History, traditions

The Icon That Chooses Where to Be

Our Lady of VladimirWorshippers kneel in art gallery mediaeval room
September 8 is one of the principal feasts of the Russian Orthodox Church. Established six centuries ago, it marks the arrival of the miracle-working icon of Our Lady of Vladimir in Moscow.

Summer 1395 was apocalyptic— Tamerlane’s cavalry was scourging panic-ridden Russia. The great Central Asian general was known to the horror-stricken world for routing thitherto invincible Tartars of the Golden Horde, and for mass executions of satanic atrocity.

Grand Duke Basil of Muscovy led his troops to meet the formidable enemy in the field, but Russia knew there was no salvation without Divine intercession. The nation turned with hope to its most cherished holy image, the miracle-working icon of the Mother of God. Preserved in the central cathedral of Vladimir, in Central Russia— hence its name, the icon was urgently transferred to Moscow. The whole city gathered for tearful farewell of the precious image, August 15. The procession that carried it reached Moscow a week later, August 26. Jubilant thousands came to meet the icon in Kuchkovo Field close to the city. The Sretensky Monastery, that owes its name to sretenie, Church Slavonic for “meeting”, later rose on the site.

The pious hope was amply rewarded. Historians are racking their brains to this day just why, on August 26, Tamerlane ordered his troops to leave camp on the Don riverside for lightning retreat into steppe-lands, away from the Russian border, nipping in the bud what promised to be a triumphal campaign. The superstitious warrior had an ominous nightmare the night before, say chronicles of the time— a lady of beauty and majesty untold stood before Tamerlane in torrents of heavenly light, threatening him with Divine wrath unless he beat a retreat.

Russia knows no shrine more cherished than the icon of Vladimir. Mysterious and transcendental is its story.

As Church tradition has it, St. Luke the Evangelist painted the icon— the first-ever Christian image— in the Holy Land two thousand years ago on a board from the table that stood in the modest house of Nazareth, where Jesus used to have repasts with His Mother.

Historical information is scanty to the extreme. As we know from the Hypatian Chronicle, the icon came to Russia by sea from Constantinople to be preserved in the Vyshegrad Convent near Kiev. Art scholars ascribe the Byzantian image to the 12th century’s first half.

All that does not explain why Byzantium ceded a superb image to Russia. The icon, one of the world’s foremost masterpieces, is a palladium of heavenly beauty, an unsurpassed sample of Byzantine art.

At that time, Constantinople was at the peak of its glory and affluence. Piety of an intellectual turn went there hand-in-hand with effete refinement inherited from the pagan Antiquity. It was a city of philosophers and theologians, of aesthetes and art connoisseurs. Precious fragrances filled its air. Its jewellery had no par in the whole wide world. No library rivalled Constantinopolitan for the number and choice of manuscripts, and the city’s public baths exceeded in opulence what Imperial Rome had had. The people of Constantinople certainly knew the price of beautiful things, and were aware of the worth of the icon of Mary and Child— if not out of piety then out of sheer aestheticism. How could they send the image for a risky voyage across the sea to a wood-grown, pristine land of uncouth Russians?

Had not Constantinople given away the miracle-working icon, it might have escaped Ottoman slavery, and would not be the Istanbul of today— who knows?

The icon did not fall into barbarian hands. Our rustic ancestors had piety and taste enough to appreciate the gift. Thousands of icons were painted in Russia following it as a divine model. The icon came into the sea of Russian savagery as a gem fallen from heaven, its glory spreading as circles in troubled water. The mighty waves of its spiritual beauty extinguished pagan cruelty and steeped hearts into all-penetrating tenderness. The meek visage of Mary made Russia lay down its battle-axe. Our country’s history might be even more gory than it is without the advent of the miraculous image.

Prince Andrei Bogolubsky was the first Russian potentate to make it his lodestar. He took the icon from the tiny hamlet of Vyshegrad to Vladimir, then Russian capital— hence its name, Our Lady of Vladimir. The icon was reverentially encased in massive gold, lavishly studded with rubies, sapphires and pearls. The land cherished its shrine as the apple of its eye. When artist restorers of the Tretyakov Gallery started its detailed studies, in 1928, they saw traces of repeated restorations of the previous five centuries. The innovative brush, however, had never touched the faces of the Mother and Child. They remained intact.

An exposition of several years ago at the Tretyakov fully revealed the power of the icon. It was on display among a hundred or more copies, many of superb workmanship. The original eclipsed them all. In the Byzantine image, the vestment of the Child appears bathed in shining sunlight to make the onlooker blink with radiance, and the Mother’s head is bending to the Child with the melancholy docility of a fading blossom to make the worshipper’s heart melt in tenderness.

Truly, it is the best in its iconographic type, known as Eleousa, Greek for “tenderness”.

The creation of the icon in Byzantium is veiled in mystery as great as its appearance in Russia.

Iconoclasm was raging in the empire for two tragic centuries before the image was painted. Icon worship was cruelly persecuted as aftermath of paganism. God is Spirit, and no one can see it with the fleshly eye, said iconoclastic theologians. Icon worshippers eventually took the upper hand, with the doctrine of Man-Godhead from which they proceeded. The bodily eye is open to God Incarnate, and the image alone can replace holy books to the illiterate, they argued. The essence of piety is in man’s heart of hearts.

Theological orientation on the ignorant yet sensitive heart was at the basis of Byzantine and later Russian icon-painting. Roman Catholic, let alone Protestant churches have no icons proper. They have gorgeous murals and canvases on Scriptural subjects. Take a sacred painting of no smaller renown—Raphael’s The Sistine Madonna. It is for the admiring eye not for the heart in supplication. Its very size is not commensurable with earthly man. The icon of Vladimir, on the contrary, is rather small. One needs no great distance to see it in its entirety. This holy image is intended for worship in closeness. Its beauty is reticent for the line and colour not to interfere with prayer.

Icons of Eastern Christendom are precious tools of personal contact with Heaven, while the Catholic Church makes the organ conductor of prayer. Its majestic voice goes heavenward in a mighty choir— as if a gorgeous marble colonnade has turned into a stormy tune. Rome worships in thunderous music. Such lavishness in public worship makes the quiet Russian soul shy away— the Russian prayer is silent and intimate.

Our Lady of Vladimir, ideal epitome of Eastern Christian worship, is a whispered prayer in line and colour. A miracle of meekness, it arose out of two fierce centuries when icons were destroyed without mercy. The darkness that preceded the dawn of Creation stood at the cradle of this image, and all the more radiant was the blessing of beauty that came into the world with it.

It is hard to picture Mary with the face any other from what this miraculous image depicts. Its hypnotising power is evergreen for eight centuries.

Entering the Tretyakov room of mediaeval painting, where it was preserved, Christians knelt in worship before Our Lady of Vladimir. Here, we come to a burning problem of our time. The Russian Orthodox Church has for several years been insisting on the most precious of Eastern Christian icons to be restored from a secular gallery to the Kremlin’s Dormition Cathedral. Art scholars are insisting just as firmly that it is not to leave the gallery. The layer of paint no thicker than rice-paper, the icon needs constant temperature of 12 degrees centigrade, and 55% humidity, argue experts.

The debaters have met each other halfway now. St. Nicholas’ Church at Tolmachi, close to the gallery, used to be the home church of the wealthy Tretyakov merchant family of gallery founders. Now, the Tretyakov Gallery has acquired the house of prayer. Thoroughly redecorated, it has become a unique demonstration hall. Here, in a sealed armoured case with special temperature and humidity inside, the icon is preserved. One is admitted to the church only via the gallery and with its ticket.

The church is open to worshippers all day long, September 8, on an exclusive festive arrangement.

“It is a living shrine, a life-giving mystery with an inner life all its own,” Archpriest Nicholas Sokolov, superior of the Tolmachi church clergy, says of the icon after spending several years close to it. “It is not for us to decide where it should be. Our Lady alone chooses the place for Her image. Its survival is the only thing we want. Where it will be is for Our Lady to determine. If She finds us deserving, it will be here. If not, the icon will go we know not where.”

Dmitri Kosyrev, RIAN

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