The History of the Icon

Author: Fishnet Conference


Fishnet Conference of OSC

I'm going to respond to a question many have tossed at me over the years. I'm going to attempt to "explain" an Icon to those whose culture sees icons as little more than pictures without the advantage of the modern techniques of perspective. To do so, I'm going to use one of the most famous icons in history, the icon of The Vladimir Mother Of God.

If you don't have a copy of one, do please try to acquire one. And keep it handy while I explain—it will be of great help in understanding what it is I'm saying.

First, of course, the "history" of the icon (what else? From "me"?)

The History Of The Icon The Vladimir Mother Of God

The city of Vladimir (from which the icon takes its name) is located on the Klyazma [two syllables] River, about 100 miles East of Moscow. It's one of Russia's most ancient cities. ("Vladi" means "He who possesses/owns"; "mir" (in this instance) means "the world." Hence, Owner/King/Ruler of The World. In very much the same that Vladivostok means "The Lord of the East.") Not so coincidentally, Vladimir is also the name of the first Grand Prince of Kiev, who embraced Christianity in the 10th century. Christianity spread to the other areas of what would eventually become The Russias "from" Kiev—at that time, however, everything outside Kiev's scope within the Slavic world was nothing but a backwater. Not even provincial backwaters. Just backwaters.

About 1250 or so, Southern Russia, now known as Ukraine (note the absence of "the"—Ukrainians "despise" the usage "The Ukraine"). was invaded by what the West termed "The Golden Horde," but which was, in fact, nothing more than a "reconnaissance in force" by some major elements of Genghis Khan's army, under the direction and generalship of Subodai, perhaps the greatest military mind in recorded history, though rarely accorded anything approaching that status. He accomplished what more famous generals like Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon and the like did not.

This "Golden Horde" was, of course, the Tatar race. (Be aware that there is a difference between "Tatar" and "Tartar.") The Tatars seized and burnt Kiev in 1240, and after that the city of Vladimir became for some period one of the main cultural centers of Russia, along with Novgorod, another of those ancient cities. In fact, it was the destruction of Ukraine by Subodai that made it "possible" for Russia to rise, else she would surely have been absorbed into the Ukrainian Grand Duchy.

The icon itself is Greek in origin, beyond any doubt whatever. A pious popular belief in Russia has attributed it to the brush of St. Luke the Evangelist, but it was n fact most probably "written" (one "writes" an icon, one does not "paint" it!) at the beginning of the 12th Century, patterned on a very traditional type of Marian Iconography. The pattern itself "is" considered (by historians and scholars, in fact) to have derived from an icon Tradition claims was painted by Luke Himself, who, as Paul's personal physician, had ample opportunity to spend time with Mary when Paul visited with John in Ephesus, from whence Mary was Assumed.

The name of the artist who "wrote" the Icon of Vladimir isn't known, but it clearly belongs to that period of Byzantine art known as "The Macedonian Renaissance." The icon was offered as a gift to the Russian Prince George Dolgoruky in 1155 by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Luke Chrysoberges; it was placed by the Prince in the Convent of Vyshgorod, near Kiev.

The Mother of God conceded many extraordinary favors to those of the faithful who came before her to pray at this icon, and it soon became an object of very intense devotion. From then on, the icon became so intimately connected with the life of the Russian people that the Chronicles faithfully recorded every time it was moved from one place to another. In fact, there is no single great event in the history of Russian from the 12th to the 17th Century in which the icon of the Mother of God of Vladimir did not play its vital part.

Later on, the icon was bequeathed by Prince George to his son, Andrew Bogoliubsky (Andrew, the God-Lover). Andrew carried it to Vladimir, and in 1160 placed it in the Cathedral of the Assumption which he had had built for that purpose. From then on this icon would be called "The Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God." In 1164 the same Prince Andrew carried it at the head of his armies when he marched against the Bulgari (Bulgarians) on the Volga (they were just then moving into Europe, ahead of the Tatars) while his soldiers sang "He who places his hope in you, Mother of God, will never perish." He also gave the icon its covering of gold, silver and precious stones.

On 13 April 1185 a raging fire destroyed the Cathedral, but the icon remained miraculously intact. When they occupied Vladimir, the Tatars stole the precious covering from the icon, but left the icon itself intact and unharmed.

In 1395 the Tatar chief, Tamerlane, who had already destroyed several towns in Southern Russia, was approaching Moscow with his forces. In a deep spirit of faith the Grand Duke Basil I had the icon transferred from Vladimir to Moscow on the Feast of the Assumption and placed in the Cathedral in the Kremlin built in honor of that feast. Tamerlane halted his armies, and Moscow was saved. Since that time the miraculous icon has been kept in Moscow, the new capital of Russia.

On three other occasions, in 1451, 1459 and 1480, the Tatars again menaced Moscow. But the citizenry besought the intercession of their blessed Mother, venerating her miraculous image. The city was preserved. As a sign of gratitude for their deliverance on three occasions, a feast in honor of the Vladimir Mother of God was designated to be celebrated on the days of May 21, June 23 and August 26. On these days the icon was carried in procession to the convent of the Presentation in Moscow.

During the processions the good and devout Christians of Moscow sang the following 'troparion' (a series of verses printed as a single prose sentence, but divided into rhythmic clauses):

"Today the glorious city of Moscow brightly shines because it receives, like the dawn of the sun, O Lady, your miraculous icon. And we, now coming before it in prayer, implore you, O wonderful Lady, Mother of God: Pray Christ Our God, who through you became Man, to keep this city, every city and all Christian lands safe from the attacks of their enemies, and to save our souls, for He is merciful."

During the succeeding centuries, each time the city was menaced by foreign armies the Muscovites again had recourse to their faithful Protectress.

On September 2, 1812, on the eve of the occupation of Moscow by Napoleon's troops, the icon was temporarily carried back to Vladimir. On October 20 it was returned to Moscow to its customary place at the left side (facing it) of the iconostasis (Greek. Lit.—"Icon Stand" "Icon Holder") in the Cathedral of the Assumption in the Kremlin. So prominent was the Vladimir icon in the religious lives of the Russian people that little by little it became customary for the Russian tsars to be crowned before the icon. And in the centuries when the Russian Church was ruled by a Metropolitan or a Patriarch (since 1452, the Fall of Constantinople, from which time dates the Russian doctrine of "The Third Rome," upgrading its Metropolitanate to a Patriarchate—pretty unilaterally, in fact; a condition which has been maintained since)—each time a new prelate was about to be elected the names of the candidates were inserted inside the frame within the icon was kept.

The original size of the icon was 30-3/4 inches high by 21-1/2 inches wide. In the course of time, however, by adding new wood to the margins on all four sides, the icon was enlarged by 10 inches in height and by 5-1/2 inches in width. At various times in its history it was altered also by the addition of fresh gesso and paint; this was done to protect against the elements an icon which was often carried in processions outside the church. Several Russian rulers engaged the services of the leading painters of their day to perform this delicate task. However, it is interesting to note that when in 1919 Professor G.O. Chirikov scraped off the different layers which had been added to refresh the original, he found that only one small area had remained quite untouched. The faces of Our Lady and the Holy Child, the greater part of his left hand and part of the right arm, almost entirely covered by the garment, were the only parts which were discovered to have reached us in almost perfect condition from the ancient Byzantine original. During the many restorations this part of the icon was never touched with new gesso, and had been only refreshed with new paint, laid lightly and immediately over the surface of the old olive oil, and fixed again with a fresh oiling. It is wonderful to think that while every century from the 13th to the 20th has left its traces on this icon the most sacred part and the center of the composition have been preserved from the original work of a devout by unknown Byzantine painter; the tender, loving expressions of the Mother and Child.

One substantial reason for "retouching" this icon was that through the centuries it was periodically overlaid with pure gold and precious stones. More than once the metal and stones were ripped off by plundering soldiers. Since the faces and the hands were never covered with metal, they were not exposed to the same rough treatment.

At the beginning of the 20th century the value of the icon's decorative cover of pure gold and precious gems was estimated to be about $50,000.

In 1917 came the Revolution. In 1919 the Communists then in control of the government stole the precious covering, took the Icon from the Cathedral of the Assumption and hung it in the Tretiakov Gallery, a museum of Russian painting, which is located quite close to the Kremlin. Shortly thereafter the Cathedral was closed; later it was itself turned into a museum.

This removal of the venerated icon announced the religious persecution which was to follow: profanation of churches; violence against the clergy; prohibition of any public expression of faith or manifestation of piety, especially teaching of religion to anyone under 18 years of age. This transfer of Russia's most beloved icon from a Church to a museum symbolizes the total secularization of public life and the atheistic propaganda which Russia was to know for more than 70 years.

Understanding An Icon

Paintings are sometimes divided into those that are "realistic" and those that are "idealistic." It is "realistic" if it attempts to reproduce nature as it is, even to the point that, seeing the portrait of the person, I believe I actually see "him", so much does the portrait resemble him. Opposed to this type of painting is the "idealistic", in which the painter tries to evoke a definite reaction by emphasizing certain characteristics within the subject. Some seek humorous reaction, some even try to provoke anger. The icon painter seeks to arouse in the beholder a spirit of "prayer" above all. It is neither a portrait nor a work of art. It is a prayer—and a way of presenting the Catechism of the Church.

Most of the icons have been painted in monasteries or in forest hermitages. Before painting ("writing") them, the monks prepared first of all a sufficiently thick piece of birch or pine, they indented the surface at the spot where the image would be placed, the edges themselves forming the frame. This board was then coated with a thick glue, mixed with plaster and alabaster dust. (Russians call this mixture, "Levka.")

When the material had been prepared, after fasting and prayer, the artist traced the outlines of the subject he was going to pain. For this purpose he not only followed the inspiration of his imagination, but he first of all used patterns fixed by the rigorous traditions of the Church. On a plain background, free of any ornamentation which could distract the attention of the pious beholder, and without trying to express a third dimension in depth, he presented a spiritualized being.

The finished icon was then solemnly blessed by the priest according to the ritual of the Byzantine Church. After that blessing it became for the faithful something quite different from what it was in the workshop of the painter—it became the object of special veneration because of its connection with the Saint it represented; it was extended a special respect which could be compared to the respect the faithful have had at all times for the relics of the saints.

Thus, while often in the Western world saccharine and sentimental works expressing sweet and human beauty with almost photographic exactitude have been too long in favor, artists (mostly monks and ascetics) in the Byzantine world developed a truly Christian art that really addresses the spirit through the senses.

The icon gives us a glimpse of the supersensible world which should be the goal of every Christian soul, making the eternal somewhat clearer and more definite. It helps us to approach in spirit the prototype which communicates its being to the icon. It reveals what it represents. For this reason an icon is considered not so much a "picture" as a "presence," a "window into heaven," through which the light of heaven can flood out upon a darksome world, and through which even the hungriest of sinners can grasp at the tassels of the cloak of the Lord and beg his healing.

The icon is really what Western theology calls a "sacramental," i.e., "a sign of which Mother church makes use in some partial imitation of the Sacraments, to raise the heart and mind to God, and enhance our awareness of His Eternal Presence and Eternal Caring and Healing Love."

Icons In Russian Life

Because of her desire to promote an idealistic and spiritualized art, the Eastern Church has always preferred paintings to statues. And not only "paintings" (in the sense of paint), but of pictures made with stones..."mosaics.")

In the Eighth Century the Iconoclast Heresy tried to deny Christians the right to venerate icons. The Iconoclasts were condemned at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, the 7th Ecumenical Council, and after that period we witness a phenomenon which would become frequent in the life of the Church: the Christian people of the East began to express more vigorously in their life the truth which they had defended. In the Byzantine Christian world the churches were filled with icons. In all these churches a screen was built separating the sanctuary from the nave. It was covered with icons and called, therefore, the "iconostasis" (pronounced "ico-no-stasis"). At each main feast of the year an icon representing the mystery to be celebrated is placed, even now, in the "middle of the Church," i.e., on a small altar before the Iconostasis called the "Tetrapod"—i.e., "having four feet"—and surrounded with flowers and candles, and incensed many times during the services. The faithful then kiss it reverently. Besides their pectoral crosses, bishops of the Byzantine Church also wear a large medallion (called the "encolpion") with the icon of the Mother of God in the middle. In fact, it is not the pectoral cross which is the sign of the bishop in the East—since every priest is entitled to wear a pectoral cross—but the Encolpion, which no priest is permitted to wear without Episcopal Consecration. Not even a "Mitred Archpriest."

The icon even penetrated the intimacy of family life. It is a tradition in devout Russian families that before the marriage ceremony, the parents of the bride bless her with an icon, generally an icon of the Virgin. That icon, carried by a boy, precedes the bride in the procession which leads her to the church for the marriage ceremony. Afterwards, that icon is placed in a special place of honor in the home, usually in its "krasnyj oogol" (red/beautiful) corner, also called at times the "icon corner." I have one in my house—many here on Ecunet have seen it. It's not grandiose, just intimate.... A small vigil lamp, burning day and night, hangs before the icon. Other icons often surround the main icon, and every pious visitor entering the house would visit the icon corner, venerate the icons, bowing before them and proclaiming his faith in the Risen Lord by blessing Himself threefold, even before greeting the members of the family—for an icon corner in a Russian house means that Christ rules here and is head of the house. A visit to Mary "is" a visit to Christ, for where you find the Son, you will find also the Mother, as you did throughout her life.

With that "same" icon, the parents would one day bless their son as he left them to study at the university, perhaps, or to do his military service, or to take up arms in the frequent wars inflicted on Russia over the centuries.

The Icon Of Loving Kindness

One of the reasons why the Vladimir Mother of God became so popular is, of course, its exceptional beauty. It belongs to that class of icons called "loving-kindness" because it depicts the mutual loving-kindness of the Mother and her Child. In contrast to other icons in which the divinity of the Child-God and the majesty of the Mother are primarily emphasized, I find this icon a particularly moving expression of human tenderness and feeling.

The Virgin has her head covered with a veil in the manner of Oriental women. This veil, dark in color (to signify her humility), by its contrasting hue, brings out the brightness of the Child's garment.

On her forehead is an exquisite star (suggesting nobility of thought), and that same star is shown again over her heart.

The black veil which is drawn down to her eyebrows covers her entire head, even her forehead. With its gold-edged border falling symmetrically on either side, it forms a kind of halo and, by contrast, brings out all the delicate features of her face.

The raised eyebrows, together with the curve of the nose and the motionless gaze of the dark eyes directed into space, lend to the face of Our Lady an expression of sorrowful concentration. It seems as if the corners of the mouth were slightly lowered, intensifying he impression of sorrow, whereas the shadow thrown by the lashes onto the eyes renders the pupils still darker and more misty, making them fall back into a depth inaccessible to direct contemplation.

Her hand scarcely touch the infant. They seem also to have been immobilized by the thought which absorbs her so completely, adding still more to the effect of intense concentration and sorrow.

The Divine Child, on the contrary, is represented with a lively, tender movement; in pressing His face against His Mother's cheek, He appears to be offering her solace, knowing, as He does, her hidden sorrow. His face is brighter than hers, showing that He wants to give her hope. But she, apparently paying little heed to her Child's caress, stares into the distance with deep human feeling. Her gaze is inwardly turned, not to the human child, but to the Maker of the World, born of her. She bends towards the infant, seeking within Him mercy for those who come to Him, and sheltering them with her intercourse.

There is no weakness in the figure of the Child but only the strength, the dignity and the majesty of the God-Made-Man. The upper part of His body is portrayed more slenderly than the lower, which may have been enlarged when the extra boards were added for extra width. (The same is true of the veil. While the face of Mary on this icon is certainly the original, the veil (or "maphori"), seems to be a little too large for the face; in the 13th century the veil was enlarged to fit in with a slight enlargement of the whole icon.)

The Holy Child, His left hand slipped behind His Mother's head, clasps her neck and presses His left cheek to her right cheek; nearing His lips to hers, He stretches His right hand to her left shoulder in order to embrace and to kiss His Mother. His right hand shows a certain strength and power. The purple and gold-colored garment of the Child indicates His Majesty and Royalty. The artistry of the shadows and the hatching (the inlaying with fine lines) all give the garment something very akin to a sheen.

It is impossible to discover all the richness of this icon at its first glance; one needs to contemplate it....long and "often". It possesses the characteristic of all true and beautiful never tires of it, so rich is the painting, so harmonious and delicate, so uplifting to the soul.

Meditation Before The Madonna

In their humility the icon painters never signed their works. The pious, anonymous monks, who, ten centuries ago in Greece painted this Madonna who would later become so intimately connected with the life of the Russian people, expressed in her face, a serene sorrow which no other painter would ever depict so sorrowfully again.

Of what was the Blessed Mother thinking, in the artist's mind? Whence comes her sorrow? To speak of the suffering Christ endured in Calvary would not be enough. The Risen Christ no longer suffers. Those sufferings which are past would not justify the painter in depicting Our Lady in the present. But, in His Mystical Body, which is the extension of His Being throughout space and time, Christ continues to suffer. She, who during the Passion was called upon to stand aside while His physical body was torn down through the centuries, has had to witness the tearing also of His Mystical Body too. Heresies and schisms, apostasies and betrayals, all have separated member from member. And those who have divided the Body of Christ have sinned and must repent. And those who would maintain the division have sinned. And must repent. And those who would seek to pretend to a unity that does not exist by sanctioning all divergences from the One Teaching of Christ have sinned, and continue to sin. And must repent. She is sad and sorrowful because the Body of Christ still suffers, still is torn, still is rent, like the Veil in the Temple, from top to bottom. And all have sinned.

The Silent Church

The Vladimir Mother of God, taken away by force from her devout faithful, enclosed in a museum in the middle of secular paintings, symbolizes first of all the immense suffering of the Silent Church—those Churches in all those countries which suffered under the Crosses laid upon them at the insistence and threat of the Soviet government.

A hundred years ago, the major problem for Christians was to send missionaries to the countries of Asia, Africa, the Sub-Continent of India, where Christ had never been known, or only by the few. Today the Gospel has been preached everywhere, but the problem now is to "keep" Christ and His church known and loved, not only in all those countries raped while under the Communist yoke, but those who, free of that yoke, sullied and soiled themselves in the excess of self-will and cowardly selfishness.

In Russia, where once there were thousands of churches, there now stand very few; and the few priests who remain are still not truly free to instruct. Minds are deceived in ways very different from the ways in which they are deceived here—and those in Russia are prevented from hearing the Voice of Christ; there prevented by force majeur, here by willing deafness. Until very recently all public defense or teaching of religion was banned in Russia, and even now no calumny or lie is spared to divert from Christ those who would heed the Word of the Church. While tens of "millions" of anti-religious books have been published, at the expense of the state, not a single catechism has been printed there for 75 years.

Could not Catholics from all over the world try to thwart the violence of those who battle to prevent the Voice of Christ being heard by taking, in some way, the place of those who are not able any longer to venerate the Vladimir Mother of God... "publicly"? Can fathers and mothers, teachers in our Catholic schools, find any more suitable religious art to educate the artistic and religious tastes of our children.

That icon, hung in all our churches, in all our Catholic homes, would remind us every day of the sufferings of believers everywhere, but particularly in Russia, many of whom still go to the Tretiakov Gallery, not so much to see the Icon of the Madonna, but to "venerate" discreetly their imprisoned Madonna....

Disunited Christianity

The liberation of Russia and the existence of religious freedom in that country would still not remove the great "second" sorrow of the Church so intensely expressed on the face of the Madonna of Vladimir. It is a fact that the Vladimir Mother of God is one of the most beautiful representations of the Virgin the world possesses. It is no less artistic than the paintings of Fra Angelico and Raphaello—and perhaps still greater. Yet, strange as it may seem, the Western world is largely oblivious of its presence, as it is of so very many other things.

Part of the ignorance has been that the Soviet Government literally imprisoned the icon. But the greatest sin is borne, not by Communists, nor their government, but by Christians, who have allowed themselves to grow estranged, estranged even to the point of hostility, and often of downright enmity.

Pope John XXIII, who lived for many years among us Eastern Christians, chose as the first aim of his pontificate, the reconciliation of the Churches of the East with the Church of Rome. And in the Council itself, that particular purpose became more intensively than ever before, the purpose of the "whole" Catholic Church, Eastern and Roman alike.

One of the most visible things which Eastern and Western Catholics and Orthodox still share is their love of Our Lady. John XXIII, speaking to the Armenian Catholic Church on February 1, 1959, said that the best assurance of reconciliation between Catholics and Orthodox "is" our common love of our common mother, uncommon in this, that in addition to being our Mother, she "is" the "Mother of God," the "Theotokos."

A Prayer To The Virgin Of Vladimir

Mary, Queen of Heaven
We honor your icon, before which the Russian people pray.
We beg of you, to look with favor and motherly care
On that great nation and to lead it to faith and friendship with us all.

We are blessed to have your Russian image
In a place of honor.
We pray to you, and work with you, for the full liberation of Russia
And for the peace of the whole world.

And for the forgiveness of the sins of all those of us
Who have so terribly riven the Body of Christ.

This message has been duplicated with permission courtesy of the Fishnet conference of OSC. For signup information, call 800-733-2863.