Theotokos of St. Theodore

Theotokos of St. Theodore

Fyodorovskaya Theotokos (Russian: "Федоровская Богоматерь"), also known as Our Lady of St. Theodore and the Black Virgin of Russia, is the patron icon of the Romanov family and one of the most venerated icons in the Upper Volga region. Her feast days are March 27 and August 29.

Church lore

Since the Fyodorovskaya follows the same Byzantine "Tender Mercy" type as the Theotokos of Vladimir, pious legends declared it a copy of that famous image, allegedly executed by none other than Saint Luke. It is believed that, before the Mongol invasion of Rus, the icon was kept in a monastery near the town of Gorodets-on-the-Volga. After the Mongols sacked and burnt the town, the icon disappeared and was given up for lost.

Several months later, on 16 August 1239, Prince Vasily of Kostroma wandered out of his way while hunting in a forest. While trying to figure his way out of the thicket, he saw an icon concealed among fir branches. When he reached out to touch it, the icon mysteriously rose up in the air.

The frightened and awestruck prince informed the citizens of Kostroma about the miracle he had witnessed and returned with a crowd of people to the forest. They fell prostrate before the icon and prayed to the Theotokos. Then the icon was transported to the city and placed in the Assumption Cathedral. A conflagration destroyed the cathedral with its icons soon thereafter, but the Fyodorovskaya was found intact on the third day after the fire. [For a complete list of the icon's purported miracles, see Сырцов В.А. "Сказание о Федоровской Чудотворной иконе Божией матери, что в г. Костроме". Kostroma, 1908.]

The people of Gorodets, situated considerably to the east of Kostroma, learned about the miracle. They recognized the newly-found icon as theirs and demanded it back. After a long litigation, the people of Kostroma had a copy of the icon painted and sent back to Gorodets.

Church legends differ as to why the icon was named after Saint Theodore Stratelates (Russian: Fyodor Stratilat, not to be confused with Theodore Tyro). One explanation is that, during Vasily's absence in the forest, several people claimed to have seen the apparition of St. Theodore walking the streets of Kostroma with an icon of the Theotokos in his hands.

A wedding gift?

Since the icon had to be overpainted several times during its history and by the time of the Russian Revolution of 1917 the image had almost disappeared from the icon, art historians disagree when and where the icon was created. Some propose an early 11th-century date; others date it as late as the turn of the 14th century. [See История русского искусства, том 1. Moscow, 1953.
Барская Н.А. "Сюжеты и образы древнерусской живописи". Moscow, 1993.
] A clue to the icon's provenance may be supplied by the image on the reverse side of the Fyodorovskaya. This image represents Saint Paraskevia, a saint whose veneration started in the Novgorod Republic at the turn of the 13th century.

Scholars believe that the image of St. Paraskevia is contemporaneous with the image of the Theotokos on the other side. This dating seems to confirm the Novgorodian origin of the icon, as it was only in the 15th century that the veneration of St. Paraskevia spread to other parts of the country. The saint's princely dress may indicate that the icon was intended as a wedding gift to a princess whose patron saint was St. Paraskevia. Only one such princess is known in the Rurikid family: Vasily Tatischev mentions that St. Paraskevia was a patron saint of Alexandra of Polotsk, the only wife of St. Alexander Nevsky of Novgorod. Indeed, the feast day of St. Alexandra coincides with that of St. Paraskevia (20 March). In the Rurikid family, it was customary for a groom to present his bride an icon representing her patron saint. [For instance, Boris of Volokolamsk (Ivan III's brother) presented to his bride, Princess Uliana Kholmskaya, an icon of St. Barbara, who was a likely patron-saint of the princess. See Николаева Т.В. "О некоторых волоколамских древностях", in Древнерусское искусство: Художественная культурa Москвы и прилегающих к ней княжеств XIV-XVI вв. Moscow, 1970.] On these grounds, Fyodor B. Uspensky concluded that the Fyodorovskaya was presented by Alexander Nevsky to his wife Alexandra-Paraskevia on the occasion of their wedding in 1239. [Литвина А.Ф., Успенский Ф.Б. "Выбор имени у русских князей X-XVI вв." Moscow: Indrik, 2006. ISBN 5-85759-339-5. Pages 383-385.]

If this theory is correct, the revered image of the Theotokos could have been commissioned by Alexander's father, Yaroslav II of Russia, [Масленицын С.И. "Икона "Богоматери Федоровской" 1239 г.", in Памятники культуры. Новые открытия 1976: Письменность, искусство, археология. Moscow, 1976. Maslenitsyn also argues that Yaroslav endowed the church of St. Theodore Stratelates in Kostroma.] whose Christian name was Fyodor and whose patron saint was St. Theodore Stratelates. Herein may lie the explanation of the label traditionally applied to this image. There are several possibilities as to how the icons could have surfaced in Gorodets or Kostroma. It is known that Alexander Nevsky had a palace in Gorodets and that he died in this town. On the other hand, Vasily of Kostroma was Alexander's brother and could have obtained the icon from him or his wife.


Up to the 17th century, the icon was little known outside Gorodets and Kostroma. Its fame spread all over Russia after 1613, when the adolescent Mikhail Romanov had been elected a new Russian tsar. Romanov lived in Kostroma with his mother Xenia, who had been forced to take the veil by Boris Godunov. At first the nun advised her only son to stay in Kostroma and decline the offer of Monomakh's Cap, citing the ignominious end of three previous tsars, who had been either murdered or disgraced. At last she gave in, blessed him with a copy of the Fyodorovskaya and asked the icon to protect Mikhail and his royal descendants. The young tsar took a copy of the icon with him to Moscow, where it came to be regarded as the holy protectress of the Romanov dynasty.

Apart from Kostroma, the Fyodorovskaya has been venerated in nearby Yaroslavl, where some of the oldest copies of the icon may be found. In 1681, the icon appeared in a dream to Ivan Pleshkov, who had been paralysed for twelve years, and commanded him to go to Kostroma, procure a copy of the icon, bring it back to Yaroslavl and to build a church for its veneration. As soon as he was cured of palsy, Pleshkov commissioned Gury Nikitin, the most-famous wall-painter of 17th-century Russia, who hailed from Kostroma, to paint a copy of the miraculous icon. The Fyodorovskaya church was built with funds provided by ordinary people; there is a treatise detailing all the minutiae of its construction and the miracles attributed to the icon in Yaroslavl. [Шабасова О.И. "Литературная традиция: сказания об иконе Федоровской Богородицы", in Вестник Костромского гос. пед. ун-та им. Н.А. Некрасова: Научно-методический журнал. Вып. 2. Kostroma, 1997.] The church was finally consecrated on 24 July, 1687. Since the Communists destroyed the Assumption Cathedral of Yaroslavl, the Fyodorovskaya church has served as an actual cathedral for the city and the whole archbishopric of Rostov, the oldest in Russia.

Another copy of the icon has been venerated in Gorodets, especially after the Fyodorovsky Monastery was reestablished in the early 18th century and a new copy of the icon was brought from Kostroma. This image was fitted into a golden chasuble inlaid with precious stones, so as to rival the original by its sumptuous decoration. During the annual Makariev Fair, the icon was brought for veneration to Nizhny Novgorod. [For details about the Gorodets copy, see История Федоровского Городецкого монастыря. Nizhny Novgorod, 2002 (reprint of the 1913 edition).] When the tercentenary of the Romanov dynasty was celebrated in 1913, Nicholas II of Russia commissioned a copy of the Gorodets icon, which he placed at the Royal Cathedral of Our Lady of St. Theodore, constructed to a design by Vladimir Pokrovsky in the purpose-built Fyodorovsky Town of Tsarskoe Selo.

It is said that Nicholas could not have a copy from the original image because the icon in Kostroma had blackened so badly that the image was hardly visible. This was interpreted as a bad sign for the Romanov dynasty. Indeed, the Romanovs were dethroned four years later and the Assumption Cathedral in Kostroma was blown up by the Bolsheviks. Unlike all the other great miraculous icons of Russia, the Fyodorovskaya was not taken into a museum, because the image was impossible to discern. The Black Virgin was given over to the sect of "obnovlentsy", which had it restored in Moscow in 1928. After the sect was dissolved in 1944, the icon reverted to the Russian Orthodox Church, which deposited it in the famous Resurrection Church on the Lowlands in Kostroma, from where it was moved in 1991 to the revived Epiphany Monastery in the same city. Recently encased into a sumptuous new chasuble, the icon is still venerated at this convent.


External links

*ru icon [ Fyodorovskaya icon on the website of the Russian Orthodox Church]

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