THE “INEXTINGUISHABLE CANDLE” ICON TYPE

There is a little-known icon type called the Неугасимая Свеча  — Neugasimaya Svecha — the “Inextinguishable Candle” icon of Mary.  Here is an example:

It is a rather late icon type, which is why examples are generally painted in a “westernized” manner.

The story associated with this type relates that a fellow who was abbot of the Alekseevskiy Monastery in Uglich from 1864-1872 had a vision of Mary, in which she appeared to him with a candle in her right hand and an abbot’s staff in her left.  An icon was painted of Mary as seen in his vision.

The traditional tale of the icon continues in the year 1894, when an ill merchant in St. Petersburg had a dream in which Mary appeared to him and told him to go to a certain place and pray in front of a specific icon there and he would be healed.  Now as we have seen, that is a rather common motif in these origin stories of supposed “wonderworking” Marian icons.  We can call it in its basic form the “it came to me in a dream” motif.

In this case the place to which he was told to go was the Alekseevskiy Monastery in the city of Uglich.  It turned out that when the fellow talked to the abbot there about his dream, the icon he described was the same one painted after the vision of the earlier abbot Evangel.  It was then being kept in the monastery pantry.  According to the story, the man prayed before the icon and was healed (we would not be discussing it if that usual part of such tales were absent).  On June 23 the icon was moved to the monastery’s Uspenskiy (“Dormition”) Church.  The merchant also honored the icon by presenting it with a gilt silver riza (icon cover).

The title of this icon type is taken from Ikos II of the Akathist to the Dormition of Mary:

Радуйся, свеще неугасимая огня невещественнаго …”
Raduisya, sveschche neugasimaya ognya neveshchestvennago
Rejoice, Inextinguishable Candle of immaterial fire …”

The relation of the icon to the city of Uglich accounts for its alternate title — Вратарница Угличская — Vratarnitsa Uglichskaya — the “Uglich Gate-keeper” icon.  Under this title, it should not be confused with the Iverskaya/Iveron icon of Mary, which is also sometimes titled Vratarnitsa/Gatekeeper after its Greek title, the Portaitissa (Πορταΐτισσα).

The distinguishing features of the  “Inextinguishable Candle”/”Uglich Gate-keeper” icon, as we have seen, are that Mary, dressed as a nun, holds a lit candle in her right hand, and an abbot’s staff — usually along with prayer beads — in her left.

Now oddly enough, this “Inextinguishable Candle” icon of Mary is sometimes confused with a somewhat similar-appearing icon of Mary as Ἡγουμένη του Ἁγίου Όρους/Hegoumene tou Hagiou Orous — “Hegumena/Abbess of the Holy Mountain,” the Holy Mountain being Mount Athos in Greece. There is a group of varying icons of this latter type depicting Mary as the Abbess of the kleros of Mount Athos.  A kleros is, in this case, an assigned portion of land.  According to tradition, the portion of land of Mount Athos belongs to Mary.

Now one would think that an icon showing Mary as Abbess of Athos would be a simple matter, but even the simplest matters are often the subject of doctrinal bickering among Eastern Orthodox factions.  That is why some newer icons of this type are changed to depict Mary in her usual garments rather than in the clerical mandyas shown in the above icon, and with her right hand raised to the side, palm outward, instead of the right hand blessing with fingers in the IC XC sign seen above.

The little ship at lower right relates to the legend that in New Testament times, Mary came to Mount Athos in a boat with St. John the Evangelist.