THE SAVIOR OF SMOLENSK: LEGEND AND HISTORY

As you know, there are hundreds of different types of Marian icons, but the types of Jesus without Mary are few in number.  One of the most common of these is the image known as the “Savior of Smolensk” or “Smolensk Savior” (Спас Смоленский — Spas Smolenskiy)

It is a simple type.  Here is an example in cast metal and enamel:

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

The inscriptions are not difficult.  At the top is the IC XC abbreviation for “Jesus Christ.”  Below that, in large letters, we find:

ГОСПОДЬ ВСЕДЕРЖИТЕЛЬ — GOSPOD VSEDERZHITEL, “[The] Lord Almighty.”

Below that, separated at left and right, we find the inscription above the angels holding instruments of the Passion:

АГГЛИ ГОСПОДНИ —ANGLI GOSPODNI — “Angels of the Lord.”

We can easily identify the text on the open Gospels held by Jesus as the most common of Gospel texts used with him, Matthew 11:28:

Приидете ко мне вси труждающиися и обремененнии, и аз Упокою вы”
“Priidete ko mne vsi truzhdaiushchiisya i obremenennii, i az upokoiu vui.”
“Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Aside from the standing Jesus, who blesses with his right hand and holds the Gospels in his left, the other identifying elements of this type are the two kneeling saints at the base.  They are at left Sergiy of Radonezh, and at right Varlaam Khutuinskiy.  But the type is variable.  In northern rather than central Russian examples, one finds Sergiy replaced by the monk Alexander Svirskiy.  There are also expanded versions of the type that add more saints to the basic two, but two are the standard.  One may also encounter rare examples that do not include Sergiy, Varlaam, or Alexander, replacing them with other saints entirely.  One may find two angels instead of saints, and sometimes no added saints at all, just the central figure of Jesus standing with the Gospels, often with his feet on a cushion.

What was once the main gate of the Kremlin is called the “Spasskiy” Gate — the “Savior Gate.”  The Spasskiy Gate was the portal through which Tsars passed before their coronation.  A fresco of the “Savior of Smolensk” was painted there.  Its presence is recorded as early as the middle of the 17th century.  It was traditional for those passing through the gate to dismount and remove their hats in respect.  There is a story that when Napoleon passed through it in 1812, he refused to remove his hat, but the wind blew it off.

The fresco was covered over with plaster in 1937, but the plaster was removed and the image restored in 2010.   The “Savior of Smolensk” title commemorates the saving of the city of Smolensk in 1514 — its capture by the Russians — and is said to have appeared during the Russian-Lithuanian war of 1512-1522.  The Spasskiy Gate tower of the Kremlin (it is the one often seen in photos, with a big red star at the top) was previously called the Frolovskiy Gate, after a church dedicated to Frol (Flor/Florus) and Lavr (Lavr/Laurus) that once existed there.

There is a story that in 1521, when the invading Tatar forces of Khan Mehmed I Giray were at the walls of Moscow, a blind nun in the Ascension monastery had a vision of the protecting saints of the city leaving it through the Frolovskiy Gate, taking the “Vladimir” icon of Mary with them, in punishment for the sins of Moscow.  But then she saw the two saints Sergiy of Radonezh and Varlaam Khutuinsky interceding on behalf of Moscow before the image of Mary, and as a result the protecting saints returned to the city, and Mehmed Giray’s forces withdrew.  That story accounts for the two saints commonly found in the central Russian type.  Actually, however, the besieging forces only left because Moscow agreed to pay tribute and vowed obedience to the Khan, and it is said that on leaving, the Tatar forces took with them thousands of slaves.