Our Lady of Vladimir, Russia (1115)
One of the most famous and most beautiful of all icons of the Mother of God is that of Our Lady of Vladimir, also known as the Virgin of Vladimir. She is depicted cheek to cheek with the Divine Child, whose arms caress her, yet the image is strong and noble in workmanship, completely free from “sweetness” and sentimentality.
The name of the iconographer is unknown. The work, however, is a great example of the type of icon that the Russians call tenderness; the Greeks express the same. It was probably painted in Constantinople in the twelfth century, but is first heard of in Kiev in about 1131, whence it was taken in 1155 to the city of Vladimir. According to tradition, the horses pulling the cart taking the icon to Kiev stopped in Vladimir and refused to budge from that spot. The Assumption Cathedral was built there in honor of the Blessed Virgin, and to house her image.
When Moscow became the religious capital, the icon was moved there, some say to protect the people from Tamerlane. According the tradition, Tamerlane had a dream in which he said a beautiful woman appeared to him, ordering him to leave Russia. Tamerlane, a vicious conqueror who razed cities to the ground and left towers several feet tall made up of the human skulls of his victims, was not a man easily intimidated. He told his advisors of his dream, demanding that its significance be made known to him. When he learned that it had been an apparition of the Blessed Virgin, Mother of God, he turned at once and withdrew from Moscow.
Famous for wonders and reverenced as Russia’s most sacred image, the icon was enshrined in 1395 in the cathedral of the Assumption in the Kremlin at Moscow during the time of Tamerlane’s invasion. Several times the Tartars were beaten back under its inspiration in 1395, 1480, and 1521, and it was carried to critical places in time of distress. In 1621, when Poland attacked Moscow, the icon roused the people in defense of their land.
It was taken to the battlefront during World War I, and there are some who say the Communist Joseph Stalin had the icon taken up in an airplane and flown around Moscow during the German invasion of World War II. A few days later, the German army retreated.
All the tsars were crowned and patriarchs installed in the presence of this image, up until the revolution. It has been reproduced many times in copies and in book illustrations. The icon is now displayed in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, and the Russian calendar commemorates the feast of Our Lady of Vladimir on May 21.