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.