Orthodox Christianity provides the faithful with many sacred objects of worship, especially icons – artistic depiction of holy figures. It is commonly believed these holy relics possess spiritual powers to perform miracles and protect individuals and even whole country from possible danger.
What is holy icon?
An icon (from Greek “image”) is a religious work of art, most commonly a painting, where the most common subjects include Christ, Mary, saints and angels. In Orthodox Christianity the icons provide inspiration and connect the worshipper with the spiritual world, sometimes they are called “windows into heaven.”
These objects are important for believers because they depict patron saints, people who are chosen as special protectors or guardians over all areas of life. Traditionally people see them as symbols of how to live a better life. Most of Orthodox Christians understand that they are merely expressing honour and respect for the people and events depicted, and not for the icons themselves.
Since the time of Byzantine Empire the icons had become a major part of worship and devotion among the Orthodox Christianity followers. The walls of churches were covered inside from floor to roof with icons, scenes from the Bible, allegorical groups. Icons were taken on journeys as a protection, they marched at the head of armies, they hung in a place of honour in almost every house etc.
More reverence has been always paid to icons believed to have miraculous origins.
‘Our Lady of Vladimir’
Our Lady of Vladimir is one of the most venerated Orthodox icons. Regarded as the holy protectress of Russia, the icon is displayed in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
Patriarch Luke Chrysoberges of Constantinople sent the newly-painted icon as a gift to Grand Duke Yury Dolgoruky of Kiev about 1131. The beautiful image was coveted by Yury’s son Andrei the Pious who brought it to his favourite city Vladimir in 1155. When the horses that transported the icon stopped near Vladimir and refused to go further, this was interpreted as a sign that the Blessed Virgin wants to stay in Vladimir. To house the icon, the great Assumption cathedral was built there, followed by other churches dedicated to the Virgin throughout northwestern Russia.
In 1395, during Tamerlane’s invasion, the image was taken from Vladimir to the new capital, Moscow. The spot where people and the ruling prince met the icon is commemorated with the Sretensky monastery. Vasili I of Moscow spent a night crying over the icon, and Tamerlane‘s armies retreated the same day. The Muscovites refused to return it back to Vladimir and placed it in the Assumption cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin. The image was also credited with saving Moscow from Tatar hordes in 1451 and 1480.
One of the most exquisite icons ever painted, Our Lady of Vladimir is imbued with universal feelings of motherly love and anxiety for her child. By the 16th century the Vladimirskaya (as the Russians call it) was a thing of legend. It was even rumoured that the icon was painted by St Luke on the Lord’s table of the Last Supper. The venerated image was used in coronations of tsars, elections of patriarchs, and other important ceremonies of state.
But its most important service was yet to come. In December 1941, as the Germans approached Moscow, Stalin order that the icon be taken from a museum and placed in an airplane and that it be carried around the besieged capital. Several days later the German army started to retreat.
‘Our Lady of Kazan’
This miraculous icon of the Mother of God appeared after the fire in Kazan in the 16th century in a rather mysterious way. Theotokos appeared to a nine-year-old girl Matrona in a dream and told her to find her icon on the ashes. This dream was repeated again and again, until the girl decided to go with her mother in search of the icon. And indeed, the icon was found there.
This image of the Mother of God is the most revered and beloved, and considered the ‘Great Intercessor of Russia.’ The icon more than once helped the Russian people in the most difficult times. Its appearance symbolizes victory over the Time of Troubles. Russians thank it for the disposal of Moscow from the invasion of the Poles. Before the Battle of Poltava, Peter the Great with his army prayed to the image of the Kazan Mother of God. The icon was the main patron of the Romanov dynasty. During the Great Patriotic War, this icon was the spiritual driver of the Russian people.
Beginning with Baptism, all the most significant events in life of a Russian Orthodox take place with this icon. It gives a blessing for marriage, helps in work and in everyday problems. Feast days of ‘Our Lady of Kazan’ are 21 July and 4 November.
The Pochaev Mother of God
Pochaev mountain is in the west of Kyvian Rus, now in modern-day Ukraine, and it is there in the 14th century, that an appearance of the Mother of God with her Saviour was granted to two monks and a nearby shepherd. After the vision, a single footprint remained in the mountainside, from which a spring emerged. The previously uninhabited mountain became the site of a monastery dedicated to the miracle. Over 200 years later, the monastery was visited by the a Greek Bishop, Neophit, who left behind as a gift, an Icon of the Theotokos from Constantinople. This is the Icon which came to bear the monastery’s name: the Pochaev Icon of the Mother of God.
It is believed this icon saved the town from Turkish army’ attack in 1675. After people start praying a vision of the Mother of God appeared in the sky along with an army of angels, swords unsheathed. At this appearance, the defenders were over-joyed, whilst the besieging Turks were terrified. In panic, the Turks fired arrows into the sky at the image but the arrows simply fell back to earth upon the attackers.The Turks turned to flee, and the monastery was saved. The Pochaev Icon produced many other miracles over the years, and is still known as a wonder-working image to this day.
Our Lady of Smolensk
Another important icon in Russian Orthodoxy is Our Lady of Smolensk. With the population of 200,000 inhabitants, Smolensk was probably the largest city in the 15th-century Lithuania. Three Smolensk regiments proved decisive during the Battle of Grunwald against the Teutonic knights. It was a severe blow when the city was recaptured by Vasili III of Russia in 1514. To commemorate this event, the tsar founded the Novodevichi convent in Moscow and dedicated it to the holy icon of Our Lady of Smolensk.