The Kursk Root (Korennaya) Icon of the Mother of God of the Sign
It is ironic that the only “real” Black Madonna (not just a copy) in the USA isn’t actually a Black Madonna in the strict sense. Certainly she is dark, ancient, miraculous, strong willed, and connected to the earth. But she is Russian Orthodox and the Orthodox Church doesn’t give the title ‘Black Madonna’ to any images. Its Madonnas are usually dark. If they are very special, they carry other beautiful titles like “glorified icon”.(*1)
I include the Kursk Root icon in this index for three reasons: 1) because she shares so many characteristics with Black Madonnas. 2) because North American lovers of the Dark Mother should avail themselves of any opportunity to meet her in person. 3) in gratitude to people like a certain David, who brought this Madonna to my attention.
Kursk is the city in Russia near which this icon was found. ‘Root’ recalls that she was found at the root of a tree, as will be explained below. But I think there is a deeper meaning that echoes in this title – something to do with the Mother of God being our root, our mother who came from the earth and grew into the Divine. In the "Hail Queen of Heaven", a famous Marian prayer, Mary is simply addressed with "hail root and gate..." Certainly to her Russian Orthodox children the Kursk Root icon also represents their roots in Russian soil.
Mother of God of the Sign is a very common type of Orthodox icon of Mary where she is depicted in the ancient posture of prayer (standing and with arms outstretched) while carrying Jesus within her. To me, this perfectly exemplifies what we are to do in meditation: know that God is in you and let go of everything else in perfect surrender.
In the 13th century, during the dreadful period of the Tartar invasion of Russia, the devastated province of Kursk was emptied of people and its principal city, Kursk, became a wilderness. Now, the residents of the city of Rylsk, which had been preserved from invasion, often journeyed to the site of Kursk to hunt. One of the hunters, going along the bank of the river Skal, noticed an icon lying face down on the ground next to the root of a tree. No sooner had he picked up the sacred image than there immediately gushed forth with great force an abundant spring of pure water. This took place on September 8th, the feast day of Our Lady’s birthday, in the year 1295.The hunter constructed a small wooden chapel and placed the newly manifested image of the Mother of God therein. The residents of Rylsk began to visit the place of the manifestation of this holy object and the icon was glorified by more miracles. So many of the miracles involved the spring and another 7 healing springs nearby that I would call the place the Lourdes of Russia.
Soon Prince Vasily Shemyaka of Rylsk ordered that the icon be brought into the city of Rylsk. This was done in a solemn manner, with the people of the city going forth to meet the icon of the Mother of God; but Shemyaka himself declined to attend the festivities and for this reason he was punished with blindness. Realizing his mistake, he repented and straightway received healing. Moved by this miracle, Shemyaka constructed a church in the city of Rylsk in honor of the Nativity of the All-Holy Theotokos (Mother of God), and there the miraculous icon was enshrined on September 8th, the day of its manifestation, appointed as the annual feast date.
However, as so many Black Madonnas, she had a will of her own and kept miraculously returning to the place of her appearance. The residents of Rylsk continually brought her back, but each time she returned to her former place. Then, understanding that the Mother of God was well pleased to dwell in the place of the manifestation of her image, they eventually left her there in peace. Innumerable pilgrims streamed to the site and services of supplication were celebrated there by an ascetic priest called Bogoliub, who lived next to the wooden chapel.
In the year 1383, the province of Kursk was subjected to a new invasion of Tartars. They decided to set fire to the chapel, but it refused to burn, even though they piled up fuel all around it. So the Tartars accused the priest Bogoliub of sorcery. The pious priest denounced their foolishness and pointed instead to the will of the miraculous icon. That that, the malicious Tartars laid hold of it and cut it in two, casting the pieces to either side. The chapel then caught fire and the priest Bogoliub was carried off a prisoner.
In his captivity, the God loving man placed his hope in the all-holy Mother of God. One day, as he was guarding flocks and passing the time by singing prayers and doxologies in honor of the Mother of God, some emissaries of the Tsar passed by. They heard this chanting, arranged to ransom the priest from captivity, and Bogoliub returned to the former site of the chapel. There he found the pieces of the miraculous icon which the Tartars had cast away. He picked them up and straightway they grew together, although the signs of the split remained. Learning of this miracle, the residents of Rylsk gave glory to God and to His all-pure Mother. Again they attempted to transfer the holy icon to their city, but once more the miraculous image returned to its former place. A new chapel was then built on the original site of the icon's appearance and here it remained for about 200 years.
The city of Kursk was revived in the year 1597 at the command of Theodore Ivanovich of Moscow. This pious Tsar, who had heard of the miracles of the icon, expressed his desire to behold it. So it was brought to Moscow, where it was greeted with great solemnity. The Tsaritsa, Irene Theodorovna, adorned the holy icon with a riza (a precious metal cover to protect and adorn an icon). At the command of the Tsar, the icon was set in a silver-gilt frame upon which were depicted the Lord of Hosts and prophets holding scrolls in their hands. The icon was subsequently returned and, with the close cooperation of the Tsar, a monastery was founded on the site of the chapel. A church, dedicated to the Life-bearing Spring, was built above the spring that had appeared when the icon was first revealed. The monastery attached to it was called the Kursk Root Herrnitage in honor of the manifestation of the icon at the root of the tree.
During the next war, an invasion of Crimean Tartars, the icon was transferred to the cathedral church of Kursk, and an exact copy was left at the Hermitage. Tsar Boris Godunov bestowed many precious gifts for the adornment of the icon and even the pretender, the false Dimitry, who desired to call attention to himself and to win the support of those who lived in the vicinity of Kursk, venerated this icon and placed it in the royal mansions where it remained until the year 1615.
While the icon was absent from the city of Kursk, the grace-bearing aid of the Mother of God did not forsake that city, for when in the year 1612 the Poles laid siege to Kursk, certain of the citizens beheld the Mother of God and two radiant monks above the city. Captured Poles related that they too had beheld a woman and two radiant men on the city walls, and that this woman made threatening gestures at those who were conducting the siege. The besiegers were quickly put to flight. In gratitude the citizens made a vow to construct a monastery in honor of the all-holy Theotokos and to place the miraculous icon therein.
In March of 1898 a group of anarchists, desiring to undermine the faith of the people in the wonderworking power of the icon, decided to destroy it. They placed a time bomb in the Cathedral of the Sign, and at two o'clock in the morning a horrendous explosion rent the air and all the walls of the monastery were shaken. The frightened monks rushed immediately to the cathedral, where they beheld a scene of horrible devastation. The force of the blast had shattered the gilded canopy above the icon. The heavy marble base, constructed of several massive steps, had been jolted out of position and split into several pieces. A huge metal candlestick which stood before the icon had been blown to the opposite side of the cathedral. A door of cast iron located near the icon had been torn from its hinges and cast outside, where it smashed against a wall and caused a deep crack. All the windows in the cathedral and even those in the dome above were shattered. Amid the general devastation, the holy icon remained intact and even the glass within the frame remained whole. Thinking to destroy the icon, the anarchists had, on the contrary, become the cause of its greater glorification.
During the Bolshevik revolution, the icon disappeared from the Cathedral of the Sign on April 12, 1918 and was nowhere to be found. Thankfully it was rediscovered under the following circumstances: Not far from the monastery there lived a poor girl and her mother who for three days had not had anything to eat. At that time Kursk was controlled by the Bolshevik regime. On May 3, the girl, a seamstress, went off to the marketplace in search of bread. Returning home at about one o'clock in the morning, she passed by a well which, according to tradition, had been dug by St. Theodosius of the Caves. There, on the edge of the well, she beheld a package wrapped in a sack, and when she opened it, in the package she found the sacred icon. (I imagine someone fed her that night.)
At the end of October 1919, when the White Russian Army was evacuating the city of Kursk, twelve monks of the monastery took the icon from city to city until she ended up aboard a ship to Greece. From there she went to Serbia, back to Russia, back to Serbia and from there all around the Russian Diaspora: from Yugoslavia to Austria, Czechoslovakia and finally to Germany in the spring of 1945. The holy icon proved to be an unending consolation to many thousands of people who were experiencing all the trials and tribulations of the latter years of World War II. From Munich the icon was borne to Switzerland, France, Belgium, England, Austria, and many cities and camps in Germany itself. In 1951, the icon was transferred to the New World where it had its permanent residence first in the New Kursk Hermitage in Mahopac, N.Y., and then in the Synod's Cathedral Church of the Mother of God of the Sign in New York City.
At present, a festival is held in honor of the icon at the New Kursk Hermitage in Mahopac, N.Y., on the Sunday nearest the feast of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos, and in the Synod's Cathedral of the Mother of God of the Sign in New York City on November 27/ December 10.
Meanwhile in Russia, since 1618 to this day, every year (political circumstances permitting) on Friday of the ninth week after Russian Orthodox Easter, the icon of the Sign (or a copy of it when it is in the Diaspora) is solemnly borne in procession from the Kursk Cathedral of the Sign to the place of its original manifestation at the Korennaya (i.e. Kursk Root) Hermitage in Soboda Village (about 30 km from Kursk) where it remains until September 13th. Then it again is solemnly returned to the Kursk Znamensky Monastery for the winter. In the year 2005, 30,000 Russians attended the ceremonies.
Recent Miracles of the Kursk Icon of the Most Holy Mother of God