No-one knows the name of the iconographer. The icon was painted, however, in Constantinople by a Hellenic iconographer at some time during the 11th and 12th centuries. We know that it turned up in Kiev, then the capital city of Russia, in 1131, when Byzantium was being ruled by the Macedonian dynasty. Then in 1155 the icon was moved to the city of Vladimir, according to Paul Evdokimov, or, according to both Ouspensky and Losky, in 1161.

Because of its location in Vladimir, which was the religious capital at that time, it was called 'The Vladimir Virgin'. Later, Moscow became the religious capital, so the icon was moved there in 1395, where it has remained until now. It is housed in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

The icon is an inseparable part of the life of Russian history, particularly on account of miraculous interventions ascribed to it, news of which has always filled the Russian people with love for it. As we shall see, the great iconographers imitated it. It has survived many fires and all kinds of destruction committed by the rude Tartar invaders. The Russians acknowledge the favour of the Vladimir Virgin, which saved Moscow thrice from the Tartars: on the 26th of August, 1395, on the 23rd of June, 1480 and the 21st of May, 1521. In 1621, when the Poles attacked Moscow, belief in the icon roused blazing enthusiasm in her defence on the part of the Muscovites.

The icon was restored in 1514 with the participation of the iconographer, Bishop Barla'aam. Three times a year the Russians hold feasts in honour of the Vladimir Virgin, considered a sacred treasure of the Russian people. It is thought of as a Byzantine moon in the firmament of the Russian Church and the very best of its icons. After all, is the Russian Church not the magnificent daughter of the Church of Constantinople and her patriarch, Saint Photios the Great? So the loyalty of the daughter to the mother is magnificent in her unity with her of faith, heritage, the canons, traditions and rites of the Church, and her following of all these to the very letter, sometimes in a manner bordering upon exaggeration in an attempt by the daughter to imitate the mother to perfection. It must be added that the Byzantine heritage is deeply indebted to the Patriarchate of Antioch.


Genuine icons of the Virgin exist in two important primary groups, the first of which is named the 'odigitria', or 'The Guide', in which the Virgin holds the Child Jesus on her left arm and points to him with her right hand, as if guiding us to him, as if saying:'This is He.'

Icons in the second group are named 'The Tender Hearted' . In these the Virgin holds the infant Jesus with her right arm clasping him to her bosom, overflowing with maternal tenderness.

The Vladimir Virgin icon brings ideas in these two groups together It depicts the infant Jesus sitting on her right arm as she points clearly to him with her left.

In the Orthodox Church there are two currents of opinion regarding the Virgin, one of which holds the Virgin to be the most beautiful of God's creations. This is the attitude of our iconographer.

Our teacher, Gregorios Palamas, (gone to his rest in 1395) sang the praises of this wonderful beauty, since she is an image of that absolute beauty which is God himself. (Nigne in Greek 151:468 A and B) Our inspired iconographer expended his energies to create the most beautiful of all icons, unparalleled in artistic perfection. Those who gaze upon it face to face are filled with wonder. No other painting, not even that of the Mona Lisa, can compare with it.


Our iconographer has succeeded in depicting a wonderful radiance upon the Virgin's head and face. A prolonged gaze is necessary for the scrutinizer to discern within this divine radiance the concern of a mother deeply anxious for her Son's future. Did not Simeon the Righteous tell her: 'And a sword will pierce your own soul.'? (Luke 2-35) The Virgin wears a veil over her head, which is covered to just above the eyebrows. In ancient times the Jerusalem school of icon painters prevailed against Greek and other influences, thus depicting the Virgin, as here, as a conservative Palestinian girl with her head covered. The veil, dark purple in colour, hangs down to her shoulders, signifying strong, divine love. Golden braid adorns the veil. Similar embroidery is shown upon the sleeve, for the Virgin is a glorious lady, filled with the divine light of the Holy Spirit which imbues her with divinity. Is she not our Queen and the mother of the Lord Jesus? On her forehead we see a star, and also one upon each before, during and after the birth of Our Lord.

The shape of each star is that of a cross with four points at each end. Within each cross is another intersecting one representing four firebrands. The intersecting crosses cut across each other so that at their common centre lies a square. The cross is luminescent. Do the four points indicate the four corners of the earth illuminated by the Cross, revealed to the world through the virginity of Mary? For Mary was no plaything of destiny nor a blind instrument in God's hand. Rather her transparent virginity of soul and body made her attractive to Jesus, so that he came into the world through her.

The sixth Ecumenical Council teaches us that Christ possesses two wills. In Mary heaven and earth met, since she accepted the angel's offer. For she conceived Jesus with full acceptance and free will, not through coercion. Since he became incarnate through her, the Cross became his destiny from the first moment of conception. He gave himself up completely in total submission to become the Son of Man, then died upon the cross to save man from death.

The clarity of Mary's virginity is crystalline, and clearer than any crystal when the light of the Holy Spirit passed through it, to involve her womb in the creation of a human nature for Our Lord. A martyr dies only once, but true virginity is a daily martyrdom. The virginity of Mary is the most elevated after that of her Son. (After him,) Mary is the loftiest and most perfect being in creation. On the day of the Incarnation the Holy Spirit transformed her, so that though Jesus took from her a human nature, this nature in him became sinless. (Hebrews 4:15) What a dreadful Mystery! God made her endure the Incarnation, beyond her normal capacity. She bore the Divine Fire. What an unbearable cross it would have been but for the benevolence of God!

The Virgin's face is not so much round as long. An inverted triangle is made, with the chin as its apex, extending to its base line under her eyes. Though the cheeks are somewhat rounded, the implication is that the Trinity, (represented by the triangle) is all in all in the Virgin's life. What a Maid, in whose being the Trinity and the Cross are engraved! The eyes are long and their pupils black. The eyelashes are thick and the eyebrows wide and long. The nose also is long - sharp and curved like the beak of an eagle. In this it resembles the nose of a man rather than that of a woman, adding to the face a touch of spiritual bravery in an expression otherwise anxious and beset by cares. Together, the eyes, eyelashes, eyebrows, eyelids and nose combine in their proportions with the rest of the face to indicate a number of attributes: the Virgin's tenderness, anxiety and care with yet a masculine emphasis and courage free from sentimental feminine delicacy, refusing condolence in calamity.

The Virgin has the stature of spiritual courage, not exclusive to men, but, indeed, in some women surpassing that of men. Indeed, after Jesus' Crucifixion men and women have been called equally to martyrdom.

The mouth is unsmiling, in keeping with the melancholy of the face.

The slope of the right shoulder differs from that of the left. The curve of the right continues into the line of the back of the Infant Jesus. The contour of the sleeve of the Virgin's dress rhymes with the contours of the Babe. The left shoulder is full and rounded, and the bosom below it prominent, as is the dark porphyrine colour of the garment covering it, opposing the swelling contours of the neck of the Infant Jesus: the proportions and measurements are parallel.

The area about the Virgin's heart and the neck of the Infant Jesus are brought into prominence by the iconographer's brush in such a way as to seem to be the centre of gravity. (This signifies) that Jesus is breathed into by the breath of the Holy Spirit abiding in him, and that the heart of the Virgin is more spacious than the heavens themselves, and full of the Divine Presence. Jesus' cheek is pressed to his mother's right cheek. His eyes are fully rounded, not hollow, gazing at the Virgin, distracted with wonder at her sadness, as if this emotion would speak to her, saying:

'Do not cry for me, Mother, as if you see me in my tomb. Because I, your Son, whom you conceived in your womb without planting, will rise from the dead and be glorified. Since I am God I shall rise in dignity, without the rigidity of death, I who extol you with great love and faithfulness.' (Odion 6, from the Great Saturday Canon).

But the gaze of the Virgin does not rest upon the Infant Jesus. Her eyes swim in distraction, gazing at a distant point beyond us. Where? They behold the world of eternity. The Virgin is distracted away from the earth, from the world, and perhaps even from herself. Is she distracted and puzzled by the way God arranges things with angels and men? How can she understand this indescribable ordering of events, which ordained that she found favour with the Father, who chose her to be the mother of his beloved Son. Lo! She hears on the fortieth day after our Lord's miraculous virgin birth, the words of the righteous Simeon:

And, as for you, a sword shall pierce your own soul.' (Luke 2:35). How? And when? This is what she experiences at the foot of the Cross, the paradox that her son in the flesh is also the Son of the Father, sharing fully the divine nature and essence, despite which he dies upon the Cross as if he were the cruellest of criminals.

In the Feast of the Nativity we sing:

'Why do you wonder, 0 Mary, and why do you ponder so within yourself?' (Second Stechology)

If the conception of Jesus caused her to ponder deeply, then the event of the Cross must have increased a hundredfold her need to reflect profoundly as the sword pierced her own soul.

The death on the Cross puzzled the Cosmos, for it was beyond the endurance of either the angels or men. Thus Mary, who experienced the two mysteries, of unequalled profundity, (of the conjunction of both human and divine natures) was the greatest of all (creatures). How did she bear it without burning up or losing her reason? We may not ask her, only ask God, who has honoured and exalted her and bestowed upon her the power to endure the fire of divinity in her womb, the vision of the Son of God who was also he. son, stretched out upon the Cross, nailed to it, and finally slaughtered by the head of a spear. All Mary's life, after the Incarnation is distraction, wonder and a Cross, (a mystery) that would burst asunder the soul of man were he not saved by the Divine Will.

And, (in the icon) Jesus is also full of deep meditation, but not upon his Mothers sadness. His face is full and serious, much to be reverenced. We see no trace of sadness in it since Jesus is confident that he will be raised upon the third day. He is full of wisdom, understanding, sagacity and splendour. Then let Mary be assured of his resurrection to come. He has the appearance of a man who gives assurance and tranquillity to the mind. His stature is that of a child, but his dress is that of an adult. He wears a loose oriental cloak, in the style of an adult.

The cloak is in the style of the traditional dress of what was formerly termed the Near East. The girdle is that of an adult. He is the God of whom Romanos the melodist said:

'Today the Virgin comes to the grotto for a new Child is born for us, the God who is before all ages.' (Kontakion of the Nativity ).

He is a child on his Mother's arm, but he is also the God who existed before the ages, who yet, in time, became complete man for us and for our salvation. The oriental cloak is woven in light, ethereal, golden threads, like threads of the sun, whose lines stand out, unobscured. Is not Jesus the Sun of Righteousness, who by the threads of his rays and grace shines resplendent in the universe? Is he not the God-man, the brilliant light-giver, as when he appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration? The iconographer here presents him in glistening robes whilst yet a child in the Virgins arms. Orthodox theology considers the body of Jesus to be full of light from the moment of the Incarnation, not only during the Transfiguration. But he veiled his light from our eyes to allow us to see him and dwell with him. [2] He is the Sun of Righteousness which never sets. The suspended threads are clear, and, finely rendered by the artist, attract attention.

The Virgin's extended right hand emerges from under the Infant Jesus, who sits on her arm. In other icons the Infant Jesus sits mostly upon the wrist - or only upon some of the hand. But here the Virgin's fingers are free, as free as her pure soul, even though they curve a little to embrace Jesus.

But the left hand is outstretched as far as the upper edge of Jesus' girdle, pointing with a kindly sign for the people. She guides them and leads them to him. Is he not the anticipated Christ, the Son of God and Saviour of the world? The fingers are bent only a little, in order to make a clear sign, so that Jesus is still unconfined by her hands. How can they hold Him whom the heavens cannot hold? He is the unconfined, boundless God who may not be held.

In our icon the Virgin's fingers reach the girdle. In others the fingers do not reach so far. In our icon the affection of the Virgin and her attachment to her Son are very great. Tenderness prevails over veneration. She is, after all, a mother - not John the Baptist. Our iconographer has portrayed the hands with wonderful artistry, so that the Virgin may be seen to witness to Jesus in a style both familiar and realistic. She embraces the Infant without encompassing him by her fingers, and points to him in great knowledge but yet greater veneration.

In the areas of the arm and the wrist golden embroidery falls on the veil and on the sleeve. For she is the momentous Queen Mother, the one illuminated by the Divine Fire. The Virgin holds the Infant Jesus on her right arm, so that Jesus' right side is adjacent to her heart. Jesus' left hand surrounds the Virgin's neck, while his fingers emerge from under the veil, where they embrace the Virgin's neck from the left side of her cheek, hugging it with his thumb. His right hand is stretched out over the veil over the left bosom, in the region of the heart.

His compassion is evident. She gathers him to her heart and he, in return, puts his hand upon her bosom, to calm and reassure her anxious mind. The iconographer brings out the left side of the Virgin's bosom, and balancing this, brings out the Infants neck. The Virgin is ablaze with love, and Jesus is full of the fiery light of the Holy Spirit. The Iconographer is a genuine artist who knows how to manage the different meetings and turns of the two figures.

The left leg of the Infant Jesus is retracted as if he refuses to touch our world. Did not Jesus say:

'And now I am no more in the world.? (John 17:11)

Only the sole of the foot appears. But the right leg is thrown out and extended. Thus Jesus' back is curved, and his chest curved inward, though the right thigh and calf are thrown out. (The implication of all this is that) he is the Lord whom we cannot see, save only his back. (Exodus 33:23). Here, only the sole of his foot. He is the Lord withheld from our eyes, which are unable to bear the vision of him. But he is inclined towards us and reaches out to us: became man and walked upon earth. His divinity removes him from us, but his humanity hastens him to earth in a daring act of heroism. By His coming to us God abides with man, so that we may be filled with his divine light, and by this light able to enjoy that light which proceeds from God's essence. In Palamas' expression, we hypostatize God's light, grace and glory in our persons, and he becomes a part of our being (the mystery of the Divine Economy)

The frame of the icon is rectangular. According to the prevailing beliefs of the time the earth was thought to be rectangular. The figure of the Virgin in the icon forms a triangle, the apex at her head. As previously mentioned, a triangle is formed also in her face, of which her chin in the apex, extending to the (base) line under her eyes. (The triangle signifies the Trinity). Faith in the Trinity is the core of our belief. Mary is the implement of that link between the Holy Trinity and the world (which had become loosened and deformed at its very source by sin), which it had created. With regard to the previously mentioned square at the centre of each of the stars of the icon; if we drew a line through between the points of each of these three stars we would obtain squares, and the Cross, too, (representing) the Cross at the heart of the whole world through the Virgin. For through the Virgin the Trinity was reconciled with the world by means of Christ's Cross and blood. The Universe reflects his glory. Through the Virgin God bent the heavens and came down to embrace creation and give back to it its first beauty, like the resplendent beauty of the Virgin in this magnificent icon.

We sing:

'0 Mary, you truly became a vessel, occupied by the Son, for the boundless Trinity, thus pleasing the Father. The Holy Spirit overshadowed you so that you were shown forth as the Mother of the Highest.' (Thursday exapostellari).

It is to be noted at this point that the artist was a great theologian, aware of the great importance of the Divine Light in our lives and of the importance of the Epiphany. The Divine Light plays an important role in his art; as much as if he had been Gregory Palamas, though living more than two centuries before him. The intersecting light flames in the stars of the Virgin, springing from a profound theological vision.

Luke the Evangelist mentions that in the Transfiguration Jesus was seen talking to Moses and Elijah about his forthcoming departure which was to be accomplished in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). This departure (or exodus) is the Cross. Jesus' Cross is effulgent. Then the hill of Golgotha meets the Mount of Transfiguration and Mount Horeb, on which God appears to Moses and Elijah. Jesus considered the Cross his glory. John the Evangelist mentions that Jesus showed his glory to his disciples so that they would believe in him. That was also at the Wedding of Cana in Galilee. (John 2:11). Which glory is greater than that of the Cross, from the summit of which Jesus conquered sin, Satan, Hell, corruption and decay, and freed souls in bondage in Sheol and raised them with the (repentant) thief to Paradise and opened it for us after it had been shut against us for so long.? The Cross is not shame and disgrace but victory, glory, light and radiance, divine vision, topping the crowns of kings and patriarchs.


Russia experienced three exceptional iconographers, who worked together in co-operation, painting icons for the Church of the Annunciation in the Kremlin. They were: Prochoros Goridetski, Theophanes the Greek (from Chalcedon near Constantinople) and Saint Andrei (Andrew) Rublev, who was the youngest. They influenced each other and the two last were influenced by The Vladimir Virgin icon.

Igor Grabar proved that the icon of Theotokos of the Don (Donski) was painted by Theophanes the Greek in 1370 [4], whilst Lazarev stated that there was no connection with him, and claimed it to have been painted in 1390. The number he assigns to it is 92 in the volume upon the Novgorod icons, and it is called the Icon of Compassion. Other Icons of Compassion are related to him [5] Many links connect it to the Vladimir Virgin.

Many Russian artists made imitations of it, oas in Plate 108, in the Book of the Moscow School of Lazarev, named 'Theotokos Vladimirski' but this dates from the 15th century. In Plates 109, 113, 114 and 115 in the same book there are relationships with the Vladimir Virgin. However, Rublev sought guidance from it in the Holy Trinity Icon, as with:

  1. The bending of the middle angel's head (the angel thus representing the Father). He imitated the bending of the virgin'S head towards the side of the Infant Jesus.
  2. The slope of the right shoulder in both icons. . . . .
  3. The dark purple colour in both icons.
  4. The position of Jesus legs is imitated in the position of the legs of the angel on the right .(so that the angel represents the Son, Jesus.)
  5. Other resemblances also exist, such as the arrangement of threads for example. Russian tradition ascribes an icon to Rublev in which there is an imitation of the Vladimir Virgin. [7]

Father Anton Hebby has obtained a photograph of an icon in the tradition of the Vladimir Virgin which was presented by the former Russian Patriarch Alexei to the Al-Nouria convent in Beirut. This influence by the various geniuses of the (original) iconographers bears witness to the sublimity of our spell-binding icon. For our icons, our church music and hymns transport men to heaven.

Thus, if the genius of the Russian art of Rublev and his great colleague, Theophanes the Greek (or, rather, the Hellene) and other great Russian artists sought to follow the tradition of the Vladimir Virgin, then silence is a better tribute to her glory than speech.

Then, 0 Mary, at this Feast of the Cross, may that Cross. of your Son fill our existence. We love you and it is enough that you know of this love.

HOMS 14.9:89



[1] See page 78 in 'The Mystery of Ihe Divine Economy', and page 43 in 'Is it a Monkey or a Man?' (in Arabic)..

[2] See page. 98 in The Mystery of the Divine Economy'. The Divine Image (Patriarch Elias the Fourth), also page 66 and 'The Orthodox Vision". (Adnan Trabulsi, in Arabic).

[3] Iconographer: meaning 'Icon painter', originally from the Greek.

[4] 'Soviet Literature', No. 6, 1988, pp. 178/179, Moscow.

[5] 'Soviet Literature', No. 6, 1988, pp. 128/129, Moscow, where it is mentioned that Rublev sought guidance from Theophanes in the icon of the Trinity with regard to his use of the colour blue.

[6] See 'Damascus and the Theology of Icons,' Damascus 1987. (I have not yet published my explanation of Rublev's Trinity.)

[7] See Alexis Haeckel: 'Les Icones', 1952.