The stillness of the hushed, stone interior fell away before us – revealed and shadowed equally by the dim yellow-orange incandescence of chain-hung bulbs. Unspoken rules of speed and volume fell upon us immediately as the darkened, neo-classical cavern effortlessly absorbed us. It was the demands of reverence that dampened our behaviour and forced us to gaze wide-eyed around the decorative columns, the far ornate walls, and then up into the painted ceiling – an impossibility of distance away.
“I have never witnessed this before” spoke the words that formed in my mind as if whispered by another. I traced the span of the silent, forward-facing queue that stretched across the near horizon. 80 worshippers? 100? All in line and focused on one objective: the Icon of Our Lady of Kazan. I did glimpse the face of the Virgin; her aged paint, the burnished brown and gold face dimmed by time, her impenetrable dark eyes staring out through the flock, but the infant Christ remained protectively hidden by encroaching devotees.
One by one they silently approached, whispered a plea lost to the collision of soft echoes that draped us, and then bent in gently to touch the cold, patiently waiting image with their lips. It was the kiss bestowed to a newborn, or one delivered in a recipient’s final moment, or to his empty shell, having just departed. Then slowly and respectfully the petitioner withdrew, descended the carpeted steps and was gone.
Again, these unspoken rules of engagement; the approach, the moment of divine intimacy and the descent back to earth all timed to similarity and repeated in endless clockwork as the queue, ever replenished, silently cycled its motion. With some unconscious mission now complete I stole away towards the exit, as a father leaving the room of a sleeping child, with the weight of importance pulling my glances backwards every few steps.
Freeing myself of a presence as heavy as smoke, I emerged into light as if from sleep, to tread out along Kazan Cathedral’s colonnade arms; a sheltered stone half-moon reaching to embrace Nevsky Prospect and the buzzing, choking city beyond. “They all want something”, someone would cynically tell me later of the devotees when I relayed the scene; as if the icon was an Orthodox wishing-well. Is this the truth? Perhaps more of us than would care to admit use a connection to the Divine as a request box when the occasion arises.
It’s odd to learn of the military connection to the cathedral; something so holy, tied -seemingly with no sense of contradiction- to something so abhorrent. To be fair; that does appear to be the norm amongst theists the world over. It’s something I can’t pretend to understand. An article on pravoslavie.ru states:-
“After the war of 1812 (during which Napoleon was defeated) the church became a monument to Russian victory. Captured enemy banners were put in the cathedral and the famous Russian Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, who won the most important campaign of 1812, was buried inside the church”.
I would also learn of the uncertainty, of the broad question mark hanging over the icon’s status; whether real or genuine. The original was stolen in 1904; a desecration -in the minds of the faithful- that was repaid to Russia in the form of subsequent decades of horror, persecution and death. A divine punishment, biblical-style.
It seems likely that the artifact was broken up for the material value of it’s jeweled, gold frame but further reading blurs history into speculation. It is also said to have been placed in a Siberian monastery, spirited off to America or retained by the Soviets, who apparently seized the original -or a copy (?) from St.Petersburg in 1917. At any rate, from 1917 until 1953 there is a conspicuous blank in its history. Further confusion is added by the fact that many valid copies/alternatives of icons are created and installed in appropriately dedicated churches and cathedrals throughout Russia – Our Lady being no exception.
The explorer F.A.Mitchell Hedges purchased a Lady of Kazan icon in 1953. Yes, in the USA! This was tested, declared a copy from the 16th Century (or possibly not) and returned to Russia via the World Trade Fair of 1964/65, Fátima, Portugal (1970), Pope John Paul 2nd’s study (1983) and St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome (2004) – upon which Kazan Cathedral is based, incidentally.
Now known as the Fátima Image, It saw a brief stay in Moscow until 2005 when it was placed in the Annunciation Cathedral of the Kazan Kremlin (all Russian cities used to have a Kremlin – a fortified medieval centre). The icon now resides in the Church of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, on the site of the original’s (re) discovery in 1579. We’re encroaching into the territory of legend now; with origins in Constantinople and its 13th Century transportation to Russia.
And that leaves us with the icon residing in Kazan Cathedral behind me as I walk out into the descending night on Nevsky Prospekt. A copy? The surviving original? A surviving original? Frankly, at this point, who knows?
[Our Lady of Kazan Montage: assembled from public domain images. Fireworks over Kazan Cathedral by Bernard H.Wood]]