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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Vyshhorod Icon of the Mother of God

A case study in Eurasian practice of temple robbery. What made this 11th-century Byzantine icon, a gift from Constantinople to Kyiv, transform into Russia’s relic?
16 August, 2011 - 00:00


If one proceeds from what is laid down in Acts, 13:47 (For so hath the Lord commanded us, saying, I have set thee to be a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the ends of the earth), and assumes that any government is called upon by God to spread the Christian faith all over the world, then the fall of the medieval Byzantine, Roman, Kyiv Rus’, Spanish, British, French, and Portuguese colonial empires appears to be an anomaly. Take the Byzantine Empire. The Christian faith was adopted there under Constantine the Great. This helped to Christianize a number of peoples in the Caucasus, Middle East, Balkan Peninsula, and Kyivan Rus’-Ukraine. Suddenly, in 1453, it was raided and massacred by the infidel Turks. Where is the logic? Why did God allow this to happen?

Our Lord Jesus Christ has many secrets which He, in His infinite wisdom, prefers to keep away from the mortals. We can, however, analyze historical facts and try to understand His justice. Each empire is an embodiment of evil, with tyranny and violence as invariable travel companions. Each empire is thus unable to proliferate Christianity with its love-thy-neighbor key tenet. Apart from historians, anyone with even a vague idea about world history will realize this after looking up what the rulers of those empires did to the minor ethnic groups after baptism. Our Lord must have reached the end of His patience and ordered them to be destroyed. We Ukrainians should forever be grateful to Byzantium for persuading Princess Olha and her grandson, Saint Volodymyr, to adopt Christianity and baptize Kyivan Rus’. Humbly and with devotion, we shared this faith with the Krivichi [the forefathers of today’s Belarusians. – Author] and Finno-Ugric peoples in the north and east. What happened after 988 A.D., when Kyivan Rus’ was baptized? Clergymen from Rus’-Ukraine would not be ordained as metropolitans of Kyiv, except two, namely Hilarion [of Kyiv – Ed.], in the mid-11th century, and Kliment Smoliatych in the mid-12th century. The Greeks succeeded in ousting both, simply because, in their opinion the Greek faith (as they identified Eastern Orthodox Christianity at the time) had to be shepherded by Greek archpriests/metropolitans, rather than “heathens.” In Kyivan Rus’ the Greek metropolitans of Kyiv proceeded to implement standard practice, trading in bishoprics, sowing the seeds of discord among the princes, their offspring, and boyars. They did so because the profits were enormous, considering that each claimant to the Kyiv princely throne had to grease their palm.

Greeks brought icons from Constantinople to Kyiv, each with a suitably touching legend. In fact, all such icons would be regarded as miracle-working holy images from then on. Thus, the icon of the Mother of God of Pyrgos, that of Dormition, kept at the Pechersk Caves Monastery, the one known as the Tender Mother of God in Vyshhorod, etc., have been mentioned by old Ukrainian literary sources and chronicles. The Patericon (Lives of Saints) of the Kyivan Cave Monastery, a mid-13th-century Ukrainian literary relic, contains several short stories about how the Greeks provided Kyivan Rus’ with icons. More than two hundred years had elapsed since the Greeks started supplying icons and the completion of the Patericon before these tales started being committed to paper. The Greeks made sure of that; they wanted everyone to believe that Kyivan Rus’ would never be without their help. Greek domination continued even after Kyivan Rus’ had been destroyed by Batu Khan. Proof of this is that the short stories contained in the Patericon start not on the foundation of the Cave Monastery, not by eulogizing Saints Anthony and Theodosius as its founding fathers, but on the construction of the Dormition Cathedral, the arrival of Greek architects and icon-painters.

Patericon’s short story about the arrival of Byzantine icon-painters at Kyiv, then under Hegumen Nikon, reads that the Greeks were concerned about the money due them, rather than the icons and their religious importance: “Let us have judges because judgment is what we desire. We were shown [commissioned for. – Ed.] a small church and we made a contract witnessed by many people. This church is very big. You can have your gold [coins paid us. – Ed.] back and we shall return to Constantinople.” After they were told that their claims were ungrounded, they handed over the pieces of mosaics they had brought for sale and decorated the altar.

“For as long as it existed, the Byzantine Empire, its higher- and lower-ranking priests agreed on one thing: All Christians, regardless of place of residence, were to be treated as subjects of the Emperor.”

This Greek dominance and their direct or indirect propaganda to the effect that all things of Rus’ were inferior compared to anything of Greece prompted young — and not so young — Kyivan Christians to ask Greeks to bring sacred things from Constantinople because, allegedly, such Ukrainian things were not to be trusted. And no such things were given as presents, only sold at a price higher than the prime cost. There is no way to ascertain the appearance of the Byzantine icon of the Tender Mother of God in Vyshhorod, although there are quite a few pertinent literary sources. Judging by the fragments of the original icon — the Virgin Mary’s face and that of the Child (the rest being painted in the 15th and 16th centuries and lacking artistic perfection) — this icon must have been created by a talented artist at the Studion Monastery, the largest one in Constantinople, with a big studio where icons were made and handwritten manuscripts illustrated. The monastery and the studio were under the auspices of the emperor and patriarchs. Here icons and other costly [religious. – Ed.] items were produced as gifts for important guests to Constantinople, as well as goods to be sold abroad or as bribes for [foreign. – Ed.] ranking officials whose good offices the Greeks sought to reach certain goals.

This icon was created at the Studion Monastery soon after Alexios I Komnenos [also known as Alexius I Comnenus. – Ed.], the first emperor of the Komnenian dynasty, took office in 1081. A young energetic, determined and learned ruler, he would hold office for 37 years (1081-1118). From the outset he gave a strong impetus to the Byzantine foreign service and his court needed beautiful costly icons to be presented to ambassadors. Alexios I paid special attention to the powerful state of Kyivan Rus’-Ukraine, considering the long-standing conflict between Constantinople and Kyiv in regard to the Crimea and Balkans. He established an active businesslike contact with the energetic Prince Volodymyr Monomakh of Kyiv. It happened in the twilight of Alexios I’s office. Prince Volodymyr would rule Kyivan Rus’ for 12 years (1113-25). In fact, both families of young aristocrats established relationships as their members got married, receiving patrimonial estates and gifts.

It is safe to assume that the icon of the Tender Mother of God found its way to Kyiv as part of the Monomakh princess’ dowry as she married Isaak, Alexios I’s youngest son. This holy image is permeated with maternal love; it might well have been a message to the princess, telling her to love and be faithful to her royal spouse. It is further safe to assume that this icon found itself in Kyiv in the second decade of the 12th century. It was some time before the icon was transferred to Sts. Borys and Hlib Church in Vyshhorod, the home temple at the residence of the Kyivan Prince and family. However, St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Kyiv appears to be the most probable place where the icon was kept. If it were at the Pechersk Monastery of the Caves, the Patericon would have mentioned the fact.

This icon is believed to have been transferred to Vyshhorod in 1136, under Prince Yaropolk Volodymyrovych, son of Monomakh. While Kyivan Rus’ was ruled by Volodymyr Monomakh and his sons, Mstyslav, Yaropolk, and Viacheslav, this icon was said to work miracles, healing ailing people, protecting cities against domestic and foreign invaders (e.g., Kyiv and Vyshhorod). This could not but attract an increasing number of believers to Vyshhorod. People prayed in front of this icon and their close and dear ones, wounded during the war, would have a clean bill of health; people drowned would surface and live on; stolen property would be located and returned to the lawful owner. Above all, this icon helped all true believers who begged our Lord to rid them of their deadly ills.

This icon helped to proliferate the Eastern Orthodox faith amongst the peasants. They remembered Volodymyr Monomakh as a kind, sensitive man, and that the wonder-working icon was brought to Rus’-Ukraine under his rule. The author of the Hypatian Codex (also known as Ipatiev Chronicle) says Monomakh was fond of metropolitans, bishops, and monks. When having to pass judgment on adulterers and drunks, he would order them to repent.

The popularity of this icon in Vyshhorod is often associated with the popularity of Kyivan Prince Volodymyr Monomakh and his sons. He was Monomakh and this Greek word means absolute ruler. He was kind and friendly toward the common folk. He took care of their needs, and he did not have any plans in terms of aggression against other countries. Chronicles read that after his death, in 1125, he was remembered as a good administrator who believed in our Lord Jesus Christ and had a big kind heart. Some chroniclers described him as a ray of the sun in the darkness, shed on Kyivan Rus’-Ukraine, that his glory survived his passing, and that the common folk tearfully mourned his death the way parents would mourn their children’s sudden demise.

What made this Vyshhorod icon so very popular in Kyivan Rus’, apart from its miracles, was its deep-reaching psychological impact on the viewer. It stayed in Rus’-Ukraine for about 20 years and was then taken away by force from Vyshhorod. This icon has remained reverently popular with the believers over hundreds of years. Its effect on the faithful remains the same these days, even in copies. We see it as a Ukrainian relic, regardless of what others may have to say on the matter, including those who actually stole it from Rus’-Ukraine… This icon is a masterpiece of Byzantine art, specifically the Komnenian style. Regardless of the subsequent additions by other artists, there are the clear images of the Virgin Mary and the Child. This is sufficient proof of the icon’s quality. Interestingly, the images of the Virgin Mary and the Child are bright and clear, rather than tanned that was subsequently adopted as standard by late Byzantine and Muscovy-Suzdal icon-painting schools. The Komnenos style is apparent: orange and coral; the Virgin Mary’s small lips, straight thin nose, eyebrows, eyes without pupils. The image of the Child is brighter, as though lit from the inside, rather than the outside.

The Mother and the Son do not look at each other. Mary’s eyes have no pupils because she is staring at Eternity. In Her eyes one can glimpse prayer, hope, and sorrow. A closer look at the Child shows that He is looking upward, seeking His Father. He knows that his Mother gave Him His body. Two faces, mother and son’s, united by true love, and so many mysteries still to be discovered while investigating the Scriptures.

The Muscovite additions to the icon’s background are a far cry from the original Byzantine school. Small wonder, considering that there is ample evidence of the remarkable backwardness of icon-painting in medieval Muscovy. Apart from local eyewitness accounts, there is murderous criticism by foreigners, including Paul of Aleppo (Paul Zaim) who visited Muscovy in the mid-17th century, together with the Patriarch of Antioch. Iosif Vladimirov, icon painter with the Kremlin Armory, wrote to his colleague, court icon painter Simon Ushakov, sharing his view on the situation in Muscovite icon-painting in the 17th century: “Where else would you find such outrage but here? Ignoramuses are disgracing and humiliating the good old icon-painting art. As a result, lumberjacks and coopers keep townships and villages supplied with icons, each being a slapdash work. Some of the images do not even look human, as though portraying savages.”

Vladimirov also mentioned the so-called blackboards, something the Russian icon painters were and are still proud of, alleging that such dark wood used for icons is proof of their genuine antiquity. Vladimirov wrote that such shabbily painted icons, with savage images, were put in ovens or chimneys (a sign of luxury at the time) and thus “aged.” He wrote: “Since when it has become traditional to portray the images of saints as dark or tanned? Not all of our saints were dark or tanned, let alone emaciated. Assuming that some of them were determined to ruin their bodies and thus looked not like healthy humans, after their deaths they should be rewarded as saints and granted attractive visages, while the sinners would be given unattractive ones. After all, a number of saints were attractive-looking during their lifetime, so how can one portray them with such dark unattractive faces?… After the great prophet, Moses, received God’s tablets on Mount Sinai, the sons of Israel could not look at his face because it had turned into a blinding spot of light. If so, how is one to regard his icon images in dark colors?”

Under the circumstances, along with Russian testimonies, this icon could not have been possibly completed by adding images at the edges, something seen with the naked eye. Had this icon been painted by one artist, there would have been no need for such meticulous additions. As it was, the icon found itself being transported hither and thither, lacking proper museum care, being snatched from one robber’s hands by the next bandit (hence the damage to the original image). In fact, the original thief, Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky, son of Yuri Dolgoruky (Andrei would turn traitor to Kyivan Rus’) brought the stolen relic to Vladimir-on-Kliazma all the way from Vyshhorod, through forests and marshlands, thus exposing it to the worst possible damage. Once there, they used standard thief’s practice, renaming the icon as the Theotokos of Vladimir (also known as Our Lady of Vladimir or Virgin of Vladimir). That is why Russia’s experts on the arts prefer to avoid mentioning its original title. On several occasions this miracle-working icon was taken from Vladimir-on-Kliazma to Moscow, brought back, then taken to Moscow again. Under the Bolsheviks, it was stored at the Tretyakov Gallery. Currently, it is kept in the Kremlin, and its condition leaves much to be desired. The holy image almost fell apart when touched by the Moscow patriarch.

Russian historians try to legitimize the stolen icon, claiming it was actually saved by the separatist Prince Andrei during the time of trouble in the mid-12th century, when the Rus’ princes vied for the Kyiv throne. Hrushevsky refutes this falsehood in his History of Rus’-Ukraine, relying on chronicles and numerous documents. He exposes the true reasons behind Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky’s raids on Ukraine. After he realized there was no way to the Kyiv throne, he decided to destroy the capital city and establish a new one somewhere in the north-south of Rus’. “He was raised in the Volga region and Rus’-Ukraine with its long history and folkways was strange and unattractive to him. Secretly from his father he fled from Vyshhorod to Suzdal in 1155, with the stolen icon of the Mother of God of Vyshhorod, originally brought from Byzantium… Andrei sought to destroy or [at least to. – Ed.] humiliate Kyiv; he wanted to reign supreme in his native city of Vladimir. He proceeded to destroy Kyiv, but this undermined his prestige, so he decided to keep the situation under control while residing at any of his Rostov-Suzdal estates, handing it over to his helpful princely underlings. This would have caused an embarrassing situation and new suffering for Kyiv, but for the death of Prince Andrei that cut short his plans.”

Chronicles read that Batu Khan’s Mongol troops did not inflict as much damage on Kyiv in the mid-13th century as Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky did, sanctified by the Russian Orthodox Church, together with his bandits. They raided the capital city and murdered Kyivans in 1169. Hrushevsky wrote: On March 8, 1169, on Sunday, the second week of the Lent, the Allies seized Kyiv and showed no mercy. [‘Allies’ was Hrushevsky’s reference to all those semi-savage ‘black-hooded monks’ who showed unmatched ferocity when dealing with the populace, which was the main reason behind Prince Andrei taking them along on his rampage campaign. – Author.] His troops looted [Kyiv. – Ed.] for two days, including Podil and Hora, the monasteries, among them St. Sophia’s Cathedral and Church of the Tithe [dedicated to. – Ed.] the Mother of God… Churches were burning and Christians massacred, while others were made slaves. Their loot was abundant as they had taken all church interior icons, religious books, chasubles, and bells… Kyiv was previously seized by those who claimed this capital city of Rus’ as their own… That time [Kyiv, – Ed.] faced a formidable enemy who wanted simply to humiliate and destroy it. The chronicles had the right to say that nothing like that had ever happened before in Kyiv.”

World history is undoubtedly packed with stories about pitched battles, mind-boggling death tolls, macabre details, including plunder. History is a science meant to dot the I’s and cross the T’s. Russia must be an exception to the rule, in that its propaganda machine upholds Andrei Bogolyubsky, a church thief, bandit, killer of Christians, as a national hero, a saint with the Russian Orthodox Church. Russia’s larger and smaller museums are packed with works of art originating from Ukraine. This Vyshhorod icon is a drop in the ocean. Russia’s archives store tons of documents relating to Ukrainian history. I know that today’s Andrei Bogolyubsky’s will never let us have these archives back. We must, however, remember that they have this data, and that this data is what is genuinely Ukrainian. Hrushevsky wrote that Andrei Bogolyubsky could not carry out his plans because our Lord called him in.

By Dmytro STEPOVYK, Ph.D. (Fine Arts, Philosophy, Theology), full-fledged member of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine