Today we will look at an icon type (or more specifically, two related variants of a type) that was and is venerated both as a Roman Catholic sacred image and as an Eastern Orthodox icon. There are historical reasons for this.
Nothing definite is known about the origin of the icon. But according to tradition, the Berdichev icon had long been in the family of a fellow named Janusz Tyszkiewicz. That wealthy land-owning family had originally been Eastern Orthodox, but over time they became first Uniates, then Roman Catholic. In July of 1642, at the consecration of a church in Berdichev (now in Ukraine), Janusz — who was Roman Catholic — donated the icon to that church, which had an overly-lengthy name: the Church of the Immaculate Conception of St. Mary the Virgin, St. John the Baptist, Archangel Michael and St. John the Evangelist.
The icon seems to have been a loose version of the noted old Catholic icon Salus Populi Romani — the “Health of the Roman People.” The Berdichev version was painted in oils on canvas, likely in the 1500s. The canvas was glued to a panel of cypress wood. Over the years it gained a reputation as being “miraculous,” and was visited and venerated by Orthodox as well as Catholic believers.
In Roman Catholicism there is a peculiar rite authorized by a Pope and called “Canonical Coronation.” It is the ceremonial crowning of an image — usually but not always a Marian image — that is the subject of particular devotion and is given a specific title. This “crowning” of religious images originated at the beginning of the 1600s, but it was not until 1756 that the Berdichev icon received such a coronation. In fact it was crowned three times over the years, up into the middle of the 19th century, because the valuable crowns kept being stolen.
In 1941 the original old Berdichev icon donated to the church by Janusz Tyszkiewicz is believed to have been destroyed by a fire in the monastery complex of the Barefoot (“Discalced”) Carmelites, where the icon was kept. Over the years various copies of the original had been made and spread around, however, and after its loss new icons of the Berdichev type were painted, the most famous being a modified version created in 1991 and consecrated by Pope John Paul II at the St. Jadwiga Church in Krakow, Poland.
Versions of the Berdichev icon began to appear in “Orthodox” Russia as early as the 18th century.
There are generally two main types of the Berdichev icon. First, there is the “simple” version showing the Mother and Child:
The more interesting of the two, however, is the more complex and very militaristic-appearing version, of which this is an example:
It illustrates how the shrine where the Berdichev icon was kept was converted into a fortress — seen at the base of the image. The Mother and Child sit atop a tower above the fortress, surrounded by flags and banners, cannons, halberds, swords, shields, other kinds of weapons. St. Michael holding a sword appears in a little niche just below the top of the tower, flanked by cannons.
The two saints appearing at the sides are additions generally not found in other versions. They are the Martyr Adrian and the Martyr Natalia. Some examples have instead the military saints Alexander Nevskiy at left, and George at right, but many have no saints added to the main image.
If you are a long-time reader here, you can easily translate the ΜΡ ΘΥ and IИС ХС abbreviations on the image as Meter Theou (“Mother of God”) and Iisus Khristos — “Jesus Christ.”
The inscription at the top is one that commonly goes with this “Military” variant of the Berdichev type:
Яко столп Давидов выя твоя, [создан в Фалпиофе:] тысяща щитов висит на нем, вся стрелы сильных.
Yako stolp Davidov vuiya tvoya, [sozdan v Falpiofe:] tuisyashcha shchitov visit na nem, vsya strelui sil’nuikh
“Like the Tower of David is your neck, [built for an armoury:] a thousand shields hang upon it, all arrows of the mighty.”
The source of the quotation is identified on the inscription as:
ПЕСНЕЙ ГЛАВА 4 СТИХЪ 4
Pyesney Glava 4 Stikh 4
“Song [of Songs] Chapter 4, verse 4.”
The inscription at the base of the icon identifies the image as the “Representation of the “most-blessed wonder-working Mary” that stands in the Berdichev Church of the Carmelites, “ornamented with golden crowns by Benedict, Pope of Rome.”
It is interesting how the “Song of Songs” also called “Song of Solomon” — originally a Hebrew erotic love poem — became transformed by centuries of bowdleristic interpretation into both Christian Marian symbolism — and, as the Protestant tradition has it, “an allegory of Christ’s love for the Church.”