In an earlier posting, I discussed the Pokrov image of Mary — the “Protection” image, which shows her appearing in the air above congregants in the Church of the Vlakhernae at Constantinople, holding her veil above them as a sign of protection.

There is, however, another related but visually quite different icon type of Mary related to protection.  Not surprisingly, it is called the Pokrovitelnitsa, “The Protectress.”

For the origins of this concept, we may look to the earliest-known Marian hymn/prayer, found written in Greek on a Coptic papyrus from Egypt — Rylands Papyrus #470.   It is generally known by its first words in Latin translation, Sub Tuum Praesidium — “Under Your Protection.”  Though it is fragmentary, the missing parts may be supplied to read:

Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν εὐσπλαγχνίαν………..”Under your compassion
καταφεύγομεν, Θεοτόκε………………We flee for refuge, God-birther
Τὰς ἡμῶν ἱκεσίας……………………….Our petitions
μὴ παρίδῃς ἐν περιστάσει…………….Do not disregard in affliction
ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ κινδύνων λύτρωσαι ἡμᾶς….But rescue us from danger
μόνη Ἁγνή, μόνη εὐλογημένη………Only Pure, only Blessed.”

We can paraphrase it as:

We flee under your compassion for refuge, Birthgiver of God; do not despise our prayers when troubles surround us, but deliver us from danger, only pure one, only blessed one.

It is noteworthy that in this prayer, Mary is not approached as an intercessor or intermediary, but rather approached directly for her powers of deliverance.

It is not surprising that we find this earliest-known prayer to Mary in Egypt.  Egypt was the land of the goddess Isis, the mother of the god Horus, and one of her titles was Mut Netjer,” “Mother of the God,” which we may liken to Theotokos –– “Birth-Giver of God” in Greek.  As I have said before, as Christianity spread in the Greco-Roman world (which included Egypt at that time), the worship of the old gods was first discouraged, then persecuted, so their places and functions in the hearts of the populace were gradually replaced by Christian saints, the most prominent of which was Mary, who took on the role of the new Mother Goddess.

I have said that the Sub Tuum is the earliest-known Marian prayer, but just how early is it?  How long did it take early Christians to begin calling upon Mary?  Well, this is disputed.  One scholar, based on handwriting style, dates the papyrus fragment as early as the 200s c.e., but others, taking handwriting and other evidence into account, place it in the 300s to 400s c.e.  The later period is generally favored because there is no other evidence of prayer to Mary in the 200s, nor was the term Theotokos then in common use.  The use of Theotokos as a title of Mary was only officially authorized at the Council of Ephesus, in 431 c.e., after a controversy over whether Mary should be called “Birthgiver of Christ” or “Birthgiver of God.”  The latter won out.

Gregory Nazianzen, who died about 390 c.e., tells in his account of the sufferings of St. Justina that “she prayed earnestly to the Virgin for help.”  So we know that people were praying to Mary in the latter part of the 4th century.

So just how old then, is the Sub Tuum Praesidium fragment?  C. H. Roberts, who published papyrus #470, wrote in his catalog:

Lobel would be unwilling to place 470 later than the third century. But such individual hands are hard to date, and it is almost incredible that a prayer addressed directly to the Virgin in these terms could be written in the third century. The Virgin was spoken of as Θεοτόκος [Theotokos] by Athanasius ; but there is no evidence even for private prayer addressed to her (cf. Greg. Naz. Orat. xxiv. II) before the latter part of the fourth century, and I find it difficult to think that our text was written earlier than that.

So the date of the fragment remains imprecise, with the latter half of the 4th century seeming most likely to me, from present evidence.

But what does all this have to do with icons?  It is the notion of the “protection” of Mary, of supplicants going to her for security in times of trouble.

In the standard Pokrov type, Mary holds her veil over congregants for protection.  That is the icon type popular in the East, in Tsarist Russia.  This form of the “Protection” icon was not generally found in Greek Orthodoxy.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

In the Roman Catholic West, however, the protection of Mary was visualized somewhat differently, as Mary spreading wide her mantle, and people gathering under it on both sides for protection, as in this early Tuscan example from the Cenacolo di Santo Spirito in Florence.  It is called the Madonna della Misericordia, or more commonly in English, “Our Lady of Mercy”:

In the later years of Russian Orthodox iconography, the Western Madonna della Misericordia image was borrowed as an icon type, though it was not common.  Here is an example.  The title inscription reads “The ‘Protectress’ Most Holy Mother of God.”  But it is often known by the title Покрый нас кровом крылу Твоею — Pokruiy nas krovom kruilu Tvoeiu — “Protect us with the Shelter of Your Wings.”

(Courtesy of the Icon Museum, Kampen: ikonenmuseumkampen.nl)
(Courtesy of the Icon Museum, Kampen: ikonenmuseumkampen.nl)

As we see, it depicts the basic Madonna della Misericordia image of Mary standing, holding her mantle out to take in and protect supplicants beneath it.   But certain changes are found when this image is used in Russian iconography.  It is, for example, standard in Russian Orthodox versions of the type to give Mary wings, reflecting Revelation 12:14:

And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.”

This so-called “Apocalyptic Woman” is considered a symbol of the Church in Eastern Orthodoxy, but Mary is also considered to represent the Church.  Mary is also found with wings, for example, in certain Deisis representations.

Another element added to this particular example, though not found in all icons of the type, is the wall in the background.  That connects this example with the icon type known as the Nerushimaya Stena — “The Unshakeable Wall,” as well as the “Wall to Virgins” type (see my earlier posting on that icon).  And to emphasize that, this example has a banner at its base with a heavily abbreviated Slavic inscription, a slight variation on a line from the Canon to the Most Holy Mother of God:

“Save from harm your servants, O Mother of God, Virgin, for we all flee to you after God, as an unshakeable wall and defense.”

In Western European examples of the Madonna della Misericordia, various types and numbers of supplicants are shown kneeling for protection under Mary’s mantle.  In the Russian icon versions, it is common to show bishops, monks, and others, along with kings.  And symbols of authority such as bishop’s staffs and kingly scepters and orbs are placed upon the ground before Mary, showing that they submit to her authority.

The two angels on clouds beside Mary in the above example are the Archangels Michael at left, and Gabriel at right.  They hold disks with the Greek letters MP ΘΥ, abbreviating Meter Theou, “Mother of God.”  The border saints are at left Venerable Paraskoviya (Paraskeva) and Bishop Sylvester, Pope of Rome; at right Akilina and Venerable Matrona.  Jesus blesses from the clouds at top center.

The following, rather out-of-proportion example of the Pokrovitel’nitsa type includes an inscription beside Mary’s wings, a slight variation of Psalm 90:14 (Psalm 91 in KJV numbering).

The psalm reads:

покры́ю и́, я́ко познá и́мя моé.
“I will protect him, because he has known my name.”
But the icon inscription changes it to:
“I will protect them, because they have known my name.”

The “Protect us with the Shelter of Your Wings” type is believed to have entered Russia via Ukrainian engravings in the latter part of the 1600s.

As an aside, some of you may remember the “Singing Nun,” (Sister Smile, Soeur Sourire, Sister Luc-Gabrielle, Jeanine Deckers) from the 1960s, whose life ended in tragedy.  Her then-popular song was Dominique, about St. Dominic (not saintly in my view, due to his connection with the persecution of the Cathars).  In that paradoxically cheerful and bouncy song about converting the Albigensians (though Dominic was largely a failure at that) one stanza was:

Dominique vit en rêve
Les prêcheurs du monde entier
Sous le manteau de la Vierge
En grand nombre rassemblés

“Dominic saw in a dream
The preachers of the entire world
Under the mantle of the Virgin
In great number assembled.

Most Americans had not the slightest idea what the song was about.  They just liked the voice and the tune.  But the “great number assembled” in the story of Dominic’s dream were Dominican monks, who are also known as Les Frères Prêcheurs — “The Preaching Brothers.”  In any case, the song contains the same notion of protection and help under the mantle of Mary that we find expressed somewhat differently in various Western paintings of the Madonna della Misericordia and in Tsarist Russian icons of the Pokrovitelnitsa — “The Protectress.”



The Pokrov or “Protection of the Mother of God” is a church festival that is celebrated in Russia on October 1st.  Its origin lies in the story that in the year 902 (some say 911) c.e., the people of Constantinople gathered in the Church of the Vlakhernae (Blachernae), fearing a military invasion; some say the invaders were saracens (muslims), some say a fleet of northerners from what was then called Rus.  During the all-night prayer vigil, Андрей Юродивый — Andrei Yurodivuiy — Andrei  the “Holy Fool” — supposedly had a vision in which he saw Mary standing in the church, taking off her veil, and holding it over the congregation as a covering sign of her protection.  With her were various saints and angels.

The Vlakhernae Church was the repository for several supposed relics of Mary — her veil, her robe, and at least a portion of her belt.

The Feast of the Protection/Covering was promoted in Russia by the 12th-century Andrei Bogoliubskiy (later declared a saint), who is said to have had his own vision of Mary protecting Russia, so the Pokrov is also seen as a “national” icon.

Let’s look at the title inscription:

It reads:

The bracketed letters are those omitted by abbreviation.
Transliterated, it is:

You should remember the word Obraz, meaning “image.”
Pokrova is the “of” form of Pokrov.  Pokrov means “protection,” but also “covering” or “shroud.”
Presvyatuiya, as you will recall from previous postings, is the “of” form of Presvyataya (f.), “Most Holy.”
Bogoroditsui is the “of’ form of Bogoroditsa, meaning “God-Birthgiver,” or in English order, “Birthgiver of God.”  It is the Slavic equivalent of the Greek Theotokos.  Because “Birthgiver of God” is awkward in English, it is usually loosely translated as “Mother of God.”  So, putting all of this together, the inscription reads:


The Pokrov may be sparingly depicted, with only a few figures, sometimes only with Mary holding her veil; but many examples are quite detailed, such as that shown here:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

We see Mary appearing in the air in the center of the church (it is an interior view), with apostles at left and John the Forerunner (Baptist) at right with more saints, including various Church Fathers, and above them are angels.  In this example Mary looks toward Jesus at upper left.  She holds a scroll, which the podlinniki tell us should read:

Царю небеснии сыну и боже мой приими всяаго человека призывающаго имя твое и мое на всяком месте…

Heavenly King, my son and God, receive every man who calls on your name and mine in every place…

Below, crowded between the fellow on the  ambo (dais) and the separate scene at lower right, stands the Holy Fool Andrei (Andreas/Andrew), pointing out the vision to his disciple Epifaniy (Epiphanios)

There are two odd things about the Pokrov type:  first, it is given far more importance by Russians than by Greeks.  Second, it contains scenes some four hundred years apart.

The Pokrov, as already mentioned, is said to have happened in the early 900s.  But that fellow in deacon’s garments standing on the dais at lower center is Roman (Romanos) the Melodist, called in Russia Роман Сладкопевец — Roman Sladkopevets — “Roman the Sweet-singer” —  who lived in the late 400s-early 500s c.e.  His story is that he led the singing in an all-night vigil, but after the others left he was unhappy with his talents, and prayed to have a voice worthy of singing the praises of Mary.  He fell asleep in the church and had a dream in which Mary appeared to him and gave him a scroll to eat (that is the scene at bottom right).  He awoke, and later again sang in the church, and all were amazed at his voice.  He wrote a great many church melodies with words (kontakia).

To the left of Roman stands Patriarch Tarasiy (Tarasios) of Constantinople, and to his left is the byzantine Emperor Leo VI, in whose reign the pokrov supposedly happened; and just above Leo is his wife, Empress Zoe.

Here is a rather grand rendition of the “Pokrov” icon that adds the figure of Jesus with angels and seraphim above Mary.  This example places Emperor Leo at lower left, and wife Empress Zoe at lower right.  On the church we see the five domes of a Russian-style church, and at right an additional dome on the bell tower.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Here is a version painted with more flatness of color and less sparkle.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Now we have to consider why the Pokrov was considered an important festival in Russia.  The reasons might surprise you.

First, coming in the autumn, it happened when the harvesting of crops had ended, and ordinary people finally had time for other things, chief among them weddings.  So the Pokrov marked the beginning of the “marrying season” in Russia.

This, of course, put the thought of future marriage in young girls’ heads, and so on the Pokrov they would light a candle before the icon in church.  It was said that the first girl to light her candle would be the first to marry.  Prayers were said to “Father Pokrov” (note how the festival is anthropomorphized) and to Paraskeva Pyatnitsa (a patron of marriage), asking that the girl’s head might be “covered” (thus the connection with Mary covering the congregation with her veil).  But by this they were asking to be married, because married Russian women covered their hair in public.

So this concept of pokrov — of covering — took on a symbolic meaning in Russian life, and was associated with nature, because the October date of Pokrov made it the time of year with the earth began to be covered in dead leaves, and the early snow fell to protect the ground through the harshness of winter, white as the cloth covering a maiden’s head at marriage.

There is much more to be said about the Pokrov and the customs and beliefs associated with it in Russian folk life.  If such things interest you, an excellent book to read is Ivan the Fool: Russian Folk Belief, (Glas, English translation 2007) by Andrei Sinyavsky.  The book is rich in information relating to icons in Russia.

The liturgical phrase generally associated with the Pokrov is the kontakion for the feast, tone 3, generally found on the scroll held by Roman the Melodist:

“Дева днесь предстоит в Церкви, и с лики святых невидимо за ны молится Богу: ангели со архиереи покланяются, апостоли же со пророки ликовствуют: нас бо ради молит Богородица Превечнаго Бога”

“The Virgin today stands in the church, and with choirs of invisible saints prays to God for us.  Angels and bishops [literally arch-priests] venerate her, apostles with prophets rejoice, because for our sake the Mother of God prays to the God before the ages.

In icons of Roman shown alone (not Pokrov icons), the text on the scroll he holds is usually the Christmas (Nativity) kontakion, considered his first composition:

“Дева днесь Пресущественнаго раждает, и земля вертеп Неприступному приносит, Ангели с пастырьми славословят, волсви же со звездою путешествуют, нас бо ради родися Отроча Младо, Превечный Бог”.

“The Virgin today gives birth to the One Above all, and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable; angels with shepherds praise, and Magi journey with the star.  For our sake is born the youthful boy, God before the ages.”

The story that Mary gave Romanos a scroll to eat, after which he could sing and compose well, relates to the word for his verse/hymn form, and later to that of others as well — kontakion.  It is said to come from the Greek κόνταξ — kontax — meaning the wooden rod around which a scroll was wound.  It could thus be used to mean a scroll or a writing on a scroll, and so from the legend of the scroll Romanos supposedly ate, we get kontakion as a name for the verse/hymn form.  At least that is the supposition.

As you can see from the examples on this page, the saints and their numbers in Pokrov images vary from icon to icon of the type.

As mentioned earlier, the Pokrov is celebrated on October 1.  Further, Andrei the Holy Fool is celebrated on October 2nd, and Romanos the Melodist is celebrated on October 14th.