Mother of God - Bogoroditsa
More than half of the icons in Mrs. LaLanne's collection depict the Mother of God, or Bogoroditsa (literally “Birth-Giver of God”) as she is known in Othrodox lands. Of the roughly three hundred specific types of Mother of God images that exist throughout Russia, twelve are represented in this collection, including the most widely revered Kazan, Vladimir, and Smolensk Mothers of God. Each of these icon types is the descendant of an original, miracle-working icon connected to a particular city. Mother of God icons can be identified by the pose of the Virgin, including the way she interacts with the Christ Child or the tilt of her head.
Besides images of Christ, depictions of the Mother of God are the most common subject of Russian icons. This is because the Mother of God is the human who most closely resembles her son, who exemplifies a "Christ-like" life.
Bogoroditsa (Mother of God)
According to legend, after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, believers wanted to see a woman take on the central role within the apostolic community. To satisfy this desire, Saint Luke painted images of Mary with the infant Christ that would be the first icons created by man. It is believed that Saint Luke showed his work to Mary, who upon seeing them rejoiced, not because they glorified her, but because they allowed her to help the communities on earth. With this in mind, Mary blessed the icons with the phrase “May the grace of the One born from me and my own blessing be with these images.” Similar to the story of the Image Not Made by Hands, the legend of Mary’s icons not only confirms the accuracy of Saint Luke’s depictions, but also validates the idea that the real, human Bogoroditsa exists within the icon and is actively able to offer help.
Mary’s worldly presence was also demonstrated by various devotional texts, such as the 19th century story based on the life of Saint Andrew which suggested that Mary did not remain in heaven after death, but sought to return to the “suffering world” to aid the needy.
The widespread belief in Mary’s immediate presence inspired unparalleled faith in the miracle-working abilities of her icons. Miraculous stories (kept alive mainly by word of mouth) surrounded Mother of God icons. Often these stories shaped people’s understanding of community and prescribed appropriate behavior — only those who knew their place within the community and acted piously were rewarded with divine intervention. It was not until the 19th century that this local folklore was officially compiled and published throughout Russia. It was also during this time that the hundreds of regional icons developed over the course of 900 years were compressed into a single calendar of Marian events and adopted by local churches.
Despite the challenges of unifying the thousands of local icon legends, the clergy appreciated their didactic function as well as the piousness that they inspired. The priest A. Speranskii asserted that these icon stories heightened the people’s love for Mary, raised their hopes of divine intervention, and strengthened their faith in the divine protection of Russia. Another priest also recognized the power of icon stories to “draw believers to the grace-filled, celestial heights where eternal love reigns.”
The Saint for All
Marian icons held a special importance within the Russian church because of the way that they emphasized her humanity. Unlike Christ, who was both fully human and fully divine, Mary was always represented as a person like any other who achieved divinity through spiritual devotion. In a well-documented vision experienced by Serafim of Sarov (1759-1833) Mary appeared with several of the first disciples to call out to Serafim as “one of our kind.” As this vision suggests, despite certainly being exceptional, Mary did not consider herself to be beyond the worldly realm of humans. As someone with both real human experiences and an unusually profound connection to God, Mary became the ideal saint, guide, and representative of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Mary’s role as a spiritual mentor was bolstered by stories of her life before the resurrection of Christ. As a young woman, Mary was portrayed as wholly dedicating herself to the Temple and speaking little while devoting herself to working, studying, and praying. She was also described in the devotional literature as modest in dress and movement, merciful to the poor, respectful to her elders, and incorruptible. It was this well-known image of Mary’s human life that served as a model to lay people. Priests and devotional texts would often reference Mary’s behavior and life experiences to illustrate proper behavior and worship. Priest I. Kassirov, for example, presented the life of Mary as an example for laity to follow, noting her silence during Christ’s service to the people as an example of her humility, meekness, and self-restraint. Although she was one of the first believers and understood faith better than anyone, she remained resolutely silent, determined to never “mix her voice with the voice of the apostles.” This view of Mary was popular amongst some priests as it supported the view that the clergy who taught should remain separate from the laity who were taught.
It was this conscious decision to refrain from attributing divine attributes to Mary that ultimately divided Orthodox believers from their Roman counterparts. Mary’s absolute humanity was seen as a logical necessity to her role as the hope of mankind; after all, how could she truly empathize with the people unless she was once part of them? As the Saint for All, Mary’s closeness to God was grounded in life experiences that transcended gender or class. In many devotional pamphlets, Mary is portrayed as saying “look at me, yes, I gave birth to the pre- eternal God... but remember what my life was like... I witnessed the very depths of suffering.” Thus, icons of the Mother of God inspired a connection between Mary and believers that was defined by a shared understanding and a transcendent sense of empathy and compassion. Believers could look at an icon of Mary and ask that she “guide the eyes of their hearts toward salvation,” by following her example of living through life and mercy.
After the resurrection of Christ, Mary’s guiding role was emphasized within the nascent Christian community where the disciples and apostles turned to her for inspiration. One devotional essay even notes the apostles saying, “We were comforted by looking at you, our Lady, as if at our own Lord and Teacher.” Before her death, devotional accounts recorded how Mary met with the apostles to bless them and reassure them that she would always be with them. She also promised that she would use her position next to Christ to petition for mercy on behalf of the believers on earth. In these stories, Mary is not only represented as a guardian of the church community, but she is also characterized as the most direct line of contact to Christ. Through prayer and good deeds, the faithful had hope that they could receive the mercy of Christ through Mary.
The Sacred Collective
Stories about Mary’s life, especially those after the resurrection of Christ, portray her not only as a model for personal emulation, but also as the protective center of the Christian community. As such, in icons Mary is often represented or compared to a church or temple, the building that, fittingly, gathers and protects the community, and serves as a conduit to God. This association has roots in Christian typology that used the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant, the Tabernacle, and the Jerusalem Temple — all sites filled within a divine presence — to symbolically prefigure the Mother of God. Like a church, Mary as the Birth-Giver of God was symbolically a “place hallowed by glory” as much as a historical figure.
In addition to this symbolic connection, the veneration of Mary in Russia literally resulted in the founding of churches and the shaping of communities who lived alongside them. Numerous churches, side altars, and chapels throughout Russia were established to house icons, especially those depicting Mary. Some of these were said to have been founded because the icon told them to do so. Countless local legends tell of Marian icons impelling members of the community to build a church in her honor.
In one early 19th century story, a former landowner from the Volhynia diocese became sick and prayed to his icon of Mary as a last hope of recovery. Shortly after, Mary appeared to him and promised to heal him if he built a church or chapel in her honor.
Stories such as these serve to illustrate Mary’s active role in expanding, preserving, and protecting the church and the community. Not only did Marian icons found communities throughout Russia, but they also shaped the structure of these communities. Aside from routine worship, Marian icons were often at the core of the annual Menaion or liturgical calendar that organized many of the events and figures that outlined the sacred history of the Bible into feast days and holidays. Mary’s central presence in these calendars reflects her pivotal role within the Christian community and emphasizes her presence in the daily routines of believers.
The Role of the Individual
One of the most powerful aspects of Mary as the Saint for All was her well-documented mercy and kindness towards people from all social classes and positions. In narratives before the 15th century, the main characters who interacted with Mary or other saints tended to be members of the clergy. By the 19th century, the majority of icon stories featured common peasants, merchants, or townspeople of both genders. After this shift, the relationship between church and believers was restructured, with the laity having the visions and other spiritual experiences that would be officially sanctioned within the church. Some 19th century adaptations of one of Russia’s most powerful and revered icons, the Kazan Mother of God, for example, associated its origins with a child from a simple family.
Another story tells of the Abalak icon of the Mother of God, which, legend has it, reached out to a pious widow named Maria. In a dream, Maria saw an icon with Saint Nicholas and Saint Mary of Egypt standing next to each other. She then heard a voice that urged her to tell the people to construct a church in honor of the icon of the Mother of God with two side altars, one for Saint Nicholas and the other for Saint Mary of Egypt. When she did not do so, Saint Nicholas appeared to her in a second dream to remind her of the importance of her task and warn her that if the people didn’t listen to her visions, they would “incite the wrath of God, and not only would the priest perish but all of the best parishioners as well.” Despite these warnings, Maria did not reveal her visions out of fear of public humiliation. After several more cautionary dreams, Maria was finally able to convince the diocesan bishop of the validity of her visions and started construction of a church.
Stories such as these exemplify how integral the individual was to the spiritual well-being of the larger community. Anyone, no matter their age, class, or gender, could potentially receive life-changing visions from icons of the Mother of God and hold the fate of the entire community in their hand.