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Russia, Kazan:

Mother of God of Kazan

Kazan, the capital of the autonomous Russian republic of Tatarstan, lies about 500 miles East of Moscow. In the Cathedral of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, or Cross-Exaltation Cathedral, Bolshaya Krasnaya street 5, Tel.: 292-29-44, part of the former Monastery of the Theotokos, on the site where the original icon of Our Lady of Kazan was found, 18th century copy of the ancient original, painted on lime wood, 31.5 x 26.1 cm.

As I have explained elsewhere, the title Black Madonna is not normally given to any Orthodox icons. As Ean Begg says, if it ever is “it is late and probably due to the influence of Catholicism.”(*1) Well, maybe due to Catholicism this, the most famous of Russian icons, is often referred to as the Black Mother of God of Kazan by non-Orthodox people.(*2) The only evidence I have come across that at least some Orthodox Russians may also call her the Black Mother of God of Kazan stems from a travel account by Wilhelm Joest, a German anthropologist with a museum to his name. In 1880 he crossed Siberia in a horse drawn wagon and quotes his Russian driver as swearing “by the holy black virgin of Kazan”.(*3) So here she is with Baby Jesus standing on her knees, blessing the world with his right hand.

Her story goes back at least to the 12th century, though some like to think that she was a Byzantine icon, painted in Constantinople.(*4) We don’t know where she came from. All we know is this:

In 1209, the Bulgarian area on the Volga that comprises Kazan was occupied by Tartars, a tribe of Mongolians, and the icon disappeared. It took more than three centuries until Tsar Ivan the Terrible in 1552, could re-conquer the vast territory that had been held by the Tartars.
Once Kazan was back under Christian control, it was time for the Black Madonna to reappear. As so often, there are conflicting versions of the legend that tells of her discovery. The account below is taken from www.ReginaMundi.info, a Catholic website in honor of Mary, the Queen of the World (‘regina mundi’ in Latin). It quotes Ermogen, the first Orthodox bishop (Metropolitan) of Kazan. He was still a simple priest at the time of the events though he later became the Patriarch of all Russia. He recorded not only the discovery of the holy icon, but also the miracles accomplished through it.
The modern day orthodox diocese of Kazan tells the story a bit differently from him. It gives a similar but different name and age for the young girl who is the main character. More importantly, it portrays the bishop and priests as fully supporting her from the start and physically helping in the effort of finding the icon.(*5) Ermogen would disagree, it seems. Here is a summary of his account:

In 1579, a fire almost completely destroyed the city of Kazan, including a soldier’s home, forcing him to resettle elsewhere. As he and his family were traveling to their new home, Our Lady appeared to the daughter, nine year old Matriona (or 12 year old Marfa according to the other version). The Mother of God asked Matriona to announce to everyone that the holy icon of the Mother of God of Kazan was buried under the ruins of the family house. No one believed the story of the girl; everyone thought she was just in shock because of the violent fire. So the Virgin appeared a second time in a dream to Matriona, but this time the girl didn’t say a word about it to anyone. A third vision followed, in which Matriona saw the little icon emanating a bright light and heard these words: "If you won’t announce what I tell you, I will appear in another place and a great calamity will befall you." Now she spoke up, but again her message was rejected by both the Governor of that city and by Archbishop Jeremiah. Matriona then begged her mother to accompany her to the place where their house once stood. The woman, unable to stand the incessant crying of her daughter, decided to go with her. On July 8th 1579, mother and daughter dug with great vigor at the place the child had seen in the dream until they uncovered the holy image, wrapped in nothing but an old cloth, but perfectly preserved. Now the clergy was convinced of the supernatural properties of the icon and it was carried in solemn procession to the nearby church of San Nicola.
Soon two blind men, Joseph and Nikita, recovered their sight when they prayed before the Madonna. Since then the icon had the reputation of making the blind see and grateful people who had been healed, began to offer emeralds.
Later it was decided to place the icon in the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Kazan until a convent could be built in the place of its discovery. Matriona became a nun and eventually the mother superior of that convent.

The cult of the Mother of God of Kazan was not limited to her home town. In fact, since the rediscovery of the original, copies were painted and worshiped in different regions of the country. Some of them also gained reputation for being miraculous, especially when the imperial family reported that a copy of the Mother of God of Kazan had worked miracles for them and Tsar Ivan the Terrible.
Tsar Fyodor I Ivanovich (1557-1598) and Tsaritsa Catherine the Great (1729-1796) both had sumptuous churches erected in honor of the Virgin of Kazan that housed wonder working copies of her. In 1721, Tsar Peter the Great also commissioned a copy to be placed in the cathedral of the new capital of St. Petersburg.

From 1605–1618, the Russo-Polish War raged. It was a series of inner Russian conflicts, into which outer forces were drawn to the point where Poles occupied Moskow from 1610-1612. When the Polish Catholic King Sigismund III, an enemy of Russian Orthodox Christianity, declared himself Tsar of Russia the people mobilized against him under the banner of the Mother of God of Kazan. In 1612 St. Sergei (died in 1392) appeared to Bishop Arseni, to tell him that the Lady of Kazan would intervene in battle.(*6) So she was sent to Moscow to lead the resistance against the Poles. The liberation of the city, on October 22nd , was attributed to her intercession and so she became venerated as the "Liberator of Russia". Later she defended that title with victories over the Swedes in 1709 and Napoleon in 1812.

In 1904, this most famous of Russian icons was stolen, presumably for the precious stones and metals of its covering (the riza). The original Mother of God of Kazan was never seen again. Rumor has it that she was burnt by the thieves and that this desecration was what opened the door to all the evil that followed the Russian Revolution.(*7)

In 1918, with the Revolution in full swing, the last, desperate political act of Tsar Nicholas II, was to consecrate his empire to the Mother of God of Kazan. Alas, it was too little too late; a few days later he and his entire family were arrested and killed.
Soon all three of the remaining most famous copies of the icon disappeared. It seems that they were burnt by the Communists. Only the one commissioned in 1721 by Tsar Peter the Great may have survived. For decades many thought that the one you see above was that copy of the Tsar’s family. Some Russian experts doubt this. Instead, they say it is an 18th century copy that used to hang in the monastery of Serafimo-Diveeskij not far from Nizhny Novgorod. However that may be, now this is the only old, really precious Russian icon of, and therefore the Black Mother of God of Kazan.
How did she survive the communist era when all religious objects were banned? She was sold to the West by Russian smugglers.
Meanwhile, in their effort to thoroughly erase religion from the mind of the people, the Communists endeavored not only to destroy all copies of the Mother of God of Kazan, but also the churches that had housed them. In Kazan a tobacco factory was built in the place where her church had stood, in Moscow a public toilet, and in St. Petersburg a museum of atheism! But, as the Marxist Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) wrote in his great work The Mother, the Madonna is "the invincible enemy [of atheism]." Of the huge complex that used to be the monastery of the Mother of God of Kazan only one little side church survived and that’s where the holy icon dwells today.

In 1950, the icon was bought by the Englishman F. A. Mitchell-Hedges from the merchant Kazano Shevliagin. On the death of Mitchell, his daughter Anna inherited it. The Orthodox bishop of San Francisco, John Shakovsky, who had become aware of the existence of the icon, persuaded the woman to give permission to display the masterpiece in the Russian pavilion at the International Exhibition of 1964. Given the great renown thereby achieved by the icon in the West, Anna Mitchell-Hedges proposed to sell it to the Orthodox bishop for half a million dollars. Shakovsky launched a series of initiatives to raise the necessary funds, but despite his constant efforts was never able to do so.

In 1970, the icon was bought instead by the Blue Army, a Catholic organization founded in 1947 to spread devotion to the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima, Portugal. Part of the messages the Mother of God gave in Fatima had to do with her wish to “convert Russia” (from communist atheism). After long negotiations, the purchase price was settled at $140,380.(*8) The sacred icon was moved to a Byzantine chapel in Fatima where Orthodox and Catholic Christians alike prayed before it for the conversion of Russia. It was always understood that Our Lady of Kazan would be returned to her native land upon its conversion.

In 1993, after the collapse of the communist regime, when it was clear that Christianity was resurging in Russia, the icon was given to Pope John Paul II so that he could determine the right time and the best way to return it to its native land. While leading negotiations with the Russian government and the Orthodox Church, he kept it in his private apartment in the Vatican. John Paul had great devotion to Our Lady of Fatima. Hence his decision to give the icon back to Russia meant that he believed the “conversion” called for at Fatima had already happened. He did not believe, as some members of the Blue Army did, that Russia needed to “convert” in the sense of becoming Roman Catholic. Indeed, John Paul made it clear that he believed the salvation of Russia will happen through Orthodoxy, and that he hoped for a future when Latin and Byzantine churches might come together as one family of faith, each preserving its legitimate autonomy. To further this end, he wanted to personally bring the Black Mother of God of Kazan back to her homeland, but the Orthodox Church blocked his visit. Apparently they didn’t want to help their rival gain more publicity and good will.

And so, on August 28, 2004, the feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God in the Orthodox calendar, John Paul II bid the sacred icon adieux with a solemn act of devotion and off it went with a Vatican delegation. With great ceremony they made their entry into the Cathedral of the Assumption in the Kremlin in Moscow and handed the precious treasure over to the Patriarch of Moscow. The festivities were attended by a great number of religious and faithful, including President Putin. It was a momentous confirmation of the new renaissance of faith in Russia and an event that united the country at least for that moment.

On July 21, 2005, the feast day of the holy icon, it was transferred to the Annunciation Cathedral of the Kazan Kremlin, with a great crowd of pilgrims welcoming her to her hometown. It was the mayor of Kazan, Kamil Ischakov, who had convinced Moscow to send her home as soon as an appropriate church was available to house her. He also saw to it that the city and state would help pay for the necessary renovations to churches damaged during the Soviet era. Ischakov is a Muslim, as is half the population of Tatarstan, but his veneration of the Mother of Jesus shouldn’t come as a surprise. For one, Islam has the highest respect for her. (For more on that read “Mother Mary and Islam”.) Secondly, today’s Tatarstan is a precious model of peaceful coexistence of the faiths that are in conflict almost everywhere else in the world: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. It is also a model of good relations among Orthodox and Catholics, both of whom have great devotion to the Black Madonna of Kazan. In an interesting article, a Muslim cleric explains that this tolerant attitude of the Tartars is due to the fact that many centuries ago, they converted to Islam by their own free will and under the highly intellectual guidance of the caliphate of Baghdad, not by force as so many other Muslims and Christians did.(*9)

In 2008, the icon was again transferred, this time hopefully for the last time. She went home to the newly restored Cross-Exaltation Cathedral, which is part of the former Monastery of the Theotokos, built on the place where she was found in 1579.
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*1: Ean Begg, The Cult of the Black Virgin, Penguin Books, London: 1985, p. 251
*2: E.g. in the American Interest magazine’s article on “Our Lady of Kazan and American Pluralism
*3: Wilhelm Joest (my great grand uncle), Aus Japan nach Deutschland durch Siberien, etc., British Library, 1883, p.294
*4: Much of this account is taken from the article L'Icona della Madonna di Kazan on an Italian website in honor of Mary, Queen of the World (regina mundi).
*5: See article on the website of the Kazan Diocese, Convent of Kazan Icon of the Mother of God
*6: Philip Coppens, A supernatural icon for Mother Russia
*7: See Wikipedia article on Our Lady of Kazan
*8: To be precise: $15,380 down payment, plus 5 annual payments of $25,000. At least this is the account that reliable sources like Notre Dame University of Dayton gives in the article: The Return of Our Lady of Kazan to Russia.Others, like Sandro Magister, cited below, say the Blue Army paid 2 million dollars for her.
*9: Sandro Magister, The Madonna of Kazan Has Worked a Miracle in Her Homeland: Peace among the Religions, sub heading “The Muslim Mufti” Great article on interfaith cooperation and friendship in Kazan.