If you happened to be passing a window, and noticed that the glass was distorted with colorful blobs like oil on water — perhaps something like this…
what would you think? Probably simply that the pane was flawed and needed to be replaced. Not so in Russia. What was seen there in the glass window pictured in the photo above was this:
That is the icon painted “from” the window blobs. The blobs appeared — or at least were first noticed — on a window at the Church of the Martyr John the Warrior in Novokuznetsk, Siberia, in the year 2000.
Now as one can see, this is rather like a Rorschach test, in which what one sees in random ink blots depends on one’s personal psychological makeup. Where an ordinary person will see blobs of color or variations in shading — whether on a window, a water-stained wall, or a burnt tortilla, a believer with a medieval mindset will see a miracle. And that is what happened in this case. The blobs on the window were considered a miraculous appearance, and when three years later a believer in the city of Kemerov claimed to have had a vision relating that an icon was to be painted from the “image” on the window, it was done by an iconographer named Vladimir Shubenkin. And now that image is becoming increasingly popular in Russia as a new “miraculous” Marian icon known as the Чаша терпения/Chasha Terpeniya — “The Cup of Patience.”
It was even given an interpretation — that the icon represents the child Jesus being shown the “cup of suffering” representing his future Passion (arrest, torture, crucifixion and death), and so the child is to “drink the sins of humanity.”
Now to be fair, not everyone — even among Russian Orthodox clergy — accepts this new image at present as authentically “miraculous.” But many do, just as some Roman Catholic believers in the town of Rosenberg, near Houston, Texas, saw an appearance of an image of Mary in the pattern on the bricks of a rented house, visible when the porch light was turned on. That happened as recently as February of 2019, and local believers there have been gathering to pray before the supposedly “miraculous” image of Mary.
This kind of medieval mindset explains a great deal about the history of various”miraculous” icons in Eastern Orthodoxy, and the pre-scientific thinking that gave rise to them. The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung would likely say that such people are “projecting” their inner fantasies onto the outer, quite ordinary reality of wall or glass window, so what they are seeing is not what is really there, but rather what is in their own internal imaginations, given outer form by random patterns. People have an innate tendency to place their own interpretations upon such patterns, as we see in the names and forms given star constellations from ancient times to the present.
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.
The painting was controversial when it was first exhibited in 1883, because it showed the class divisions so prevalent in Russian society, and the obvious authoritarianism of State and clergy. Some 4,000 people came to view it just in the first week.
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:
ИЗОБРАЗЧЕНИЕ И МЕРА ЧУДОТВОРНАГО ОБРАЗА… IZOBRAZHENIE I MYERA CHUDOTVORNAGO OBRAZA…
“[The] Representation and Measure of the Wonder-working Image…”
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 allof 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.“
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Examples of this icon type began to appear in Russia in the 19th century.