Theotokos of Vladimir

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Theotokos of Vladimir, tempera on panel, 104 x 69 cm, painted about 1130 in Constantinople

The Theotokos of Vladimir (Greek: Θεοτόκος του Βλαντιμίρ), also known as Our Lady of Vladimir, Vladimir Mother of God, or Virgin of Vladimir (Russian: Владимирская Икона Божией Матери) is a medieval Byzantine icon of the Virgin and Child that has been in Russia since soon after it was painted. It is one of the most venerated Orthodox icons and a fine and early example of the iconography of the Eleusa type.[1] The Theotokos (Greek for Virgin Mary, literally meaning "Birth-Giver of God") is regarded as the holy protectress of Russia. The icon is displayed in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow in a former church in the grounds of the museum.[2] Her feast day is June 23rd o.s. / July 6th n.s. Even more than most famous icons, the original has been copied repeatedly for centuries, and many copies have considerable artistic and religious significance of their own.[3] The icon is a version of the Eleusa (tenderness) type, with the Christ child snuggling up to his mother's cheek.

Unlike some icons with a special following in religious terms the high artistic quality of the work is universally agreed, and the Vladimirskaya, as Russians call it, is generally accepted as the finest of the few Byzantine icons surviving from its period, and according to the art historian David Talbot Rice "is admitted by all who have seen it to be one of the most outstanding religious paintings of the world".[4]


As a work of art, the icon is dated to the earlier part of the 12th century, and a date shortly before its arrival in Russia about 1131, according to the chronicles, seems plausible.[5] Like other Byzantine works of high quality, it is thought to have been painted in Constantinople, and is regarded as the finest panel icon surviving from the Comnenian period, the few survivors from which vary considerably in quality. Only the faces and hands are original, with the clothes repainted after suffering damage when a metal cover or riza was placed over them,[6] and in a fire in 1195.[7] The work shows a humanity and tenderness new to Byzantine art in this period.[8] The reverse of the icon, which is much less well known, has a 15th-century image of the "Prepared Table": a Hetoimasia with the Instruments of the Passion and other symbols.[9]

About 1131 the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople sent the icon as a gift to Grand Duke Yury Dolgoruky of Kiev. The image was kept in a monastery (according to a recent legend, in the Mezhyhirskyi Monastery, first mentioned in the 14th century) until Dolgoruky's son Andrey Bogolyubskiy brought it to his favourite city, Vladimir, in 1155.[10] Tradition tells that the horses transporting the icon stopped near Vladimir and refused to go further. People interpreted this as a sign that the Theotokos wanted her icon to stay in Vladimir. To house the icon, the great Assumption Cathedral was built there, followed by other churches dedicated to the Virgin throughout Ukraine. However the presence of the icon did not prevent the sack and burning of the city by the Mongols in 1238, when the icon was damaged by fire. It was first restored after this, and again before 1431 and in 1512.[11]

According to the traditional accounts the image was taken from Vladimir to the new capital, Moscow, in 1395 during Tamerlane's invasion. The spot where people and the ruling prince met the icon is commemorated by the Sretensky Monastery. Vasili I of Moscow spent a night crying over the icon, and Tamerlane's armies retreated the same day. The Muscovites refused to return the icon to Vladimir and placed it in the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Moscow Kremlin.[12] However David Miller suggests that the icon was in fact normally still in Vladimir, with some excursions to Moscow, until the 1520s, and that crediting the icon with saving Moscow in 1395 does not appear in sources until the late 15th century, and the full version of the story until accounts of 1512 and then the 1560s.[13] The Tretyakov website today says the icon came to Moscow in 1480.[14] Undoubtedly, by the 16th century, the Vladimirskaya was a thing of legend, and associated with the growth of Russian national consciousness based on the Muscovite state.[15] The intercession of the Theotokos through the image was credited also with saving Moscow from Tatar hordes in 1451 and 1480.[citation needed]

The icon of the Theotokos of Vladimir is sometimes described as expressing universal feelings of motherly love and anxiety for her child. Like some other icons it was believed to have been painted by St Luke from its living subjects. The venerated image was used in celebration of coronations of tsars, elections of patriarchs, and other important ceremonies of state.

A detail of the Virgin's left eye and nose in the icon is part of the logo of Icon Productions, founded by Mel Gibson.[citation needed]

See also


  1. Tretyakov Guide, 280
  2. Tretyakov Guide, 278-80
  3. Evans, 164-165, showing an early copy also in the Tretyakov.
  4. Rice, 89
  5. Weitzmann, 17; Tretyakov Guide, 280; Runciman, 154; Rice, 89 in 1946 said "about 1100", and previously it had been sometimes dated considerably before that.
  6. Weitzmann, 17; Miller, 658
  7. Miller, 658; Runciman, 154
  8. Runciman, 154; Rice, 89
  9. Tretyakov Guide, 280
  10. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  11. Miller, 658-659
  12. Evans, 165
  13. Miller, 658-665
  14. Tretyakov website
  15. Miller, 669-670


External links