Return of a National Treasure
Any visitor to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow will surely have noticed the icon of the “Virgin Hodegetria with Scenes of Her Life”; set in a case with a glass front panel, the icon is in a place of honour, to the right from the altar, in a cabinet specially made for the purpose. The discreet setting of the icon, by way of sharp contrast, strongly highlights the mighty spiritual force emanating from this sublime image. Few people know today that already in the 16th century the icon of the Virgin Hodegetria became known as a miracle worker, and in the 17th century its fame spread all over Russia.
This painting is a replica of an icon much venerated in old Russia — “Our Lady of Smolensk” (Smolenskaya Mother of God), which was painted according to the Hodegetria canon and brought from Tsarigrad in 1046. The second painting was accomplished at the turn of the 15th century by a prominent artist from a circle of icon painters settled in the region along the upper reaches of the Volga, and was meant for a cathedral dedicated to the Nativity of the Mother of God in the town of Ustuzhna.
A well-known researcher of the art of the Vologda region Alexander Rybakov came upon this mention of the miracleworking icon in a list of church belongings made in 1567: “Miracle-working image of the Most Holy Hodegetria with scenes from Her life, local, gilded background. Through that image God and the Holy Mother of God grant forgiveness to the sick and healing to the ailing.”
In those times Ustuzhna was called “Ustuzhna Zheleznaya” (Iron Ustuzhna) or “Ustuzhna Zhelezopolskaya”, and was famous for its iron ore deposits and iron smelting plants. In the 15th century Ustuzhna became home to manufacturers of all kinds of weapons, Russia’s second arms-manufacturing town after Tula.
The Hodegetria icon from Ustuzhna became even more famous when it helped Ustuzhna Zhelezopolskaya to successfully repel the attacks of False Dmitry Il’s army in the Time of Troubles. In April 1608, in a two-day battle near Bolkhov, the impostor routed Vasily Shuiski’s troops under command of the tsar’s brothers Dmitry and Ivan, and in early June he was near Moscow, setting up his camp in the village of Tushino (hence his nickname “Tushino Thief”).
Those events were described in detail by Sergei Solovyov in his “History of Russia from the Earliest Times”, where he mentions the Virgin Hodegetria icon from Ustuzhna together with the icon of Our Lady of Kazan.
Moscow was in chaos, its environs even more so. Seizing on the chance, the Tushino occupiers took hold of many towns. They conquered Velikie Luki, Pskov, Suzdal, Uglich, Totma, Rostov the Great, Pereyaslavl, Yaroslavl, Vladimir and other towns.
In late 1608 the war reached Ustuzhna as well. At that time Ustuzhna did not have an army commander, so when Andrei Petrovich Rtishchev came from Moscow, the Ustuzhna residents elected him as their commander. Concurrently, Foma Podshchipaev, from Beloozero, with a 400 warrior-strong army, came to help.
Rtishchev led the troops into battle with the Poles, and on January 5 1609 the two armies fought near the village of Bitnevka. According to an eye-witness’s account, “the Ustuzhna and Beloozero soldiers, unskilled in warfare, were encircled and mown like grass”.
However, the remaining soldiers, defying the disaster, got together and decided: “We’d rather die for the house of the Mother of God and the Christian faith in Ustuzhna”.
“Luckily for them, the Poles retreated from Bitnevka; the Ustuzhna citizens took advantage of the opportunity and started building fortifications day and night, digging trenches, forging canons and arquebuses, manufacturing cannon balls, pellets, spears, and iron thorns to be thrown under the enemies’ feet. Skopin-Shuisky sent gunpowder and 100 gunmen.” Soon the Poles set out to attack Ustuzhna again.
On February 3 the guardsmen on the towers saw the enemy. The townsfolk, full of religious zeal and shouting “God Gracious!” started shooting back and making forays into the enemy's lines. The foe retired, only to resume the attack at noon, but then had to retire again. Shortly after midnight the Poles launched a new offensive, but the townsmen repulsed it, seized a cannon from the enemies and pushed them back as far as four versts (one verst being 3,500 feet) from the town. However, on February 8 the Poles, their troops reinforced, again assaulted Ustuzhna, and were again repulsed, suffering heavy losses, after which they retreated for good.
Legend has it that the defenders of Ustuzhna were invigorated in that battle by the Virgin Hodegetria icon, which was placed, specially for the occasion, outside the church. Since then, every year on February 10 the townsmen of Ustuzhna have celebrated the victory over the Poles with a procession carrying the cross and the miracle-working Hodegetria icon.
In 1691 a new brick church with five domes was erected on the site where a wooden church dedicated to the Nativity of Mother of God stood before it was destroyed by a fire. The cathedral featured a five-tier iconostasis made by artisans from the Moscow Armoury Chamber. The Hodegetria icon was assigned in the iconostasis a place of honour. In 1821 due to the parishioners’ ministrations the icon was set in a silver-clad gilded frame studded with precious stones. The aureola alone featured 366 diamonds, 16 emeralds, a topaz and two amethysts.
The Nativity of Mother of God Cathedral continued to function well into the mid-1930s, but in 1936 it was shut down. The congregation appealed against the regional executive committee’s decision, but to no effect. There was no longer public worship at the cathedral, and the building was assigned to a local museum of regional history, to be used as an exhibition space. The brick chapels alongside the southward section of the rail around the church, dedicated to St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker and built to mark the survival of Alexander III and his family, were rented out to petty traders in vodka and beer, and the altar and church ornaments became exhibits at a museum. Thus the Hodegetria icon, shorn of its dressing, was excommunicated from the Church, but that was far from the last of its troubles.
On May 23 1994, past midnight, three unidentified men entered the church caretaker’s lodge. The caretaker was drinking vodka with a friend, and before any of them could utter a squeak, the burglars injected them with a sleeping drug. When the two men woke up, seven of the most precious icons were missing. The robbers of the Ustuzhna museum of regional history have never been found, and to this day this robbery is considered the biggest and most daring one in the criminal history of the Vologda region. The total value of the stolen items, by then state property, was two million dollars, and the Hodegetria icon was the most valuable of them. By the most conservative estimate, its insurance value amounted to at least half a million.
It is believed that the robbers could have broken the icon into three pieces and taken it outside the region in a van carrying timber. Later on the icon turned up in Finland, and then in Germany — it was absent from Russia for eleven long years overall. But all of a sudden, in June 2005, the website of the Temple Gallery in London featured a photo of the Smolensk Hodegetria icon. The site said the icon was already sold to a buyer from Belgium, and the gallery was keeping it on a temporary basis. While on show, the icon was identified by a London-based expert on old Russian art as well as the police as the piece stolen in 1994 from the Ustuzhna museum in the Vologda region. According to a communication of the UK Interpol bureau, the gallery owner purchased the icon about two years previously, for 60,000 pounds, from a German collector, a former Soviet citizen, who had kept the icon for over five years. Later Mr.
Temple sold the icon for 170,000 pounds to a Belgian collector, but then asked the new owner to lend it to him so that he could put it on display at his gallery.
The Ustuzhna police in the Vologda region had been investigating the Ustuzhna museum robbery since May 1994, but by the time the icon was discovered, the statute of limitation had expired and the case was closed. It was all but impossible to issue an international seizure warrant. When representatives of the Russian Committee for Cultural Heritage Protection (RosOkhranCultura) ascertained that the icon exhibited in London was indeed the precious artefact of Russian culture, they embarked on negotiations with the gallery owner within the framework of international private law; they were authorized by the Service for Restitution of Property Rights of the Russian Federation. A reply was sent to the UK Interpol bureau requesting that the icon be held under police surveillance until the issue of the icon’s restoration to its lawful owner was settled.
It was my good fortune to handle all organizational and legal matters relating to the icon’s restitution to Russia. After setting an appointment in advance, I flew to London. Richard Temple proved a marvelously kind and genial person. He has been collecting for over 40 years, and his Gallery is known in many countries. He had no doubts that he should release the icon. When he received official documents confirming Russia’s property rights, Mr. Temple, disregarding the expenditures he had made, including those on renovation, released the icon to Russia gratis, waiving his rights as a “good faith” buyer.
When I had completed all necessary formalities for transportation of the icon to Russia and carefully packed the priceless load at Christie’s, I left for Moscow by plane. Next day the expert council of RosOkhranCultura met; they carefully studied the icon, authenticated it, commented on the satisfactory condition of its paint layer and pointed at spots that were repainted after the icon was renovated in 1968 at the Vologda Art Conservation Centre. The icon lacked the museum’s identification marks, removed by the robbers. The first decision to make concerned a place where the icon should be kept. It needs to be mentioned that previously the Department for Cultural Heritage Protection of the Russian Ministry of Culture had already restored to the Ustuzhna museum one of the seven stolen icons — “Saint Boris and Saint Gleb”, a late 15th-century work, which was discovered in 2000 in Germany.
However, I suggested a different depository for the Hodegetria. The truth was that the Smolensk Hodegetria is a Russian national relic — the symbol of unity of the people in a time of trouble, it was a forecast of the creation of Russian statehood. And this relic had been for 70 years separated from the Church and spent ten years adrift, far from home, thus only the Church could bring it back to our nation and its Orthodox believers. Taking into consideration all these circumstances, RosOkhranCultura, by agreement with the Ministry of Culture, decided to bring the icon back into the fold of the Church.
On January 22 2006, in the Patriarch's Palace in the Kremlin, President Vladimir Putin handed down the miracleworking Ustuzhna icon of Mother of God to the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Alexei II.
On February 19 2006, on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, Patriarch Alexei performed a Divine Liturgy in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Before the service began, the miracle-working Ustuzhna replica of the Our Lady of Smolensk, now back in Russia, was brought into the cathedral.
Patriarch Alexei greeted the shrine and, congratulating everybody on the grand occasion of the reinstatement of the Mother of God's icon, said, in particular, that “...the name of this image — Hodegetria — means in Greek ‘she who shows the way’, and we can see now that by the disposition of Providence this magnificent icon made its way through foreign lands to where it belongs, having overcome many a temptation along the way. ...So may God, heeding the prayers of Our Most Holy Mother of God, guard us against temptations in the tide of the burdens of life, and may the Most Holy Mother of Our Saviour become a ‘Hodegetria’ for each of us.”
The author expresses his gratitude to Lev Lifshits for his expertise examination and attribution of the icon.
Photo: Valentin Sklyarov, Alexander Ganyushin