Where is Kazan? It’s in Russia, about 300 miles due east of Moscow. It’s the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan. The original icon was probably painted in Constantinople, and came to the region in the 13th Century. Two hundred years later, the area was conquered and occupied by the Tatars, and Kazan was made their capital city. The icon had completely disappeared.
In 1579, a fire destroyed the city. The Mother of God appeared in a dream to a little girl, and told her where the icon had been hidden from the Tatars long ago. Tell the bishop, Our Lady said, and so the girl went to her bishop. He did not believe her. When he refused to follow up on this story, the child and her mother went to the place themselves. They dug up the image from beneath a burned up house, and brought it to the cathedral. The newly unearthed icon was still in perfect condition, despite having been underground for over a century. The bishop placed the icon in the Church of St. Nicholas, where it was said to work many miracles. Throughout the next centuries, it was carried in battle by Russian troops, giving them courage and leading them to victory.
Several “translations” of this image were made by many iconographers and were widely venerated throughout Russia. Many of the icons were claimed to be “miracle workers”. No one knows for sure which of these is the original, or even if the original still exists.
It really isn’t that important which painted board came first, the important thing is the prayers and graces that come through the veneration of our Blessed Mother. This is part of the role of the iconographer: to write the images to transcend–to endure throughout the centuries, faithfully transcribing the colors, details, and symbolism for the glory of the Church and the prayers of people of every era.
Recently I completed a version of this icon. I painted it in acrylic paints, and it measures 12 X 18 inches. All icons of Our Lady of Kazan have this same composition and features, according to the original archetype of the 13th century, handed down copy by copy through the ages, to manifest God’s grace to all generations.
There are a lot of different versions of various icons of Mary and the Child Jesus. Each type is put into different “categories” by experts. Our Lady of Kazan is considered to be a “Hodegetria” type. This Greek word means “She Who Shows the Way“. The composition of this image has been simplified. Unlike other Hodegetria icons, Mary’s hands are not visible. (Usually she is indicating or pointing to Jesus, as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.)
In this icon, instead of pointing with her hand, she inclines her head towards Him, indicating with her entire being that He is Lord and Savior. Her expression is pensive, looking past Him towards His inevitable Passion. The Child faces the viewer, extending His right hand in blessing. His clothes shine with divinity. As in all icons, the figures move towards the viewer. Icons are images of relationship, interacting with the viewer in prayer, showing heaven approaching earth through the Incarnation of Our Lord.