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Iconography and Icons
“There is no icon like Nicholas.”
Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker (feastday: Dec 6/19) is one of the most beloved Saints of the Church. He is loved by so many because God has revealed St. Nicholas to be an ever-active intercessor, often performing very practical, straightforward, miracles of healing and rescue that anyone can comprehend. Among these miracles, a number have been worked through the icons of Nicholas. Below is a small selection of St Nicholas icons that have performed, or continue to perform, miracles.
1) Icon of St. Nicholas “of Zarazsk”
The icon of St Nicholas “of Zarazsk” is one of the most well-known icons in Russia that plays a significant role in the nation’s early medieval history. Hailing from the ancient Byzantine colony of Korsun, in the Crimea, the icon of St Nicholas was said to be situated in the church in which Vladimir the Great was baptized in 988.
In 1225 the icon was escorted by the priest Eustathius from Korsun to the Russian principality of Ryazan. This meant traversing the dangerous Polovtsian lands of the Tartars. Guided miraculously by St Nicholas, Fr Eustathius safely delivered the icon to Ryazan’s Prince Theodore. The prince built a church in honour of St. Nicholas, and placed the miraculous image within it.
Catastrophe later came upon the land of Ryazan in the form of the Tartar-Ruler Batu’s forces. Prince Theodore was captured and later died. On hearing the news, Theodore’s wife, Eupraxia, threw herself, along with her baby son, from the bell-tower of a church rather than face Tatar captivity herself. It is this manner and/or location of death, associated with a prophecy of St Nicholas’ icon regarding Ryazan, that gave the icon its name “Zaraysk.”
It wasn’t until the 16th century, when the icon was transferred to Kolomna, that St Nickolas of Zarazsk gained a wider devotion. This is also the time the stories of the capture of Ryazan were written in their present form. Consequently, copies of the icon spread widely throughout Russia – distinctive in showing St Nicholas full-length, right arm raised in blessing, and left arm holding aloft a Gospel book. Some of these copies have also been considered wonder-working.
2) Saint Nicholas Reappears on a Burnt Icon
In more recent times, burnt planks of wood manifested the faces of Christ and St Nicholas when moved to the home of a villager in the Ukraine. The villager’s farm belonged to a priest just before WWII, but the house was bombed by the Germans, and a new one was built. A much older shed remained until it burned down in a fire six years ago. Dismantling the wreckage, the 80 year-old woman was surprised to find two small planks with faint images upon them. Believing they were icons that had survived the fire, the lady removed them to her house, but promptly forgot about the indistinct images.
Not long after the images cleared to reveal the faces of Christ and St. Nicholas. The boards were taken to the local church to be sanctified, and since then have gradually become clearer and clearer, with no cleaning by the owners. The old lady’s house is now regularly visited by locals wishing to venerate the icons.
3) The Miraculous Icon of St Nicholas in Kokkari
In the secluded fishing harbour of Kokkari, is the largest church on Samos, and home to a wonder-working icon of St Nicholas. As a village based on fishing, it is unsurprising that the inhabitants wanted a church dedicated to St Nicholas – the patron of sea-travellers – nearby. Started in 1902, building of the church halted just a few years later due to political squabbles on Samos. At the same time, the icon of St Nicholas arrived from Mt Athos, where it had been specially painted for the church in Kokkari. As building had been halted, many of the church’s patrons were unwilling to pay for this costly icon, and it was set to be returned. However, a local wealthy doctor, received in a dream the message that his greed should not prevent the icon from staying in Kokkari, and settled the balance.
From then on, the numerous miracles have been attributed to the icon. A sailor from Marathokampos, who had run aground in stormy seas, was guided to a safe beach by the light emitted by an image of St Nicholas. Heading to the nearest church, in Kokkari, to give thanks to St Nicholas, the sailor was amazed to see the icon, which had the same composition as the image which had guided him to safety. This miracle helped settle the petty squabbles of the villagers, and construction of the church was resumed, being finally completed in 1938. A little later, in the Summer of 1940, the icon began to weep – a miracle that was seen as a forewarning the terrible events that were to befall Greece during World War II.
4) The Strange and Modern Miracle of St Nicholas’ Icon
Through an icon of St Nicholas, a miraculous incident shocked and brought repentance to hundreds of people in the Russian Soviet city of Kuibyshev (modern day Samara), in the year 1956.
On New Year’s Eve, a young woman called Zoë, caught up in the worldly celebrations, took down one of her pious mother’s icons of St Nicholas and started to irreverently dance with it. Upon taunting God with the words, “If He exists, let Him punish me,” there was a flash of light, and Zoë became frozen to the spot, still clutching St Nicholas’ icon to her chest.
Alive, conscious, but unable to move a limb, Zoë remained frozen like a statue until Easter, 128 days later. During that time physicians, a professor of medicine, priests, and the local bishop all visited her and left unable to explain what had happened, nor move her from where she stood. Meanwhile, Soviet guards were placed on the house’s door to prevent the news spreading too far. Zoë could speak, and related her dreadful visions of the world “burning… lost because of its sins”. On Easter day her muscles relaxed and she could finally move freely again. The young woman, now exhausted, related her experiences and the need for repentance, before reposing peacefully three days later.
5) St. Nicholas “O Streidas” (of the Oyster)
During the Iconoclastic period, the monks of Mt Athos sometimes threw the holy icons into the sea, reasoning that at least in the waves there was a chance of survival, whereas to hold on to them would mean sure destruction at the hand of the icon-smashers. Among these icons, was an rare “mosaic” (rather than painted) icon of St Nicholas.
After the iconoclastic heresy was defeated, many of the monasteries of Athos were rebuilt. The brethren of one of these monasteries, dedicated to St John the Baptist, were fishing one day when they found in their net the mosaic icon of St Nicholas thrown into the sea years before. The icon had been miraculously preserved, except for one thing: an oyster shell was embedded in St Nicholas’ face. When the monks pulled the shell from the icon, they were amazed to see blood run from the “wound”. On hearing of this miracle, Patriarch Jeremiah the Elder rededicated the monastery of St John to Nicholas, giving it the name Stavronikita. The monastery remains today, along with the miraculous icon: crack and dried blood still clearly visible.
6) The Myrrh-Streaming Icon of Michigan
This icon is remarkable, but not unique, for being a myrrh-streaming printed image laminated onto a wooden board. The icon was made by the Isaac of Syria Skete in Wisconsin, but was not put on sale because it had failed the skete’s strict quality-control standards. Placed in the “reject bin” of icons available as free gifts to visitors, it was given to the priest (Fr Elias) of St George’s Church, Michigan City, Indiana.
In 1996, on St Nicholas’ feastday, Fr Elias and the Reader, Timothy, entered the church to be greeted by the strong smell of roses engulfing the entire nave. The smell was traced to the icon of St Nicholas, which had been placed on the icon-stand specially for the feast. The icon was found to be exuding myrrh in three streams, originating on Nicholas’ forehead, and coming through the icon’s laminate.
Miracles have been attributed to this holy oil, and the icon itself travels around the United States, still exuding myrrh.
7) Embroidered Icon of St Nicholas in Andros
The ancient St Nicholas Monastery in Andros is blessed with not only relics of the Saint himself, but at least two wonder-working icons of the Mother of God. In the narthex of the main church is also an unusual embroidered icon of St Nicholas that is claimed to work miracles too. The icon dates to the 17th century, when the abbot, Jakavos, went to Smyrna on monastery business. There he met an uneducated woman, Triandaphyla, who had gained a reputation for healing the sick, not only with herbs, but also with magic. Among those she had helped was a wealthy Turkish Pasha who, in gratitude, had given her a bag of gold. Abbot Jakovos spoke to her about the dangers to herself and others of using magic, and repenting, she returned with him to Andros where she lived in the village of Messarion and was tonsured a nun with the name Leonida. She spent eleven years sewing the icon of St. Nicholas, and the threads of the hands and face are her own hair.
8) Icon of Nicholas “the Wet”
In Ukraine, and around Kiev in particular, are numerous churches dedicated to St Nicholas “the Wet”. This recounts a famous miracle of St Nicholas, as well as linking in with the Saint’s well known care for sailors and travelers. A Kievan man was sailing home on the river Dneper with his wife and baby, after celebrating the feast day of Ss Boris and Gleb in Vyshgorod. The wife dozed off and allowed her baby to fall into the waters. Frantically the two parents tried to save their child, calling out to St Nicholas in particular for help, but the baby was pulled under by the strong currents, lost. Distraught, the young couple returned home, begging St Nicholas that their child might at least survive.
The next morning, the sacristan of St Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, heard the crying of a baby coming from within. To his amazement, despite the doors being locked all night, an infant was found dripping wet underneath the icon of St Nicholas. News spread and the parents were reunited with their child, confessing it to be a miracle of St Nicholas. Pilgrims flocked to the icon, which remained an object of veneration right up until it disappeared during the Second World War. The icon shown here is not the original, but an icon of the miracle. Here is what is thought to be a photograph of the original icon.
9) The Wonder-Working Icon of Saint Nicholas in Spata
Within the olive groves and rich farmland east of Athens, lays the small village of Spata, renamed Agios Nikolaos because of the miracles the Saint has performed in this area.
There are two stories relating how the icon of St Nicholas was discovered. Both stories describe the icon being discovered by locals in a secluded, forested, spring, either a cave or an abandoned hermit’s cell, leading to speculation it is an ancient icon hidden during the iconoclastic period. Either way, each time the icon was brought to Spata for veneration, it miraculously returned to its original spot, letting the villagers know that is where the church to St Nicholas should be built near the spring.
Innumerable examples of healing have been attributed to the St Nicholas’ shrine, including visions of the Saint himself. Among these phenomena are the account of wild animals entering the church, and unguided walking up to the holy icon of St Nicholas, and venerating it!
10. The Invincible Icon of Nikolskaya Tower
Gate icons, painted over the entrances to cities or palaces, were often found protecting gatehouses throughout Byzantium and, later, the Russian Empire. The Kremlin in Moscow had numerous, including the icon of St Nicholas over the entrance to St Nicholas (Nikolskaya) Tower.
The icon itself depicts the miracle of Mozhaisk of 1302, when a besieging army of Tartars was routed by a giant apparition of St Nicholas above the city. The saintly-bishop appeared brandishing a sword in his right hand, and the city of Mozhaisk in his left hand, which put the Tartar horde to flight. From the 14th century onwards, icons of this miracle have been among the most popular depictions of St Nicholas in Russia. The vividness of the apparition is preserved in the remarkable number of statues and bas-relief icons of “St Nicholas of Mozhaisk” that exist, where such depictions are otherwise rare in Orthodox iconography. Nicholas of Mozhaisk is especially regarded as an image of protection from attack, which is presumably why it was chosen as the gate-icon for the Nikolskaya Tower, sometime in the 16th century.
In 1812 when Napoleon retreated from Moscow, the tower, with the rest of the Kremlin, was set on fire. The spire was blown up and the roof over the gateway destroyed. However, the icon itself survived unscathed.
The icon’s miraculous surviving ability was really put to test during the October Revolution. In the fighting, both Nikolskaya Tower and Nikolskaya Gate were damaged by explosives, machine-gun fire, hand grenades and rifle shots. Icons decorating the building were destroyed, but again St Nicholas’s image survived. Though pocked with bullet-holes, the stern gaze of St Nicholas continued to stare out at the Muscovites. Not long after, the Bolsheviks covered the icon with a red cloth, aware of how St Nicholas might be able to rally people’s faith in God.
Then, in May of 1918, the red cloth covering St Nicholas was discovered ripped to shreds. Once again, the image of St Nicholas was miraculously revealed, and thousands of faithful thronged the square before Nicholas’ Tower carrying banners and icons. But the Godless Soviet government could not tolerate such devotion to Christ and His Saints, and the icons disappeared. No documentation existed, but it was assumed the icons were removed – perhaps destroyed – and the recesses plastered over.
Now considered lost, the recesses above the gates of the Kremlin remained in this state until well into the 21st century. Wanting to replace the lost gate-icons, the plaster was removed in around 2004, only to reveal a metal mesh over the original icons. St Nicholas had been watching over the gates all the time, and a sympathetic workman had obviously sought to preserve his icon, and others, by applying the plaster over a protective metal mesh.
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