There never has been a clear dividing line separating Eastern Orthodox belief from folk superstition and charms. The cross is considered (as in old vampire movies) to have apotropaic powers — that is, it is believed to ward off evil. The same, as we have seen is also true of certain icons, among them the “Unburnt Thornbush,” which is said to protect houses from fire.
There is a seldom seen Marian icon type — though it has recently become more and more common through printed versions — called the “Impenetrable Door” Непроходимая дверь/Neprokhodimaya Dver’ or Непроходимая Врата/Neprokhodimaya Vrata — “Impenetrable/Impassable Gate.”
It is first found in Russian iconography in the 17th century, and is associated with the “Time of Troubles” (Смутное время/smutnoe vremya), a tumultuous period between the end of old Rurik Dynasty of Russian rulers and the rise of the new Romanov Dynasty. It was a time of civil unrest, invasion, tsarist impostors, and a famine that killed about a third of the Russian people by starvation.
At that time of civil unrest, this icon was regarded as a protector of monasteries. It is not difficult to see why that notion arose, given its “Impenetrable Door” title. Later that concept became extended, with the icon being recommended for placement in buildings and houses to “seal the door” to ward off robbers, burglars, witches, demons, and various evils in general. Those selling copies of this icon type recommend it to “seal” the doors of a home when one leaves, accompanied by the recitation of liturgical texts and prayers as a kind of magic spell to keep all unwanted intruders out (yes, charms and spells are still a folk practice in modern Russia).
The title, however, did not originally signify making a building or home impregnable. If we look at the inscription on this icon — painted in Solvychegodsk — we see it is a variant of the bogorodichen (invocation to the Bogoroditsa/Mother of God), tone 2, for Monday evening:
Непроходимая врата, тайно запечатствованная, / Благословенная Богородице Дево, / приими моления наша / и принеси Твоему Сыну и Богу, / да спасет Тобою души наша.
Neprokhodimaya vrata, taino zapechatstvovannaya, Blagoslovennaya Borogoditse Devo, priimi moleniya nasha i prinesi Tvoemu Suinu i Bogu, da spaset Toboiu dushi nasha.
“Impenetrable gate, mysteriously sealed Blessed Mother of God Virgin, receive our prayer, and bring it to your son and God, and through you our souls will be saved.”
Other liturgical excerpts (such as Ikos 6 of the Akathist to the Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple) also refer to Mary as the impenetrable gate/door. This notion derives from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, in an excerpt which Eastern Orthodox see as a prophecy and prefiguration of Mary — the virgin birth of Jesus:
Ezekiel 43:27 -44:4):
“THUS says the Lord: Upon the eighth day and so forward, the priests shall make your whole-burnt offerings upon the altar, and your peace offerings, and I will accept you, says the Lord. Then He brought me back by the way of the outer gate of the sanctuary, which looks toward the east; and it was shut. And the Lord said to me: Son of man, this gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it; because the Lord, the God of Israel, shall enter in by it, and it shall be shut. For this Prince shall sit on it to eat bread before the Lord; He shall enter by the way of the porch of that gate, and shall come forth by the way of the same. And He brought me by the way of the north gate before the house, and I looked, and behold, the house of the Lord was full of glory.”
If we look at the icon, we see “Lord Sabaoth” (God the Father) in the clouds at the top. Mary stands, arms outspread, before the entrance to a building. The image of Jesus standing as Immanuel is on her breast.
Below, saints of various kinds approach her in prayer, with the Prophet Ezekiel seen at right. At the base is a cavern in the earth, opened to show the dead, who also ask for Mary’s intercession. The inscription just above them is a variant of the last line of the bogorodichen quoted above — “And through you our souls will be saved.”