Saturday, June 19, 2004, 12:00 A.M.
Icon, spirited away in 1949, returning to Russia
By David Briggs
Newhouse News Service
The Gospel writer and early apostle Luke is believed to have painted it.
For centuries, it was considered the source of miracles, protecting Russia
from foreign invaders. It survived looting by the Soviets and the Nazis.
And now, more than a half-century after it was smuggled to the United States
by a Latvian bishop, the wonder-working Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God is
In a gesture of international goodwill, and a sign that a good child never
forgets its mother, the Orthodox Church in America is returning one of the
most revered icons in its faith to the Russian Orthodox Church - the church
that first sent Orthodox missionaries to America.
Metropolitan Vladimir of St. Petersburg is making a historic journey to
retrieve the painting of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. He says his
"whole country is anxiously waiting for the icon. This is an historic event
for the whole Orthodox world."
How important is the icon to Russia?
After a farewell service in Chicago on July 3, the Russian government is
sending a private plane to pick up Vladimir and the icon, which measures
approximately 2 by 3 feet with a jewel-covered frame.
Some 150,000 people are expected to stand in line around the clock to
venerate the icon during a short stay in Moscow. A tent city is being
erected for the crowd of up to 200,000 people expected to be on hand for its
return to the Tikhvin Monastery in northern Russia July 8-9.
There is a picture of the icon in every Russian Orthodox Church.
"That icon is almost like the Russian flag to the people," says Bishop
Seraphim of Canada.
To the Orthodox, icons are seen as windows of the soul unto heaven. This
particular icon, a painting of Mary gesturing with her hands toward her
infant son, is believed to have worked wonders for nearly two millennia.
The Apostle Luke is credited by tradition with painting the Tikhvin icon,
which was taken from Jerusalem to Constantinople in the fifth century. In
1383, the icon is said to have appeared to Russian fishermen, hovering over
a lake bathed in radiant light. This was interpreted as a sign from Mary
that the icon should be moved before the fall of Constantinople.
The icon appeared later in the 14th century near the town of Tikhvin, in the
St. Petersburg region of northern Russia, and a church and monastery
enclosed by stone walls were built on the site. In the early 17th century,
the Virgin Mary is believed to have offered special protection from Swedish
invaders, and a copy of the icon was present when the two countries agreed
to a peace treaty in 1617.
It was a miracle in itself to some that the icon survived the 20th century,
first that it was not stolen or sold by Soviet authorities and then that it
was recovered after World War II from the Nazis, who had moved the icon from
the Tikhvin Monastery to Riga, Latvia.
Stories differ as to how Bishop John of Riga obtained the icon. But not
trusting the icon to be overseen by the Soviets, he brought it to the United
States in 1949. He became archbishop of Chicago. He regularly displayed the
icon in a Chicago cathedral and took it on pilgrimages throughout the United
It had always been the intention of Archbishop John, who died in 1982, to
return the icon to Russia when it was safe to do so.
The rebirth of the Russian Orthodox Church since the fall of communism
convinced the Americans that the time had come to return the icon to the