Our Lady of Vladimir

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Our Lady of Vladimir, tempera on panel, 104 by 69 centimetres (41 in × 27 in), painted about 1131 in Constantinople

Our Lady of Vladimir[a] is a medieval Byzantine icon of the Virgin and Child and an early example of the iconography of the Eleusa type. It is one of the most culturally significant and celebrated pieces of art in Russian history.

The icon was painted in Constantinople by an unknown 12th century artist. It was sent to Kiev as a gift before being transferred to the Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir. It is traditionally said that the icon did not leave the city until 1395, when it was brought to Moscow to protect the city from Mongol invaders, although the historical accuracy of this claim is uncertain. By at least the sixteenth century, the icon was in the Dormition Cathedral in Moscow, as accounts of this story became widespread. Following the Russian Revolution, the work was in the State Tretyakov Gallery. In the 1990s, it was relocated to the Church of St. Nicholas in Tolmachi, where it remains today.

Despite near destruction in the thirteenth century, the work has been fully restored at least five times since then. Several national miracles have been ascribed to Our Lady of Vladimir, and it is venerated on three different occasions within the Russian Orthodox Church.



As a work of art, the icon is dated to the earlier part of the 12th century dated sometime shortly before its arrival in Rus around 1131. This is consistent with the account given in the chronicles.[1][2][3][4] Similar to other high quality Byzantine works of art, it is thought to have been painted in Constantinople.[4][5][6] Only the faces and hands are original, with the clothes repainted after suffering damage when a metal cover or riza was placed over them[1][4] and in a fire in 1195.[4][3]

About 1131 the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople sent the icon as a gift to Grand Duke Yuri Dolgorukiy of Kiev.[7] Academic Sona Hoisington attributes this in part to a greater effort by Byzantines to convert and christanize the Slavic peoples at the time.[8] The image was kept in a monastery until Dolgorukiy's son, Andrey Bogolyubsky, brought it to Vladimir in 1155.[7] Bogolyubsky soon constructed the Dormition Cathedral and did this all to help legitimize his claim that Vladimir had replaced Kiev as principal city.[9] In 1169, he plundered Kiev and stole religious artwork including the Byzantine icon "Mother of God".[7]

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[b] wanted her icon to stay in Vladimir. To house the icon, the Assumption Cathedral was built, soon followed by other churches dedicated to the Virgin. 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, though. It was first restored after this, and again before 1431 and in 1512.[10][11]

Transfer to Moscow[edit]

First published in 1512, a legend was formed that the icon was painted by Luke the Evangelist from its living subjects.[12] The intercession of the Theotokos through the image has also been credited with saving Moscow from Tatar hordes in 1451 and 1480.[13]

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 the Muscovites met the Vladimir delegation to receive the icon is commemorated by the Sretensky Monastery[c] which is considered to be built where it occurred. However, no archeological evidence is able to support this claim, and much of the fifteenth-to-sixteenth century church was destroyed after renovations by the Russian Orthodox Church.[14] Vasily 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 Dormition Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin.[15]

However, David Miller suggests that the icon was in fact normally still in Vladimir, with some excursions to Moscow until the 1520s. 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.[16] There is less doubt that, by at least the 16th century, the Vladimirskaya was a thing of legend and associated with the growth of Russian national consciousness based on the Muscovite state.[17]


Under the rule of the Bolsheviks, the icon came under control of the State Tretyakov Gallery where it was stored as a simple art piece.[18] In 1993, Our Lady of Vladimir was taken to Epiphany Cathedral for a religious service in the wake of tensions between President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian Duma. Though it was damaged during the excursion, it was soon restored and given to the Church of St. Nicholas in Tolmachi.[19][20]


Details of Our lady of Vladimir icon
Various stages of damage to and restoration of the icon, as analyzed by A. I. Anisimov

Despite the icon's outsized significance as a religious icon, the artistic quality of the work has also won it praise. According to the art historian David Talbot Rice, "[Our Lady of Vladimir] ...is admitted by all who have seen it to be one of the most outstanding religious paintings of the world."[6] The work shows a humanity and tenderness new to Byzantine art during the reigning Komnenos dynasty.[3][5][6] Throughout the centuries of its existence, the icon has been overpainted at least five times.[21]

The painting depicts Jesus Christ as a baby with his cheek pressed again the Virgin Mary. One of Christ's arms is wrapped around her neck.[22] The two figures are in a visibly tender embrace.[5][23] With one hand, Mary supports her the child; while the other hand "remains free in an open gesture of invitation."[24]

In its representation of the subject's faces, the icon subtlety transitions from its normal use of contour lines to a refined surface texture. It features an artistic style typical for Byzantine art with features including smaller mouths, elongated noses, and refined eyes. The effect of both gives a soft suggestive illusive light that brings an element of life to the piece.[25]

The icon of the Theotokos of Vladimir is sometimes described as expressing universal feelings of motherly love and anxiety for her child.[26][27] Noticeably, Mary's eyes do not look at her child.[26][28] Linda Bridges, writing for the National Review, described the phenomenon as, "Our Lady of Vladimir is a Virgin of Tenderness; but she cannot bear to look at her Child, and her eyes are dark with misery."[28]

Obverse painting[edit]

Hetoimasia and instruments of Christ’s Passion panted on the observe side of the icon in ca. 14th century.

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.[2]


In Russian history[edit]

The icon is generally considered to be one of the most cherished symbols in Russian history.[19][29][30] Academic David Miller has ascribed this to its close connection to Russian national consciousness throughout its existence.[31]

As a religious icon[edit]

Our Lady of Vladimir's veneration is also likely enhanced by the fact that the Theotokos is regarded as the holy protectress of Russia.[9] The venerated image has been used in celebration of coronations of tsars, elections of patriarchs, and other important ceremonies of state.[9][18][32]

The icon has three feast days held throughout the year in celebration to specific events it is associated with:[13]

Location and display[edit]

The Church of St. Nicholas in Tolmachi in 2010
Our Lady of Vladimir on display within the church

Our Lady of of Vladimir is on display at the Church of St. Nicholas in Tolmachi.[34][35] As a result of an agreement between the Tretyakov Gallery and Moscow Patriarchate, the church is both an active Russian Orthodox house church and functioning museum.[11] Previously, the famous work was the subject of a contentious ownership dispute between the two.[36][30]

In 1997, the Tretyakov Gallery a full restoration of the church was completed.[11] Security improvements to store and display art were added during this process, and an underground passageway was additionally made to connect it to the State Tretyakov Gallery.[37] In order to house the famous icon, a temperature controlled bulletproof glass case was commissioned.[11] On 7 September 1996, Our Lady of Vladimir was first installed in the special case located within the church, and the next day Patriarch Alexy II consecrated the church. According to Archpriest Nikolai Sokolov, the rector for the church, the case would able to withstand the firing of a Kalashnikov rifle as well as many other potential hazards.[38]

Due to its unique dual status as both church and museum, visitors are allowed to freely pray in front of the icon. Religious services are also held regularly to venerate the it on relevant occasions of importance to the gallery, church, or icon (including feast days).[11][38]

Copies and influence[edit]

Even more than most, the original icon has been repeatedly duplicated for centuries, and many copies also have considerable artistic and religious significance of their own.[39] According to Suzanne Massie, it set the standards for what future depictions of the Virgin and Child as many Russian artists attempted to mimic the work.[40]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Also known as Vladimir Mother of God or Virgin of Vladimir (Russian: Влади́мирская ико́на Бо́жией Ма́тери, Ukrainian: Вишгородська ікона Божої Матері, and the Theotokos of Vladimir (Greek: Θεοτόκος του Βλαντίμιρ)
  2. ^ Greek for Virgin Mary, literally meaning "Birth-Giver of God"
  3. ^ The event being known as "Sretensky" meaning the Meeting
  4. ^ The dates provided are in both old and new style. The canonical dates for the feast days are in old style because the Russian Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar. See Gregorian calendar § Difference between Gregorian and Julian calendar dates.


  1. ^ a b Weitzmann (1982), p. 17.
  2. ^ a b Tretyakov Guide (2000), p. 280.
  3. ^ a b c Runciman (1975), p. 154.
  4. ^ a b c d Miller (1968), p. 658.
  5. ^ a b c Funk & Wagnalls (2018), database.
  6. ^ a b c Rice (1946), p. 89.
  7. ^ a b c Miller (1968), pp. 660–661.
  8. ^ Hoisington (2019), database.
  9. ^ a b c Phillips (2011), database.
  10. ^ Miller (1968), pp. 658–659.
  11. ^ a b c d e Lebedeva (2006), online.
  12. ^ Miller (1968), p. 663.
  13. ^ a b Alekseyenko (2008), online.
  14. ^ Beliaev (1997), p. 38.
  15. ^ Evans (2004), p. 165.
  16. ^ Miller (1968), pp. 659–660.
  17. ^ Miller (1968), pp. 669–670.
  18. ^ a b Averintsev (1994), p. 613.
  19. ^ a b Russian Life (1999), p. 8.
  20. ^ The Economist (1993), pp. 109–110.
  21. ^ Elkins (1993), database.
  22. ^ The Economist (1993), p. 109.
  23. ^ Nouwen (1985), p. 389.
  24. ^ Nouwen (1985), p. 388.
  25. ^ Hamilton (1983), p. 107.
  26. ^ a b Nouwen (1985), pp. 387–388.
  27. ^ Averintsev (1994), pp. 613–614.
  28. ^ a b Bridges (1997), database.
  29. ^ Nouwen (1985), p. 387.
  30. ^ a b Jackson (1995), p. 344.
  31. ^ Miller (1968), pp. 668–670.
  32. ^ Miller (1968), p. 657.
  33. ^ OCA (2016), online.
  34. ^ Tretyakov Guide (2000), pp. 278–280.
  35. ^ Pravda (2019), online.
  36. ^ The Economist (1993), database.
  37. ^ Insight Guides (2016), pp. 99–100.
  38. ^ a b Strelchik (2012), online.
  39. ^ Evans (2004), pp. 164–165.
  40. ^ Massie (1980), p. 45.


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