NICHOLAS MILITANT

A reader recently sent me photos of an interesting icon.  Here it is, set in its richly ornamental gilt frame, kept in a glassed-in kiot (protective icon case):

(Courtesy of Jacques Willemen)

The important part, for our purposes, is the icon itself:

(Courtesy of Jacques Willemen)

Well, it looks quite straightforward, doesn’t it?  It has all the characteristics of the type known as Nicholas of Mozhaisk, which depicts St. Nikolai (Nicholas) standing, robed as a bishop, with a sword in his left hand and a church in his right.

We can see that the inscription above Nicholas is a common one:

It reads:

С[ВЯ]ТЫЙ НИКОЛАИ ЧУДОТВОРЕЦЪ
SVYATUIY NIKOLAI CHUDOTVORETS
“HOLY NICHOLAS [the] WONDERWORKER”

If we left it at that, however, we would be a little too hasty and not quite entirely correct in identification of this icon.  It is important not to miss the little inscription at the base of the image; inscriptions should never be overlooked.  Here is a closer view:

It reads (put into modern Russian font):
ЯВИСЯ ВЪ Г[ОРОДЕ] МЦЕНСКЕ 1415
YAVISYA V G[ORODE] MTSENSKYE 1415
“APPEARED IN [the] CITY MTSENSK 1415”

Well, we know that the Nicholas of Mozhaisk icon itself did not “appear” in 1415, according to its origin story, but rather in the 1300s.  Nor did the legendary event of Nicholas appearing in the air over the city happen in a place called Mtsensk, but rather in the city of Mozhaisk.  What, then, is the significance of this “1415” inscription and the place name “Mtsensk”?  And where exactly is this “Mtsensk”?  Why all these differences?

The answer is that even though this icon is in the form commonly known as “Nicholas of Mozhaisk” it represents a particular “appearance” of an icon of that form — an “appearance” other than that at Mozhaisk.

First, what or where is Mtsensk (Мценскъ)?

It is a city in the Orlov region of Russia.  Here it is on an 1897 map, just about in the center of this image.  You can see there is a river running through it, called the Zusha:

At lower left is the city of Orel (Орелъ ).

To get a wider view of where it is in Russia, we can look at another map.  We can see the city of Orel southwest of Moscow, about two thirds of the way to the Ukrainian border:

So that tells us where Mtsensk is located.  Now for the origin story of the icon.

The origin story is a bit confused and varies from account to account.  It is said that on a Friday — June 7th of 1415 — the region of Mtsensk was still heavily pagan.  But on that day there was an eclipse of the sun, which the clerics used to frighten the people into becoming baptized as Christians.

It is also said that in the same year and day, a stone — formerly worshiped by the pagan people — was found floating in the Zusha River at Mtsensk. On it was an image of Nicholas with a sword in one hand and in the other a reliquary in the form of a church.  Such an image (which type we now generally call “Nicholas of Mozhaisk”) is commonly known as Николай Ратный —Nikolai Ratnuiy — “Nicholas the Militant.”  And the image that “appeared” at Mtsensk is one example of that type, and in itself is called Nikolai Mtsenskiy  — Nicholas of Mtsensk, or Никола Амченский — Nikola Amchenskiy — “Nicholas of Amchen,” Nikola being a form of Nicholas, and Amchensk being a popular alternate name for the city of Mtsensk.  This icon was also credited — through its supposed miraculous nature — with the conversion of the locals to Christianity.

Scholars, however, generally believe that these “Militant Nicholas” types are likely based upon Western European sculptures of Nicholas, related to that at Bari, in Italy, where the remains of St. Nicholas are thought to have been taken.  Further, that such statues came to Russia as reliquaries in the form of Nicholas given to Russian princes, and supposedly holding relics of the saint. Though three-dimensional sculpture is generally frowned upon in Russian Orthodoxy, such statues of the “Militant Nicholas” were made an exception due to the great veneration accorded them by the people, and the miracles supposedly associated with them.

So it turns out this little icon is actually quite interesting, given that it specifically commemorates the story of the appearance of an image of Nicholas at Mtsensk, which became a noted pilgrimage site in the old days of Tsarist Russia, with thousands of pilgrims, some coming from as far away as Siberia.  And the coming of pilgrims meant money.

One more little detail, and then we will leave this interesting icon.  If we look just below the figure of Nicholas, we can see that he is standing on a rug:

On that rug is the image of an eagle, though it is upside-down, with the head nearest us and the tops of the wings at each side.  Such a rug — called an Орлец — Orlets — “Little Eagle / Eaglet” is used in the Orthodox liturgy, and is round or oval.  The bishop stands upon it at certain parts of the rite.  It depicts an eagle with wings spread, often flying above a city.  The Orlets was once a sign of the Byzantine Emperor’s authority.  In those days it was a double-headed Byzantine Imperial eagle.  Then it became a kind of respectful award given by the Emperor to the Patriarch.  Later, when the Byzantine Empire had fallen,  it came to be used by any bishop in Russia, signifying both the status of the bishop as having a heavenly origin, as well as a sign of the bishop’s oversight of the people of a city, (his diocese), and that a bishop should “rise above” worldly things.  In Russia it was a one-headed eagle.  We can just think of it as a bishop’s symbol.

THAT WOMAN ON THE SLED

Anyone who has studied Russian history or Russian art is familiar with this famous painting by Vasiliy Surikov of the exiling of the Boyarina Morozova (1632–1675):

(V. Surikov; Tretyakov Gallery)

The key to understanding the painting — and its relationship to Russian history — lies in the fingers of her upraised hand:

Look more closely:

If you have been reading this site for some time, you will recognize the position of the fingers as the blessing sign used by the Old Believers — something that often distinguishes Old Believer icons from State Church icons.

What is happening in the painting?  Who was the Boyarina Morozova?

She was born  in 1632 and named Feodosia Prokopievna (in the Russian naming system, that -evna suffix means she was the daughter of a fellow named Prokopiy).  Her father was Prokopiy Feodorovich (meaning “son of Feodor”) Sokovnin.  When she was seventeen, she married a nobleman, boyar Gleb Morozov — thus her married surname Morozova.  They had one son, Ivan, and when her husband died in 1662, she inherited fabulous wealth.

The great change in her life began in 1664, when she met the Archpriest (protopop) Avvakum.  Every student of icons should know that name.  He was the fellow who opposed the changes in the Russian Orthodox liturgy and ritual pushed through — beginning in 1652 — by the Patriarch Nikon.  Then (as now), it is dangerous to oppose authority in Russia, and Avvakum was exiled to Siberia in 1653.  But in 1662 Avvakum was permitted to return to Moscow.  Meanwhile, Patriarch Nikon had fallen from favor, but nonetheless his changes remained in effect, and Avvakum continued to vigorously oppose them, keeping to Russian Orthodoxy as it had been practiced before Nikon — thus the term used for Avvakum and his followers — “Old Believers” (старове́ры/staroverui) or “Old Ritualists” (старообря́дцы/staroobryadtsui).  Old Believers were given the pejorative title Raskolniki — “schismatics” — because of their refusal to accept Nikon’s changes.

In 1666 the Russian Orthodox Church held a “pan-Orthodox” council — The Great Moscow Synod/Council ( (Большой Московский собор/Bolshoi Moskovskiy sobor) — that paradoxically accused Patriarch Nikon of reviling Church and Tsar, and reduced his status to that of an ordinary monk.  And the Council condemned an important previous Russian Orthodox Church Council — the famous Stoglav (“Hundred Chapters”) Council of 1551, that had approved Russian church practices that differed somewhat from those of Greek Orthodoxy.  This would not be the first time that an Eastern Orthodox Church council negated the declarations of a previous council.  And because the Old Believers refused to renounce the Stoglav Council, and refused to accept the “reforms” instituted by the now deposed Nikon, they were condemned by the Great Moscow Synod of 1666-67.

So in 1666 the Church formally anathematized (cursed) Avvakum and his teachings, and once more exiled him, this time to Pustozersk, a distant northern outpost in what is today the Arkhangelsk region of Russia.  There Avvakum, along with his deacon Feodor, the Solovetsk monk Epifaniy, and the priest Lazar (the latter two had their tongues previously cut out) — all Old Believers — suffered great hardship and torture, and all three were killed by the Russian Orthodox State Church and its governmental arm on April 14, 1682 — ironically, Good Friday.  The “legal” reason given for the murder was «великия на царский дом хулы» — “great blaspheming of the Imperial House”  — referring to caricatures of the Tsar that had circulated among the Old Believers.  Pustozersk was the same place where another Old Believer, Kiprian of Moscow, had been decapitated for his beliefs on July 7, 1675.

Here is an icon-pattern-style illustration of the burning of Avvakum, Feodor, Epifaniy, and Lazar:

By B. V. Kiselnikov/Б.В. Кисельников

Now years before the martyrdom of Avvakum, the Boyarina Morozova had lived a luxurious life with her immense wealth.  It is said that when she went out, she was accompanied by two hundred servants.  But she eventually took on a much simpler life, living like a nun, and taking in all kinds of homeless, poor, and ill people.  Archpriest Avvakum and his wife also had come to live in her home.  Now as mentioned, the Boyarina Morozova met Avvakum in 1664; he became her confessor, and she avidly followed his teachings and opposition to the “reforms” instituted by Nikon.  She became an ever more ardent advocate of the Old Belief, and it is said that she even had “underground” Old Believer literature printed.

Of course it was not long before all this came to the notice of Tsar Aleksei, because of the intimate connection between Church and State.  The sister of the Tsaritsa was sent to try to talk Feodosiya out of her connections with the Old Belief.  It did not work.  Then the Tsar tried confiscating some of her property.  That did not work either.  The Tsar was even more irritated when Feodosiya took in nuns expelled from their convents for holding to the Old Belief.  And then Feodosiya herself took formal nun’s vows, changing her name to Feodora, and would no longer attend the royal court or have anything to do with the State Church.  She even refused to attend the Tsar’s wedding to a new wife, which infuriated him.

In November of 1671, the Tsar had Feodosiya/Feodora and her sister arrested and put in chains.  All her wealth and property was confiscated.  The Boyarina Morozova was tortured.  Her son Ivan, hearing of her horrible treatment, is said to have gone insane.

Here is an illustration in “icon pattern” style showing Feodosiya/Feodora being examined before the Russian Orthodox Church authorities:

By B. V. Kiselnikov/Б.В. Кисельников

We see her right hand raised defiantly in the “two-fingered” blessing sign characteristic of the Old Believers.  The inscription above her head reads:

ПР[ЕПОДОБНО]М[У]Ч[ЕНИЦА] ФЕОДОРА
Prepodobnomuchenitsa Feodora
“Venerable Martyr Feodora/Theodora”

To get Feodosiya/Feodora out of the public eye, the Tsar exiled her to Borovsk.  That is the scene depicted in the famous painting by Surikov — Feodosiya being dragged off in a crude sled to an underground dungeon in Borovsk.  There she and her sister were starved to death, and were buried inside the jail.

And so the Boyarina Morozova became an Old Believer saint.