27 November 2021

Indiana Jones, the story of
a stolen Russian icon and
an icon in a church in Venice

The Icon of the Madonna of Kazan in the Church of San Martino on the island of Burano … but what happened to the original icon? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

I was writing in my prayer diary this morning of the Church of San Martino or Saint Martin on the island of Burano in the Venetian lagoon and its icon of Madonna of Kazan with the Christ Child. But is this the original, famous Russian icon, or is it a copy?

The icon of Our Lady of Kazan, also called the Mother-of-God of Kazan, was a holy icon of the highest standing in the Russian Orthodox Church. It depicted the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child, and in this icon she was venerated as the protector and patroness of the city of Kazan, and the Holy Protector of Russia. The feast days of Our Lady of Kazan are 21 July, and 4 November, also the Russian Day of National Unity.

The icon has many copies, and is venerated throughout all Orthodox Churches. But the story of the original icon is one of intrigue, war, theft, forgery and ecumenism, and even involves an English adventurer and fantasist who is said to have inspired the fictional character of Indian Jones.

Two major Russian cathedrals, the Kazan Cathedral, Moscow, and the Kazan Cathedral, St Petersburg, are consecrated to the Virgin of Kazan, and they display copies of the icon, as do many churches throughout Russia. The original icon in Kazan was stolen, and probably destroyed, in 1904.

According to legend, the original icon of the Virgin of Kazan was brought to Russia from Constantinople in the 13th century. After the establishment of the Khanate of Kazan in 1438, the icon disappeared from the historical record for more than a century, but was miraculously recovered in a pristine state over 140 years later in 1579.

The chronicle of Metropolitan Hermogenes, later Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, was written at the request of Tsar Feodor in 1595. He describes the recovery of the icon. According to this account, after a fire destroyed Kazan in 1579, the Virgin Mary appeared to a 10-year-old girl, Matrona, revealing the place where the icon was hidden.

The girl told the archbishop about the dream, but she was not taken seriously. However, on 8 July 1579, after two repetitions of the dream, the girl and her mother recovered the icon themselves, buried under a destroyed house where it had been hidden to save it from the Tatars.

Other churches were built in honour of the newly-found icon of the Virgin of Kazan, and copies of the icon were displayed at the Kazan Cathedral in Moscow, built in the early 17th century, at Yaroslavl and in St Petersburg.

A number of Russian military commanders, including Prince Dmitry Pozharsky and Field Marshall Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov, believed their invocation of the Virgin Mary through the icon had aided Russia in repelling a Polish invasion in 1612, a Swedish invasion in 1709, and Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. The Kazan icon became immensely popular, and there were nine or ten separate miracle-attributed copies of the icon around Russia.

On the night of 29 June 1904, the icon was stolen from the Kazan Convent of the Theotokos in Kazan where it had been kept for centuries. The thieves wanted the icon’s gold frame, with its many valuable jewels. Several years later, Russian police apprehended the thieves and recovered the frame.

The thieves originally declared that the icon itself had been cut to pieces and burnt, although one thief later confessed that it was sold to the Russian Old Believers and was kept in a monastery in the wilds of Siberia. However, the Russian police believed this was a fake, and they refused to investigate, claiming it would be unlucky to venerate a fake icon as though it were authentic.

The Orthodox Church interpreted the disappearance of the icon as a sign of tragedies that would later befall Russia. Popular beliefs linked the disappearance of the icon with the Revolution of 1905 and Russia’s defeat in the war with Japan in 1904-1905.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, there was speculation that the original icon was preserved in St Petersburg. One story says that during World War II an icon of Our Lady of Kazan was used in processions around the fortifications of Leningrad during the Siege of Leningrad (1941-1944). Meanwhile, the Communist authorities ordered the demolition of the Kazan Convent of the Theotokos in Kazan.

There is speculation that that the Bolsheviks sold the icon abroad. But the Russian Orthodox Church did not accept these theories, and the history of the stolen icon between 1917 and 1953 is unknown.

The flamboyant English travel writer and adventurer Mike Hedges (1882-1953), also known as Frederick Mitchell-Hedges, bought an icon from Arthur Hillman in 1953 and claimed it was the original Kazan icon. However, Hedges was a fantasist, who also claimed to have discovered the ‘Crystal Skull’ in Belize, and his tall tales are said to have inspired the character of Indiana Jones.

Many experts dispute Hedges’s claim that his icon was the original Kazan icon. However, the art historian Cyril GE Bunt, who wrote extensively on Byzantine and Russian art, concluded ‘that it is the work of a great icon painter of the 16th century […] the pigments and the wood of the panel are perfectly preserved as exhaustive X-ray tests have proved, and have mellowed with age.’

Bunt suggested that although it was a copy of the original icon, this was the icon carried into battle by Dmitry Pozharski in 1612. However, a joint Russian-Vatican commission later determined it was a later 17th century copy.

This copy of the icon was exhibited at the World Trade Fair in New York in 1964-1965. The icon was eventually bought from Anna Mitchell-Hedges for $125,000 in 1970, and was kept in Fátima, Portugal, until it was given to the Vatican in 1993.

Pope John Paul II placed the icon in his study, where he venerated it for eleven years. He wished to visit Moscow or Kazan to return the icon to the Russian Orthodox Church. But the Moscow Patriarchate was suspicious that the Pope might have other motives, and so instead, in an ecumenical gesture, Cardinal Walter Kasper presented the icon to the Russian Church unconditionally in August 2004.

On the next feast day of the holy icon, 21 July 2005, Patriarch Alexius II and Mintimer Shaymiev, the president of Tatarstan, received it in the Annunciation Cathedral of the Kazan Kremlin. This copy is sometimes nicknamed Vatikanskaya.

The icon is now enshrined in the Cathedral of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, part of the Convent of the Theotokos. This convent, which was re-established as a monastery in 2005, stands on the site where the original icon of Our Lady of Kazan was found, and there are plans to convert the monastery’s other buildings into an international pilgrimage centre.

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
182, San Martino and Santa Barbara, Burano

The Chiesa San Martino Vescovo or the Church of Saint Martin the Bishop in Burano is known for its leaning tower (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

This is the last day in Ordinary Time this year, and Advent begins tomorrow. Later today (27 November 2021), I am taking part in the rehearsal in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, for tomorrow evening’s Advent Procession or Service of Light.

Before a busy day begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I have been reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Earlier in this prayer diary, I illustrated my morning reflections with images from churches in Venice and on Murano and Burano. While I was in Venice this month, I reflected on the synagogues in the Ghetto in Venice (7-13 November)

As part of my reflections and this prayer diary this week, I am looking at seven more churches I visited in Venice earlier this month. This theme concludes this morning (27 November 2021) with photographs of the Chiesa San Martino Vescovo or the Church of Saint Martin the Bishop on the island of Burano in the Lagoon.

Inside the Chiesa San Martino Vescovo or the Church of Saint Martin the Bishop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Chiesa San Martino Vescovo or the Church of Saint Martino the Bishop is a 16th or 17th century church on Piazza Baldassarre Galuppi, the main square on the small island of Burano in the Venetian Lagoon. It can be seen from a distance in the Lagoon, marked out by its leaning tower.

This is a large church for such a small island. The first church on the site was built in the ninth century, and some time after the year 1000 the parish church was dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours. It has been restored and rebuilt several times, and it took its present appearance between 1500 and 1600.

The restored or rebuilt church was reconsecrated on 29 October 1645 by the Bishop of Torcello, Marco Antonio Martinengo.

Seen from outside, the church seems to have no main entrance. In fact, it is entered at the side through a Renaissance door beside the neighbouring Chapel of Santa Barbara. This entrance consists of a vast atrium, with an 18th century statue of the Madonna attributed to Girolamo Bonazza.

The interior, in Lombard-Baroque style, is in the shape of a Latin cross, with three naves ending in a chapel, divided by neoclassical pillars supporting full-arched arches and ending in Corinthian-style capitals. The floor has typical red and white square tiles.

The central nave, including the chancel and choir, is about 47 meters long and has a barrel-vaulted ceiling. The high altar is adorned with six elegant columns of red marble from France and another four from ancient oriental marble. The altar, built in 1673, has a large Baroque tabernacle with a small bronze statue of the Risen Christ above.

The unsafe central nave was renovated in 1867. The vault of the side naves and the central transept fell in 1874. In May 1913, a fire destroyed the ceiling of the main nave in May 1913, and the organ, built by Callido in 1767, was destroyed too. Callido’s organ was considered among the best organ masterpieces in Venice, and was replaced by an organ built by the Mascioni firm of Cuvio.

The unsafe central nave was renovated in 1867. The vault of the side naves and the central transept fell in 1874. In May 1913, a fire destroyed the ceiling of the main nave in May 1913, and the organ, built by Callido in 1767, was destroyed too. Callido’s organ was considered among the best organ masterpieces in Venice, and was replaced by an organ built by the Mascioni firm of Cuvio.

The works of art in the church include ‘The Crucifixion’ (1725) by Giambattista Tiepolo, showing the Madonna collapsed at the foot of the Cross, grey with grief. This ambitious early work by Tiepolo was strongly influenced by Tintoretto’s ‘Crucifixion’ in the Scuola di San Rocco.

There are statues of Sant’ Albano and San Martino, both by Girolamo Bonazza, and works by Francesco Fontabasso, Giovanni Mansueti and Girolamo da Santacroce.

The icon near the main altar is a 19th century copy of the Russian icon of the Madonna of Kazan, a masterpiece of enamelwork with astonishingly bright, lifelike eyes.

The church is best known for its leaning tower, built on a square shape with Renaissance and neoclassical architectural features. It is 53 meters high and it on a base 6.2 metres wide. But, due to land subsidence, the tower has inclined by 1.83 meters from its axis.

The tower has undergone several restorations over the centuries, especially in the upper part of the belfry. The most notable maintenance works were carried out by Tirali in 1703-1714.

The top of the tower was crowned by an angel until it fell in a storm in 1867 and was replaced with a cross of iron.

The Oratory of Saint Barbara (Oratorio di Santa Barbara) next door contains relics of the saint and an interesting mosaic of her holding the Empire State Building instead of her usual tower.

Saint Barbara is said to have been martyred in Heliopolis or Nicomedia in the year 290. The Emperor Justin II exhumed her body in Nicomedia in 565 and moved her relics to the Church of the Holy Saviour in Constantinople. Her relics were taken from Constantinople to Venice by the Doge of Pietro Orseolo II in 1003.

The Doge’s son, Giovanni Orseolo, was sent by his father to Byzantium to marry a noblewoman, Maria Argiropoli. The wedding was blessed by the Patriarch, and Maria brought Saint Barbara’s body to Venice, where it was placed in the ducal chapel.

The remains were then moved to the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista on Torcello in 1009, at the request of Orso Orseolo, Bishop of Torcello (1008-1012), and Abbess Felicita of San Giovanni Evangelista, a daughter of the Doge.

The relics remained in the Monastery of San Giovanni Evangelista for eight centuries, until it was suppressed by Napoleon I in 1806. They were moved with the remains of San Sisinnio, a bishop, to the Church of San Martino in Burano on 10 March 1811.

They were moved again, on 4 December 1926, to the Oratory of Saint Barbara, Pius XII proclaimed Saint Barbara as the patron saint of Burano. When he was the Patriarch of Venice, Giuseppe Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII, counted her among the seven patrons of Venice.

Inside the Chiesa San Martino, facing the west end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Luke 21: 34-36 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 34 ‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’

‘The Crucifixion’ (1725) by Tiepolo was strongly influenced by Tintoretto’s ‘Crucifixion’ in the Scuola di San Rocco (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (27 November 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for the Anglican Communion Gender Justice Network, which promotes gender equality across the Church.

The Oratory of Saint Barbara, beside the Chiesa San Martino (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Yesterday’s reflection

Tomorrow: Saint Stephen the Younger

A modern icon of Saint Barbara in the Oratory of Saint Barbara (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The Chiesa San Martino (centre) and the Oratory of Saint Barbara (right) in the Piazza Baldassarre Galuppi, the main square of Burano (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)