The Unknown World of the Icon: Some Words on One of the Most Well-Known Theotokos Icons

Fr. Sergius Nezhbort

[…] We asked the Rev. Sergius Nezhbort, who is the head of the Icon Painting Studio of St Elisabeth Convent, to tell us about the Vladimir icon of the Mother of God.

“The icon of the Mother of God of Vladimir is one of the greatest sacred objects of Russia,” Father Sergius says. “Its history reflects how Russian people love the Mother of God and how the Theotokos cares for the Holy Russia. Unsurprisingly, it continues to be viewed as the greatest sacred object for the Russians.

It is hard to imagine how much this icon has seen… First and foremost, it witnessed the institution of the Russian state. It became the guardian of the Russian state since the time when it was translated from Constantinople to Kiev around 1131.

The Russian land endured quite a few invasions of various enemies since then. Each time, even in dire circumstances, the Russians sought the intercession of the Mother of God, which definitely proves that our ancestors believed in the Theotokos’s patronage and care for our country.

Interestingly enough, all three church holidays of the icon remind of military victories that meant a lot for Russia. The Mother of God protected Russians from the invasion of Timur, a Turco-Mongol conqueror, on 26 August 1395 (8 September according to Gregorian calendar). Ahmed Khan bin Küchük, the Khan of the Great Horde, also attempted to conquer Russian lands on 23 June 1480 (6 July according to Gregorian calendar), which resulted in his death. Finally, on 21 May 1521 (3 June Gregorian calendar), Moscow was defended from the Crimean Khan Mehmed Giray.

The icon was translated to Vladimir from Suzdal by the Holy Right-Believing Prince Andrey Bogolubsky in 1161. He was a son of Yury Dolgorukiy and lived from 1110 to 1174. Legend has it that the prince’s horses suddenly stopped not far from Vladimir. The prince’s servants started lashing them but they didn’t move. Finally, the prince decided to stop there overnight. The Mother of God appeared to him in a dream and told him to leave her icon in Vladimir.

The icon remained in Vladimir for a long time. However, the army of the cruel Timur approached the Russian border in 1395. Everyone could see the imminent danger. It was on the day when the wonderworking icon of Our Lady of Vladimir was brought into the Assumption Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin that Timur retreated from the Russian border unexpectedly.

That day was marked by the church holiday of Meeting (Sretenie) of the Vladimir icon. The Muscovites established Sretensky Monastery, which is well-known among all Orthodox Christians nowadays, on the place where they met the icon.

The holiday of 23rd of June (6th of July according to Gregorian calendar), is celebrated to thank the Mother of God for her rescuing Moscow from an attack of the Golden Horde. The Great Stand on the Ugra River and the complete defeat of Khan Ahmed marked the final liberation of Russia from the yoke of the Horde.

The icon of Our Lady of Vladimir survived the dreadful catastrophe of the early 20th century. The Soviets went after churches and icons, destroying them indiscriminately, regardless of their historical and cultural value. However, they recognized the Vladimir icon as ‘an exceptional work of art’. This label allowed it to survive. The icon was kept in State Tretyakov Gallery until the end of the 20th century.

As far as the iconography of this icon is concerned, it is filled with a lot of meanings, like all other icons. Icon painting is a veritable treasure trove of theological symbols hidden in subtle details.

When people speak of the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir, they often claim that it was painted by St Luke the Evangelist. This is a claim that you shouldn’t take too literally. It is highly unlikely that there are extant icons painted by the Evangelist himself. Rather, this claim emphasises that the icon corresponds to certain traditions, established by Jesus’s disciples.

This icon is categorised as belonging to Tenderness iconographic type. This iconographic type is probably the most tender and serene, which was why the Russians liked it so much.

Jesus embraces his Mother’s omophorion, i.e., her head veil. The heads of Jesus and the Theotokos are slightly bent towards one another. The Blessed Virgin represents the Church of Christ here. That is how experts interpret the postures of Jesus and the Mother of God. In addition to the direct sense of this moving composition where the Mother of God cuddles her Son, we find another theological meaning: the Theotokos symbolises a soul that communicates with God.

Baby Jesus clings to his Mother’s cheek. The Mother of God looks to one side above her Son’s head, as if She doesn’t notice him. She knows that her Son is doomed to suffer. Jesus touches her in an attempt to comfort her hidden grief.

The icon of the Mother of God of Vladimir is easy to distinguish from similar icons by the unique position of the Baby’s foot. This symbol is traditionally interpreted as a sign of God’s humility, that is, self-abasement of Christ, the Son of God who stepped down and became human to save man, his creation. That was why He marched through death, his feet being human feet, not God’s feet. His feet will be nailed to the Cross…

The golden background of the icon alludes to Divine Light.

It is hard not to notice that the eyes of Virgin Mary are full of deep sorrow. Her face is marked by determination and concentration. With all that said, She is looking not just at the human Baby but also at the Creator and the Master of the Universe. She bends over to her Son asking him to grant mercy for all who come and pray in front of the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir.”

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