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
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:
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:
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.