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USA, New York City:

The Kursk Root (Korennaya) Icon of the Mother of God of the Sign

In her Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sign (Znamenia Cathedral), 75 East 93rd St. But she travels a lot, visiting her Russian Orthodox children all over the world. To make sure she is home check her schedule here or call the cathedral at (212) 534-1601. 13th century, about 18 inches high, painted icon with precious metal, enamel cover. For more on her original home see Kursk in this index.

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.

Her name:
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.

Her story:(*2)
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

Since its miraculous appearance in the forest of Kursk in the 13th century, the wonderworking icon of the Mother of God of the Sign, has been a constant source of healing, comfort and deliverance from calamity to countless numbers of Orthodox Christians. With its departure from the Russian land following the defeat of the White Army, the icon continues its miraculous aid in all the countries it is carried to.
A book entitled The Hodigitria of the Russian Emigration, authored by Bishop Seraphim (later Archbishop of Chicago and Detroit, now reposed), was published in 1955 (in Russian), giving a lengthy account of the history of the Kursk icon and the miracles performed by it. In 1976 Archbishop Seraphim issued a supplement to this book, containing more recent accounts of miracles which he had gathered in the course of some 20 years.

A couple of themes in the long stories told on the website strike me: the aspect of the Mother of God which is present through this holy icon often doesn’t heal people directly or instantaneously. Instead it works in conjunction with humans. She seems to demand their cooperation in the effort to heal.


The Mother comforts her children in Australia.

The most famous example is Saint Seraphim (born Prokhorus Moshnin) who was born in the city of Kursk in 1759. At the age of 9 Prokhorus became so ill that he wasn’t expected to recover. Just at that critical time, in his sleep he had a vision of the Most Holy Mother of God promising to visit and heal him. Next time the wonderworking Kursk-Root Icon was carried in procession through Kursk, it went through his family’s property. His pious mother Agathia took her sick child in her arms and carried him out to the Mother of God. The boy kissed the Icon and, soon after, he completely recovered.(*3) Of course the Queen of Heaven could have healed him in the initial vision in the dream, but she wanted someone to bring her icon near him and his mother to carry him to her. Only then did she grant healing.
Similarly Galina Alexandrovna, was healed in 1949 only after her fiancée Sergei Shenuk found a way to bring the Kursk Root icon to her hospital room, ceremonies were performed, and with that the patient improved to where a necessary operation could be performed. She lived, married Sergei, and became pregnant only with divine intervention after 4 years of not being able to conceive.
In 1963 her husband became seriously ill and was in and out of hospitals for 1 ½ years. The doctors couldn’t find a way to heal him. Finally the miracle-icon made it to his bedside and he knew all would be well. But it still took a friend visiting and coming up with a new treatment idea that the doctor in charge wanted to reject but found himself accepting instead (all by divine influence).
The next story involves Maria Smimova and her fiancée. In 1953, she was deadly sick with tuberculosis. The doctors had given up on her. Finally her fiancée at least was able to pray for her in the presence of the holy icon of the Dark Mother. He was in the USA at the time and Maria in Europe. Here is his account of his meeting with the Madonna:
“On the analogion in the middle of the church, all in the glow of many candles, lay the miracle-working image. I also put up a candle and for the first time in my life drew near and venerated this great and holy icon. I was caught up by an unusual feeling of joy and reverence. For the first time in several years I saw tears of compunction on many faces. The holy wonder-working icon lay some two or three paces from me! The unusual spiritual fervor engulfed me. Some kind of link of the present and past passed before me. I did not feel time — I was outside of time. I relived my childhood and youth. Everything was here in this image, and somehow, involuntarily, a fervent mental prayer began to pour forth of its own accord. "Dear Mother and Protectress, heal my ailing Maria, and unto the end of my days I will not eat meat on Wednesdays and Fridays!" (At that time I did not know that by church regulations, Orthodox Christians are not permitted to eat meat on Wednesdays and Fridays.)”
Again the patient only recovered to where an operation was finally possible. Only after that did she become completely well again. – Fascinating how Holy Mary made the fiancée take a vow for life. She needs us to do our part. It is not minor and sometimes making deals with God really works!
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*1: For a great website about other miracle working icons of black and white Madonnas in the Russian Othodox church click here.
*2: As told on the Russian Orthodox websites orthodoxwiki.org and fatheralexander.org. I edited the text some.
*3: http://en.nycathedralofsign.org/history1.html