Today I will discuss an icon you are not likely to see outside of books.
You may recall the biblical saying of Jesus in Matthew 22:21:
“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.“
In Eastern Orthodox history, it has often been the case that the things of Caesar — or of the Tsar, which is simply the Slavic form of Caesar — were often considered the things of God. That has long been one of the curses of Russian history, now revived in our time with the close relationship between Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church..
We see that Church-State union in this icon, titled Благослове́нно во́инство Небе́сного Царя́ — Blagoslovenno voinstvo Nebesnogo Tsarya — “Blessed is the Army of the Heavenly Tsar.” It is also sometimes called simply Це́рковь вои́нствующая — Tserkov voinstvuiushchaya — “The Church Militant.”
The icon takes its title from the beginning of the Apostikha, tone five: “Blessed is the army of the heavenly Tsar…” — which goes on to speak of the martyrs — the “passion-bearers” — who though born of earth, through their “passion-bearing” — their martyrdom and lack of concern for the body — became equal to the bodiless hosts — the angels. Before the conquest of Kazan, Metropolitan Makariy promised that those who fought in the campaign would have their sins forgiven, and those who died would have the heavenly rewards of martyrdom (it is a very old military propaganda technique still in use today).
The icon was originally placed opposite the throne of the Tsar in the Uspenskiy (Dormition) Cathedral in the Kremlin. It was ordered to be painted by Tsar Ivan “the Terrible” in commemoration of his conquest of the city of Kazan in 1552 — then under the domination of the Tatar Khanate of Kazan.
It is a very large and long icon with apocalyptic imagery, too long to examine here at once glance, so we must look at it part by part.
At far right, we see armies leaving a city, its walls surrounded by flames.
Though it commemorates the conquest of Kazan, biblically the city is the Babylon of Revelation 18:
“‘Woe! Woe to you, great city,
dressed in fine linen, purple and scarlet,
and glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls!
In one hour such great wealth has been brought to ruin!’
In the image we see three lines of soldiers moving across the icon from right to left. Those at top and bottom have halos, so we know they are saints, and among them the martyrs, the “passion-bearers” who died in the battle. But the shorter line of soldiers in the center does not. So who are they?
At their head we see two outstanding figures: first a crowned figure in royal robes on horseback, carrying a large cross.
It is a bit mysterious. Some speculate that the royal figure with the cross represents Vladimir Monomakh II (1053–1125 ), the warrior ruler who was the last of ancient Kievan Rus, a time considered a “golden age” for the city. Further, that the red-cloaked, helmeted warrior with a lance who is turning back to look at Vladimir Monomakh is Tsar Ivan the Terrible. Others think that the royal figure is Ivan the Terrible. Again this is speculation, and it would be unusual for a living person such as Ivan to be depicted in an icon. The current favored opinion is that the royal figure is the Roman Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, and that the three figures behind him on horseback are Vladimir, who converted Kievan Rus to Christianity in 988, and with him the two “Holy Passion-bearers” and first native Russian saints, Boris and Gleb. But why are none of them given halos?
More certain is the identification of the winged figure on a red, flying horse in the circle at the very head of the armies. We have seen him before, in icons of Mikhail Arkhistrategos — the Archangel Michael, leader of the heavenly armies. Around him are angels bearing crowns of victory for the arriving warriors.
The armies are all moving from the “City of Destruction” at right to the “Heavenly City” at left. In earthly terms, this is the city of Moscow, to which Ivan’s armies returned after the conquering of Kazan; biblically it is the Heavenly Jerusalem (Revelation 21:10-21), where the martyrs are received by Mary and Jesus Immanuel. Just below it, we see a river flowing out of it (Revelation 22:1).
In spite of the uncertainties of identification of some details of the image. we can say that it commemorates the conquest of Kazan by showing the “Church Militant” — led by the Archangel Michael, commander of the heavenly armies — moving from the fallen Babylon, the “City of Destruction” to the “Heavenly Jerusalem,” where the warriors receive their crowns of victory — a historico-religious allegory, and a clever piece of propaganda.