NICHOLAS GOES TO BEZHETSK

As readers here already know, in Eastern Orthodoxy there is the concept of the so-called “wonderworking icon” — an icon that is believed to be able to work miracles, usually of healing or curing disease or removing human problems or suffering in some way.  Such icons may be looked to for anything from victory in a battle to the healing of physical ailments to release from alcoholism and mental problems.   A modern attitude among some more liberal Eastern Orthodox theologians is that such icons work “miracles” because of the faith of the believer  — not because of the icon itself.  The Tibetan Buddhists have a relevant saying: that “even a dog’s tooth when venerated will emit light.”  So the significant factor here is considered to be belief, and as science has shown, belief can have very impressive and sometimes amazing effects on psychosomatic illness.  The traditional attitude, however, is that certain icons are of themselves “power objects” that cause miracles to occur around them.  And as we have seen in past postings, such icons were considered to behave like persons, having a will of their own, deciding where they wanted to be, and even being able to move about and fly through the air, or even to bleed when cut.

Theoretically, any icon might become “wonderworking,” but in reality only certain icons have gained that reputation, usually because of reports of visions and healings associated with an image.

The most famous and numerous “wonderworking” icons are those of Mary.  That is not surprising, given Mary’s reputation in Eastern Orthodox belief as the chief intercessor with God on behalf of humans.  Second in the hierarchy of the pantheon of saints is Nicholas, who was considered so important in Russia that peasants believed when God died, Nicholas would take over as ruler of the universe.  Third and just below Nicholas is the grouchy and temperamental Old Testament prophet Elijah.

The Russian Orthodox calendar is filled with commemorations of supposed “wonderworking” icons of Mary, given that there are hundreds of them, and those in the calendar are only those having “official” approval.  There are other lesser-known icons that may be venerated only regionally or locally as “wonderworking.”

There is, however, a scattering of other and non-Marian icons considered to be wonderworking.  And this belief in miraculous icons is not at all a thing of the past in Russia.  Just this year (2021) the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate added two new supposedly “wonderworking” icons to the Church calendar — one of Mary, a copy of the type known as “Deliverance of the Suffering from Distress” (Ot Byed Strazhdushchikh), and an old one of the “Not Made by Hands” type Jesus that “appeared” in Yaroslavl in 1612, and is now kept in the Savior-Athanasiev Monastery.

But let’s return to the second in the hierarchy — the very widely-venerated St. Nicholas of Myra.  Here is an example painted around the end of the 19th-beginning of the 20th century. It has a very ornate gilded and enameled cover (riza or oklad):

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

I will not go into the explanation of the image and its inscriptions, because you will find all that in great detail in the archives (just use “Nicholas” as your search term).  What I want to talk about today is  a “spinoff” icon of this image that has become famous on its own as a “wonderworking” icon of Nicholas.  It is called the НИКОЛО-ТЕРЕБЕНСКАЯ/NIKOLO-TEREBINSKAYA  icon after the monastery where it is found — the Nikolo-Terebinskiy Monastery, originally built at the village of Terebeni (later Truzhenik) in Tver Oblast, generally referred to as the Nikolo-Terebinskaya Pustuin’ (пустынь).  A pustuin’ is literally a desert, but the word is applied in Russian Orthodoxy to monastic establishments because originally Christian monasticism developed in the  4th century in the Thebaid Desert of Egypt.

It happens that the Nikolo-Terebinskiy Monastery claims three “wonderworking” icons.  The better known is the type of Marian icon known as the Terebinskaya, which I discussed in this earlier posting:

THE RATHER UNCERTAIN “TEREBINSKAYA” TYPE

And the second is of course today’s icon:  The Nikolo-Terebinskaya icon of Nicholas.  The third and least known is an icon of the Unmercenary Physician Panteleimon.

Even though the Nikolo-Terebinskaya icon of Nicholas is a copy of the very common type shown above, copies of the secondary type are nonetheless easy to distinguish because they have six scenes at the sides; three at left and three at right.  They illustrate supposed “miracles” for which icon is responsible.

Here is a typical example of the type:

(Private Collection)

The inscription at the base identifies it as “Copy of the wonderworking icon of Bishop and Wonderworker Nicholas kept at the Nikolo-Terebinsk Pustuin’ : Appeared in the Year 1492”

Here is an engraving of the type:

nikolo-terebinskayaikona

Though the explanatory inscriptions accompanying the six side depictions vary slightly from example to example, the meaning is essentially the same.  They show:

  1. The wonderworking image of Holy Nicholas appears amid five birches at the water well; 1492.
  2.  The city of Bezhetsk is freed from a terrible plague by the bringing of the wonderworking image; 1654.
  3. Hieromonk Gerasim, praying before the wonderworking image, receives his sight. 1731.
  4.  The bringing of the wonderworking icon into a house heals an illness.
  5. A mayor is punished for preventing people praying to the miraculous image. 1706
  6. A priest is punished for disrespecting the miraculous image. 1709

The punishments mentioned are of course considered supernatural retribution for misbehavior.

Here is the standard story of the origin of the icon:

In 1492 a landowner in the region named Mikhail Obudkov/Obutkov wanted to build a church dedicated to St. Nicholas in the village of Terebeni, which he owned.  He had already laid the foundations and brought his icon of St. Nicholas there.  However something strange happened.  The icon kept disappearing, and re-appearing in a different place, amid five birch trees at a water well.  So because the icon had clearly made its will known, Obudkov moved the building site to the well and had a wooden church constructed there, and placed the icon of Nicholas in it.

Later the church was destroyed by the Poles. For a while, a monk named Onuphriy took up residence there, but eventually left.  But in 1611 two more monks named Avraamiy and Artemiy came and settled on the site.  When they began clearing a way debris to build a new church on the ruins of the old, they uncovered the icon of St. Nicholas that Obudkov had placed there so many years before.  And as these tales go, the icon was unharmed from all its years of burial in the ruins.  Of course that story of a “miraculous” icon soon spread around the region, and pilgrims with their donations began to arrive to see the icon and pray before it, and the monastery the two monks founded soon became very wealthy through the story of their “wonderworking” icon of Nicholas.  So as you see, aside from other factors there is a  reason why there are so many “wonderworking” icons.  They are cash cows for the place where they are kept.  It is the same with the history of the famous relics in the Roman Catholic regions of western Europe, only there it is usually relics of saints instead of icons.

Now if you recall my previous posting on the Ilya Repin painting of the procession of the Kursk Root icon found here —

A WINDOW TO THE PAST: REPIN AND THE KURSK ROOT ICON

— you will remember the term крестный ход/krestnuiy khod — literally “Cross Procession” — used for a religious procession of people bearing one or more icons.  The Nikolo-Terebinskaya icon was part of one such noted Krestnuiy khod.

In one of the side panels of the icon is a scene depicting the bringing of the icon from the Terebinsk Monastery to the town of Bezhetsk.  The reason was that as has happened so often in Russian history, there was a terrible plague that struck the towns and villages in the Bezhetsk region in the summer of 1654.  In those pre-scientific days, plagues and epidemics were attributed to the “sins of the people,” so the obvious thing to counteract that, it was thought, was a supposedly miracle-working icon.  So the icon of Nicholas was brought from the Terebinsk Monastery to Bezhetsk, and when the plague began to abate the credit was of course given to the icon.  Because of that, the custom began of having an annual krestnuiy khod from the monastery to Bezhetsk.

In Tsarist times it was a very grand procession with crowds of people.  It began with the bringing of the icon not by land, but on a large boat on the Mogila River.  Stops would be made at settlements here and there.  When the boat reached Bezhetsk, the banks of the river were crowded with huge numbers of devotees, with many wading or swimming into the water.  The bells in the city all rang wildly, and a procession came from the church with singing and banners to meet the icon.  The icon remained in the city for several days, during which it made “visits” to the houses of rich and poor, and of course religious servces were performed in the cathedral.  After eight days in Bezhetsk, the icon was returned to the boat and additional stops were made at settlements on the trip back to the monastery.  The whole process of the procession to the city and back to the monastery lasted from July 2nd to July 25th.

There was an interval of some half a century when the procession was not performed during the communist period, but in 1995 it was begun again, first by land, and in later years once more by water. The annual procession is referred to as Большой Бежецкий Крестный ход/Bol’shoy Bezhetskiy Krestnuiy Khod — “The Great Bezhetsk Religious Procession.”

Of course the procession is now not so grand as it was in Tsarist times, but if you would like to take a look at the modern version, here is a video link.  You will see both the Terebinskaya icon type of Mary carried in the procession, as well as the Nikolo-Terebinskaya icon of Nicholas.  Note the proportionately very large numbers of women compared to the few men, which is typical of religious events in Russian Orthodoxy.

There are several religious superstitions associated with the Nikolo-Terebinsk Monastery — rumors of frescos that miraculously appeared in recent years on the ceiling of the church (due of course to natural causes — they were already there but just became more obvious), and a stone nearby with what some identify as the footprint of Jesus or of Mary — and supposedly if you touch it, it will cause bad weather.  Russian Orthodoxy has a centuries long history of deep and varied superstitions.

Stitched Panorama
(Nikolo-Terebinskaya Pustuin’ under renovation)

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