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):
The important part, for our purposes, is the icon itself:
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:
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.
Here is an example that has lost its sword and building (and left arm) over the years:
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.