Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The Icon of Our Lady of Kazan

On the Julian Calendar, today is July 8th, the day on which the Russian Church commemorates the miraculous rediscovery of one of its most revered icons, that of Our Lady of Kazan. The original icon is traditionally said to have been brought sometime in the 13th century from Constantinople to the city of Kazan, which sits on the Volga river, roughly 500 miles directly to the east of Moscow. In 1438, the city was captured by the Tartars, at which point, the icon disappeared; it was recaptured by Tsar Ivan the Terrible in 1552, but half-destroyed by fire in 1579. The Muslim Tartar population gloated that the devastation of the city was a divine punishment against the conquering Christians. The Virgin Mary is then said to have appeared in a dream three times to a 10 year-old girl named Matrona, revealing to her the location where the icon had been hidden 140 years before to save it from the Tartars. On July 8, 1579, the girl and her mother recovered it from the ruins of a destroyed house; the miracles attributed to it in the following years played a significant role in gradually converting the local Muslims. A secondary feast is kept on October 22 (currently Nov. 4 on the Gregorian calendar), originally instituted to commemorate the preservation of Moscow from attack during a Polish invasion, which was attributed to the icon’s protection.

A copy of the icon of Our Lady of Kazan, ca. 1850 (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
A number of churches were built in honor of this revelation, including cathedrals at Moscow, St Petersburg and Yaroslavl, and numerous copies of the icon were made. (In the East, it is not unusual for there to be more than one church recognized as a cathedral in a given city; Moscow and St Petersburg both currently have eleven of them.) Very sadly, the original icon was stolen on June 29, 1904, from the church dedicated to the Mother of God where it had long been kept. (The church itself was later demolished by the communists.) The thieves, who had taken it for its golden and jeweled frame, were captured several years later, and claimed that the icon itself had been cut up and burnt. The icon had long been thought of as a kind of palladium of Russia, and many Russians ascribed the disasters which beset their nation in the following years, the 1905 Revolution, the embarrassing defeat at the hands of the much smaller nation of Japan in the war of 1904-05, the catastrophe of World War I, and the incalculable miseries inflicted by communism, to its desecration.

A 16th-century copy which was stolen from St Petersburg in 1917 was brought to Fátima, Portugal, in 1970, and remained there until 1993, when it was gifted to Pope St John Paul II, who kept it in his study. In 2004, as a gesture of magnanimity to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Pope returned it to the Orthodox Church, and it is now venerated at the cathedral of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Kazan. In Church Slavonic and Russian, the adjectival form of “Kazan” is “Kazanskaya” in the feminine; this copy is often nicknamed “Vatikanskaya.”
The rebuilt cathedral of the Mother of God in Kazan; image from Wikimedia Commons by Dmitry Sagdeev, CC BY-SA 4.0
I have often used videos from the YouTube channel of the Sretensky Monastery in Moscow to illustrate articles about the Byzantine liturgy, since their choir has and deserves a reputation as one of the best in Russia. Their singing at the All-Night Vigil yesterday evening (Vespers, Orthros and Prime) and the Divine Liturgy this morning was particularly good, which is what inspired me to share them here. These liturgies were celebrated in skete, a kind of smaller and semi-eremitic monastery, often dependent in some way on a larger one; I am unsure of the precise location, but the church is very beautiful. Even a cursory description of these ceremonies would take longer to write than to listen to, but you can read the proper liturgical texts in English at this link:

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