Icons have been revered in Russia for centuries, and when it comes to miracle-working icons, pilgrims will travel thousands of kilometers to seek their divine assistance. People bring flowers to these works of art, and speak to them as if they were living beings. Orthodox believers have reported seeing myrrh seeping from such icons. They are said to have a remarkable fragrance, and some icons are known to weep.
Behind every miracle-working icon is a fantastical story of its appearance – indeed, such an “appearance” (явление) is critical to an icon’s status as a miracle-worker. And often this appearance bespeaks some important episode in the history of the Russian state.
In reality, most miracle-working Russian icons are actually copies (“списки” – which is what in the Orthodox tradition they call copies of the original miracle-working icons) of a venerated original. The copies are believed to inherit the original’s miraculous powers.
There are at least three miracle-working icons you can visit in Moscow churches.
The Tikhvin Icon is one of the most revered icons in Russia, and the original is reputed to have been painted by Luke the Evangelist himself.
The icon is thought to have been brought from Jerusalem to Constantinople in the fifth century. Centuries later, however, 70 years before the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1383, it disappeared from the city. It is believed to have flown through the air and appeared above Lake Ladoga, where it was seen by fishermen. The icon continued on its journey, stopping near the city of Tikhvin (which is south of the lake and east of Veliky Novgorod).
A church was built on the site of the icon’s appearance,* and in 1560 Ivan the Terrible decreed that a monastery (Tikhvin Assumption Monastery) be founded here.
The Swedes tried to destroy the monastery more than once after they took Novgorod in 1611, and when they approached the monastery in 1613-14, its monks decided to flee. When the monks tried to take the icon with them, however, they could not budge it. So they resolved to stay and defend their monastery.
After their victory (legend has it that the Swedes bolted after imagining that they were surrounded by legions of troops), the tsar’s emissaries ordered that a copy of the miracle-working icon be painted. In 1617, peace was concluded with the Swedes not far from Tikhvin, in Stolbovo.
When Russian monasteries were closed in the 1920s, the original icon found its way into a local museum. It remained in Russia until 1941, when it was stolen by the Germans and taken to Pskov, from where it found its way to Riga and later Chicago. Only in 2004 was it returned to Tikhvin.
In addition to the miracle-working copy of this venerated icon, this Moscow church also contains the remains of two revered figures from Russian history: Alexander Peresvet and Rodion Oslyabya, who faced the Tatar Temir-Murza in the Battle of Kulikovo Field in 1380.
According to legend, in 1239, Prince Vasily of Kostroma spied an icon in a tree while out hunting. He tried to grab it, but it floated off. He summoned priests and, after prayers, the icon was “captured” and moved to a local church. The church twice burned to the ground, yet the icon was unharmed.
In 1613, Tsar Mikhail became the first member of the Romanov dynasty to rule Russia. After his mother, who was a nun, blessed him with a copy of the Feodorovskaya icon, it became the dynasty’s patron icon and was used to bless all the Romanovs who later succeeded to the throne. Nicholas II also revered the Feodorovskaya icon, and a copy of it was found among the family’s things in the Ipatiev House after they were assassinated.
A copy of the miracle-working Kostroma Feodorovskaya icon found its way to the Church of Nicholas the Miracle Worker in 1869, when a woman brought it to the church. On the eve of 1917, tears were observed to be flowing from the image of Mary, as attested in the written statements of many witnesses at the time. Reportedly, the priest was so shaken that he could not finish the service. Soon thereafter, Russia was overtaken by revolution.
The original Kostroma icon, believed to have been produced at the turn of the thirteenth century, survived the revolution, was restored, and now resides in Kostroma’s Theophany Convent.
In 1579, not long after Ivan the Terrible had reclaimed Kazan from the Tatars, the city was leveled by fire. Many families lost their homes. One of the homeless, the archer Daniil Onuchin, had a ten-year-old daughter, Matrona. One night Matrona saw an image of the Virgin Mary in a dream. The Mother of God told her to dig up an icon. No one believed the child, but her dream persisted. Finally, Matrona and her mother went in search of the icon. They dug just where the Mother of God had told Matrona in the dream, and there, according to legend, on July 8, 1579, they found this icon, reputedly acquired from Constantinople in the thirteenth century, but lost in 1438.
The icon was taken to the first Orthodox church in Kazan, and soon enough it was credited with miracles: two blind people had been healed. This story so moved Ivan the Terrible that he ordered the construction of a cathedral and a convent in the city. Among the convent’s first nuns were Matrona and her mother.
Over the ensuing centuries, military leaders from Pozharsky to Kutuzov credited the invocation of Our Lady of Kazan (copies of which were paraded before troops or even taken into battle) with repelling foreign invasions. Additional miracle-making copies were made.
The original Kazan icon was stolen in 1904; thieves were after its golden frame, and the icon itself was likely destroyed. One sixteenth-century copy of the icon, known as the Fatima image, was stolen from St. Petersburg in 1917 and ended up venerated in Portugal and the Vatican for half a century, before Pope John Paul II returned it to the Russian Orthodox Church. Today it hangs in Kazan’s Annunciation Cathedral, but twice each year it leads a mass procession of the cross from the church to the reputed location of the icon’s discovery in the city.
The copy in Moscow was originally kept in Kazan Cathedral, which stood on Red Square, but was moved to Yelokhovo Cathedral in 1930, when Kazan Cathedral and many other central churches were razed. Thus during the Soviet era did Epiphany Cathedral at Yelokhovо become Russian Orthodoxy’s vicarial church – the seat of the patriarch. It is also where Alexander Pushkin was baptized in 1799.
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Art historians aver that the original icon was actually created at the end of the fourteenth or early in the fifteenth century.
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