Three icons of the Mother of God that protected Russia

Tretyakov gallery/Public domain
These images have different origins, and not all have survived in their original form. Nonetheless, they’re all considered holy icons that have played a role in the miraculous salvation of Russian cities and lands from foreign invaders.

1. The Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God – the deliverance of Moscow from Tamerlane

The Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God, 12th century

According to legend, this icon was originally painted by St. Luke the Evangelist. It does not mean that this particular icon was painted by St. Luke himself, but rather that it’s a copy of an icon that was first painted by the evangelist. This image came to Russia from Byzantium around 1130 as a gift to the Prince of Kiev, Mstislav Vladimirovich. Experts classify this icon as Eleusa (tenderness), because the Christ Child is nestled on the Holy Mother's cheek.

In 1160, one of the founders of Northeastern Russia, Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky, moved the icon to Vladimir, hence its famous name. During the capture of Vladimir by Batu Khan in 1238, the icon was stripped of its case, but the icon survived.

In 1395, Tamerlane marched on Moscow, but when the venerated icon was sent to protect the city, his armies suddenly turned back near the town of Yelets. Historians still debate the reasons for this, but Muscovites believed that the holy icon interceded for Moscow and drove away the conqueror. The Sretensky Monastery was later founded on the site where the icon was met by the townspeople, and Sretenka Street was named after it.

In 1480, during the fateful Standing on the Ugra that ended Tatar suzerainty over Medieval Russia, the icon was transferred to Moscow and placed in the Dormition Cathedral. Since the 16th century, all of Russia’s tsars have been crowned near the icon, which also was used to bless the election of metropolitans and patriarchs by having the names of the chosen placed in its casket and then one lot was selected after a prayer service. Since December 1999, the Vladimir icon of the Mother of God has been housed in the Church-Museum of St. Nicholas in Tolmachi at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

The Kazan Icon of the Mother of God – liberation of Moscow from the Poles

The Kazan Icon of the Mother of God

The Kazan Icon of the Mother of God is said to have been found in Kazan in 1579 after the city was devastated by fire. According to legend, the Virgin Mary appeared to a young girl in a dream and showed her where to find the icon. Matryona ran to tell the city guard about her dream and the image was found one meter underground in the ashes of an old hut. Icon experts classify it among the "Hodigitria" type. The priest Yermolai (later patriarch Hermogenes, 1530-1612) brought the icon to the Gostinodvorskaya Church where miracles were said to have occurred: for instance, two blind people were healed. A copy of the icon was sent to Ivan the Terrible in Moscow, and the Kazan Mother of God Monastery was founded in Kazan, where the original icon had been found.

The Kazan Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow

In 1611, the Kazan people's militia took the icon to Moscow to help liberate the capital from Polish and Lithuanian invaders. The icon was said to have helped them defeat the Poles at the Novodevichy Monastery. However, it was not until 1612 that the second militia, led by Minin and Pozharsky, liberated Moscow from the Poles with the help of the Kazan icon. It was then placed in the specially built Cathedral of Kazan on Red Square in Moscow.

READ MORE: 7 most venerated Russian saints

There were two icons of the Kazan Mother of God – one in Kazan and one in Moscow. The Kazan Icon was stolen in 1904 and considered lost, while the Moscow icon was stolen in 1918. However, many copies of the image were made and dozens of churches and monasteries were founded in its name throughout Russia. The most revered copy of the image is now located in the Epiphany Cathedral in Elokhovo, Moscow.

3. The Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God – salvation from Batu Khan and a blessing before the Battle of Borodino

The Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God, circa 1482

The Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God has ancient origins. Legend has it that the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX gave it to his daughter Anna, who became the wife of Russian Prince Vsevolod Yaroslavich and subsequently the mother of Vladimir Monomakh. In 1095, Monomakh took the icon to Smolensk, to the Dormition of the Theotokos Cathedral which he founded.

During the Mongol invasion in 1239, the residents of Smolensk prayed to the Mother of God to protect them from the invaders. The Mongols suddenly and mysteriously turned back after stopping a day's journey from the city, supposedly due to her intervention.

In 1812, before the Battle of Borodino, Bishop Iriney of Smolensk brought the icon to Moscow. It was carried along the first front line on Borodino field, and its presence is said to have calmed soldiers before the battle.

After the French were expelled from Smolensk in 1812, the icon was returned to the Dormition Cathedral. However, it disappeared during the German occupation in 1941. The most ancient copy of the icon is now believed to be in the Moscow Kremlin Museums.

Of course, belief in the "salvation" of Russia by icons belongs to the realm of faith. In reality, however, it was defended by fearless soldiers, and the Russian church honored and glorified heroes and holy martyrs, such as St. George the Victorious or Dmitry of Thessaloniki. With the development of the state there also appeared in Russian history new holy warriors and saints – such as Dmitry Donskoy and Alexander Nevsky.

The Museums of the Moscow Kremlin are currently hosting an exhibition, "Heavenly Army: The Image and the Veneration", (until August 20, 2023) that tells about the history of images of holy warriors in Russian art from the time before the Mongols until the 20th century.

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