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

Aside

Anyone familiar with Russian art will have seen the remarkable painting (completed in 1883) by Ilya Repin (1844–1930) called Крестный ход в Курской губернии — Krestnuiy khod v Kurskoy Gubernii loosely, “Religious Procession in Kursk Province.”  It is fascinating not only because of the skill of the artist, but also because it is a look at Tsarist Russia, warts and all.  With a slight change of costume, it could be a scene out of the Middle Ages:

To the left, we see the poor and humble walking as best they can, and above them, mounted on horses, the civil authorities.

In the center we see the well-to do and the clergy.  Note the many tree stumps on the slope behind them:

At right — in front of the fellow striking at the crowd with his whip — men carry an elaborate structure, decorated with flowers and beribboned.  It contains an icon, though we see only the golden glints of light reflecting off its case.  Some of those carrying it are shod in woven bark shoes, which was common among the peasantry of those days:

Though many are familiar with the painting, most do not know that it depicts the annual procession carrying the Курская Коренная — Kurskaya Korennaya — the “Kursk Root” icon — from the monastery where it was kept to the city of Kursk.

Today we will take a look at that somewhat controversial icon type.  Here is the “Kursk Root” image as it appears today, in its enameled and filigreed cover in the style of the beginning of the 20th century.

It is said that the Kursk Root icon originally consisted only of the center image of Mary and the Christ Child, in the form known as the Znamenie (“Sign”) Mother of god.  Before we get into that, let’s take a look at the inscription across the bottom of the icon.  It is long, so I will divide it.  Here is the beginning:

It reads:

ИЗОБРАЗЧЕНИЕ И МЕРА ЧУДОТВОРНАГО ОБРАЗА…
IZOBRAZHENIE I MYERA CHUDOTVORNAGO OBRAZA…
“[The] Representation and Measure of the Wonder-working Image…”

…ЗНАМЕНИЯ ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ КОРЕННО КУРСКИЯ
...ZNAMENIYA PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI KORENNO KURSKIYA
“[Of the] “Sign” Most-Holy Mother-of-God  Root-Kursk.”

So all together,
“THE REPRESENTATION AND MEASURE OF THE WONDERWORKING IMAGE OF THE ‘SIGN’ MOST HOLY MOTHER OF GOD ‘ROOT-KURSK.'”

The origin story of the icon tells us that its “appearance” took place in the 13th century (the 1200s), when Russia had been devastated by the plundering and burning Mongol hordes.  The tale is set in the vicinity of Kursk, a place some 280 miles south of Moscow.

Kursk was destroyed by the invading Tatars under Batu Khan about 1237-1240, and was not rebuilt again until 1586.  After the invasions of the Tatars, what had been a city became a wilderness.

In the autumn of 1295 (September 8th, so the story goes), a hunter from Rylsk, a city down the Sem River to the West, came wandering through the forest in the vicinity of Kursk, looking for game.  On the banks of the Tuskar River near Kursk, he found a small icon lying face down at the roots of a tree.  When he turned it over, he found it to be a copy of the “Sign” Mother of God.  And it is said that as soon as he picked it up, a spring of water bubbled out of the ground where it had lain (remember the Catholic story of Bernadette and the spring at Lourdes?).  That is supposed to have been the icon’s first miracle.

Here is a map showing Kursk ( Курскъ ) at right center, and at the far lower left is Rylsk (Рылскъ)

If we look more closely at Kursk, we see the River Tuskar (Тускар ) flowing northward just to the right of it, and bending eastward near the top of the image:

A little wooden chapel was built for the icon there, and its reputation as a miracle-working icon began to spread.  Soon people were coming all the way from Rylsk to venerate the image and to hope for miracles.

Hearing all the news, Prince Vasiliy Shemyaka of Rylsk ordered that the icon be brought to Rylsk, and crowds of citizens went out to greet the icon on its arrival, but the Prince himself was not among them.  Because of this sign of disrespect, the legend says Prince Vasiliy was struck blind, until (as these stories go — another common motif), he repented with prayer before the icon, and was healed.  He then had a church dedicated to the “Birth of the Most Holy Mother of God” built at Rylsk for the icon, and established a feast to be held annually in its honor.

But here we encounter yet another common motif in the hagiography of icons.  You will remember that traditionally these “wonderworking” icons behave like conscious persons, and can move under their own volition.  Well, the story tells us that the icon from Kursk disappeared from the church at Rylsk, and was found to have returned to the little chapel originally built for it at Kursk.  The citizens of Rylsk went to retrieve it, but when they brought it back to Rylsk, it disappeared again.  This happened several times, until finally the people of Rylsk accepted the inevitable and let the icon stay where it wanted to be, at Kursk.  A priest named Bogoliub (literally “God-Love”) came and undertook the care and rituals of the chapel.

In 1383 the Tatars came back to Kursk, and tried to burn down the chapel.  It would not burn, so they suspected Bogoliub of magic.  The priest told them it was the icon that was protecting the chapel, so they took the icon, cut it in two pieces, threw the pieces off in different places, burnt the chapel (it worked this time), and took Bogoliub prisoner.  He worked as a captive sheepherder until rescued by some ambassadors from Moscow who heard him singing songs to Mary as they passed by.  Bogoliub returned to the site of the chapel, found the pieces of the icon, and they are said to have miraculously grown back together, with no sign of the cut showing except the presence of something like dew.

Hearing of these wonders, the people of Rylsk took the icon back to their city, but again the icon disappeared and was found back at Kursk.  So they rebuilt the burnt chapel at Kursk for the icon, and it stayed there for some 200 years.

In 1597 Tsar Feodor of Moscow ordered the rebuilding of the city of Kursk, heard of the “miracles” of its icon, and had it brought to Moscow, where it was received with great acclaim.  The Tsaritsa Irina had a rich covering of pearls, precious stones, etc. made for the icon.  It was at this time that the Tsar is said to have had the original icon placed in a gilt silver frame, with the image of Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) at the top, and Old Testament prophets at the sides (as in the icon type “The Praise of the Mother of God”).  Then the icon was sent back to Kursk.  A monastery and church were built on the site of the old chapel, and a new church dedicated to Mary as the “Lifegiving Fountain” was constructed where the spring had appeared when the icon was found.  The Monastery came to be known as the “Root Desert,” after the root where the icon was originally discovered.  “Desert” (Пустынь/Pustuin) is used in Russian Orthodoxy to signify a monastic settlement, recalling the Theban Desert of Egypt, where Christian monasticism originated.

When another Tartar invasion threatened, the icon was taken to a larger church in the city of Kursk, and a copy was left in its place in the chapel.

In the 17th century, the “Pretender” Dmitriy (eventually Tsar of Russia from 1605-1606) claimed to be the son of Tsar Ivan “the Terrible” and to have survived an assassination attempt.  His army fought to put him on the throne, and during his battles he knew the propaganda value of the Kursk icon, and had it brought to his military camp in Putivl.  He eventually took it with him to the palace in Moscow.  The icon was there until 1615.

In 1612, a Polish commander besieged Kursk, but it is said the inhabitants prayed to Mary, who supposedly appeared on the walls with two shining monks to fend off the attackers.  The citizens of Kursk promised in their prayers that they would build a monastery in the city in the name of the “Sign” icon.  They petitioned the Tsar (then Mikhail Feodorovich), and in 1615 the icon was returned to Kursk and placed in the cathedral there.  In 1618 it was moved to the “Sign” Monastery in Kursk.

In the intervening years, the icon (or copies of it) was further used in one conflict or another — including a copy sent to General Kutuzov by the City of Kursk in the Napoleonic invasion of 1812.  This again is an example of the belief that icons can aid in battle and defense (or be used as propaganda devices to inspire soldiers, depending on one’s point of view).

It is said that Revolutionaries tried to blow up the icon in 1898, but it somehow survived the explosion undamaged.  It was stolen from the “Sign” Monastery in April of 1918 and stripped of its valuable covering, but it was found and returned in early May.

In 1919 (this is after the Revolution) the icon was taken to Serbia, briefly to Crimea in 1910, then back to Serbia, and eventually to Munich (Germany), and in 1951 to the United States, settling eventually at the New Kursk Hermitage in Mahopac, New York and the  Cathedral Church of the Mother of God of the Sign in New York City, which is the residence of the First Hierarch of the very conservative division of Orthodoxy called the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR).  It is treated by present-day Russian Orthodox much as it was in the past, as a “miracle-working” icon, and as such it continues to add new stories of its “miracles” to its traditional history.

 Now, as mentioned earlier, it is said that the original icon found at Kursk was a small copy of the Znamenie/”Sign” type, and that later the image of “Lord Sabaoth” (God the Father) and nine Old Testament Prophets were added to it in 1597 when it was brought to Moscow.

In recent times there has been much controversy over the presence of God the Father on the image.  Some of the more conservative Russian Orthodox (there is a strong, very conservative element in Eastern Orthodoxy) consider it to be heretical, which always amuses me, given the widespread and centuries-long use of the image of God the Father in Eastern Orthodox icons.  And of course it is paradoxical that an icon with a supposedly heretical image atop it should nonetheless be considered “miracle-working” through more than four centuries after the additions were supposedly made.

In any case, it is standard for copies of the icon to depict all of the figures, including God the Father right at the top.  So common is this practice that I have never seen an old copy without them.

Here is an example in which the image of Lord Sabaoth (with the Dove of the Holy Spirit) at the top center is plainly labeled Б[о]гъ О[те]цъ — Bog Otets — “God the Father.”  The longer inscription at the base reads:  “The Representation and Measure of the Wonderworking Image of the “Sign” Most Holy Mother of God of Kursk.


(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Interestingly, an example of the “Kursk Root” type in the collection the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts was recently called to my attention.  Here it is:

(Courtesy of The Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton Ma)

This particular icon is interesting and unusual because someone, at some time, apparently removed the image of God the Father that should be in the clouds at the top, leaving an oddly blank space never found in such icons:

The  images of the prophets on examples of the type vary slightly from image to image.  The example just above shows (King) David, Moses, Ezekiel, Zephaniah, at left, Habakkuk at the base, and (King) Solomon, Daniel, Isaiah, and Elijah at right.  The example shown first on this page depicts David, Moses, Isaiah and Gideon at left, Habakkuk at bottom center, and Solomon, Daniel, Jeremiah, and Elijah at right.

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HORSES, BIRDS, AND THE KONEVSKAYA ICON

In northwestern Russia lies the large lake called Lake Ladoga.  On its western side is an island called Konevets (Коневец,), the site of the Konevskiy Monastery.

According to tradition, near the end of the 14th century a Russian from Novgorod named Arseniy (died 1444) ) went to the far-off monastic community on Mount Athos, in Greece.  There he spent some three years.  When he decided to return to Russia in 1393, an Athos abbot and elder named John gave him an icon of Mary and the Christ Child to take back with him.  Arseniy looked about Lake Ladoga (then called Nevoozero), and decided to establish his monastic cell on Konevets Island after a storm blew him ashore there (he saw that as a divine sign).  Gradually others joined him, and that was the beginning of what became the Konevets/Konevskiy Monastery there.

When Arseniy first came to the island, he found that the Karelian people living on the mainland brought their cattle there to graze from spring to fall.  Now it happened that on the northwestern side of the island there was a huge stone considered to be the sacred abode of spirits.  Each year the people would leave a horse as a sacrifice to the spirits who manifested in the stone, in thanks for keeping watch over the cattle during the grazing season.  And each year when they came back, the remains of the horse would have entirely disappeared, showing the approval of the spirits.

Arseniy, of course, did not care for this “pagan” notion, so he went to the stone — called the “Horse Stone” (Конь-Камень/Kon-Kamen), taking with him the Marian icon he had been given on Athos.  Once there, with the power of the icon and of his prayers, so the old story goes, he is said to have driven the spirits out of the Horse Stone, and they could be seen leaving in the form of a flock of black ravens that rose into the air and flew all the way across the strip of land to the west to Vyborg, on its bay at the eastern side of the Gulf of Finland.

Here is an old map showing Konevets Island in Lake Ladoga, and Vyborg/Viborg to the far west (and slightly south) of it.  At the the bottom right is St. Petersburg:

Here is a photo of the Horse Stone, with the Orthodox chapel built atop it to show the dominance of Russian Orthodoxy over the old beliefs:

Now on to the icon itself, known as the Konevskaya image, after the name of the Island and Monastery (and the saint, who is known as Arseniy Konevskiy).

This is a copy of the Konevskaya icon, dated 1873, and of course we can see by its style that it is painted in the “Westernized” manner of the State Church:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Now the interesting thing about this image (one of the supposed “miracle-working” Marian icons) is that we can find an early example of an Italian painting almost identical in form, but with obvious Italian characteristics in style, dating to the 14th century, and attributed to the painter known only as the “Master of the Sterbini Diptych.”  All we know about this painter is that he is believed to have worked on the Adriatic coast, either in Venice or one of the other cities of the region.  His work shows the cross-fertilization between Byzantine icon painting of the time and Italian painting of trecento (1300s) Italy.  We even see in this example hints of the style of Giotto:

The motif of the Christ Child with a bird is frequent in Western religious art, with various symbolism attributed to the bird (the soul, resurrection, the Passion, the Holy Spirit, etc.), but one must also keep in mind that birds on a string were once given to children as playthings.

In the case of the many copies of the Konevskaya icon (which began to multiply in Russia in the 16th century), one sometimes finds examples with one bird, while others (as in the 19th century example on this page) depict two birds.  The presence of a bird or birds in the Konevskaya (Коневская ) icon type accounts for its alternate name, the “Dove” icon (Голубицкая/Golubitskaya).  Golub (Голубь) in Russian means “dove.”  The icon presently kept as the “original” Konevskaya icon in the New Valaam Monastery in Finland (since 1956) is suspected to be a later copy of the lost original.

It is also worth mentioning that we find the word “horse” (Russian kонь/kon) in the name of the Horse Stone in the origin story of the icon, as well as in the name of the icon and that of Konevets Island.  The horse symbol, in the old Slavic religion, was associated with the Thunder God Perun, whose duties were later taken over by the Old Testament prophet Elijah.

THE MONARCHIST ICON: DERZHAVNAYA

Status

Today’s icon type, the Derzhavnaya (“Reigning”) image, was painted at the end of the 18th-beginning of the 19th century. It is very westernized in appearance.

Its form, with the rounded top, shows that it was once in an iconostasis, the big icon screen that separates the congregation from the altar in Russian churches.

It is not difficult to see that it was painted on three boards joined together; the cracks separating them are quite obvious, and the image itself shows considerable signs of wear on the paint surface.  Unlike traditional icons, it seems to have been painted in oils.

As for the iconography, it depicts Mary seated on a throne, holding a scepter in her right hand and a large globe in her left; these are symbols of ruling authority.  Christ Immanuel is seated on her lap, blessing with his right hand and holding his  left palm facing upward above the globe.  There is no inscription other than the common abbreviation MP ΘΥ (Meter Theou = “Mother of God”) written in the style of the period.  In the clouds above Mary is an unusually large depiction of God the Father (“Lord Sabaoth”).

Though it was painted near the beginning of the 19th century, this icon did not “appear” until the year 1917.  You will recall that “appearance” (yavlenie) in the jargon of Eastern Orthodox Marian icons, means the time when an icon first manifests itself as supposedly miraculous.  It generally has nothing to do with when the icon was first painted.

A common motif in the appearance of Marian icons is the message received in a dream, and that is what we find in the origin story of the Derzhavnaya type.

The story tells us that a woman named Evdokia Adrianova had a dream on the 13th of February in the year 1917.  In it, she heard a voice saying:

“In the village of Kolomensk there is a big, black icon.  Take it, make it red, and let there be prayer.”

Two weeks later on February 26th, she had another dream.  In it she saw a white church, and in the church was a majestic woman whom Evdokia felt to be Mary.  So she traveled to Kolomensk, and there saw the Ascension Church, which she recognized as the white church in her dream.  She went to the home of the rector, Nikolai Likhachev, and told him her dream and asked what to do.

He took her to the church, and they began to search among its icons.  At first, in the sanctuary and on the iconostasis, nothing was found to match the dream image.  So they began searching up and down, and eventually, in the basement, stored with all kinds of junk, they came across an old and black icon.  They cleaned it up and an image of Mary seated on a throne and  holding signs of imperial authority, with her son on her lap, was revealed — and her robe was a bright red.  Krasnuiy in Russian means both “red” and “beautiful.”

The image, according to church records, had been brought to Kolomensk for storage in 1812, the year of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia.

Word of the supposedly miraculous event quickly spread, and soon pilgrims began coming to the Ascension Church to see the icon. Additional miracles began to be attributed to it.  The icon was taken out now and then to make “royal visits” to various sites in the area, including other churches and factories.  Because Mary wears a crown and holds the symbols of royal authority, the image came to be called Derzhavnaya — “Reigning.”

Now it happened, so the story goes, that the day of the “appearance” of the icon — of its finding in the Church of the Ascension — happened also to be the day (March 2nd or 15th, depending which calendar is used) on which Tsar Nicholas II abdicated.  This is taken by Russian monarchists and nationalists as a sign that when Nicholas laid down his imperial authority, it was taken up by Mary, as shown by the imperial symbols she holds.  Mary was now guiding and ruling “Orthodox Russia.”  Of course the new Soviet regime was not pleased by “monarchist” stories accompanying the icon; they put it away in a museum storage facility, and tried to prevent the adulation accorded it and its copies.  But things changed in Russia as decades passed, and on July 27, 1990, the icon was placed in the Kazan Church in Kolomensk.

All of this makes the Derzhavnaya icon type a subject of importance today to Russian nationalists and monarchists and to the extremists among them.

 

 

 

A MOTHER-SON DISAGREEMENT: THE OTRADA ICON

I have talked often about a term relating mostly to Marian icons: явление — yavlenie. It means “appearance.” Specifically, it means when an icon later held to be “wonderworking” in Eastern Orthodoxy first first appears miraculous. That is a significant point. It is not when the icon first appears in the usual sense, but when it first appears to be miraculous.

So an icon may be known for many years, but it is only when it shows itself to be miraculous (in Eastern Orthodox belief), “wonderworking” — chudotvornaya — that it is said to have “appeared.”

Today’s icon is such an image. It was kept in the Monastery called Vatopedi on Mount Athos, which is a mountain of monastics in Greece, a mountain believed to be the property and under the protection of Mary. Traditionally, women are not allowed on Athos.

The icon was of Mary and the Christ Child. It was not considered particularly special until the day when it is said to have “appeared.” According to the origin story, it did not look as it once did after its appearance. The figures of Mary and Jesus within it are believed to have changed their positions, making the icon look quite different. If that seems strange to you, well, strange is the stuff of which “appearance” stories are made.

Here is the icon, called the OTRADA ILI UTYESHENIE, “JOY OR CONSOLATION,” as the title on it tells us. One may find either or both titles on an image of the type. It is also called (in Russia) the Vatopedskaya (“of Vatopedi”) icon, and in Greece it is called the Paramythia, the “Consolation” icon.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

In the example above, only the central image follows the type of the original icon. The images of Genadios at left and of John the Forerunner (the Baptist) at right are additions.

As I was saying, the origin story relates that the icon did not originally look as it does now.

The traditional account says that in the year 807, a gang of pirates landed near the Vatopedi monastery and hid in the bushes, waiting for morning, when the gates would be opened. Then they could rush inside, subdue the monks and plunder the place. Matins had ended, and the Abbot was praying, as was his daily custom, before an icon of Mary.

Suddenly he heard a voice telling him not to open the monastery gates that day, but instead to go to the walls and disperse the robbers. He looked about to see where it was coming from, and to his amazement, he saw that the images of Mary and the child Jesus within the icon had come to life. But as he watched, he saw the child Jesus stretch out his hand to cover his mother’s mouth, saying severely, “No, my Mother, do not tell them; let them be punished.

Mary, however, grasped her son’s hand, and holding it away from her mouth, turned her face from it and repeated the warning to the Abbot.

At once all the monks were called, and they were told what Mary had said. The monks were surprised to see that the positions of the Mother and Chld in the icon had changed, and they went to the walls and dispersed the pirates. And so the monastery was saved.

This icon type is characterized by Mary holding the hand of her son away from her mouth in the supposed “new” position of the icon figures.

The motif of the merciful Mary saving humans from the wrath her son — “staying the hand” of Jesus — is very much in keeping with the general beliefs of both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians in the Middle Ages, and partly accounts for the high veneration in which Mary was held.

In this particular example of the Otrada type, the image of Genadios at left bears not only his title inscription, but also these words:

He heard a voice from the icon of the Most Holy Mother of God: “Do not open the gates of the monastery today.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Examples of this icon type began to appear in Russia in the 19th century.

THIEVES, COWS, AND AN ICON IN A TREE: THE OKOVETSKAYA IMAGE

If people are puzzled by ordinary icons, what are they to make of something like this one?

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

This is the Okovetskaya icon of Mary, also known as the Rzhevskaya.

You will recall that the manifestation of a Marian icon as chudotvornaya — “miracle-working” — is called its yavlenie — its “appearance.” There are over 600 such Marian icons generally recognized in Russian Orthodoxy, and that does not include images that are known only locally.

In the lore of icon “appearances,” one motif is that of the icon appearing in a tree. The Okovetskaya-Rzhevskaya icon is one of these.

It is said to have appeared in a forest near Okovtsy Village near Rzhev (thus its title), In Tver Province, on May 26th in the year 1539. Here is the tale in brief:

Four thieves made a pact. Two were to steal two cows, and the others were to steal two horses. They were then to meet in the woods and exchange their ill-gotten animals. The first pair managed to pilfer the cows, but when they went to the place in the forest where they were to trade for the horses, there was no one there. Instead, they saw an odd sight. In one tree there was an iron cross nailed up, and close to it was another tree in which they saw an icon hanging.

This frightened the thieves, and they left quickly. But the story of the icon in the tree became known, and a large number of villagers went in a group to investigate. They found the iron cross, and nearby was an icon hanging in another tree. When they took the icon down from the tree, suddenly there was a loud sound like a powerful wind, and the icon began to glow with a bright light.

As is the case with these tales, the icon soon began to work miracles, healing about 170 people. Eventually the image, having become famous, was taken ceremoniously to Moscow, and after a time was returned to the church built for it near the site of its appearance.

There are essentially two Okovetskaya-Rzhevskaya icon types: the first is the one shown here, which shows the cross hanging in one tree, and the Okovetskaya icon hanging in the other. The second type is that of the Okovetskaya image alone, which depicts Mary holding the child Jesus, and beside them stands St. Nicholas.

In the first type, the cross is conventionally depicted as an icon hanging in a tree. Behind it are the walls of Jerusalem, below it are the skull and bones of Adam (buried, according to legend, on the future site of the Crucifixion), and above it the sun darkened and the moon red as blood.

Icons of the second type show Mary and her child in various positions from example to example, so those alone are not the key to identification; the key is the presence of St. Nicholas with them, dressed in the robes of a bishop.

There is another and better-known icon that also has the “appearing in a tree” motif in its origin story — the Zhirovitskaya; but I will save that for another day.

QUICK IN TWO LANGUAGES: THE SKOROPOSLUSHNITSA ICON

There are many Russian icons of Mary traditionally considered “wonder-working” by Eastern Orthodox conservative believers, that is, able to work miracles. Many of these originated in Russia, some were borrowed from the West, but a number were originally Greek Orthodox icons adopted by Russian Orthodoxy.

Among these borrowed Greek icons is one originally called the Παναγία Γοργοεπήκοος — Panagia Gorgoepikoos — meaning the “All Holy ‘Quick To Hear'” in Greek.

“Panagia” — “All Holy” is a title of Mary. When the Russians borrowed this image, they translated the name of the image as “Skoroposlushnitsa,” which also means “Quick To Hear.”

This is a somewhat elaborated Russian version of that icon. The title icon itself is in the center of the image. The image at the top and the archangels beside and holding the central image are not original to the type. The multi-winged red angel below the image is a seraph.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Here is a better look at the central image:

image-21.aspx

The three-part image at the top of the icon is a separate icon type, the Deisis. It shows the heavenly court, with Christ the Ruler seated in the center, and two supplicants, Mary on the left and John the Foreunner (the Baptist) on the right, approaching Jesus to ask favors on behalf of humankind. This type is often painted as three separate icons, one for Mary, one for Jesus, and one for John.

image-19.aspx

The traditional origin story for the “appearance” of the “Quick To Hear” icon is this:

The prototype of the icon hung on a wall in the Dochiariou Monastery on Mt. Athos, in Greece. Mt. Athos is the most famous monastic center of Eastern Orthodoxy, and over the centuries monks from many countries, including Russia, had centers there. The mountain is considered to be sacred to Mary, and it is generally forbidden for females (even of most species of animals) to be on it. That is a story in itself, but for another time.

The wall on which it hung was a chapel open on both sides, and in 1664 a monk named Neilos (“Nil” in Slavic) used it as a night-time shortcut from the monastery kitchen to the refectory. He carried a torch to light his way, which of course put out a considerable amount of smoke as it burned.

One day when the monk was on his usual course, passing the icon with his torch, he suddenly heard a voice saying, “From now on, do not come here with lighted torches and do not blacken my image!”

Neilos was very frightened by the sudden, authoritative voice, and did not know who was speaking. But eventually he decided that it must just have been some other monk. He put the matter out of his head, and kept up his habit of using the chapel as a shortcut. But then he heard the voice again. This time it scolded him. “Monk unworthy of the name, how long can you so blithely and shamelessly blacken my image?” But this time there was something else. Neilos was struck blind.

He realized that it was Mary speaking, and he repented his actions. The monks found him praying before the image the next morning, and he told them the story of his experience. A perpetual lamp was lit before the icon, and Neilos spent much time kneeling before it, offering incense along with many prayers. Because of this, Neilos heard the voice again, this time telling him that he was forgiven and healed, and that the icon was to be called “Quick To Hear,” because monks who called upon Mary would be quickly heard and have their prayers mercifully answered. The corridor was closed, the icon was moved into another chapel, and the icon (and of course the monastery) became a noted place of pilgrimage.

As you can see, this follows a common folklore motif pattern for “miracle-working icons.” At the beginning the icon is lost, or unrecognized, or ignored. Then the icon makes its presence and wishes known in a dream, or in some other way. At first the signs are not taken seriously enough, but then they are made obvious, and the person involved in the tale repents and does what the image has told him or her to do, and things are again made right.

The “Quick to Hear” icon is only one of a number of famous “Athos” icons that were adopted into Russian Orthodox iconography as “miracle-working” (chudotvornaya) images.

FLAMES, A FOOTPRINT, AND A LUCKY COACHMAN: THE POCHAEV ICON

The Eastern Orthodox icon cannot really be understood until one realizes that it is a manifestation of a pre-scientific and extremely uncritical and credulous worldview that in modern times would simply be described as gullible. The most fantastic things were (and still often are) believed about icons and the saints represented in them. I have mentioned before how many Marian icons were considered as “persons” that could move from place to place on their own volition, and we can add to that all sorts of other odd manifestations such as the “streaming” of fragrant oil called “myrrh” from the surface of an icon (not the same as the resin myrrh), as well as being able to speak (as in the “Unexpected Joy” image) and to bleed (as in the Iverskaya/Iveron image).

Today we would think of such a mindset as being quite medieval, and in that we would not only be correct, but we would also have grasped something of the essential nature of the icon and the reason for its continuation through centuries.

Considering critical investigation of a “miracle” blasphemous, the Orthodox Church is generally extremely reluctant to permit scientific examination of phenomena such as, for example, the mirotochenie icons — the “myrrh-streaming” icons, that are said to exude fragrant, miraculous oil. But in cases where such examination did happen in one way or another, the not surprising conclusion was that there is a tendency for the substance on Russian “myrrh-streamiing” icons to be sunflower oil with a little fragrance added, and for oil on those exhibiting the “miracle” in Greek regions to be primarily olive oil. For a scientist who knows that Russian agriculture produces sunflower oil while Greece produces olive oil, this odd geographical division leads to a rather obvious conclusion about the nature of the phenomenon.

There is an amusing account of one such “myrrh-exuding” icon from the reign of Tsar Peter I. It was reported that a Marian icon in one of the city cathedrals had begun to weep, supposedly to lament the changes Peter was making in Russia.   There is an apparently apocryphal story that Peter sent this no-nonsense message to the rector of the cathedral:

“Приказываю чтобы отныне богородицы не плакали. Если богородицы еще заплачут маслом, то зады попов заплачут кровью”.
I decree that from henceforth the Mother of God shall not weep. If the Mother of God still weeps oil, then the priests will weep blood.”
Not surprisingly, the icon immediately ceased exuding oil.

A similar story relates to the supposedly myrrh-exuding bodies of dead saints kept in the noted monastic site the Pecherskaya Lavra. In 1854 a monk-guide showed Tsar Nicholas I a myrrh-exuding skull there. Nicholas suddenly and unexpectedly asked the monk pointedly, “When was the last time you poured oil in this skull here? The monk, caught off-guard, replied, “On Friday, your Imperial Majesty.”

Instances of myrrh-exuding icons, which used to be rather few, have greatly increased since the fall of the Soviet Union and the resurgence of Russian Orthodoxy and its influence in Russia, along with the increase in a kind of fanatical church-state nationalism.

“Myrrh,” by the way, is also a term used in Eastern Orthodoxy for a special fragrant anointing oil (chrism) used at baptism and for converts, as well as for anointing sacred objects. In the Greek Church it is now compounded of olive oil as well as a mixture of up to some 57 other oils as well as various spices, resins, etc., consecrated by the Patriarch.

With all that in mind, today I would like to talk about the Marian icon called the Pochaev (Pochayiv) — in Russian the “Pochaevskaya” Mother of God. Here is an example of the type in the “westernized” or “realistic” manner favored by the Russian State Church. The ornate incised and gilded borders colored in imitation of cloisonné work are typical of many icons painted in the latter years of the 19th and beginning years of the 20th century.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The inscription at the base of the icon reads “Representation (Izobrazhenie) of the Mother of God Pochaevskaya”

I first encountered the Pochaev icon type many long years ago in a small museum collection as a very simply-painted and then untitled “folk icon,” which I was pleased to be able to identify. That example was the first of two main types. It did not include the “footprint” motif added below in the second type and seen in the example illustrated here.

You will recall that when a supposedly miraculous (chudotvornaya) icon first becomes known by manifesting itself as a miracle-worker, that manifestation is referred to as its “appearance” (yavlenie). So here is the traditional tale of the “appearance” of the Pochaev icon:

The site of the appearance is Mount Pochaev in the western Ukraine. It is said that two monks from the Pecherskaya Lavra (monastery) in Kiev settled in a cave on the mountain when it was still uninhabited. One of the monks was climbing to the summit when he saw a pillar of fire, which on closer approach turned out to be Mary appearing on a rock, surrounded by flames. He called to the other monk who also witnessed the event, and a nearby shepherd named Ioann Bosoy (Босой/Bosoy means “barefoot”) ran up the hill and also saw the apparition along with the two monks.

After that appearance, the impression of Mary’s right foot remained in the rock, along with a spring filling it with water. That is what is depicted at the base of the icon shown here. The “footprint in stone” motif is found in many places in the world, and such a supposed print from a body part is technically called a petrosomatoglyph. It is found (though of course attributed to other supernatural or legendary persons) in the folklore of Hinduism, Buddhism, and even the Fairy Faith in the Celtic countries, etc.

The story continues with the visit of the Metropolitan Neofit to a woman named Anna Goyskaya at Orla/Urlya estate, several miles from Pochaev. He gave Anna an icon brought from Constantinople, and it stayed in her private chapel for some 30 years.

It was not long before servants saw the icon surrounded by light, and so Anna, also seeing the light, put a perpetual lamp burning before it. Then the icon supposedly healed Anna’s brother Philip of his lameness (or of blindness from birth, depending on which account one reads).

In 1597 she gave the icon to the monastery on the mountain where the monks had earlier settled, which was now under the leadership of St. Job. She also gave lands and money. The monks built a new stone Dormition church to house the icon, for which Anna also gave funds.

After Anna died, the mountain on which the monastery lay was inherited by Anna’s nephew (some accounts say grandson), Andrei Firley (Andrzej Firlej), a convert to the Lutheran Church and very opposed to Eastern Orthodoxy. He took the icon to his home. There he supposedly invited guests to witness his wife, dressed in Orthodox priestly robes and holding a chalice, as she shouted insults at Mary and at the icon The result (common in such tales) was that she was punished, in this case by being tormented by an evil spirit. She was only relieved of the problem when her husband returned the icon to the monastery in 1644 (apparently due to a court decision, which is left out of some accounts), after which the miracles, including healings, once more began.

There are other associated tales, one of which is that a monk of the Pochaev Monastery was taken captive by Tartars and imprisoned. He began thinking of his beloved monastery and of how he would miss the celebration of the Feast of the Dormition there, and he prayed to Mary for help. All at once the walls of the prison vanished, and he found himself on the road thronged with people outside the Pochaev Monastery, all there for the celebration of the Dormition.

Another such tale is that in 1675 the Pochaev Monastery was under siege by the Turks. The monks prayed before the icon for deliverance, and as they sang the Akathist to the Mother of God, which begins, Взбранной Воеводе победительная (Vzbrannoi Voevode Pobeditelnaya) — “O Victorious Leader” — suddenly Mary appeared above the monastery, holding her omophorion (mantle) over it as if to protect it, and surrounding her were many angels in warrior garb, holding swords of lightning. Also with them was St. Job of Pochaev (died 1651). The Turks first shot a volley of arrows at the apparition, but the arrows feel back down on them, killing some. They ran in fear and were defeated. A Pochaev monk visiting Constantinople years later was supposedly asked by a Turk if his goddess still lived at Pochaev, adding that his father and others were killed at Pochaev on that day of the apparition.

About 1791 the monastery and the Pochaev icon came under the control of the Uniates — Greek Catholics. While under Uniate control a certain Count Nicholas Potocki was so angered at his coachman when his coach overturned on the road that he fired his gun three times at him. The poor fellow prayed to the Mother of god of Pochaev, and lived — the gun misfired. Supposedly Potocki was so impressed that his coachman survived the attempt to kill him that he endowed the monastery with the new three-altar Dormition cathedral (built in 1771-1783), in which the Pochaev icon was placed. And then in 1831 it came back under Eastern Orthodox control. in 1832 a blind girl who came to Pochaev with her grandmother and bathed her eyes in water in the “foot” depression in the stone was supposedly healed. The spring of clear water that fills the “footprint” is said to be miraculously exuded by the rock, and never to fail.

There are other related and supposedly miraculous versions of the Pochaev image, including a larger icon also kept at the Pochaev monastery that, like the example shown above, depicts the footprint of Mary in the stone at the base of the icon. It is said to have healed the people of Kiev during a cholera outbreak in 1848. Another was kept at the Church of St. Dmitriy in Moscow, and yet another at a convent near Tobolsk in Siberia, supposed also to have healed inhabitants from cholera in 1848.

It is not hard to see that the Pochaev icon was enlisted by tradition to play a propagandistic role in politico-religious conflicts in the Ukraine, which was in contention between Catholicism and Protestantism from the West and Russian Orthodoxy from the East. Keep in mind that historically no separation existed between the Russian Imperial power and the influence of Russian Orthodoxy, and that is why Russian icons frequently play a role that is religio-political in nature. It is the old “God is on our side” syndrome. The Ukraine, unfortunately, is once again a contended region, struggling between free self-determination and Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s seeming wish to bring back the autocratic days of the old Russian Empire.

To repeat, there are variants of the Pochaev icon. There are the two main types: The first shows Mary holding the Christ Child on her right arm and a white cloth in her left hand. The second — the “footprint” variant shown in this posting — uses the first image (sometimes set on a base of clouds) but adds below it a depiction of the footprint of Mary in the stone on Mt. Pochaev.

An additional variant uses the first type, but adds to it three half-length saints below (Great Martyr Catherine, Martyr Paraskeva, Martyr Irene), two full-length saints at left (Prophet Elias and Martyr Menas), and two more full-length saints at right (Protomartyr Stephen, Venerable Avraamiy). There is also a type depicting the “original” appearance of Mary in flames to the monks and shepherd at Mt. Pochaev.

There are said to now be some 300 supposedly “miracle-working” copies of the Pochaev Mother of God. One of the most recent of these — noted from the last half of the 20th century — is the Почаевская Астанайская / Pochaevskaya-Astanaiskaya, the Astana-Pochaev icon, of the city of Astana in Kazakhstan. It is a copy of the “footprint” variant, and is sometimes titled the Tselinogradskiy image, after the former name of the city of Astana — Tselinograd. You will recall from previous postings that the suffixes -skaya and -skiy indicate that an image is “of” a certain place, so Tselinogradskiy means “of Tselinograd” and Astanaiskaya means “of Astana.”

David