Achtyr Icon of the Virgin

(Russia; eighteenth century)

Russia; eighteenth century; 32 x 26.8 cm

Feast: July 2

History of the icon

The Achtyr icon of the Mother of God - Russian Ахтырская was found on 2 July 1739 in the town of Akhtyrka (Kharkiv region) by the local priest Basil Danilov in the garden while mowing the grass. It depicted the Mother of God praying before the crucified Christ on Golgotha. The surprised priest fell to his knees in front of it and prayed fervently. After the prayer, he carried the icon with respect to his abode, where it was hidden from view. Father Basil had a dream three years later in which the Mother of God appeared to him and ordered him to clean the found icon from dust, wash it with water and decorate it. She also requested that the water which would cleanse the icon not be poured away, but be preserved, because it could heal people from fevers. This actually worked and the first to be healed was the daughter of Father Basil, who had been suffering from chills for a long time. The delighted priest gratefully brought the miraculous icon to the parish church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin the Guardian (Pokrov/ Покров), where people began to come, who, after washing or drinking this water, were miraculously healed. Rumours about a new miraculous icon soon spread not only in the town, but also in its wider surroundings.

With the blessing of the Moldovan metropolitan Anton (Chernovskij 1742 - 1748), the study of miraculous healings began in 1743. After receiving written documents from eyewitnesses, a file was prepared for consideration for the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. The assessment itself was preceded by a new examination by order of Empress Elisabeth Petrovna from 26 November 1744 followed by another examination in 1746 led by the Archbishop of Amvrosij (Dubnevic 1742 - 1750) and the archimandrite of Kiev-Pechersk Lavry Timothy (Szczerbacki - future Kiev metropolitan).

The Holy Synod established the worship of the Achtyr icon as a miraculous icon in 1751. The Belgorod Bishop Joasaf started the construction of the magnificent Pokrov Cathedral in Akhtyrka, the design of which was carried out by at the time highly respected Russian architect of Italian-French origin, Bartholomew Rastrelli. Empress Elizabeth herself donated 2,000 roubles for the construction of the cathedral. Based on the blessing of the Bishop of Belgorod Porphyry (Kreisky 1763 - 1768), the celebration of the feast of the Achtyr Icon of the Virgin Mary was established on 2 July 1766. The cathedral was ceremonially consecrated in 1768.

In 1844, in honour of this icon, the Holy Synod established an annual procession around the town, beginning on the Saturday before the fiftieth day, when the Achtyr Icon of the Mother of God is taken out of the Pokrov Cathedral and taken to the Achtyr Monastery of the Holy Trinity and on Sunday of All Saints returned back to the Pokrov Cathedral.

The icon of the Achtyr Virgin was placed in the Pokrov Cathedral until 1903, when it was sent to St. Petersburg for restoration. It allegedly did not even arrive there and since then, information about the icon has disappeared. According to one version, it was stolen after restoration and had several owners over the past century, and should be currently located in San Francisco.

There are several miraculous copies of this icon, which are widespread especially in the south of Russia. The most revered one is the icon dating from the turn of the nineteenth century, which is currently located in Moscow, in the Church of the Resurrection of Christ on the Arbat. The second revered copy is the icon in Samara in the monastery of St. Nicholas for monks. One of the copies from the turn of the nineteenth century can be found in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. A miraculous copy of this icon was brought to the Pokrov Cathedral in Akhtyrka by the Kharkov metropolitan Nicodemus from San Francisco in 1995.

The Achtyr icon of the Mother of God represents a unique composition and does not belong to any canonical types of depiction of the Mother of God.


The icon depicts the Mother of God up to her waist with her arms folded across her chest in a position of prayer. In some cases, the head of the Mother of God is not covered by a maforion. Golgotha with the crucified Christ is to the right of the Mother of God. Behind the cross is the city of Jerusalem in the background and in the lower part of Golgotha is a cave with Adam's skull. Currently, there are icons of the Mother of God of Achtyr where the Mother of God is depicted in the traditional way - with a maforion covering her shoulders and head.

Description of the icon

The figure of the Mother of God is depicted to the waist, without the child Christ. Her hands are atypically crossed on the chest pierced by a sword, with the symbolic expression of Simeon's prophecy: “this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34-35). She is dressed in a burgundy (dark red) maforion, with three virgin stars on her shoulders and forehead. The slightly bowed head and sadness on the face express the pain of the Mother standing under the cross of her Son. Golgotha with the crucified Christ and the city walls of Jerusalem is in the background of the icon. Adam's skull is depicted in the bowels of the rock of Golgotha under the heel of the cross, a spear is depicted on the left side of the cross, and a cane with a sponge soaked in vinegar on the right. In the left part of the icon, next to the Mother of God, is a column with a rooster, which symbolizes Peter's triple denial of Christ. It is also expressed in the inscription Peter's Rooster. The Holy Guardian Angel is on the sides of the icon on the left and Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (a liturgical remembrance in the tradition of the Greek-Slavic churches is celebrated on December 7) is on the right.

Below the icon at the bottom, the iconographer gave space for a detailed presentation of the instruments of torture, as well as everything that is associated with the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. From left to right, four nails are shown in succession - with which both the hands and feet of Christ were nailed. Then there are whips, the symbolic hand of the soldier who struck Christ in the face, a vessel with vinegar, a purple military cloak - the so-called chlamid (χλᾰμύδιον), which the soldiers ridiculed Christ as king with, a crown of thorns (wreath). At the end are the tools that were used to remove Christ from the cross, namely an axe, pliers, a carpenter's hammer for pulling out nails and a ladder.

An analysis of the inscriptions is also important for a better understanding of the icon. At the head of the Virgin on the left is a Greek inscription ΜΡ ΘΥ - which is an abbreviation of the Greek words Μήτηρ θεoύ - Mother of God. The text The Cry of the Blessed Virgin for the Cross of the Lord is in the upper right corner. Below this text by the cross is the inscription IC XC which is short for the Church Slavonic Їисъ Хрїстъ‎, Greek Iησούς Χριστός - Jesus Christ. There are the letters I. Н. Ц. I. on the cross, which are the initial letters of the words: Иисус Назарянин, Царь Иудейский - Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews (cf. Jn 19:19). Next to the spear is the letter К – meaning spear and in the case of a cane - Т. Mount Golgotha has the letters Г Г on both sides - like Gora Golgofa (Гора Голгофа). The last inscription on the icon - four letters around the foot of the cross above Golgotha М. Л. Р. Б. - are the initial letters of the four Church Slavonic words Место Лобное Рай Бысть - The place of Skull became a paradise.