Icon, Kazan Mother of God
AH 1967.0011 A-B
Enamel and silver
As anyone who has visited Agecroft Hall & Gardens knows, most of what is exhibited portrays life in Tudor and Stuart England. The Williams Library, though, is vastly different from the rest of the museum. At the request of Mrs. Elizabeth Williams Morton, this room stands as it did when the Williams and Mortons were in residence.
There are many beautiful books (over 3,000!) and objects displayed in this large, welcoming room. One object that often gets overlooked is the Russian icon, the ca. 1900 Kazan, Mother of God. This enameled image is framed in a silver gilt repousse covering, called an oklad and would have been made for private worship of the Virgin Mary. It must be noted that icons are not for idolization, but, instead, for personal devotion and are seen as a conduit between the worshipper and the divine. Daily veneration consists of lighting candles and incense for purification, lighting lamps around the icon, prostrating one’s self before the icon, and kissing it. The beautiful silver overlay is placed atop the holy image to protect the painting from the kissing as well as the byproducts of burning candles and incense.i The use of silver repousse, where the image is punched into the silver from the reverse, lends sculptural relief to the piece.
The Kazan, Mother of God is one of the most common icon images in Russia, patterned after the miracle-working icon found buried in 1579 in Kazan, at the time, a predominantly Muslim city that had only very recently become part of Russia. The original icon was kept in the Holy Covenant of the Holy Theotokos in Kazan for nearly 500 years before it was lost.ii According to legend, the Virgin Mary repeatedly appeared to a little girl in the 16th century to tell her where the icon was buried amongst the ashes of a house.iii Thirty years later, this icon was credited with helping the Russian army fend off the Polish invasion of 1612. The Kazan icon was sent to head of the Russian army in Moscow. Upon its arrival on July 8th, 1612, the army fasted and prayed, reaffirming their faith, giving them the strength to keep fighting. Miraculously the army was able to overcome the attacking Polish army in October of 1612. The icon is commemorated in both summer and fall. Depending on which calendar is used, the dates can be July 8th and October 22nd or July 21st and November 4th.iv The icon again helped the Russian army when a general prayed at the icon during the War of 1812, leading to a crucial win on the battlefield, again on October 22nd. The original icon, found buried in 1579, was stolen from the church and quickly destroyed by the thieves in 1904. Only copies, such as the one on display at Agecroft, remain.v
Although no miraculous events can be attributed specifically to the copy of the icon at Agecroft, religious scholars say that although an icon may be a copy, it still has the ability to produce supernatural incidents, as copies of icons are similar to mirrors, reflecting the magical powers of the original.vi Essentially, every icon and copy of an icon has the potential for miracles and healing powers, as God can choose any icon as each is a way to enact a miracle here on earth.
Little is known about the provenance of Agecroft Hall’s Russian icon. The real question is how it came into possession of the Williams/Morton family. While the Williams and Mortons were Christians, they were not Russian Orthodox. Many times we have been asked why they would have had an icon on display in their library, a room used quite extensively in day-to-day living and for entertaining. It is quite possible it was displayed for its inherent artistic value or maybe because it was a treasured gift. For some, this piece can be seen as art, valuable for its beauty, but, for others, this icon is a way pray directly to the Virgin Mary. Whatever the reason, which we will most likely never know, come see this beautiful piece on display in the Williams Library.
i Salmond, Wendy R. “The Art of the Oklad.”The Post, 1996.
ii Salmond, 1996.
iii Milov, Sergei. “The Complicated History of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God.” Orthodox Christianity. Found Here. 2018.
iv “Commemoration of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God and the deliverance from the Poles” Orthodox Church in America. Found Here.
v Milov, 2018. vi Shevzov, Vera. “Icons, Miracles, and the Ecclesial Identity of Laity in Late Imperial Russian Orthodoxy.” The American Society of Church History. Church History 69:3. 2000.