Our Lady of Vladimir

Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 12th century

Written by Paula Howard, OSB, November 2000

According to legend this icon was first written by St. Luke the Evangelist. Around 1131 the icon was removed from Constantinople to Vishgorod near Kiev. From there it was transferred to Vladimir (whence its name) and in 1395 to Moscow.

The Virgin of Vladimir is the most venerated icon in all Russia and has escaped many fires and plunderers. The Virgin is shown inclined in an attitude of contemplation while the Child rests on her arm with His cheek against hers. This attitude expresses not so much the maternal tenderness of Mary as her power to elicit tenderness in her Son as she intercedes with Him for the human race. Her eyes look neither toward the Child, nor at the viewer, but rather inward to the heart of God and outward to the heart of the world. The meaning of Mary's gaze is further enhanced by the bright stars on her forehead and shoulders. They indicate not only her virginity before, during and after the birth of Jesus, but also speak of a divine presence that permeates part of her being. She is completely open to the Spirit, making her innermost being completely attentive to the creative power of God. The bright face and golden tunic of the Child indicate His majesty and splendor as the Word of God, the source of all wisdom. The arm of the Child holds Mary in an embrace, His eyes fixed on hers with complete attentiveness, and His mouth close to hers, offering her His divine breath. The neck of the Child is painted large because it represents the Holy Spirit, the breath of God which Jesus offers to humanity. Far from a sentimental event, the tender embrace of mother and child is the portrayal of the mysterious interchange between God and humanity made possible by the Incarnation of the Word.

Some of this information is from the book Praying with Icons by Jim Forest (Orbis Books, 2008).