland (since 1956) is suspected to be a later copy of the lost original.

It is also worth mentioning that we find the word “horse” (Russian kонь/kon) in the name of the Horse Stone in the origin story of the icon, as well as in the name of the icon and that of Konevets Island.  The horse symbol, in the old Slavic religion, was associated with the Thunder God Perun, whose duties were later taken over by the Old Testament prophet Elijah.

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