Category Archives: icons

I return joyful from San Francisco.

My godmother Charity and I took a trip to San Francisco yesterday, to the Orthodox cathedral affectionately called “Joy of All Who Sorrow.” I have mentioned visits to this holy place a couple of times before. The relics of St. John (Maximovitch) of Shanghai and San Francisco reside here, and draw pilgrims from around the world.

We wanted to present our petitions to the Lord with the help and intercession of St. John.

As many of my prayers have to do with my children and grandchildren, I was touched to see this icon near the front of the cathedral soon after I came in:

Being so large, the church has lots of space for iconography, an overwhelming number of images to take in, in one visit. This sweeping 360 degree tour of the cathedral might be interesting to give you an idea of the whole of the interior. It starts with the exterior and you have to click on the little square picture at the upper right of the frame to see the interior.

A photo of my companion hints at the feeling of being in the space:

Since my last visit here, I have become familiar with the traditional depictions of various saints and can recognize more of them, even if the names on them are in Cyrillic script. But I didn’t know this couple, whom Charity guessed to be Ss. Peter and Fevronia, and which the man at the candle desk in the narthex confirmed:

I have only recently learned about this royal couple, but they have long been famous in Russia, because:

“The Day of Saints Peter and Fevronia since the days of Kievan Rus and until 1917, was broadly celebrated in Russia because it is believed that the Saints Peter and Fevronia are the patrons of marriage and family, as well as the symbols of love and fidelity. On this day it was common to go to church, where the people asked for love and family grace.” (Wikipedia)

Their holiday has been revived in this century, now celebrated every July 8.

On the west wall I was surprised by a very large icon of Elijah in his chariot of fire:

One icon that blessed me very much was of the Holy Myrrhbearing Women. I am always especially interested in them because one is my patron saint, but this is the first time I have been so touched by their expressions, which seemed more emotional than is typical. (I really don’t know much about art, so take anything I say with a huge grain of salt!)

Just today I was reminded that icons are re-presentations of those depicted, an opportunity for us to engage further with the saints whom we know and love in the Lord. I offer one excerpt from an article by Fr. Lawrence Farley in which  he explains why we ask saints to pray for us:

“If the living and departed are both united to Christ, they are by virtue of this union also united to one another.  Even while on earth all Christians are united in a bond of mutual prayer and intercession (Ephesians 6:18)—how much more will our departed brethren pray for us when they are closer to Christ in heaven?”

In the huge Holy Virgin Cathedral full of saints re-presented to me, made present in a mysterious way, I experienced that reality which was also expressed by Bishop Dimitri (Royster) at the glorification of St. Herman of Alaska:

“The Church on earth lives in a loving fellowship with the saints who have already run their race, who have fought the good fight, and have received their crowns (2 Timothy 4:7) (James 1:12). This is what the Apostle means when he says that we are compassed about or surrounded by the witness-martyrs or saints. We are assured both of their presence and their interest in us. In fact, they are concerned about the whole world and its salvation, for ‘there is joy in heaven over the repentance of one sinner’ (Luke 15:7).”

It encouraged  my heart to be with so many, many saints at the cathedral. I know that the ones presented in icons are only a few out of the great Cloud of Witnesses who are examples and friends for us, who love and pray for us. Their faith is like a magnet that draws me in to the Kingdom, and keeps me from getting discouraged. Their love is a comfort to my heart, and no wonder, for I was in the cathedral named for her whom we know to be the “Joy of All Who Sorrow.”

The Beheading of the Forerunner

Embroidery from Elena Voloshanka’s Workshop, 15th century, Russian.

THE PROPHECY of ISAIAH

Thus saith the Lord: Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith God. Speak ye, priests, unto the heart of Jerusalem, cry unto her that her humiliation is at an end, since her iniquity is pardoned, for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for her sins.

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight the paths for our God. Get thee up into the high mountain, O Zion, that bringest good tidings; lift up thy voice with strength, O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift it up, be not afraid: I am the Lord God, I will hear the poor of Israel and will not forsake them, but will cause rivers to flow in high places and fountains in the midst of the fields.

I will turn the wilderness into meadow and the dry land into water-springs. Let heaven above rejoice and let clouds sprinkle down righteousness; let the earth shine and let mercy shoot forth and let righteousness spring up together. With a voice of singing declare ye, and let it be heard, utter it even to the end of the earth, say ye: The Lord hath redeemed His servant Jacob, and if they thirst in the wilderness, He will cause water to flow out of the rock for them.

Sing, O barren one, thou that didst not bear, break forth into singing and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail, for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife.

-A reading for the Feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist

Madonnas and their tears.

Icons of Mary with Christ seated on her lap are venerated in the sacramental churches of East and West, Orthodox and Catholic, and have their commemoration days just as saints do. I’m most familiar with the Orthodox tradition, and how these days are scattered liberally throughout our liturgical calendar. Today I was at Divine Liturgy in the morning, but we were remembering various other saints and events in my parish, and I didn’t notice until I was home again that today we also commemorate the Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God.

I would never have foreseen, fifteen years ago, that I would have favorites among icons of this subject, but it happens; this version is possibly my favorite of all because for ten years or more it was the only one I had in my house. My humble print resembles this one:

Icon Reader tells us that “It is known as “directress” (in Greek Hodigitria) because the Mother of God is shown directing our gaze to Jesus Christ with her hand. This style predates the Smolensk icon, and is one of the original ‘types’ traced back in Church tradition to St Luke.”

The tradition is that the first icon thus depicting Mary and Jesus originated in Antioch, and went from there to Jerusalem, then Constantinople, where it remained until, “In 1046, Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos gave his daughter, Anna, in marriage to Prince Vsevolod Yaroslavich, the son of Yaroslav the Wise. He used this icon to bless her on her journey.” And there it stayed in Kievan Rus’.

Many, many versions have been painted based on this style, and even the Black Madonna of Czestochowa in Poland, in its less innovative versions, can be seen to contain the same elements:

It seems that Orthodox Christians in Ukraine and Belarus are also fond of the Black Madonna version of this icon, as well as sharing a love with Russians of the style generally. One of the icons in this article from 2014 is a Smolensk icon of Mary: “Weeping Icons of Ukraine and Russia.”

While Icon Reader has reservations about the meaning of these tears, he was able to affirm one clear word from the news reports that surely still stands:

“What is certain is [the] tears of the Mother of God
speak directly to the heart of every Orthodox believer,
calling all to repentance, amendment of life and return
to Orthodox faith and tradition in their fullness.”