Posted in Religion

The Umileniye ikon

The Umileniye (Tenderness) ikon is extremely unusual in Eastern Orthodoxy, in that it shows Mary alone. Almost all Orthodox Marian ikons depict Mary with Baby Jesus, in contrast to most Catholic images of Mary.

This ikon was very precious to St. Serafim of Sarov, one of the most beloved of all Russian saints. He was very fond of praying before this ikon. The oil from the lamp he kept burning in front of it was used to anoint the sick and bless visitors who came to make confession.

It was the last thing he saw in that lifetime, as he died while in prayer by it. He called this ikon “Joy of All Joys.”

In 1903, the year Serafim was canonized, Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Aleksandra went to the Sarov monastery to desperately pray for a son. Since so many miracles had been attributed to him, they felt he surely would answer their prayers.

They finally got their boy, but not in the way they’d expected. Their prayers were answered differently, more challengingly.

The Umileniye is believed to show Mary at the moment of the Annunciation, when she was told she’d have a child and humbly accepted this mission, with the reply, “Let it be to me according to your word.”

The Slavonic words around her halo say, “Rejoice, O Virgin Bride,” which is the refrain of the much-beloved Akathist Hymn.

Though some people think the ikon may have been inspired by Catholic art, it’s very common for the holy doors of an ikonostasis to depict Mary at the moment of Annunciation.

Today, the ikon is housed in the home of Patriarch Kirill of Moskva. A copy was left with the Trinity Cathedral of the Serafim-Diveyevskiy Monastery, a nunnery in the Nizhniy Novgorod district of Diveyevo.

On feast days, the original ikon is often brought out for public veneration.

Near the end of his life, St. Serafim gave the nuns of Diveyo 1,000 rubles to create an appropriate place for this precious ikon. After his death, the abbot of Sarov gave the ikon over to them. Presently, the sisters honored it with a silver riza.

A riza, which means “robe” in Russian, is a covering which protects ikons from damage by candle wax, incense smoke, and oil.

In 1903, after Serafim’s canonization, Tsar Nicholas II donated precious stones to make the ikon even more beautiful.

The Diveyevskiy Monastery has written this prayer to offer before the Umileniye:

My character Inga Savvina is very drawn to the Umileniye (and Theotokos [Mary] of Tolga) when she stays by her best friend and penpal Yuriy Yeltsin-Tsvetkov’s family’s summer home on Vancouver Island in the summer of 1947. She’s seen many ikons in her paternal relatives’ homes, but this is new to her.

Klarisa, the older of Yuriy’s two little sisters, tells Inga Mary is everyone’s mother, and that she’s very special to people without mothers. She suggests when Inga misses her real mother (who’s serving twenty years in Siberia), she can talk to Mary.

Though Inga has been raised an atheist, and resisted all religion during her five years in America, her unexplainable pull towards these ikons continues. She sees Mary as a loving, universal mother figure who’ll always support and listen to her, and eventually begins praying to her.

Yuriy performs an emergency baptism of Inga just before she falls unconscious from polio in August, and after she recovers enough to leave the hospital and marry Yuriy, she agrees to be chrismated by a priest.

Inga’s Orthodox conversion isn’t motivated by genuine spiritual awakening or religious belief, but she makes a genuine effort to grow into real belief. Along with her baptismal cross, she always wears a necklace with a miniature of the Umileniye, and continues building her relationship with Mary.

Posted in Religion, Russian culture, Russian history, Russophilia

The Fyodorovskaya Ikon of the Mother of God



The Fyodorovskaya Ikon of the Mother of God is the patron ikon of the House of Romanov and one of Russia’s most beloved ikons. The feast days are 27 March and 29 August. Like the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Marian ikons, it depicts Mary and Baby Jesus, instead of Mary alone, as is the case with most Catholic Marian ikons. It’s very unusual to find an Orthodox ikon depicting only Mary.

Since it so resembles the famous, widely-venerated Theotokos of Vladimir ikon, many people believe the Fyodorovskaya is merely a copy of that older ikon. (Theotokos, which is Greek for “God-bearer,” is the title frequently given to Mary in Eastern Orthodoxy.) In the wake of the Mongol sack of Gorodets, the Volga town where it was kept, it disappeared and was given up for lost.

As the story goes, on 16 August 1239, Prince Vasiliy of Kostroma got lost while hunting in the woods, and found an ikon among the firs. When he tried to touch it, it rose up into the air. Prince Vasiliy believed it a miracle, and went to get all the townspeople, who followed him back to the forest and fell on their faces in worship. The ikon was taken to Assumption Cathedral, where a fire soon broke out. Once again, the ikon miraculously survived. When the people of Gorodets discovered their ikon had been found, they demanded it back. Kostroma and Gorodets fought over it for a long time, till finally the people of Kostroma painted a copy and sent it to Gorodets.


In 1613, 16-year-old Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov received a copy of the ikon from his mother Kseniya, who’d been forced into a nunnery by the villainous Boris Fyodorovich Godunov. Kseniya was very frightened when her son was offered the position of Tsar, since things hadn’t gone very well for the last few people on the throne. However, she ultimately blessed Mikhail, and gave him that ikon to protect him and his descendants. The new Tsar Mikhail took the ikon back with him to Moskvá, and thus it became his family’s special protecting ikon. This ikon is the reason so many foreign brides took the patronymic Fyodorovna when converting to Russian Orthodoxy.

Over the years, several other cities requested copies for veneration, some of them quite ornate and fancy. It should be stressed that the Orthodox don’t pray to ikons, but rather venerate them, asking these saints to intercede with God on their behalf.


During the Romanovs’ tercentenary in 1913, Nicholas II commissioned a copy of the Gorodets original. However, at this point, it was impossible to work from the original, since it had become so badly blackened over the centuries. This was interpreted as a very bad omen for his dynasty.

Since the image has become so corrupted, the ikon hasn’t been donated to a museum like other ikons. Today, it has a home in Epiphany Cathedral in Kostroma, after surviving so many calamities over the centuries.