The Tikhvin Icon: The Protectress of Russia

Two Romes have fallen and a fourth there will not be. This was not something said out of pride, but was given to us as a warning: if Moscow shows itself to be unworthy, the world will be left without a central Christian power. The Tikhvin icon, in addition to demonstrating Russia’s great calling, like the Kursk icon, served also as a symbol of the Holy Virgin's presence in Russia during difficult times. This was especially seen 200 years after the appearance of the icon, during the Time of Troubles in the beginning of the seventeenth century, when Russia suffered from the Swedes and from Lithuanian and Polish gangs of thieves as well as its own. On the Eastern side of the Novgorod lands, the Tikhvin icon served as the “spiritual center of defense” against Russia’s foes. Ancient copies of this icon consoled Russian exiles in the twentieth century, and one of these copies can be found in Paris—in the metochion church of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra; while another, which perhaps may even be the original icon itself, is located in the United States.[1]

Vladimir Ryabushinsky

The history of the Tikhvin icon to this day remains a mystery. Traditionally, it was believed that the icon was painted by the Apostle Luke himself, who then sent it as a gift to Theophilus in Antioch. The icon was then for some time located in Jerusalem, then in the fifth century was brought to Constantinople by the Byzantine Empress Eudocia. During the period of the heresy of iconoclasm, the icon was hidden in the Pantocrator Monastery, and afterwards became one of the most revered relics of Constantinople. It is believed that the icon later on disappeared from the church were it was kept, and reappeared again only in 1383 in the Novgorod region of Rus’ near the town of Tikhvin.

The icon was noticed by fishermen near Lake Ladoga as it appeared to be drifting downwards from the sky, and, after much prayer stopped near the Tikvhin River—a tributary of the Syas River which flows into the Ladoga. Soon afterwards, a church dedicated to the Dormition of the Holy Theotokos was built there, and the miraculous image was hung on the right pillar of the church near the western entrance doors.

This event took place exactly half a century before Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks (in 1453). The miraculous transfer of the icon from the “Second Rome” to the Third was taken as a sign that the center of Christianity would soon become Moscow.

During the reign of Ivan the Terrible, a men’s monastery was built around the Dormition church in Tikhvin, which attracted thousands of pilgrims from all over Russia. The Tikhvin icon became renowned for the many miraculous healings that were wrought through it by the grace of God. Furthermore, when the Swedes once attacked the Tikhvin monastery, the Mother of God gave instruction to one pious woman to make a procession with the icon around the monastery, after which the Swedes were, by a miracle, for no apparent reason, thrown into a state of fear and fled. For this reason, the Tikhvin monastery was always kept in high regard by pious Russian tsars.

Another miracle that took place soon after the Tikhvin icon was found was the appearance of the Holy Theotokos and St. Nicholas the Wonderworker to a local church warden—Yurish (or Yury, George). When the first wooden church was built in the Prechistenskoye Pogost (the future town of Tikhvin), Yurish went to inform neighboring peasants that church services would now take place there. On his way back, he saw in radiant light the Most Pure One, holding a staff in her hand, and next to her was St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. Later on, icons depicting this appearance became well-known, for through them by the grace of God were also wrought miraculous deeds in several places: in Pavlovskoye village of the Zvenigorodsky county, in Epifanovka of the Gorbatovsky district of the Nizhny Novgorod province, and in Alekseevka-Losevka near Voronezh.

Every year twenty-four processions were made around the Tikhvin monastery with the icon. The icon itself was covered with a precious-metal frame, and a golden icon-lamp hung before it. The monastery itself prospered until it was closed down during the soviet period, and the miraculous image was then taken to a local museum, where, as it seems, no serious scientific research was ever conducted on it.

During the Second World War, the city of Tikhvin was briefly seized by the Nazis, and with their departure the miraculous icon was nowhere to be found. Some say the icon was seen in 1944 in one of the antiques shops occupied by the Germans in Riga. From there the icon was taken to Chicago, and has since been returned to the Tikhvin Monastery, which was reopened.

According to ancient historical descriptions, the icon is painted in the Greek style and is of a significant size. The face of the Theotokos is dark, almost black. Over the centuries it has been restored quite a few times. In all likelihood, the last one to restore the icon was Ignatius the Greek, who worked for Yuri Dmitrievich, the prince of Moscow. It has long been observed that the hand of the Mother of God on the icon "emits an extraordinary physical warmth that is tangible to the lips when venerating the icon." According to rumors, an X-ray analysis conducted in America has confirmed the presence of anomalous behavior in that area of the icon. The Tikhvin icon belongs to the “Hodegitria” (Way-shower) style of iconographic depiction of the Holy Theotokos, which depicts the Holy Theotokos in a half-portrait style with her face turned to the right from the point of view of one standing before the icon (although according to pious tradition, the right and left sides of icons are usually determined from the point of view of those who are depicted on them); additionally, the hand of Christ is depicted making the sign of the Cross with two fingers.

In the second half of the sixteenth century, Russian scribes had already begun to identify the Tikhvin icon as the Blachernae icon of the Theotokos—the most important relic of the “Second Rome”. However, others however believe that the original Blachernae icon was actually brought to Mt. Athos and in 1653 was transferred to the Holy Dormition Cathedral in Moscow.

Whatever the case, it was during the time that Catholic expansion was gathering strength in the lands surrounding Russia that the “Tale of the Tikhvin Hodegitria” appeared, in which the Roman Pope Formos, who was considered the “number one culprit of the Latin heresies,” was especially mentioned. Thus, the Tikhvin icon was seen by the Russian people as a predominant symbol that Russia was now the successor of the Second Rome and holds primacy before Rome. The Tikhvin icon, belonging to the number of icons written by St. Luke the Evangelist himself, also served as proof that the two-finger sign of the cross, which the icon depicted the Savior making, was of an ancient origin. Thus, after the schism in the seventeenth century this fact acquired especial importance and the icon served as proof of the ancient origin of the two-fingered sign of the cross even to illiterate Christians. Also, for this reason, the “Tale of the Tikhvin Hodegitria” was reprinted secretly several times during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and to this day remains one of the favorite books of the Old Believers.[2]

Furthermore, for the same reason, small copper icons depicting the veneration of the Tikhvin icon were also popular, and were made either separately or as a part of larger icons that depicted multiple scenes. On the top of such small icons in the center would be depicted the Tikhvin icon, while Sts. Cyril of White Lake and Alexander of Svir were depicted to the left and right respectively. Both saints were founders of famous monasteries in the Northern Thebaid, and the Mother of God had appeared to both of them during their lives. On the bottom of the icon the Three Holy Hierarchs—Sts. Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom—were depicted together with St. Nicholas the Wonderworker (which, by the way, reminds us of the vision Yurish had of the Mother of God and St. Nicholas). And finally, between the four saints, a northern Russian forest with church steeples protruding above the treetops is depicted. The forest was the place of prayer and asceticism of many saints, and it also reminds us of the wonders wrought by the grace of God in these regions through the Tikhvin icon. Additionally, according to popular belief, it was thought that the Tikhvin icon was "given the grace of preserving the health of infants."

One of the most ancient and revered copies of the original Tikhvin icon is located in the Moscow Kremlin. Other copies include ones found at the St. Panteleimon Chapel near the Vladimir gates of Kitai-gorod, the Novodevichy monastery, and the Nikola-schepov church [all in Moscow]. Historically there existed 9 churches consecrated in the name of the Tikhvin icon (including one Old Believer church). One of the nine churches is located in what was formerly the village of Alekseev but is now a region in the north of Moscow, and it was never closed down during the Soviet period (according to one legend, in the autumn of 1941, Stalin took the copy of the miracle-working Tikhvin icon that was given to this church by tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich in order to make a procession with it by airplane around beleaguered Moscow); another in Sushchev (the church here was closed down and services were once again resumed only in 1992); and another—the church of Simonov and of the Donskoi Monastery—at the Medvednevsk almshouse (now the Central Hospital of the Moscow Patriarchate). The Tikhvin “Berezhki” churches in Dorogomilovo, Luzhniki, and the Skorybashchensky monastery were demolished, while the Old Believer Church on Havas street was turned into a pub for so-called “New Russians”. And finally, there were six Tikhvin churches on the banks of the Neva River (one parish in Ligovka, where services were resumed in July 1993, one house church, and four in the Alexander Nevsky Lavra and its metochions).

The Tikhvin monastery, in addition to the original Tikhvin icon, also had several copies of the icon; the most revered one of which was the so-called “Militant icon” that local soldiers carried with them during the War of 1812 and Crimean War.

Other copies of the Tikhvin icon that also became well-known are those from the St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg (which became especially famous after many miraculous healings of children), the Resurrection Church of Novgorod the Great (appeared in 1643), Dankov in Ryazan province, Zemlyansk in Voronezh province, and the Holy Trinity-St. Daniel Monastery in Pereslavl- Zalessky.

Several monasteries and sketes were named after the Tikhvin icon. One of the famous sketes of the Valaam monastery (located on an island about 27 kilometers from the archipelago where the original Tikhvin icon was once first seen), and a few women’s monasteries: in Yekaterinoslav, Tsivilsk near Kazan, the settlement of Borisovka of the Graivoronsky district of the Kursk province, and near Kerensky south of Penza (where in 1687 a locally venerated copy of the Tikhvin icon was found).

Another copy of the Tikhvin icon was located in the altar of the Cathedral of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple at a monastery near Tikhvin. The copy was brought as a gift by the fourth wife of Ivan the Terrible, Tsarina Darya, who became a nun and then later on the abbess of that monastery.

In truth, it is simply impossible to count all of the Tikhvin parishes, monastery churches and copies of the Tikhvin icon. However, like a fragment of a mirror that reflects the sun no less than a whole mirror does, so can these copies transmit to the world the grace of the original Tikhvin icon.

The Tikhvin icon is commemorated June 26/July 9, and the following troparion is sung on that day:

Troparion, mode 4

Today, like the eternal sun, / Your Icon appears in the sky, O Theotokos. / With rays of mercy it enlightens the world. / This land accepts the heavenly gift from above, / Honoring You as the Mother of God. / We praise Christ our Lord who was born of You. / Pray to Him, O Queen and sovereign virgin / That all Christian cities and lands be guarded in safety, / And that He save those who kneel to His divine, and Your holy image, O unwedded bride. [Translation from].

From the book In Thee the World Rejoices!”

Nadezhda Dmitrieva
Translation by Feodor Nemets


[1] The original Tikhvin icon was removed from the monastery in Tikvin by German looters during World War II, and ended up in Riga. From there it was taken to the United States to save it from the soviets by Bishop John (Garklavs). From 1949 to 2004, the icon was kept in Chicago. It was solemnly returned to Russia after the fall of communism in 2004, and is now once again in the Tikhvin assumption monastery.—Ed.

[2] The Old Believers continue to this day to make the sign of the cross with two fingers instead of three.—Ed.

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