By Alice Isabella Sullivan | Tufts University
The Virgin of Vladimir is a bilateral icon dating to the first half of the 12th century (ca. 1130). On one side, the icon shows an image of the Virgin Eleousa (or the Virgin of Tenderness) with the Christ Child. On the back, the icon features today an image of the Hetoimasia with the instruments of Christ’s Passion nearby as a symbolic representation of the Second Coming. This side of the icon, however, was repainted; it originally displayed a saintly figure, possibly that of St. Nicholas.
The style and iconography of the Virgin of Vladimir suggest a Byzantine origin, and more specifically the work of a Constantinopolitan atelier. The icon likely arrived in Kyiv as a diplomatic gift, underscoring the connection that extended between the Rusian and Byzantine cultural spheres following the Christianization of Rus in 988. From Kyiv, the icon was transferred to Suzdal and Vladimir, and then to Moscow in the 14th century, where it resided in the Dormition Cathedral and now in the State Tretyakov Gallery.
The icon measures 106 x 69 cm in its current condition, but framing elements were added at a later point. The original image in the central composition measures 78 x 55 cm. Its size indicates that it was designed to be displayed inside a church, before the iconostasis near the altar area, and carried in religious processions. During such celebrations, both sides of the icon would have been visible.
The Virgin Eleousa image type on the front of the icon shows a tender embrace between mother and child. The Christ Child reaches for his mother, touching his cheek to hers while extending his right arm around her mantle. The Virgin, in turn, gently cradles the child in her arms and bends her head to reach his cheek while looking out to the viewer. Her gaze is both loving and sorrowful, as if anticipating the suffering of her son’s death. In locking eyes with the viewer, the Virgin also fulfills her intercessory role on the faithful’s behalf.
The Virgin of Vladimir is supposedly a miracle-working icon. It protected Moscow from military attacks during the 14th and 15th centuries, for example. It is known that on 25 August 1395, the icon was taken to Moscow to safeguard the city from Timur’s army (r. 1370–1405). A century later, in 1480, the icon was once again brought to Moscow to ensure the city’s protection, this time from the attacks of Khan Ahmed (r. 1465–81). Therefore, in times of need, the Virgin of Vladimir served as a palladium for Moscow, invoking divine protection and assistance from enemy attacks.
The miraculous qualities of the original icon were transferred to the many copies that were created after it throughout the medieval and early modern periods. One of the oldest examples is the icon by Andrei Rublev (ca. 1360–ca. 1430), produced around the turn of the 15th century and residing now in the art museum in Vladimir.
Over time, the Virgin of Vladimir was further transformed through restorations and repaintings on both sides, as well as the addition of removable sections of precious metals, gemstones, and pearls. In the 15th century, the icon received a gold oklad (or revetment) for the area around the figures and the frame, consisting of 12 representations of holy feasts. In 1657, the icon also obtained an elaborate riza (embellishments for the figures), which further transformed its appearance. The latter consists of gold designs for the garments of the Virgin and Child, as well as elaborate jewel- and pearl-lined sections decorating the collars and haloes of the figures. The riza also added a crown to the figure of the Virgin, underscoring her role as the ‘Queen of Heaven’. Through these visual transformations, the Virgin of Vladimir acquired physical and spiritual value over time.
The Virgin of Vladimir is one example that underscores the early contacts between Byzantium and Rus. Such contacts are reflected in political and economic alliances, such as the marriage of the Byzantine princess Anna Porphyrogenita (963–1011) to Volodimir I Sviatoslavich (r. 980–1015) in the year 989, soon after his conversion to Christianity. Other contacts are also evident in the religious and cultural spheres, including the design, building, and decoration of the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Kyiv according to Byzantine principles reworked in a local context.
Yet, the early history and association of the Virgin of Vladimir with the city of Kyiv and Kyivan Rus have been bypassed in modern scholarship and the popular imagination. The icon’s connections with Moscow and early modern Russia take center stage. The physical movement of the icon between Kyiv, Suzdal, Vladimir, and Moscow, however, corresponds with the transfer of religious, political, and ideological power, and its eventual concentration on the Kremlin in Moscow from the 14th century onward.
This historical distortion is also reflected today in the numerous objects connected to Kyivan Rus that are now displayed in Russian museums, like the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Others have been displayed in museums and private collections around the world. The history of the Virgin of Vladimir, like that of Kyivan Rus, should be examined through connections, and the multiplicity of meanings and transformations generated over time in evolving contexts.
Anisimov, Aleksandr Ivanovich. Our Lady of Vladimir. Translated by N.G. Yaschwill and T.N. Rodzianko. Prague: Seminarium Kondakovianum, 1928.
This is an early short study of the Virgin of Vladimir icon, first published in Russian and then in English.
Bakatkina, Maria Sergeevna. “‘Hands off That Sacred Image!’ The Vladimir Icon and Its Power.” MA Thesis. University of Virginia, 2017.
This thesis examines the political, religious, and cultural power of the Virgin of Vladimir icon through an examination of primary sources, as well as the object itself and its transformations over time.
Miller, David B. “Legends of the Icon of Our Lady of Vladimir: A Study of the Development of Muscovite National Consciousness.” Speculum 43, no. 4 (1968): 657–670.
A study that examines the legends that emerged around the icon of the Virgin of Vladimir in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, and how these legends contributed to the development of Russian political thought in the modern period.
Special issue of Medieval World: Culture & Conflict dedicated to Kyivan Rus.
This special issue of the magazine is dedicated to the rich history, art, and culture of Kyivan Rus, featuring also the Virgin of Vladimir icon.
This contribution was sponsored by the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross.