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.

The Semicircular Hall, the Sorbonne, and St. Serafim of Sarov

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The Semicircular Hall is one of the best-known gala halls and rooms of the Aleksandr Palace. Over the years, it’s remained just as Giacomo Quarenghi designed it, with the exception of replacing the Russian stoves on either side of the entrance with marble fireplaces. The walls are of white marble, and the apse’s central doors look out onto a terrace overlooking the palace’s gardens. The hall itself opens through broad, columned arches into the Billiard and Portrait Halls.

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Copyright Vitold Muratov

The Semicircular Hall was used for balls, gala dinners, receptions, and other special events. Because the Aleksandr Palace was meant as a summer palace, the doors to the gardens and the palace’s front doors were open when the hall was used, revealing quite a beautiful vista. This immense, airy hall could seat up to 400 or 500 people during one of its famously large gala dinners or social events.

During the final years of the dynasty, the Semicircular Hall was also used to show films and slideshows, usually on Saturday nights. This hall was sadly the last place the Imperial Family saw before their exile to Tobolsk. On Aleksey’s 13th birthday, 30 July/12 August 1917, they stayed up all night and day waiting in the hall with their luggage, until finally the train was cleared and the order was given to move out early the next morning.

The Sorbonne, as seen from Rue Saint-Jacques, Copyright (WT-shared) Riggwelter

Le Collège de Sorbonne is the historical home of the University of Paris, which today houses several higher educational institutes. It was founded in 1257 as a theological college, and soon rose to become France’s most distinguished theological institute. In 1792, during the French Revolution, it was closed, but then reopened by Napoléon in 1808. It never regained its former prestige, though it continued operating till 1882. A new building was constructed from 1884–89.

Door to the Sorbonne, Copyright François Trazzi

In my alternative history, Aleksey attends the Sorbonne from 1922–26, on the suggestion of Grand Duke Mikhail, his uncle and Regent. He’s the first Tsar to receive a university education instead of immediately coming to the throne as soon as he’s of age. Without a well-rounded education and real-world experience outside of palace gates, his desire to be a good, reforming Tsar won’t automatically translate into successful actions. During his time in Paris, he lives in the Belleville neighbourhood of the Twentieth Arrondissement, a very working-class area with many immigrants.

Saint Serafim of Sarov (né Prokhor Isidorovich Moshnin), 19 July/1 August 1754 or 1759–2/14 January 1833

St. Serafim of Sarov is one of the most belovèd Russian saints and mystics. He was born in Kursk, and at age 19 joined a monastery in Sarov. In 1786, he took his final vows and received the name Serafim. Shortly after becoming a monastic priest, he adopted a hermitic lifestyle. He was attacked by bandits while chopping wood one day, beaten with his own axe, and left for dead. Miraculously, he survived, but was left with a hunchback.

Ikon depicting St. Serafim’s life

He became a confessor in 1815, and many miracles and prophecies were attributed to him. Hundreds of pilgrims came to him every single day. Though he was very tough on himself, given his ascetic lifestyle, he greeted everyone joyously, treated them very kindly and gently, and called them “My joy.” He died while praying before the beautiful Umileniye ikon, believed to show Mary at the moment of Annunciation. This is one of those rare Orthodox Marian ikons depicting Mary alone.

In 1903, the year he was canonised, Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Aleksandra travelled to the Sarov monastery. Since so many miracles had been attributed to him over the years, they felt he might finally answer their desperate prayers for a son.

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The Umileniye (Tenderness) Ikon, of which St. Serafim was very fond, and before which Nicholas and Aleksandra might’ve prayed in 1903. A replica of this ikon was also in the Imperial Family’s private chapel in their belovèd Fyodorovskaya Cathedral.

Obviously, their prayers were finally answered, but not in the way they’d expected. Their prayer was just answered differently, more challengingly. They still got a beautiful little boy who constantly bounced back from the jaws of Death and grew into a sensitive, compassionate young man who promised to be a great Tsar.