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A Jewel Within a Jewel

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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Golden onion domes sit atop the fortified hill like an imperial diadem. Its golden crosses stab the sky. Red, green and blue roof tiles dance a polannaise in front of the silver backdrop of the Moscow sky. This riot of color bursts forth from the seat of Soviet Communism. To westerners the Kremlin symbolizes oppressive Communist rule. However, to Russian Orthodox Christians, it is the glory of God’s Presence in Holy Mother Russia.

Churches, cathedrals, monasteries and palaces vie each other for attention. Each structure, regardless of size, has played a significant role in Russia’s complex history of glory and gloom. However, none is dearer to the Russian than the Uspensky Sobor, the Cathedral of the Dormition. Named in honor of Our Lady’s death and assumption, the cathedral was the site of the czar’s coronation and the seat of the Russian patriarch. The structure is a masterpiece of medieval Russian art. Gilded frescoes and gem encrusted icons dazzle the eye. Enshrined within this bejeweled reliquary is the holiest relic of Russia, the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir.

The rough amber surface of the icon is encrusted with layers of dusty pigment. Though damaged and worn due to centuries of devotion and decay, the painted image remains intact. Jesus, wrapped in a gold and white tunic, clutches his mother. His embrace is lost in the weightlessness of Mary’s black mantle. His left arm encircles her attenuated neck, their cheeks are tightly pressed together. Mary’s almond-shaped eyes peer into space, oblivious to the force of Jesus’ embrace. Jesus is a shrunken old man, his face hardly the face of a child. Since the 12th century this image has been the intimate link between God and the Russian nation.

To the Orthodox Christian, an icon is not merely a representation of Jesus, Mary or the saints. It is a channel of grace. In pre-Revolutionary Russian culture, icons were often endowed with personalities of their own. Our Lady of Vladimir was no exception. Mary’s intercession was invoked to bless the armies that defended 14th century Moscow from the Mongolian invader. In the 17th century the icon was carried in procession to boost the morale of the soldiers who fought to defend Moscow from the powerful Poles. And it was reported that Stalin used the icon to bless the Red Army in the fight against Nazi Germany. Our Lady of Vladimir was undoubtedly a Russian patriot.

Since the Revolution the icon has been exhibited in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, a copy of the icon is now in the cathedral, today a museum. Our Lady of Vladimir, even in the isolated environment of the Tretyakov Gallery, continues to command awe and respect. It has often been noted that hats are taken off in respect, quick signs of the cross are made and a general deferential silence pervades the room that houses the hallowed relic. No longer an official national symbol, the icon retains a powerful hold on the hearts of the Russian people.

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Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s vice president for communications.



Tags: Orthodox Church Russian Orthodox Church Communism/Communist Soviet Union