Anyone familiar with Russian art will have seen the remarkable painting (completed in 1883) by Ilya Repin (1844–1930) called Крестный ход в Курской губернии — Krestnuiy khod v Kurskoy Gubernii — loosely, “Religious Procession in Kursk Province.” It is fascinating not only because of the skill of the artist, but also because it is a look at Tsarist Russia, warts and all. With a slight change of costume, it could be a scene out of the Middle Ages:
To the left, we see the poor and humble walking as best they can, and above them, mounted on horses, the civil authorities.
In the center we see the well-to do and the clergy. Note the many tree stumps on the slope behind them:
At right — in front of the fellow striking at the crowd with his whip — men carry an elaborate structure, decorated with flowers and beribboned. It contains an icon, though we see only the golden glints of light reflecting off its case. Some of those carrying it are shod in woven bark shoes, which was common among the peasantry of those days:
Though many are familiar with the painting, most do not know that it depicts the annual procession carrying the Курская Коренная — Kurskaya Korennaya — the “Kursk Root” icon — from the monastery where it was kept to the city of Kursk.
The painting was controversial when it was first exhibited in 1883, because it showed the class divisions so prevalent in Russian society, and the obvious authoritarianism of State and clergy. Some 4,000 people came to view it just in the first week.
Here is the “Kursk Root” image as it appears today, in its enameled and filigreed cover in the style of the beginning of the 20th century.
It is said that the Kursk Root icon originally consisted only of the center image of Mary and the Christ Child, in the form known as the Znamenie (“Sign”) Mother of god. Before we get into that, let’s take a look at the inscription across the bottom of the icon. It is long, so I will divide it. Here is the beginning:
ИЗОБРАЗЧЕНИЕ И МЕРА ЧУДОТВОРНАГО ОБРАЗА…
IZOBRAZHENIE I MYERA CHUDOTVORNAGO OBRAZA…
“[The] Representation and Measure of the Wonder-working Image…”
…ЗНАМЕНИЯ ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ КОРЕННО КУРСКИЯ
...ZNAMENIYA PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI KORENNO KURSKIYA
“[Of the] “Sign” Most-Holy Mother-of-God Root-Kursk.”
So all together,
“THE REPRESENTATION AND MEASURE OF THE WONDERWORKING IMAGE OF THE ‘SIGN’ MOST HOLY MOTHER OF GOD ‘ROOT-KURSK.'”
The origin story of the icon tells us that its “appearance” took place in the 13th century (the 1200s), when Russia had been devastated by the plundering and burning Mongol hordes. The tale is set in the vicinity of Kursk, a place some 280 miles south of Moscow.
Kursk was destroyed by the invading Tatars under Batu Khan about 1237-1240, and was not rebuilt again until 1586. After the invasions of the Tatars, what had been a city became a wilderness.
In the autumn of 1295 (September 8th, so the story goes), a hunter from Rylsk, a city down the Sem River to the West, came wandering through the forest in the vicinity of Kursk, looking for game. On the banks of the Tuskar River near Kursk, he found a small icon lying face down at the roots of a tree. When he turned it over, he found it to be a copy of the “Sign” Mother of God. And it is said that as soon as he picked it up, a spring of water bubbled out of the ground where it had lain (remember the Catholic story of Bernadette and the spring at Lourdes?). That is supposed to have been the icon’s first miracle.
Here is a map showing Kursk ( Курскъ ) at right center, and at the far lower left is Rylsk (Рылскъ)
If we look more closely at Kursk, we see the River Tuskar (Тускар ) flowing northward just to the right of it, and bending eastward near the top of the image:
A little wooden chapel was built for the icon there, and its reputation as a miracle-working icon began to spread. Soon people were coming all the way from Rylsk to venerate the image and to hope for miracles.
Hearing all the news, Prince Vasiliy Shemyaka of Rylsk ordered that the icon be brought to Rylsk, and crowds of citizens went out to greet the icon on its arrival, but the Prince himself was not among them. Because of this sign of disrespect, the legend says Prince Vasiliy was struck blind, until (as these stories go — another common motif), he repented with prayer before the icon, and was healed. He then had a church dedicated to the “Birth of the Most Holy Mother of God” built at Rylsk for the icon, and established a feast to be held annually in its honor.
But here we encounter yet another common motif in the hagiography of icons. You will remember that traditionally these “wonderworking” icons behave like conscious persons, and can move under their own volition. Well, the story tells us that the icon from Kursk disappeared from the church at Rylsk, and was found to have returned to the little chapel originally built for it at Kursk. The citizens of Rylsk went to retrieve it, but when they brought it back to Rylsk, it disappeared again. This happened several times, until finally the people of Rylsk accepted the inevitable and let the icon stay where it wanted to be, at Kursk. A priest named Bogoliub (literally “God-Love”) came and undertook the care and rituals of the chapel.
In 1383 the Tatars came back to Kursk, and tried to burn down the chapel. It would not burn, so they suspected Bogoliub of magic. The priest told them it was the icon that was protecting the chapel, so they took the icon, cut it in two pieces, threw the pieces off in different places, burnt the chapel (it worked this time), and took Bogoliub prisoner. He worked as a captive sheepherder until rescued by some ambassadors from Moscow who heard him singing songs to Mary as they passed by. Bogoliub returned to the site of the chapel, found the pieces of the icon, and they are said to have miraculously grown back together, with no sign of the cut showing except the presence of something like dew.
Hearing of these wonders, the people of Rylsk took the icon back to their city, but again the icon disappeared and was found back at Kursk. So they rebuilt the burnt chapel at Kursk for the icon, and it stayed there for some 200 years.
In 1597 Tsar Feodor of Moscow ordered the rebuilding of the city of Kursk, heard of the “miracles” of its icon, and had it brought to Moscow, where it was received with great acclaim. The Tsaritsa Irina had a rich covering of pearls, precious stones, etc. made for the icon. It was at this time that the Tsar is said to have had the original icon placed in a gilt silver frame, with the image of Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) at the top, and Old Testament prophets at the sides (as in the icon type “The Praise of the Mother of God”). Then the icon was sent back to Kursk. A monastery and church were built on the site of the old chapel, and a new church dedicated to Mary as the “Lifegiving Fountain” was constructed where the spring had appeared when the icon was found. The Monastery came to be known as the “Root Desert,” after the root where the icon was originally discovered. “Desert” (Пустынь/Pustuin) is used in Russian Orthodoxy to signify a monastic settlement, recalling the Theban Desert of Egypt, where Christian monasticism originated.
When another Tartar invasion threatened, the icon was taken to a larger church in the city of Kursk, and a copy was left in its place in the chapel.
In the 17th century, the “Pretender” Dmitriy (eventually Tsar of Russia from 1605-1606) claimed to be the son of Tsar Ivan “the Terrible” and to have survived an assassination attempt. His army fought to put him on the throne, and during his battles he knew the propaganda value of the Kursk icon, and had it brought to his military camp in Putivl. He eventually took it with him to the palace in Moscow. The icon was there until 1615.
In 1612, a Polish commander besieged Kursk, but it is said the inhabitants prayed to Mary, who supposedly appeared on the walls with two shining monks to fend off the attackers. The citizens of Kursk promised in their prayers that they would build a monastery in the city in the name of the “Sign” icon. They petitioned the Tsar (then Mikhail Feodorovich), and in 1615 the icon was returned to Kursk and placed in the cathedral there. In 1618 it was moved to the “Sign” Monastery in Kursk.
In the intervening years, the icon (or copies of it) was further used in one conflict or another — including a copy sent to General Kutuzov by the City of Kursk in the Napoleonic invasion of 1812. This again is an example of the belief that icons can aid in battle and defense (or be used as propaganda devices to inspire soldiers, depending on one’s point of view).
It is said that Revolutionaries tried to blow up the icon in 1898, but it somehow survived the explosion undamaged. It was stolen from the “Sign” Monastery in April of 1918 and stripped of its valuable covering, but it was found and returned in early May.
In 1919 (this is after the Revolution) the icon was taken to Serbia, briefly to Crimea in 1910, then back to Serbia, and eventually to Munich (Germany), and in 1951 to the United States, settling eventually at the New Kursk Hermitage in Mahopac, New York and the Cathedral Church of the Mother of God of the Sign in New York City, which is the residence of the First Hierarch of the very conservative division of Orthodoxy called the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). It is treated by present-day Russian Orthodox much as it was in the past, as a “miracle-working” icon, and as such it continues to add new stories of its “miracles” to its traditional history.
Now, as mentioned earlier, it is said that the original icon found at Kursk was a small copy of the Znamenie/”Sign” type, and that later the image of “Lord Sabaoth” (God the Father) and nine Old Testament Prophets were added to it in 1597 when it was brought to Moscow.
In recent times there has been much controversy over the presence of God the Father on the image. Some of the more conservative Russian Orthodox (there is a strong, very conservative element in Eastern Orthodoxy) consider it to be heretical, which always amuses me, given the widespread and centuries-long use of the image of God the Father in Eastern Orthodox icons. And of course it is paradoxical that an icon with a supposedly heretical image atop it should nonetheless be considered “miracle-working” through more than four centuries after the additions were supposedly made.
In any case, it is standard for copies of the icon to depict all of the figures, including God the Father right at the top. So common is this practice that I have never seen an old copy without them.
Here is an example in which the image of Lord Sabaoth (with the Dove of the Holy Spirit) at the top center is plainly labeled Б[о]гъ О[те]цъ — Bog Otets — “God the Father.” The longer inscription at the base reads: “The Representation and Measure of the Wonderworking Image of the “Sign” Most Holy Mother of God of Kursk.“
Interestingly, an example of the “Kursk Root” type in the collection the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts was recently called to my attention. Here it is:
This particular icon is interesting and unusual because someone, at some time, apparently removed the image of God the Father that should be in the clouds at the top, leaving an oddly blank space never found in such icons:
The images of the prophets on examples of the type vary slightly from image to image. The example just above shows (King) David, Moses, Ezekiel, Zephaniah, at left, Habakkuk at the base, and (King) Solomon, Daniel, Isaiah, and Elijah at right. The example shown first on this page depicts David, Moses, Isaiah and Gideon at left, Habakkuk at bottom center, and Solomon, Daniel, Jeremiah, and Elijah at right.