The two most famous icons in Russia are the “Vladimir” and “Kazan” icons. Immense numbers of copies of them were painted and continue to be painted even today. They are both among the so-called “wonderworking” icons that had miracles attributed to them.

The origin tale of the Kazan icon is very typical in that it has the “it came to me in a dream” motif, as well as the “trying several times” motif.

Here is a rather unusual Russian icon — obviously from the late 19th-early 20th century — depicting four incidents from the “appearance” story of the Kazan icon. You will recall that “appearance” in relation to icons means the time when an icon first manifests itself as wonderworking — supposedly able to work miracles. The Slavic word for appearance is yavlenie.

(Courtesy of

First, you must know that the city of Kazan was freed from Tatar (muslim mongols) control by the forces of Ivan the Terrible in October of 1552.

Second, you must know that in June of 1579, there was a huge fire in Kazan that destroyed part of the city, leaving behind ashes and ruins.

Those two facts set the stage for the origin story of the “appearance” of the Kazan icon. Remember that these stories are not to be taken as factual history. Like the lives of saints, they are generally a mixture of fact and fiction — and sometimes entirely fiction — the purpose being to provide a pious story that will impress the importance of a certain famous icon upon the populace.

The tale relates that some time after the fire, Mary appeared in the dream of a ten year old girl (some say nine years) named Matrona. Mary told the girl of an icon that had been buried by Orthodox believers during the muslim tatar occupation of the city, and that Matrona was to go and report the buried icon to the archbishop and city officials, so that it might be retrieved.

There. That is the standard “it came to me in a dream” motif found in so many “appearance” stories of Russian icons.

Here is the depiction of the revelation of the icon to Matrona in a dream, as she lies sleeping. We see the icon appearing in flames at upper left:

Now as it happened, Matrona did not pay much attention to the dream after waking. Then Mary appeared to her again in a dream about the icon, and again Matrona did not report the event. Finally, after Mary appeared to Matrona in a dream for the third time, the young girl decided to tell her mother, and the two then went to look for the icon. Alternate versions of the tale say that Matrona told people after her dream, but they did not believe her. Then clerics were told, and they too did not believe her. So mother and daughter dug up the icon themselves, and then reported the verification of the dream to church officials.

And there is the second common motif often found in icon origin stories.  When a person receives a revelation about an icon, that person often hesitates to take action or to report the revelation, or that revelation is not at first accepted by others; and often they wait until they are told three times before anything is done — though sometimes the period of hesitation may vary a bit.  This “three day” hesitation is reminiscent of the biblical notion of a “resurrection” that happens in three days, as in John 2:19:

Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  And of course Jesus is talking about the resurrection of his body.  So the “three days” number is often the period of waiting in icon origin stories for the icon to be discovered and “resurrected” — that is, made known as “miracle working.”

Having told her mother of the dream revelation, the two then went to the place shown in the dream, and began to dig about in the ashes.  Soon they uncovered an icon said to be shining with light.  Some versions of the tale say the icon was found wrapped in a cloth under the stove of the burned building.

Here is the depiction of that event:

Once the icon was found, church officials — including Archbishop Ieremiya/Jeremiah came to the site, and the icon was taken into the city with great honor and veneration. Here is the depiction of that event; note Matrona (who looks like an adult) and her mother at far right:

The icon was first taken to the church of St. Nicholas, then in procession to the Annunciation Cathedral, and on the way two blind men were supposedly healed. In this last depiction, we see the icon placed on the altar of the Annunciation Cathedral, and a man kneeling before it as he is healed by the icon:

Now perhaps you noticed the anachronistic nature of the the costumes. Many of the people are depicted dressed in the kind of garments typical of “New Testament” persons in icons such as the Apostles — not the kind of clothes worn by Russians in the 16th century. Such anachronisms are sometimes found in icon painting. In recent icons of the murdered last Russian Imperial family, Tsar Nikolai/Nicholas and his wife and children are often shown wearing old Russian garments of centuries earlier.

Now there is much more to the subsequent history of the Kazan icon and its legends, but this is enough to identify the scenes in today’s icon.