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.
Today’s first example is not an icon. It is an icon-influenced illustration of a Russian saint, done by the noted Russian illustrator and stage designer Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942). If you know Russian fairy tales, you have likely seen the colorful Bilibin illustrations for them. And who does not enjoy a good story about Baba Yaga the witch?
I show you this illustration because it depicts a person often found in icons, and its inscription in Church Slavic is one you should be able to translate now without difficulty if you have read the little lessons in previous postings:
Let’s look at the inscription:
It is only slightly abbreviated:
С[ВЯ]ТЫЙ БЛАГОВЕРНЫЙ ВЕЛИКИЙ КН[Я]ЗЬ АНДРЕЙ БОГОЛЮБСКИЙ SVYATUIY BLAGOVERNUIY VELIKIY KNYAZ” ANDREY BOGOLIUBSKIY
“HOLY GOOD-BELIEVING GREAT PRINCE ANDREY BOGOLIUBSKIY”
Blagovernuiy means literally “good-believing,” but it is understood to mean a “true, Orthodox believer.” It was a title formerly applied to members of the Russian Imperial Family. Velikiy Knyaz is sometimes translated as “Great Prince,” sometimes as “Grand Duke.”
Bilibin has depicted him holding the “Vladimir” icon of Mary. The story of the Vladimir image — in brief — is that it was brought from Constantinople to Kiev in 1131. It was placed in a convent at Vyshgorod, today a suburb of Kiyev/Kiev. Prince Andrey Bogoliubskiy invaded and plundered Kiev in 1155. He took the icon from the convent, and was on his way back to Suzdal with it, so the story goes, when the horses stopped, and refused to go farther. Supposedly Andrey prayed all night and Mary appeared to him, telling him to take her icon to Vladimir, and to build a church and convent on the site of his vision. Then the horses were allowed to move again.
Andrey did have a church and convent built on the site, and called the place Bogoliubovo — meaning loosely “Loved by God” — and from that is derived his name, Bogoliubskiy.
There is something else to note in this Bilibin illustration — the white church in the background at left. It depicts a real church. In Russian it is called the Церковь Покрова на Нерли — Tserkov Pokrova na Nerli — literally, the “Church of the Protection on the Nerl” (the Nerl is a river). The Pokrov (which means literally “veil” and figuratively “protection”), you may recall, is an old icon type discussed in a previous posting. In English that church is often referred to as the “Church of the Intercession,” which blurs its real meaning somewhat. Why is it shown here with Andrey Bogoliubskiy? Because he commissioned the building of the white stone church in the year 1165 — tradition says in memory of his dead son Izyaslav — and it is still there today. Andrey Bogoliubskiy also introduced the Pokrov as a church festival in his region.
Following the precedent of Constantinople, Bogoliubskiy made Mary the protectress and patron of royal authority and the State (HIS authority and HIS State, of course). In addition to the “Vladimir” image, Andrey is also associated with the Marian icon known as the Bogoliubskaya. You will recall that according to the traditional story, when taking the “Vladimir” image back to Suzdal, the horses stopped, Andrey prayed at great length, and Mary appeared to him. He is said to have had the first Bogoliubskaya image painted in commemoration of that.
The Bogoliubskaya image exists in several variants. The basic type shows Mary standing full length with an open scroll in her hand, looking to the right of the image, where Christ is seen in the clouds above. The text on Mary’s scroll varies from example to example. Other examples show one or more figures kneeling before Mary at right. Generally when it is only one figure, it is Andrey Bogoliubskiy.
The most interesting variant is that known as the Bogoliubskaya Moskovskaya — the “Moscow” Bogoliubskaya type.
Here is an example of that “Moscow” type, which, though painted in the manner of the late 17th century Armory School of Moscow, is nonetheless a recent icon:
Icons of the “Moscow” Bogoliubskaya type are characterized by Mary standing at left with an opened scroll in her hand, and a group of bowing and kneeling figures at right, among them Moscow saints and other saints popular in that region. They vary somewhat from example to example, but in general one often finds The Metropolitans of Moscow Pyotr, Alexiy, Iona and Filipp; the “Fools for Christ’s sake” Vasily/Basil, Maxim, and Alexiy, Man of God; Venerable Paraskeva; Basil the Great; the Apostle Peter; the nun-martyr Evdokiya; the martyr Paraskeva, and Simeon the Kinsman of the Lord.
What is a palladium? The name originates in Greek myth. There was, it is said, an ancient wooden image of the goddess Athena kept in the city of Troy, and the image — said to have fallen from heaven — was the great protector of the city. By extension, a palladium is any image believed to protect or ward off evil from a city or country.
This notion of a palladium did not end with the fall of the classical world. It was adopted by Byzantine Christianity — which we now call Eastern Orthodoxy. According to the story of Aeneus, the Troy palladium was eventually brought to Rome. Whatever the truth of the matter, when the Emperor Constantine (considered a saint in Eastern Orthodoxy) founded Constantinople, a statue of him was placed on a hundred-foot stone pillar there. In the hand of the statue was an image of the goddess Tyche, who was believed to protect a city; the Romans called her Fortuna; and it is said that within the pillar itself was placed a mixture of “pagan” and Christian relics, among them an axe used by Noah, the ointment container used by Mary Magdalene, pieces of the loaves from the miraculous feeding of the multitude by Jesus, and notably the Palladium image of Athena that Aeneas had supposedly brought from Troy to Rome.
Now we need not concern ourselves with the authenticity of these items; what is important is that they were believed at the time to be genuine, and belief can be a powerful force.
So not only did the “New Rome” Constantinople continue the notion of a city-protecting image, but it also transferred that notion from the pre-Christian “pagan” world into the new Christian world of Byzantium.
Not surprisingly, when Eastern Orthodoxy came to Kievan Rus and that state was converted to Christianity by edict of the Great Prince Vladimir in 988 c.e., this notion of a city-protecting sacred object was not abandoned. But now, instead of an image of the warrior Goddess Athena, the new protecting images depicted Mary, called “Mother of God” in Eastern Orthodoxy.
That is why we find the icon as palladium repeatedly in Russian history. Let’s take a look at some examples of palladia:
Here is the very well-known image known as the Znamenie or “Sign” icon of Mary:
In the 1100s there was a very important merchant city-state on the long trade route from northeastern Europe (think northern Germany and Scandinavia) down to Constantinople. It was the city of Novgorod (literally “new town”), called Novgorod the Great, which gives you an idea of its significance. All kinds of wares and valuables passed to and fro through the city, which made it a rich prize.
About 1169-1170 it was attacked by the forces of Great Prince Andrei Bogoliubskiy (see my article on the “Bogoliubskaya” Mother of God icon). To protect the city, the icon of the “Sign” Mother of God was taken from its place in the Transfiguration Church to the walls of the city, facing the attacking Suzdalians.
The Suzdalians shot a great volley of arrows at those on the walls, one of which struck the face of Mary. According to the legend, the icon turned its face away from the Suzdalians toward the city, and began to weep. At the same time the attackers were seized by a great fear, their sight was obscured, and they began to fight one another. Seeing this, the Novgorodians opened their gates and poured out upon the Suzdalians, defeating them at this moment of great weakness. The Novgorodians were said to have been assisted in their attack on the Suzdalians by saints and angels.
Not only are there countless renditions of the “Sign” Mother of God icon, but there are also old icons depicting the attack of the Suzdalians and their repulsion by the icon, such as this example:
We see from this not only how an icon may be used as a palladium, but also another example of how, in Russian (and Greek) Orthodox tradition, icons can behave like living beings. The icon is “wounded”; it “turns its face”; it “weeps.” We also see the intimate historical connection between Church and State, which extended from the conversion of Russia in 988 c.e. up to the fall of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and the Russian Revolution. Now, unfortunately, we are seeing a revival of that old Church-State bond, in spite of all the trouble it has caused over the centuries.
The city-state of Novgorod flourished long as a republic, and was never conquered by the Mongols. Nonetheless, in 1478 Novgorod was taken over by the greater power in Moscow, and its importance faded.
The battle of the Novgorodians and the Suzdalians is not the only instance of the “Sign” icon used as a palladium. When a great fire broke out in 1566 (remember that wooden construction was common in those days), Metropolitan Makariy again went to the church, prayed before the icon, then carried it in formal procession along the Volkhov River. It is said that the wind then changed direction, and the fire was halted.
When the Swedes captured and plundered Novgorod in 1611, it is said that some of them came to rob the church where the icon was kept, but every time they tried to enter, they were pushed back by an invisible force, so the church was left unharmed.
In 1636 it is said that a silvermith named Luka Plavisshchikov hid in the church one evening after the service, planning to rob it; by night he took the silver vessels from the altar, as well as money, and then went to the icon to rip off the valuables with which it had been ornamented. But when he touched the icon, he was knocked unconscious to the floor. The next morning the church sexton saw him lying there before the icon, and thought he was drunk. It is said that the thief lost his mind for some time, but eventually recovered and told the story of his attempted robbery and of how the icon prevented it.
The next great palladium icon is also the most famous icon of Russia — the “Vladimir” image of Mary. Here is a rendition of it in the later “red” style that was popular in the late 18th and 19th centuries:
Icons painted in this “red” style can vary from a simple and very folkish manner to more sophisticated renditions. The example shown here is one of the finest in this style that I have seen. These “red” icons should not be cleaned, if it can at all be avoided, because the gold backgrounds are the result of a tinted varnish over a metal leaf background, not real gold leaf; so if that varnish is removed, the color of the background changes completely, from the intended gold to silver.
But back to the original image of the type:
It has an extensive story, but here are a few highlights: In 1164 Great Prince Andrei Bogoliubskiy took it in his military campaign against the Volga Bulgars and his victory was attributed to the help of the icon.
After Andrei was killed by boyars in 1173, the city of Vladimir broke out in looting and chaos. A priest named Nicholas then took the Vladimir icon in procession through the streets, and the outbreak subsided.
At the end of the 14th century, with the invasion of Russia by Tamerlane, the icon was taken from Vladimir to Moscow, much to the dismay of the people of Vladimir, who were said to have wept and cried to the departing icon, “Where are you going from us, O Most Pure One? Why are you leaving us orphans?”
Along the way to Moscow, crowds lined both sides of the road kneeling and shouting, “Матерь Божия, спаси землю русскую!” — Mater Bozhiya, spasi zemliu russkuyu — “Mother of God, save the Russian Land!” When it reached Moscow, the icon was greeted there by all the clergy of the city, as well as the nobles and the family of the Great prince.
As a result of all this, Tamerlane, sleeping in his tent, is said to have had a dream in which he saw Mary in a blaze of light, surrounded by angels with fiery swords. He awoke in great fright, summoned his council, and told his dream, asking what it meant. They told him that he had seen the Protectress of the Russian land. Tamerlane, regarding all this as a very bad sign, then turned his forces back and gave up the attack. The icon is said to have again protected Moscow from the Tatars in 1408, as well as several times in later years.
Finally, today, we come to the latest of these three famous palladium icons, the “Kazan” icon of Mary. Here is just one of countless renditions:
The Kazan icon is said to have appeared after its existence was revealed in a dream (you will have noticed by now that this “dream” motif is very common in the tales associated with icons). It is said to have saved Russia during the “Time of Troubles” in 1605-1612, when the country was invaded by the Poles, who even took control of Moscow. A special commemoration of the saving of Moscow by the icon was set on October 22 annually. That date is significant also because, during the French invasion of Russia under Napoleon, it was on the October 22nd memorial of the icon that the first major Russian defeat of the French in battle took place. It is said that thanks to the Kazan icon, on that day snow and freezing weather began that was so severe an obstacle to the French troops that it led to their ultimate defeat.
It is not difficult to see the psychological value in war of palladium icons that are supposed to be divine protectors of a city or country, and that of course contributes to the attribution of victories to them. Defeats receive far less attention. There was, for example, a “new” icon that was painted at the time of the Russo-Japanese War of 1914-1905 by Pavel Fedorovich Shtronda.
The story is that Mary appeared to an old sailor in Kiev in a dream (again, that dream motif!) on December 11, 1903, telling him that a war was coming, and that an icon should be painted of her as she appeared in the vision, and sent to the church at Port Arthur on the Pacific Coast. She promised it would protect and bring victory to the Russian troops there. The cost of painting the icon was paid by thousands of donations by those who heard the tale of the old man’s vision. Two months after the supposed vision, the war began. But when the icon was sent, it only got as far as Vladivostok, because Port Arthur itself was under siege, surrounded by Japanese troops. An attempt was made by a retired captain to bring the icon into the city, but on January 11th of 1905 he reported that the icon could not be delivered because Port Arthur had already fallen to the Japanese.
The Port Arthur icon fell completely from notice as a consequence, until it was said to have been found in an antique shop in Jerusalem by some pilgrims from Vladivostok in February of 1998. On May 6, 1998, the icon was received back in Vladivostok. There are not many copies of this Порт-Артурская — Port-Arturskaya — “Port Arthur” icon, and those that exist are likely to be quite recent. Being a “State Church” icon, it is painted in the Westernized manner.
It is interesting that the notion here is that the icon — like a person — has to be actually present in the city to protect it. In any case, these palladia may or may not “work.” The believers will say something like “It is due to whether the people sincerely repent or not,” but most of us will see the victories supposedly won by palladium icons as just a reflection of the ironic remark by Higgs in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon: “As luck would have it, Providence was on my side.”
And that brings us back full circle to the statue of Constantine, standing atop its pillar in Constantinople, holding a miniature image of the Goddess Tyche (Τύχη) on its outstretched hand. Tyche is Luck, she is Fortune. And she might protect your city, or as history has demonstrated, she might not. It’s all a matter of luck — “As luck would have it, Providence was on my side.”
If one begins researching the icons of Mary called chudotvornaya— “wonderworking” — in the Russian Orthodox Church (and there are some in Greek Orthodoxy too, but not nearly as many), one will quickly notice that a number of them are said (with a straight face) to have been painted by St. Luke. Yes, Saint Luke, also known as the Evangelist Luke. On conservative E. Orthodox religious sites one will see this repeated over and over again about such icons as the Vladimir Mother of God (Vladimirskaya), which was even said to have been painted by Luke on a board taken from a table used by Jesus and his family.
Well, it simply is not true. Not one bit of it. First of all, we do not know who really wrote the Gospel attributed to St. Luke. That attribution was added later. Nowhere does any author self-identify in that Gospel. None of the Apostolic Fathers, in quoting from a Gospel, attributes it to a named author, which would hardly have been the case if an author was known in those early days. So we can assume the Gospel called “of Luke” was anonymous in the earliest manuscripts (that applies to the other three Gospels as well — and also to the Acts of the Apostles; apparently the attribution titles were added sometime near the end of the 2nd century).
What we do know is that the Gospel attributed to Luke contains not one word about the painting or veneration of icons. Nor is there the slightest mention of it anywhere in the New Testament where a “Luke” is mentioned — or anywhere in the New Testament at all.
Not one of the icons attributed to Luke is in a style remotely connected to the 1st century A.D. All are much, much later (and from various later times chronologically). And there is not one bit of scientific analysis dating any one of the number of icons attributed to Luke to the 1st century.
Where, then, does the notion come from that several icons of Mary were painted by Luke? First of all, it comes from the desire of the later church — after the making and painting of icons had become established practice (which was beyond the period of the earliest Christians) — to retroactively inject the later doctrine of icon making and veneration into earliest Christianity, where there is really no trace of it.
The notion that Luke painted an icon of Mary, scholars relate, first appeared during the Iconoclast controversy in the 8th century, created by those favoring icon veneration. The earliest mention of icons painted by Luke is found in a work called On the Veneration of Holy Images by Andrew of Crete, who died in the first half of the 8th century — an iconophile writing at the beginning of the Iconoclastic controversy. An oft-quoted and supposedly earlier mention in the history by 6th century writer Theodore Anagnostes of an icon painted by Luke and sent from Jerusalem to Pulcheria (Byzantine Empress: died 453) is found in 13th-century manuscripts of the history. But it is absent in earlier manuscripts from the early 11th century. That is a very strong indication that this story of a Marian icon painted by Luke was added much later to the original text. In a very well-researched book — Icons and Power: the Mother of God in Byzantium (Pennsylvania State University, 2006), Bessera V. Pentcheva writes: “The myth was invented in order to support the legitimacy of icon veneration during the Iconoclast controversy [8th and 9th centuries]. By claiming the existence of a portrait of the Theotokos painted during her lifetime by the evangelist Luke, the perpetrators of this fiction fabricated evidence for the apostolic origins and divine approval of Images.”
Second, we may speculate that Luke was chosen as the prototypical first painter of Christian icons because, according to tradition, he was a physician — a doctor (“Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas, greet you.” [Colossians 4:14]) And early physicians used certain powdered medications that were also used in early and later painting — among them notably cinnabar, which provided the bright red-orange color we see in Russian icons.
An additional factor is that the gospel called “of Luke” devotes considerably more attention to Mary than the other three.
So no, there are no icons, wonderworking or not, painted by Saint Luke. Nor, we can tell from the history of the development of Christian art, were there ever any such icons. The earliest Christians simply did not paint and venerate icons as they are known later in the Eastern Orthodox Church, so attributing any icon to Luke is an obvious anachronism well known to be such by students of art history.
In spite of that, the Greek Orthodox have a legend that Luke painted three icons of Mary during her lifetime, and that she personally approved them; then after her death, he is said to have painted an additional seventy!
The supposed first three icons are said to be:
The Kykiotissa icon, which the Russians call Kikkskaya, now at the Kykkos Monastery on Cyprus.
The Megalospilaiotissa or “Great Cave” icon (also called Speliotissa), now at the Megaspilaion Monastery in the Peloponnese, Greece.
The Soumeliotissa icon, once kept at the Soumela Monastery in Turkey, now at the 20th-century “monastery” (actually the Dormition Church) in Greece (named after the Turkish site), at Kastania in Macedonia.
Here is a fresco from the Church of St. Athanasios at Vermio, Greece. It depicts Luke painting a Marian icon. The winged ox at right is his symbol, and above its halo is the name Λουκας — Loukas — “Luke.”
As a sidelight on the famous “Vladimir” icon pictured on this page, it is interesting to know that out of the whole painting, only the face of the child (not the rest of his head) and the face of Mary remain from the original painting, along with a couple of other small and insignificant patches. The rest — which is the greater part of the icon we see today — is all later, all reworking.
When I say the original painting, I am not talking about the 1st or 2nd or 3rd or 4th or even the 5th century C.E. I am talking about the 12th century, when the original icon was painted by an anonymous iconographer in Byzantium. This is the most famous supposedly “Lukan” icon, and yet in fact it was not painted until the 1100s, and most of what we see today was actually painted at various later times.
But how does it happen that we think of it as a Russian icon? And why is it named for Vladimir, a place in what used to be Kievan Russia? That is because the icon was taken from Constantinople to Kievan Russia in the first half of the 12th century. And in Russia it has remained, to be copied countless times over the years as the Vladimirskaya Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui — the “Vladimir Most Holy Mother of God.” And of course its popularity was only increased by all the tales of various miracles that became associated with the icon — the earlier equivalent of our modern-day supermarket tabloid stories with headlines such as “Face of Jesus appears on Tortilla.”