Here is a 17th century Russian icon:
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.