History of the icon
According to the Church tradition, this icon is the work of history’s first icon painter, Apostle Luke the Evangelist. The Mother of God had herself given her blessing to this image calling it the symbol of her everlasting presence.
Admittedly, the icon that we now see in Minsk’s Cathedral of the Holy Spirit is not the original painting by the apostle, but rather a copy, or even more likely, a second copy. Nevertheless, the icon’s history shows that the grace of the ever-virgin is present in her sacred image and provides her protection from every sorrow or misfortune to all who pray before. It sheds on them the limitless grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ and His blessed Mother.
We do not know exactly when this icon was painted. According to tradition, it had come from Byzantine and was eventually brought to the city of Hersones (now Korsun) in the Crimean peninsula, on the border of the Byzantine Empire.
According to one narrative, the Kievan prince Vladimir brought this icon to Kiev after his baptism and matrimony in Korsun in 988. While in Kiev, the icon was kept in the Church of the Tithes, the first mortar church in Kievan Rus. The principality of Kiev endured several invasions from the Tartars in the 12th and 13th centuries. As a result, most of Kiev, including the Church of the Tithes, was destroyed.
Starting from 1240, mentions of the icon were absent from historical records for over 200 years. As reported in the chronicles, the Crimean Khan Mengly 1 Girey invaded Kiev in 1482. He razed and burned down the castle and the city and enslaved massive numbers of its residents. According to a legend, one of the invaders brought the icon outside the church, stripped it of its cover and precious stones and threw it in the river.
Eighteen years later, on 26 August 1500, the icon was discovered in the River Svisloch just two days before the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Some said that it had been brought to Minsk with the flow of the river, others that it had come against the flow, still others said they a band of angels had flown it to Minsk. Whatever was the true story, the icon stopped right before the city castle and the light that emanated from it had drawn the attention of the people nearby. The residents of Kiev who found refuge from the Tartars in Minsk recognised their relic. It was decided to leave the icon in the castle church opposite the spot in which it was discovered.
In 1505, the Crimean Khan Mengly Girey, who had destroyed Kiev invaded Minsk and subjected the city to the same fate. Most of the city was razed and destroyed, and many people were enslaved. However, just before the invasion, a Moleben was celebrated in the Castle Church before the Minsk icon of the Mother of God. By these prayers before the sacred image of the Theotokos, the castle remained out of bounds for the Tartars. Less than a year later, the army of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania defeated the Tartar armies and freed the prisoners. This victory was perceived as retribution from the wonderworking icon against the Tartars for the lawlessness that they had committed. The icon remained in Minsk’s Castle Church for over 100 years after that victory.
In 1596, the Church Union of Brest was concluded. It aimed to facilitate the conversion of the Orthodox to Catholicism, even at the cost of keeping intact the Byzantine rite of worship. Frequently, violence and oppression accompanied the conversions. For example, in 1616 the converts to the Uniat Church launched the construction of a new church in the place of a wooden Orthodox church and placed the icon from the Orthodox church in their newly built shrine. In 1635, the mayor of Minsk asked for the return of the icon to the Orthodox church, but his motion was turned down. Many years later, following the division of Poland Minsk was incorporated in 1793 in the Russian empire with Orthodoxy as the official religion. The Uniat temple built in the place of the Orthodox church was handed over to the Orthodox together with the icon.
After the Communist takeover in 1917, more years of upheaval were in store. In the 1920s, the Soviet government unleashed a large campaign to expropriate church property and assets, reportedly for the benefit of the hungry. At the initiative of Patriarch Tikhon, around nine million roubles was raised for the relief of the famine from 19 to 23 February 1922 alone. Yet the Soviet government expropriated church assets worth a further 4.5 million roubles. Most of the proceeds from the expropriations were spent on administration and anti-clerical propaganda, and a large part of the assets was squandered. Only a minuscule proportion was ultimately spent on the relief of the famine.
In 1922, the Communist rulers came to expropriate the icon’s cover and the precious stones from its framing. The churchgoers had raised a sum equivalent to the cost of these valuables, which the Bolsheviks accepted with gladness. However, only a few days later, they also expropriated the cover, the framing and ultimately the icon. They handed the icon over to the renewal church, a puppet of the Soviet state that sought to reform the Orthodox Church according to its desires. Until 1935, the Icon remained in the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Minsk. Finally, the Soviet state recognised the futility of its attempts at the ‘renewal’ of the church, In 1936 it placed the icon at the museum of local history and destroyed the church where it had been kept.
During the Nazi occupation of Minsk, a resident of the capital, Barbara Slabko, succeeded in convincing the occupiers to return the icon to the faithful. From that moment onwards, the icon has remained in the Orthodox churches, where it belonged. Today, it is being kept in the Church of the Holy Spirit of Minsk where it occupies a special place among the relics.
Throughout the 1990s, the icon underwent a major restoration. An x-ray analysis performed on it confirmed that had been painted many centuries before its miraculous discovery in Minsk in 1500.
For over a thousand years, the Lord had protected the blessed icon of His mother. It was given to the Orthodox Church and has remained within it. The armies of Genghis Khan did not harm it, nor did the hordes of the Crimean tartars or faithless Communists. Uniats, Godless Communists and schismatics have tried to appropriate it, but to no avail. Every time, the Lord interceded to return the icon to the Orthodox.
Example of a miracle performed by the prayers before the icon of the Mother of God of Minsk
Multiple miracles have been reported by the prayers before the icon. In the donation box by the icon, the clerics find from time to time testimonies from believers of miracles and healings attributed to the holy image.
One account of such a miracle dates back to the nineteenth century. An old beggar who had no money for bread had been praying vehemently before the icon. He saw a vision of the Virgin Mary, who reassured him, then took a precious stone from the icon’s frame and put it in his hand. Yet the beggar was soon arrested and charged with theft. After hearing multiple witnesses, the court acquitted the beggar and left the precious stone with him. It nevertheless ordered the beggar not to solicit any more alms from God or the saints.
The icon of the Mother of God of Minsk and the city emblem
The city emblem depicts the image of the Holy Virgin surrounded by angels and cherubims. It was given to the city in 1591 in veneration of the Holy Theotokos and her blessed relic. Of all European capital, the heraldic symbol of Minsk is the only one that has a depiction of the Theotokos.
The multiple miracles attributed to it, and its more than five centuries-long history speak the Holy Virgin’s special protection and intercession for the city and its residents. Ever since the discovery of the icon, the people of Minsk have been praying vehemently before it and giving thanks to God for His precious gift to them.