The 17th of July (July 4 in the Old Calendar) marks the anniversary and feast day of Holy Passion-Bearer Tsar Nicholas II and his family. Russia’s last royal family are universally recognized in the Orthodox Church as saints worthy of veneration, yet the course of their glorification was not smooth. Two wonder-working icons, both American, both paper, played an important role.
The veneration of the murdered Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandria, and their children, began in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR)*. Naturally the veneration began with these exiled Russians because they were the people who knew the royal family most intimately, and served them most zealously in life. The Church inside Russia, on the other hand, was hindered in most ways by the Soviet government, who were ideologically opposed to religion in general, and Christianity in particular. In addition, it was the Soviet government under Lenin which issued the direct order for the Royal Family to be murdered. Any sympathy for Nicholas and his family, let alone veneration, was seen as a direct challenge to Soviet authority.
And so, veneration of the Royal-Martyrs was restricted to the ROCOR, who in a 1981 synod officially declared them as Saints.
After the fall of Communism in Russia, it was thought the Royal-Martyrs would be recognized inside the now unshackled Russian Orthodox Church. For Nicholas and his family to be recognized as saints by the Russian Church both abroad and inside Russia would surely lead to universal “canonization” throughout the Orthodox world.
And yet, the Russian bishops dragged their heels. In 1992 they officially glorified Nicholas’ sister-in-law Elizabeth and her companion Nun-Barbara as martyrs, but refused to do the same for Nicholas himself and his family. This is when two Icons made an appearance to play an important role.
The Myrrh-Streaming Icon Of Tsar Martyr Nicholas
The Icon of Tsar-Martyr Nicholas was commissioned by Ija Schmit, a Russian émigré living in the U.S., who used money inherited from her mother to have the icon painted in 1996. The icon shows Tsar Nicholas in full regal attire(1996 was the 100th anniversary of his coronation) and flanked by St Nicholas of Myra (his namesake) and St Job the Long-Suffering, on whose feast day Nicholas was born. Underneath the icon was the inscription: “This Holy Icon is for the Canonization of the Tsar Martyr in Russia.”
Thousands of paper copies of the icon were produced, to be sold in America and given away freely in Russia. The money made from Western sales was to be used to buy medicines and food for pensioners and orphans in Russia. Ija Schmit’s brother, a monk, took some paper icons with him when he went to Russia in late 1996. One of the cities he visted was Ryazan, where he gave some of the icons to a local priest, who in turn gave one to Dr. Oleg Belchenko, from Moscow. This is the icon of Tsar Martyr Nicholas that began streaming myrrh in November 1998.
This happened in Moscow, and immediately Dr Belchenko handed over the icon to a local priest, who put the icon out for veneration. Word spread and by 1999 the icon was traveling around Russia, arousing veneration of the Holy Royal Martyrs wherever it went through its aromatic myrrh. The Moscow Patriarchate was displeased about such popular piety, and the bishops ordered the icon to be placed on the altar, fearful of the reactions it caused. Nevertheless, a full report was sent to the Moscow Patriarch, on the miracles associated with the icon.
The “Bleeding” Icon of the the Royal Martyrs
This icon, also printed in America, depicts the Royal Family together, holding crosses of martyrdom. Just like the icon given to Dr Belchencko, the royal-martyrs icon was also given to a Muscovite, George Balovlenko, by the same priest, in the same town, on the same day in 1998. Unlike the icon of Tsar Nicholas alone, this icon was of poor quality – it was pale and in some places even basic colours and lines were not clear. Nevertheless, the icon was put in a frame with glass and in this condition taken to Moscow. Like the other icon, it soon started to stream myrrh.
This icon was given the name “Bleeding,” because the aromatic myrrh coming from it had the colour of blood, and according to some witnesses, constantly “pulsated” from what looked like real bruises on the faces and hands. At the same time, the colours of the garments of the Royal Martyrs have gradually become brighter compared with their former dullness. Numerous moving reports have been collected of those who have been cured of illnesses through this icon.
In October 1998 the miraculous icon of the Holy Royal Martyrs was brought to Greece for fifty days. Everywhere the myrrh-gushing icon was met with reverence and in some places with the ringing of bells.
In August 2000, the Russian Church met at a synod in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Moscow. Amongst the things discussed was the issue of canonization. The eagerly-awaited news finally escaped the cathedral’s walls to the faithful gathered outside: Tsar Nicholas and his family were now recognized as Saints! The date of their martyrdom was now recorded in Orthodox calendars around the world as their feast day. It is certain that influential in this decision were two paper icons of the martyrs, both of which exuded sweet-smelling myrrh and so revealed those Saints to be themselves “a sweet aroma of Christ unto God” (2 Cor 2:15).
Holy Royal Martyrs, pray for us!
Two Icons Printed in America Stream Myrrh in Russia, a collection of church articles giving more details, all printed before the glorification of the Royal Martyrs.
“The Holy Royal Martyrs in the Light of History and God’s Providence”, more on the Royal Martyrs.
*Note: Within Orthodoxy, the glorification of a Saint always begins with the people, the laity. Those who knew the Saint in life are the first people to recognize his or her holiness, and so they are the first to pray for him, and then, in time, to pray to him. This local veneration can spread to other parts of the Church, something which is helped along tremendously by the bishops. These heirarchs, responsible for shepherding the Orthodox faithful, can decide whether the life of the “Saint” being venerated is truly worthy of greater recognition. If it is, then the Church has a newly revealed Saint, an example for the whole faithful to draw inspiration from. Such is the nature of canonization in the Orthodox Church.