Tree of the Virgin | Russia’s Best Loved Icons of Mary

Tree of the Virgin (Древо Пресвятой Богородицы)

(Click to Enlarge)

The day after a major feast is often dedicated to a person who plays a central role in the preceding day’s narrative. For example, the day after the Theophany, Christ’s baptism, is dedicated to John the Baptist; whilst the day after the feast of the Annunciation is dedicated to the Archangels, particularly Gabriel. December the 26th, being the day after the Feast of Christ’s birth, is dedicated to His mother and birth-giver, Mary.

The icon above is not an icon for the feast, though it is both interesting and appropriate: the Tree of the Virgin Icon (in Russian Древо Пресвятой Богородицы or Древо Божией Матери).

This icon is modern, and is basically an image created to display a tiny fraction of the most popular icons of the Mother of God in Russia, which are hanging from the branches.

At the centre of the tree is an image of Mary with Jesus in the cave, the main detail from the Icon of the Nativity (and the reason I chose to post this particular icon today). Above the tree is a heavenly vision of the Holy Trinity. Moving clockwise from the Holy Trinity, the icons on the branches of the Virgin Tree are:

1. Axion Esti Icon. This is the name given to an icon of the Mother of God before which, according to tradition, the hymn “It is Truly Meet” (in Gr. Axion Estin) was revealed. The original icon, which still exists, depicts Mary and Christ embracing, cheek-to-cheek, a type of icon known as eleousa, meaning “merciful”. The Russian version of the icon (Достойно есть – Dostóino yesť) has the added detail of two angels crowning Mary, and this is the version of the icon shown on the Virgin Tree. Here is a larger version of a Russian “Axion Esti” Icon.
Article on the Axion Esti Icon


2. The Pochaev Icon of the Mother of God


3. Icon of the Theotokos “of the Don”


4. The Feodorovskaya (Theodore) Icon of the Mother of God – this is a style of icon that featured heavily in the Romanov’s collection, and is loved by many Russians for this reason. Article about the icon from the Alexander Palace website.


5. The Milk-Giver Icon of the Mother of God


6. Icon of the Theotokos “Assuage my Sorrows”


7. Mother of God “of the Sign” Icon (in Russian: Знамение – Znamenie)


8. The Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God. Possibly the most famous of Orthodox icons – if you’ve never heard of the name, you’ll probably have seen the image before; it is used as the logo for Mel Gibson’s production company (see here). The name Vladamir was given to the icon later, as it is certainly older and of Byzantine origin. Tradition states that the icon was one of the original images painted by the Evangelist Luke. It is probably for this reason that the icon is places on the trunk of the Virgin Tree, as it is the prototype for countless numbers of other icons. Whilst the image has been heavily restored over the centuries, the faces of Mary and Jesus – the most striking part of the icon – are original. Article on the history of the Vladamir Icon in Russia.


9. “The Inexhaustible Cup” Icon. Similar in style to the “Znamenie” icon, this shows the Mother of God with arms raised in prayer, whilst before her is the Christ-child in the chalice giving a double-handed blessing. It is an icon with obvious Eucharistic overtones, but because of the name it has also gained popularity in Russia as an icon through which God can heal alcoholism. Special prayers to be said before this image have been specially composed for the purpose. Akathist in honour of the “Inexhaustible Cup” Icon.


10. Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God – another icon reputedly painted by St Luke, and also a wonder-working icon.


11. Mother of God “Quick to Hearken” Icon. The original is from the 10th century and now resides on Mt Athos, however copies of this icon became widespread in Russia during the 19th century. Many miracles have been attributed to these copies. The composition of the icon is similar to the 18th century Chernigov-Gethsemane icon (see below)


12. Chernigov-Gethsemane Icon of the Theotokos


13. Our Lady of Kazan – distinctive because of its small size and in showing the Christ-child shown standing instead of seated in Mary’s lap. Though the original is now lost, the Kazan “style” remains popular and copies are often given in Russia as wedding gifts.


14. Smolensk Icon, also known as the “Directress”. Another Byzantine icon brought to Russia during the medieval period, the Smolensk icon has protected the Russian people from invasion throughout the subsequent centuries. It is known as “directress” (in Greek Hodigitria) because the Mother of God is shown directing our gaze to Jesus Christ with her hand. This style predates the Smolensk icon, and is one of the original “types” traced back in Church tradition to St Luke. History of the Smolensk Icon.


15. The Iveron Icon. The Greek original is called Panagia Portaitissa (“Keeper of the Gate”) and is kept in the Iveron monastery on My Athos. The icon shown on the Virgin tree is an exact copy of this icon commissioned in the 17th century and sent to Russia, where it was known as the Theotokos Iverskaya, or Theotokos of Iveron. This copy is a miracle-working icon in its own right. More recently, copies of this copy in Canada and Hawaii have streamed myrrh, also being acclaimed as wonder-working. For these reasons, the Iver icon is one of the most famous miraculous icons in Orthodoxy, both inside and outside of Russia. About the Myrrh-Streaming Hawaiian Iver Icon.


The use of a tree, stylistically similar to the Tree of Jesse, simply shows the relationship between these various images. The largest central image is of the Nativity, and from this central event all the other icons of the Mother of God blossom forth. With the incarnation of God as the man Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin, we have the basis for all iconography. Revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, we have an image of God. All icons, but especially icons of Christ with His mother, are related to the historical event of Jesus’ birth in the cave. Without this event, there is no justification for painting holy images of Mary; with this event, there is no excuse for not painting, and honoring, images of the Mother of God with her Son.


This entry was posted in History, Icons of Christ, Icons of the Incarnation, The Theotokos and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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