Here is a 17th century Russian icon:

(Tretyakov Gallery)

Its gold inscription at the top is worn and faint, which often happens with gold inscriptions, because they are easily worn away over time.  Nonetheless this is a Sretenie (Сретение) icon, but not the icon type we usually find under that name.  We are already familiar with the word Sretenie — meaning “Meeting.”  We have seen it used to describe the many icons of the “Meeting” of the infant Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple by the aged Simeon and the Prophetess Anna.  That is its most common use in icons.

However the icon we are examining today is a different Sretenie — a different meeting.  This one is the “Meeting of the Vladimir Icon.”  The earliest-known existing examples of this type date to the 16th century.

The story associated with it is this:

In the year 1395, the Mongol invader Tamerlane (Timur) and his armies were approaching Moscow.  The people were terrified, certain that he intended to loot and pillage the city.  The Great Prince of Moscow at that time — Vasiliy I Dmitrievich — sent urgently to the city of Vladimir, asking that the supposedly miracle-working icon of the Vladimir Mother of God be brought to Moscow to protect the city.

Now you will remember that since Byzantine times — in a tradition going back even to the pre-Christian world — there were images believed to have the power to protect cities.  Such an image is called a palladium.  In Russian Orthodoxy, the Vladimir icon was such a palladium icon.

The stories relate that at the request of Vasiliy, the Vladimir palladium was sent on its way to Moscow.  It is said that it took ten days for the icon to make the journey, and along the road people fell to their knees, praying “Матерь Божия, спаси землю русскую” — Mater Bozhiya, spasi zemliu russkuiu — “Mother of God, save the Russian land.” When it reached Moscow, all the people of the city came out to greet it.

The legend says that at the time when the icon was met in Moscow, Tamerlane was asleep and dreaming in his tent.  He dreamed he saw a high mountain, and descending saints with golden wands.  In the air above it was a brilliantly-shining woman, surrounded by sword-bearing angels.  When he woke and consulted his advisors, they told him it was not wise to continue, because the woman was God’s Mother, intercessor for the Russians.

Tamerlane did turn his forces back, and Moscow was not invaded.  Historians say that Tamerlane had his own reasons for not going farther.  The people of Moscow, however, attributed his withdrawal to the icon, which only increased the esteem in which it was held.  A monastery called the Sretenskiy Monastery (after Sretenie) was eventually built on the site where the “meeting” of the Vladimir icon is said to have taken place.

Remember that in Russian tradition, icons of Mary were treated as though they were living persons.  So that is what we see in today’s icon — the formal meeting and greeting of the icon.  We see the Patriarch of Moscow Kiprian with his omophorion (bishop’s stole) and bishop’s crown standing to the right of the image, and beside him is Great Prince Vasiliy I Dmitrievich.

If we look more closely at the depiction of the Vladimir icon, we can see the ornamental cloth — the veil called a pelena (пелена) hanging below it.  In Greek it is called a podea (ποδέα).  This one is decorated with a “Golgotha Cross,” (Голгофский Крест/Golgofskiy Krest) which is one of the most common decorations used on such a cloth.  The Golgotha Cross — which is found on many Russian Orthodox religious objects — depicts the cross standing on a hill, with the spear and sponge on a reed at the sides, and the skull of Adam below.

Here is a typical Golgotha Cross:

You will find all the abbreviations explained in my earlier postings on Russian crosses, found in the site archive.

If we look at the “hills and palaces” — the stylized mountains and buildings in this icon, they exhibit well the typical style of painting used in 17th century Russian iconography:


The “Meeting of the Vladimir Icon” is celebrated annually in Russian Orthodoxy on August 26th.

Now interestingly, there is another but seldom-seen icon type relating to Tamerlane called the Eletskaya-Argamachenskaya (Елецкая Аргамаченская). When Tamerlane came into the region near Moscow, he took the city of Elets (pronounced Yelets), some 221 miles from Moscow.  You will recall the legend that Tamerlane had a dream of a shining woman and angels, and that prevented him from going to invade Moscow.  A similar tale — apparently just based on the first — developed to explain why Timur left Elets.

It is said that on August 26th, 1395, Timur was camped and sleeping on Argamach Mountain.  Mary appeared to him in a dream, in very much the same manner as that told about the supposed deliverance of Moscow from invasion.  This icon type was first painted in 1735.  Here is an example:

We see Mary appearing in the clouds, surrounded by an army of angels.  At lower right are the tents in the camp of Timur.

This icon type should not be confused with the more common Eletskaya type — the Eletskaya Chernigovskaya — that is said to have “appeared” in 1060.



Here is a print of the Marian icon type — another of those from Mount Athos — called Gerondissa (Γερόντισσα):

Now at Mount Athos, the place is filled with old tales, and there is a legend about one thing or another practically around every corner.  As for this icon, its origin story is not lengthy:

An elderly hegumen at the Pantokrator Monastery on Athos felt that his end was quickly nearing.  He wanted to receive communion before he died, but the priest performing the liturgy was going too slowly for the old man; he worried he might die before he received the bread and wine.  So he asked the priest to hurry it up a bit.

The priest, not surprisingly, did not feel like rushing things, so he kept on at the same pace.  But suddenly, the tale relates, a stern voice came from the icon of Mary telling the priest in no uncertain terms to do as the old hegumen had requested.  Hearing this, the priest quickened the pace, and the old fellow was given communion before he died.  Because of its association with the welfare of old people, the icon was given the title Gerondissa, which means “Eldress” or more loosely “Abbess.”  In Slavic it would be Старица/Staritsa, the feminine form of Starets or elder, but Russian icons of the type keep the Greek form of the name as Герондисса.

As you see, the icon depicts Mary standing, with hands outstretched.  But notice the jug on the floor at left.  It is an important part of the Gerondissa type, even though it has nothing at all to do with the story just told.

The jug appears to be overflowing with water, but it is not water — it is olive oil.  The “overflowing jug” element of this icon type is derived from another legend associated with the Gerondissa icon.  It relates that in the 1600s there was a famine.  The oil jugs kept in the monastery pantry were empty.   The hegumen asked all the monks to pray fervently to Mary for aid.

Then a stream of oil was noticed, flowing from the pantry.  When the monks looked inside, they saw that oil was continuously flowing from one of the jugs, pouring over its rim and out across the floor.  That miracle story is the reason for the “overflowing jug” in icons of the Gerondissa.

There are other stories associated with the image.  An account says that in the 11th century, one of the Saracens who attacked the monastery wanted to break the icon up and use the splinters to light his pipe, but Mary blinded him.   And so the icon was thrown down a well, where it remained for 80 years.  The blind Saracen, before his death, told relatives about the icon, and hoping for an improvement in his afterlife, he asked them to go to the Athos Monastery and to show the monks where the icon was to be found.  They retrieved it and took it into the church.




Russian icons  are, for the most part, essentially copies of prototypes that appeared in different times and places.  Some of the prototypes are very old, others comparatively recent.  So icon painting is not a matter of originality, but rather a matter of reproduction of an existing image.  There may be thousands and thousands of copies of a popular prototype.  These copies follow the same general pattern as an original, which we may call a type.  Icons of Mary, called the Bogomater — the Mother of God — were particularly popular, so there are hundreds of different Bogomater types.

The most popular of these types became so because the original was assumed to be chudotvornaya — “wonder-working,” meaning miracle-working.  There are many stories and legends of miracles involving icons of Mary, and such “power” images were given respect beyond that given an ordinary icon, which accounts for the great number of copies made of them.

Even though the original Marian icon may have been considered “wonder-working,” the same could not be said of all of the copies made from it.  Unless, that is, a particular copy of the type began to work miracles on its own.  Then, curiously enough, it sometimes received its own name, distinguishing it from the original prototype.

There is an interesting icon that became known in the latter part of the 19th century — the icon is that known as the Неупиваемая чаша, (Neupivaemaya Chasha) the “Not-Drink–up-able Cup,” usually more elegantly Englished as the “Unfailing Chalice” or “Inexhaustible Chalice” Mother of God icon.

                              “THE UNFAILING CHALICE MOST HOLY MOTHER OF GOD”

Now there are two interesting things about this icon.  The first is that — unlike the “neo-traditional” style image of it shown above — the popular copies are generally painted in the Westernized style — the more realistic style borrowed from Western European painting, particulary from the 1600s onward, by the Russian State Church, in contrast to the stylized and more abstracted traditional manner favored by the Old Believers, who separated from the State Church in Russia.  The version shown above is that venerated presently in the Vysotskiy Monastery in Serpukhov, about 62 miles south of Moscow.  It is not the original, which was destroyed.

The second interesting thing is that the “Unfailing Chalice” is visually related to two other icon types.  The upper part, depicting Mary with outraised hands and the Christ Child (Christ Immanuel) before her, is virtually that of the “Sign” (Znamenie) Mother of God type.  The lower portion, with the Christ Child’s lower body in a eucharistic chalice, is related to the Nikeyskaya (“Nicean”) Mother of God type, which is also called “Your Womb Becomes the Holy Table.”

Now there are prayers to go with these individual wonder-working Marian icons, and one of these would give us the latter “Nikeyskaya” association even if we did not recognize it.  The kontakion, voice 6, associated with this icon begins:  “Бысть чрево Твое святая Трапеза...” — “Your Womb Becomes the Holy Table.”  Those words mean that when pregnant with Jesus, the womb of Mary became the “holy table,” meaning the altar.  This relates to the altar table in Eastern Orthodoxy, on which the eucharistic bread which is considered the body of Jesus — the “Lamb of God” — is placed.

There are several Marian icons with a specific “popular” purpose.  One, for example, is used in an attempt to ease childbirth; another is used to ward off fire from a building.  The “Unfailing Chalice” has as its purpose the aiding of alcoholics who wish to give up their addiction to drinking.

One sees easily how this association with drinking came about.  In the icon there is a (eucharistic) cup/chalice, and out of it proceeds the child Jesus.  The Church Slavic inscription visible on it reads:

meaning “I am the true vine…” (taken from John 15:1)

The association with wine drunk from a cup, with the concept expanded to include other alcoholic beverages, is a natural link to make.  And so this prototype became an “anti-alcoholism” icon believed to have wondrous powers.  Large numbers of copies have been made of it in the past few decades, and they are recommended to those with drinking problems.

Now all of this is, of course, a kind of magical thinking, but that kind of thinking — the use of talismans and amulets and so on — is very ancient and found in many religions, and it is sometimes probably even effective for one reason or another.

In any case, the icon has, like most “wonder-working” icons, an interesting origin story.  In the hagiography of Marian icons, the important date is the “Appearance” (Yavlenie) of an icon.  By “Appearance” is not meant when the icon was first made.  It means instead the time at which a particular icon first began to work miracles — its manifestation as a “miracle-working” image.

The “Appearance” of the Unfailing Chalice icon took place in the year 1878, according to its associated story.  A certain former soldier of the Efremov division of the Tula gubernia (government/province) was afflicted by a heavy addiction to drinking.  He drank away all of his pension, and even lost most of his belongings to alcohol.  It got so bad that he even was losing the use of his legs, yet he kept on drinking.  And then he had a strange dream.

An old staretz (spiritual elder) in a skhima (monk’s hooded garment) appeared to him, and told him, “Go to the town of Serpukhov, to the monastery of the Entry [into the Temple of the] Mistress Mother of God.  There is an icon of the “Unfailing Chalice” Mother of God.  Perform a moleben [rite involving a series of special prayers] in front of it, and you shall be healthy in spirit and body.”

The suffering soldier, not being able to walk at all now, let alone such a long way, and being out of money, and with no one to help him, did not do as the staretz told him.  The spiritual elder appeared to him in a second dream, but again he did not listen.  Finally, the staretz came to him a third time in his dreams, and spoke to him so threateningly that at last the man set out on the road, crawling in the dirt as best he could.   He eventually made it to a village, where he rested for the night, and there he met a kind-hearted old woman who rubbed his legs and laid him where the stove would warm him –which in an old Russian home was right atop the stove.  That night he began to feel a pleasant sensation in his legs.  By morning he found he could stand somewhat totteringly on his still-weak legs. He remained there, and by the next night he felt even better.   So he again set off for the Serpukhov Monastery, this time walking with the aid of a stick.  Thus, hobbling along, he made it all the way to the town of Serpukhov and to the monastery, but when he asked to hold a moleben before the icon of the “Unfailing Chalice,” nobody knew what he was talking about.  No one had ever heard of such an icon there.  But on looking about, someone found an icon in a side passage, and noticed that on the reverse of it was an inscription reading “The Unfailing Chalice.”  The soldier realized that the staretz who appeared in his dream had been the Elder Varlaam, who had been the original founder of the Monastery in the 14th century. The “rediscovered” icon was carried into the church and a moleben was held before it.

Well, needless to say, the alcoholic ex-soldier went away healed, as the endings of all such stories go.  Then news of the event was spread abroad, crowds began coming to pray before the image, copies were made of it, and a new Akathist (long prayer form) composed specially to that icon was written.  And by the way, the motif of being told to do something three times, but only doing it on the third telling, as in this tale, is a not unusual motif in these origin stories of miracle-working icons, which in that respect are much like other folklore.

The prototype of this icon — at least the one associated with this story — is said to have been burned along with other icons in 1929, under the Communists.  The revival of the veneration of this icon — in the form of copies painted in various styles — got under way in 1980.  Those who began studying icons before that date but did not keep up on their studies will likely have never heard of it, because it is better known in E. Orthodoxy today than it ever was earlier, when its veneration was more localized in the Serpukhov region.

The icon is commemorated annually in the Russian Orthodox Church on May 5th.  Five versions of this type may be seen at:

It is interesting to compare various copies and to note the differences in style and skill of the painter.

And here, for comparison with the “Unfailing Chalice,”  is an old “Westernized sketch of the visually-related Nikeyskaya type:

                                The “Nikeyskaya” (Nicene) Most Holy Mother of God



I often tell people that the many long years I spent studying Russian and Greek iconography have proved of almost no practical use. I originally began researching icons several decades ago because museum research was my job at that time. I became something of a specialist in the “reading” of Russian icons — that is, in interpreting them for the average person and for museums and collectors, for whom they were initially as cryptic as carvings on an Egyptian tomb.

My approach was certainly not and is not that of the icon-venerating Christian — and I consider religious dogma in general an unhealthy thing. Nor was my interest that of the collector, because what I collected was not the physical icons themselves, but rather the information enabling one to understand the icons — which I assure you is far less expensive and enables one to collect in far greater quantity.

I did have my inevitable encounters, now and then, with the “true believers” of the field of icons — those for whom icons are inseparable from the rigid framework of religious dogma — frequently somewhat over-the-top Western converts to E. Orthodoxy. I irritated them endlessly simply by existing, because what I knew of icons from long study would not fit into their simplistic, rigid doctrinaire schemes. And it bothered them that I seemed to know so much about it — more so than many E. Orthodox priests — while all the while remaining quite uninterested in whatever brand of dogma they were selling.

So I will say right off that to me, Russian and Greek icons are the continuation — in Christian dress — of the ancient non-Christian veneration of images of the gods. When the old religions were outlawed under Christian intolerance, the saints painted on icons became the new gods, taking the place of the old for the average person — asked to bring rain or babies or to protect from this or that catastrophe or problem. There is no evidence to date in support of the making or use of icons for ritual veneration by the first Christians — or even any evidence of the slightest interest in such a thing by them, which of course is in direct conflict with the Eastern Orthodox dogma that icons go right back to the lifetime of Jesus, who was supposedly the first to “make” a Christian icon — supposedly. So is it any wonder that Eastern Orthodox of a more fundamentalist persuasion are unhappy with what I have to say?

Now some may think it bold to say outright that I think much of what is said about icons in Eastern Orthodoxy is absolute nonsense.  But I would certainly not hesitate to tell a Protestant fundamentalist that I consider a belief that the world came into being a few thousand years ago completely false, so why should I not tell any Eastern Orthodox person who asks that I have a similar attitude toward the dogma concerning the origin of icons? (and by the way, even Eastern Orthodox believed the world was only a few thousand years old until relatively recently; no doubt some still do).

But I am not writing here for the “true believers” of any brand of dogma.  Instead, I am writing simply because I have accumulated all of this rather useless knowledge about icons and their history — and so I post bits of it here in case it might be of interest to someone somewhere who happens to be wondering what icons are all about, and who wants a more factual and rational explanation than is generally offered by “true believers.” But is there anyone out there to read such a blog? We shall see.