On the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God
The foundation for the iconographic type, or composition, of the Icon of the Mother of God “of the Sign” are the words of Prophet Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).
In the 13th century, the Kursk region, as well as the rest of Russia at the time, was subjected to terrible decimation by the Tatar invasion. The city of Kursk was completely destroyed and grew into a wild, overgrown forest, populated by wild animals. The residents of the city of Rylsk, 60 miles away, who had somehow been spared from a Tatar invasion, would go there to hunt. And it happened that in 1295, on the feast day of the Nativity of the Mother of God, a small troupe of hunters from Rylsk arrived at the Tuskor River, 18 miles from Kursk, to hunt. One of them, a pious and honorable man, seeking prey in the woods, found a small icon lying face down at the root of a tree. He had barely lifted the icon from the ground to inspect it, when a strong wellspring of pure water burst forth from the very spot where the icon lay. The icon turned out to be of the Mother of God “of the Sign.” The hunter realized that this was no ordinary icon. He summoned his fellow hunters, and together they cut down timber and erected a small chapel where they placed the newly-found icon. The people of Rylsk, learning of the icon, began to visit it for veneration, and many miracles occurred as a result.
Prince Basil Shemyak of Rylsk, having heard about this Icon, ordered that it be brought to his city, which was done with great ceremony: the entire city emerged to greet the miraculous Icon as it approached in procession. Prince Basil himself, however, declined to participate in the ceremony—and was struck blind. After his earnest repentance and prayer before the Icon, he was granted sight again. Moved by this miracle, prince Vasily built a church in the city of Rylsk in honor of the Nativity of the Mother of God, and there the miraculous icon was placed on the feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God. This day was appointed as its yearly feast day.
But the icon did not stay in Rylsk for long. Three times it miraculously disappeared from there, and would be found again and again at the chapel where the hunter found it. The people of Rylsk then understood that it was the will of the Mother of God that Her icon should remain at the site of its discovery, and they left it there permanently. Pilgrims streamed to the site and services of supplication were celebrated there by the attending priest whose name was Bogoliub. The priest dwelt at the site of the wooden chapel and struggled there in asceticism.
In 1383, the Kursk region was once again subjected to looting by the Muslim Tatars. A band of them, coming across the chapel, took priest Bogoliub prisoner and decided to burn the chapel down. No matter what they tried, the chapel would not ignite. The superstitious Tatars then accused the priest of sorcery. The priest refuted their charge and pointed to the Icon inside the chapel. The livid Tatars seized the holy image, hacked it into two and threw the pieces away, then burned the chapel. Fr Bogoliub was then taken away as a slave.
The priest stood fast to his Orthodox Christian faith even as a slave, despite the pressure on him from the Muslims to adopt their religion, he remained unbowed, and lay all his hopes on the Lord Jesus and His Most-Pure Mother. This hope was not futile: once, as he was tending to a flock of sheep, he sang a hymn to the Mother of God. A group of emissaries of the Muscovite prince, passing by on their way to see the khan, heard the singing and, learning that this slave was a Russian priest, ransomed him out of slavery. Fr Bogoliub then returned to his homeland and settled once more where the chapel had once stood. Soon thereafter he found the two pieces of the miracle-working Icon, and as he placed them together, they immediately, miraculously grew together.
In 1597, by order of Tsar Theodore Ioannovich, the Icon was brought to Moscow and surrounded by depictions of the Lord Sabaoth and the Old Testament prophets who had foretold the selection, labors and service of the Most-Holy Mother of God.
In 1615, by a special request by the people of Kursk, Tsar Michael Feodorovich commanded that the miracle-working Icon be returned from Moscow to Kursk and placed in the Kursk Cathedral. Tsarina Irene Feodorovna adorned the Icon with a bejeweled riza (metal cover), after which it was returned to its chapel. That same year, with the help of the Tsar, a church dedicated to the Nativity of the Most-Holy Mother of God was erected on the site of the chapel, and a monastery founded there, while a second church was built over the original spring dedicated to the Life-Bearing Spring. The new monastery became known as the Kursk-Root Hermitage in honor of the appearance of the Icon at the root of a tree. Since 1618, the Icon spent most of each year in Kursk, and would be brought to the Root Hermitage for a brief time.
Since 1806, by Royal decree, the miracle-working Icon was to be kept at Kursk-Root Hermitage from the Friday of the 9th week after Pascha until September 12. During that period every year, the Icon would be brought from Kursk to the Kursk-Root Hermitage and then back with a solemn procession which traveled the entire way, totaling 18 miles.
On the 9th Friday after Pascha in 1767, in the courtyard of the home of the Mashnin family, the young Prokhor Mashnin, son of Isidore and Agatha Mashnin, was miraculously cured by the Grace of God and by the intercessions of His most pure Mother before Kursk Icon. This young boy Prokhor went on to become a monk, and is known today as St. Seraphim of Sarov.
In March of 1898 a group of anarchists, desiring to undermine the faith of the people in the wonderworking power of the Lord and His Mother revealed through the icon, decided to destroy it. They placed a time bomb in the Cathedral of the Sign, and at two o’clock in the morning a horrendous explosion rent the air and all the walls of the monastery were shaken. The frightened monastic brethren rushed immediately to the cathedral, where they beheld a scene of horrible devastation. The force of the blast had shattered the gilded canopy above the icon. The heavy marble base, constructed of several massive steps, had been jolted out of position and split into several pieces. A huge metal candlestick which stood before the icon and been blown to the opposite side of the cathedral. A door of cast iron located near the icon had been torn from its hinges and cast outside, where it smashed against a wall and caused a deep crack. All the windows in the cathedral and even those in the dome above were shattered. Amid the general devastation, the holy icon remained intact and even the glass within the frame remained whole. Thinking to destroy the icon, the anarchists had, on the contrary, become the cause of its greater glorification.
Archbishop Seraphim (Ivanov, +1987) of Chicago and Detroit, tells us that the priest accompanying the Icon years later in Frankfurt, Germany, was taken aside by an old man, who said to him: “I conspired with the terrorist in the attempt to blow up the Icon. I was a young man, and didn’t believe in God. I wanted to test whether God exists: if He does, He wouldn’t allow such a great holy icon to be destroyed. Afterwards, I began to fervently believe in God, and to this day I bitterly repent in my terrible act.” The old man prostrated himself before the Icon and left the church.
When the Archbishop of Kursk retired in 1917, Bishop Theophan (Gavrilov, +1943) was unanimously chosen by the clergy and flock to be their ruling bishop. As Bishop of Kursk, Vladyka Theophan and his spiritual children endured the theft of the Kursk Icon from the Cathedral in 1918. It happened as follows:
On Wednesday of the 6th week of Great Lent, pre-sanctified Liturgy was celebrated by Hieromonk Germogenes (Zolenko,+1958). Returning to the church for great compline, he saw Hieromonk Pitirim at the Cathedral entrance along with a novice who had discovered the theft of the miracle-working Icon, the Holy Lamb (the Gifts prepared for the next pre-sanctified Liturgy) and the holy tabernacle. The alarmed monastic brethren immediately reported this to Vladyka Theophan, who sent a telegram to the head of the Moscow criminal investigation department. The local atheists were not questioned, and the blame was laid at the feet of the monks themselves, including Vladyka Theophan. They were all placed under house arrest. So the monks of the Mother of God of the Sign Monastery, having lost their most precious holy icon, were faced to celebrate Pascha with much sorrow, but the Resurrected Christ brought consolation to the brethren, for on the Thursday after St Thomas Sunday, a homeless man found the Icon, near the St. Theodosius Well, missing only its valuable riza (metal cover). Learning of the finding of the Icon, Bishop Theophan ordered that all the bells be rung, and set out with all the monks on a procession to the site where the miraculous Icon was found.
Fearing the desecration of the Icon by the advancing godless forces, Vladyka Theophan, with the permission of Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky, President of the Higher Ecclesiastical Administration in Southern Russia, left Kursk on November 18, 1919, carrying in his hands the miracle-working Icon. In 1920, the Icon was finally brought out of its homeland by Vladyka Theophan.
In 1925, by decision of the Synod of Bishops Abroad, and with the consent of the keeper of the Icon, Archbishop Theophan, the precious Icon was taken to the Holy Trinity Church in Belgrade, Serbia. After the Germans occupied Yugoslavia, Archbishop Theophan took the Icon to Hopovo Monastery.
With the blessing of the Synod of Bishops, Vladyka Theophan bore the icon around to various places where Russians of the diaspora dwelt. During World War II, when Belgrade was subjected to bombardment and other tribulations associated with the war, the miraculous icon became a rampart of hope for all that approached it with sincere prayer.
The steadfast companion of those Russian people who did not accept the satanic authority, this great and ancient holy object, which remained in Moscow even during the dreadful turmoil of the 17th century, was removed from Yugoslavia in the autumn of 1944 together with those who again fled the godless regime. From ruined Vienna, the icon was borne to the tranquil city of Carlsbad to which the Synod of Bishops had been evacuated. With the approach of the Bolsheviks it was again transferred to Munich in the spring of 1945. The holy icon proved to be an unending consolation to many thousands of people who were experiencing all the trials and tribulations of the latter years of World War II. From Munich the icon was borne to Switzerland, France, Belgium, England, Austria, and many cities and camps in Germany itself. Subsequently, the icon was transferred to the New World where it had its permanent residence, first in the New Kursk Hermitage in Mahopac, NY, and then in the Church Abroad’s Cathedral of the Mother of God of the Sign in New York City, the residence of the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. At present, by decree of the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, a festival is held in honor of the icon at the New Kursk Hermitage in Mahopac, NY, on the Sunday nearest the feast of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos, and in the Cathedral of the Mother of God of the Sign in New York City on November 27/ December 10.
It is noteworthy that the great St John (Maximovich) of San Francisco, the wonderworker, reposed before this very icon in 1966.
From before the time of the reunification of the two parts of the one Russian Church, there had been discussions concerning the icon’s visit to Russia. Once the reunification of the Russian Church took place, the planning for this event became more imperative as a symbol of our unity and love. From September 11 to October 4, 2009, the Kursk Icon was festively returned to Russia for a visit. It visited Moscow, Kursk, and other places, during which time the precious icon was venerated by tens of thousands of people. It was the first time the icon had returned to its place of origin since it left Russia in 1920.
Glory to Thee, O God, glory to Thee for all things!