A KISS AND A SHOVE: OLD ICON ETIQUETTE

THE VLADIMIRSKAYA-ORANSKAYA ICON
THE VLADIMIRSKAYA-ORANSKAYA ICON

I have talked before about how, in Russia before the Revolution, icons that had a reputation for particular sanctity (usually Marian icons) were treated like aristocratic persons. On special occasions such an icon would be taken from place to place in a carriage, like a great lady. One day a young Russian boy — Maxim Gorkiy — encountered such an icon of Mary.  Here is how he told it in his autobiography:

On the Saturday after Easter they brought to town, from the Oranskiy Monastery, the wonderworking icon of the Vladimir Mother of God.  She was the guest of the town for half of June, and visited all the houses and apartments of everyone who came to church.   She appeared at my employers’ house on a weekday morning. I was cleaning the copper utensils in the kitchen when the young mistress cried out in a scared voice from her room:

“Open the front door. They are bringing the
Oranskaya icon!”

I rushed down, dirty, and with hands greasy with lard and powdered brick opened the door. A young monk with a lamp in one hand and a censer in the other softly grumbled:  “Are you snoozing? Help us!”

Two of the inhabitants carried the heavy kiot [icon case/frame] up the narrow staircase. I helped them, supporting the edge of the kiot with my dirty hands and shoulder. The monk stomped up behind me, chanting unwillingly with his deep voice :

“Most Holy Mother of God, pray to God for u-us !”

I thought, with regretful certainty:  “She is angry with me because I have carried her while dirty, and she will wither my hands.

They placed the icon in the corner of the front room on two chairs covered with a clean sheet.  On the sides of the kiot, holding it, stood two monks, young and beautiful like angels, bright-eyed, cheerful, with splendid hair.

They celebrated a moleben [prayer service]:

“O, All-hymned Mother…” the big priest gave out in a high voice, all the while feeling the swollen purple lobe of his ear, hidden in his reddish hair.

“Most Holy Mother of God, have mercy on  u-us!” the monks sang wearily.

I loved the Mother of God.  In Grandmother’s stories it was she who sowed on the earth, for the consolation of the poor people, all the flowers, all joys, every blessing and beauty.  And, when the time came to venerate her, without noticing how the adults did it, I kissed the icon tenderly on the face — on the lips. Someone with powerful hands threw me into a corner by the door.

 I don’t remember seeing how the monks left, carrying the icon, but I remember well how my employers sat around me on the floor and argued with much fear and anxiety about what was going to happen to me now.

“We shall have to speak to the priest, who will teach him,” said the master, who scolded me without malice.

“Ignoramus! How could you not know you shouldn’t  kiss the lips?  And anyway, you must have been taught that at school.”

For a few days I waited, resigned.  What would happen? I had touched the kiot with dirty hands; I had venerated it unlawfully; I should not be allowed to go free and unpunished.

But apparently the Mother of God forgave my involuntary sin, which had been prompted by sincere love, or else her punishment was so light that I did not notice it among the frequent punishments given me by these good people.

Sometimes, to annoy the old mistress, I said regretfully :  “But the Holy Virgin has apparently forgotten to punish me.”

“Oh, you wait,” answered the old woman spitefully — “We shall see.”

That is an odd cultural thing about icons. We in the West might think it a charming gesture for the boy to kiss the lips of the Marian icon, but in Russia that was not done. Such familiarity was considered highly disrespectful. Mary was not to be treated as a dear family member, but rather as an aristocrat.

There were, in fact, particular rules of etiquette governing the veneration of icons by kissing. Kissing an icon was a very common and omnipresent habit in Old Russia, but it had to be done just so.

For example, as we have seen, an icon was never to be kissed on the face. One could kiss the feet of the image, if it were a full-length icon, or one could kiss the hands. If one hand was raised in blessing, one usually kissed the blessing hand. If the icon did not depict the hands or feet, one could kiss the garment of the person depicted, or one could kiss the hair. In the case of an icon such as the “Not Made by Hands” image of Jesus, one could kiss the “towel” background on which the face was painted.

Foreigners visiting Russia were generally struck by the Russians perpetually crossing themselves before icons, by the bowing before the images and the kissing of them. The believers — particularly peasants — did not always discriminate between saints and images of the Tsar that hung in public places, so it was not an uncommon sight to see a peasant cross himself before the framed portrait of the Tsar hanging in a railway station.

The Oranskaya image Gorkiy spoke of (see photo at top) is a copy of the Vladimir icon of Mary, and is said to have “appeared” in 1634.  A fellow named Pyotr Gladkov had a copy of the Vladimir icon painted and had a church built to house it.  It gained a reputation as a supposedly “wonderworking” icon.

Here is another famous Marian type:

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

It is known as Znamenie, the “Sign” icon. It is one of the older types, and it has an interesting story linking it to the city of Novogorod that I will not go into now. Suffice it to say that because of its fame as a supposed “wonderworking” image, countless copies of it were made. The painter of this particular example helpfully added an inscription at the bottom that reads:

A True Representation, Likeness and Measure of the Wonderworking Image of the ‘Sign’ Most Holy Mother of God Which is in Great Novgorod; painted in the year 1809.”

Let’s take a closer look at one of the border saints in this version:

georgiy

The title inscription on the saint reads:

S[vatuiy] VE[liko] MU[chenik} GEORGIY — “The Holy Great Martyr George.” This is the same fellow as in icons of St. George and the dragon. He was a very popular saint in Russia and throughout the Eastern Orthodox world (as well as in the Catholic West). He holds a cross in his right hand to signify that he is a martyr. Did you notice that the “l” in Veliko and the “ch” in Muchenik are written as “superscript” letters, that is, written small and above the words into which they fit?

The other saints depicted in the border are the Great Marty Yakov (James) the Persian; the Venerable Makariy the Roman of Novgorod, who was an ascetic hermit said to be clairvoyant (shown here quite naked, though with his almost ankle-length beard strategically placed); and the ascetic Onufriy (Onuphrios) the Great, one of the “Desert Fathers” of Egypt. He is wearing what I call his “leaf shorts.” He is traditionally depicted with leaves covering his nakedness.

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THE PALLADIUM IS NOT JUST A THEATER

Today I would like to discuss palladium icons.

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:

battlenovgorodsuzdal

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:

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

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:

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

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.”

THE ANTI-ALCOHOLISM ICON

Russian icons  are, for the most part, essentially copies of prototypes that appeared in different times and places.  Some of the prototypes are very old, others comparatively recent.  So icon painting is not a matter of originality, but rather a matter of reproduction of an existing image.  There may be thousands and thousands of copies of a popular prototype.  These copies follow the same general pattern as an original, which we may call a type.  Icons of Mary, called the Bogomater — the Mother of God — were particularly popular, so there are hundreds of different Bogomater types.

The most popular of these types became so because the original was assumed to be chudotvornaya — “wonder-working,” meaning miracle-working.  There are many stories and legends of miracles involving icons of Mary, and such “power” images were given respect beyond that given an ordinary icon, which accounts for the great number of copies made of them.

Even though the original Marian icon may have been considered “wonder-working,” the same could not be said of all of the copies made from it.  Unless, that is, a particular copy of the type began to work miracles on its own.  Then, curiously enough, it sometimes received its own name, distinguishing it from the original prototype.

There is an interesting icon that became known in the latter part of the 19th century — the icon is that known as the Неупиваемая чаша, (Neupivaemaya Chasha) the “Not-Drink–up-able Cup,” usually more elegantly Englished as the “Unfailing Chalice” or “Inexhaustible Chalice” Mother of God icon.

NEUPIVAEMAYA CHASHA PRESVYATAYA BOGORODITSUI
                              “THE UNFAILING CHALICE MOST HOLY MOTHER OF GOD”

Now there are two interesting things about this icon.  The first is that — unlike the “neo-traditional” style image of it shown above — the popular copies are generally painted in the Westernized style — the more realistic style borrowed from Western European painting, particulary from the 1600s onward, by the Russian State Church, in contrast to the stylized and more abstracted traditional manner favored by the Old Believers, who separated from the State Church in Russia.  The version shown above is that venerated presently in the Vysotskiy Monastery in Serpukhov, about 62 miles south of Moscow.  It is not the original, which was destroyed.

The second interesting thing is that the “Unfailing Chalice” is visually related to two other icon types.  The upper part, depicting Mary with outraised hands and the Christ Child (Christ Immanuel) before her, is virtually that of the “Sign” (Znamenie) Mother of God type.  The lower portion, with the Christ Child’s lower body in a eucharistic chalice, is related to the Nikeyskaya (“Nicean”) Mother of God type, which is also called “Your Womb Becomes the Holy Table.”

Now there are prayers to go with these individual wonder-working Marian icons, and one of these would give us the latter “Nikeyskaya” association even if we did not recognize it.  The kontakion, voice 6, associated with this icon begins:  “Бысть чрево Твое святая Трапеза...” — “Your Womb Becomes the Holy Table.”  Those words mean that when pregnant with Jesus, the womb of Mary became the “holy table,” meaning the altar.  This relates to the altar table in Eastern Orthodoxy, on which the eucharistic bread which is considered the body of Jesus — the “Lamb of God” — is placed.

There are several Marian icons with a specific “popular” purpose.  One, for example, is used in an attempt to ease childbirth; another is used to ward off fire from a building.  The “Unfailing Chalice” has as its purpose the aiding of alcoholics who wish to give up their addiction to drinking.

One sees easily how this association with drinking came about.  In the icon there is a (eucharistic) cup/chalice, and out of it proceeds the child Jesus.  The Church Slavic inscription visible on it reads:

АЗЪ ЕСМЬ ЛОЗА ИСТИННАЯ — AZ ESM LOZA ISTINNAYA
meaning “I am the true vine…” (taken from John 15:1)

The association with wine drunk from a cup, with the concept expanded to include other alcoholic beverages, is a natural link to make.  And so this prototype became an “anti-alcoholism” icon believed to have wondrous powers.  Large numbers of copies have been made of it in the past few decades, and they are recommended to those with drinking problems.

Now all of this is, of course, a kind of magical thinking, but that kind of thinking — the use of talismans and amulets and so on — is very ancient and found in many religions, and it is sometimes probably even effective for one reason or another.

In any case, the icon has, like most “wonder-working” icons, an interesting origin story.  In the hagiography of Marian icons, the important date is the “Appearance” (Yavlenie) of an icon.  By “Appearance” is not meant when the icon was first made.  It means instead the time at which a particular icon first began to work miracles — its manifestation as a “miracle-working” image.

The “Appearance” of the Unfailing Chalice icon took place in the year 1878, according to its associated story.  A certain former soldier of the Efremov division of the Tula gubernia (government/province) was afflicted by a heavy addiction to drinking.  He drank away all of his pension, and even lost most of his belongings to alcohol.  It got so bad that he even was losing the use of his legs, yet he kept on drinking.  And then he had a strange dream.

An old staretz (spiritual elder) in a skhima (monk’s hooded garment) appeared to him, and told him, “Go to the town of Serpukhov, to the monastery of the Entry [into the Temple of the] Mistress Mother of God.  There is an icon of the “Unfailing Chalice” Mother of God.  Perform a moleben [rite involving a series of special prayers] in front of it, and you shall be healthy in spirit and body.”

The suffering soldier, not being able to walk at all now, let alone such a long way, and being out of money, and with no one to help him, did not do as the staretz told him.  The spiritual elder appeared to him in a second dream, but again he did not listen.  Finally, the staretz came to him a third time in his dreams, and spoke to him so threateningly that at last the man set out on the road, crawling in the dirt as best he could.   He eventually made it to a village, where he rested for the night, and there he met a kind-hearted old woman who rubbed his legs and laid him where the stove would warm him –which in an old Russian home was right atop the stove.  That night he began to feel a pleasant sensation in his legs.  By morning he found he could stand somewhat totteringly on his still-weak legs. He remained there, and by the next night he felt even better.   So he again set off for the Serpukhov Monastery, this time walking with the aid of a stick.  Thus, hobbling along, he made it all the way to the town of Serpukhov and to the monastery, but when he asked to hold a moleben before the icon of the “Unfailing Chalice,” nobody knew what he was talking about.  No one had ever heard of such an icon there.  But on looking about, someone found an icon in a side passage, and noticed that on the reverse of it was an inscription reading “The Unfailing Chalice.”  The soldier realized that the staretz who appeared in his dream had been the Elder Varlaam, who had been the original founder of the Monastery in the 14th century. The “rediscovered” icon was carried into the church and a moleben was held before it.

Well, needless to say, the alcoholic ex-soldier went away healed, as the endings of all such stories go.  Then news of the event was spread abroad, crowds began coming to pray before the image, copies were made of it, and a new Akathist (long prayer form) composed specially to that icon was written.  And by the way, the motif of being told to do something three times, but only doing it on the third telling, as in this tale, is a not unusual motif in these origin stories of miracle-working icons, which in that respect are much like other folklore.

The prototype of this icon — at least the one associated with this story — is said to have been burned along with other icons in 1929, under the Communists.  The revival of the veneration of this icon — in the form of copies painted in various styles — got under way in 1980.  Those who began studying icons before that date but did not keep up on their studies will likely have never heard of it, because it is better known in E. Orthodoxy today than it ever was earlier, when its veneration was more localized in the Serpukhov region.

The icon is commemorated annually in the Russian Orthodox Church on May 5th.  Five versions of this type may be seen at:

http://days.pravoslavie.ru/name/6886.htm

It is interesting to compare various copies and to note the differences in style and skill of the painter.

And here, for comparison with the “Unfailing Chalice,”  is an old “Westernized sketch of the visually-related Nikeyskaya type:

                                The “Nikeyskaya” (Nicene) Most Holy Mother of God

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