Vilna — present day Vilnius — is the largest city in Lithuania and its capitol.  The icons discussed today all have Виленская —Vilenskaya — “of Vilna” — in their titles, so we know they were once associated with Vilna.

First we will consider the type known as  the Vilenskaya-Odigitriya.  As we can tell from the second part of that title, this is one of the class of Marian icons known as “Way-Shower” images, meaning that Mary holds the child Jesus on one arm, while gesturing toward him with her other hand, as though indicating “the Way.”  Odigitriya is just a Russianization of the Greek Hodigitria, and the Russian translation is Путеводительница — Putevoditel’nitsa. 

Here is a version of the Vilenskaya-Odigitriya:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

It has a very elaborate silver riza (icon cover) with colorful floral  cloisonné ornamentation in the halos, very typical of better-quality work during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II.  The robes are done in intricate silver filigree.

If we look at various examples of the “Vilenskaya Odigitriya” type, we will notice that some painters depict the legs of the child Jesus side by side, so that the feet hang down with the same orientation.  In other examples, however, such as this one, the right leg extends under the left, so that the sole of the right foot is toward the viewer.  Such variations in Marian icon types are not uncommon.

The “Vilenskaya-Odigitria” is another of those icons attributed (incorrectly) by legend to St. Luke.  Its origin story says that it was first sent from Jerusalem to Constantinople.  Next it traveled from Constantinople to the rulers of the region known as Galicia and “Red Russia” (Red Ruthenia), which was in what today is southeastern Poland and western Ukraine.  When the princedom of Galicia fell, the icon came into the possession of the Prince of Moscow.

A different story says the icon was brought to Moscow by the Byzantine Princess Sophia Palaiologina, upon her marriage to Grand Duke Ivan III.

In 1495 the Grand Prince of Moscow, Ivan III, gave it as blessing to his daughter Elena on her marriage to the Lithuanian Prince Alexander.  The icon was taken to Vilna, thus its title.  So that is the first Vilna icon type.

The second Vilna type is the full-length, standing “Vilenskaya.”  Little is known about it other than it is said to have appeared in the year 1341, and was kept in a monastery on the outskirts of Vilna. Obviously the example shown here is centuries later:

As we see, it is one of the “Apocalyptic Woman” types, showing Mary standing on the crescent moon (some examples merely show her on clouds).  The type is rather variable.  Mary may gesture toward the child on her left arm;  she may also hold a scepter in her right hand, which in other examples may be held out to the side.  Sometimes she is already crowned (as here), while in others, two angels place a crown upon her head.  Icons of this type are commonly quite Westernized in appearance.

The third Vilna type — and likely the most common — is the Vilenskaya-Ostrobramskaya.  Here is an illustration:

 Its origin story — later shown to be unreliable — relates that this icon was brought from Cherson (Korsun) in the Crimea by Algirdas Gediminas (1345-1377) for his wife, who in turn gave it to the Holy Trinity Monastery in Vilna.  Actually the image dates to the mid-17th century, and modern scholarship suggests it may have been ultimately modeled on a painting by the Dutch artist Marten de Vos, who in turn based his work on a late 16th century engraving by the Flemish-born French artist Thomas de Leu.

The icon was placed in a chapel above the Eastern Gates (called in Polish Ostra Brama — “The Gate of Dawn”) in Vilna, thus the Russian title of the icon — Ostrobramskaya.  It was commemorated annually on April 14th, the day also of the Lithuanian Martyrs.

Here is a photo of the actually mid-17th century Ostrobramskaya in its present-day Roman Catholic chapel.  It is an icon venerated by Russian Orthodox, Polish Catholics, and by Uniates who follow the Eastern rite but are under papal authority.

Below is a late Russian example of the Ostrobramskaya covered in a cloth riza, surrounded with ornamental cut metal foil work, and placed in a shaped wooden kiot.

(Courtesy of




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