Saturday, December 05, 2009

Icon and Empress

The icon of the Virgin and Child which hangs at the entrance to the Lady Chapel in Saint Jude's is of the type known as the 'Strastnaya' or 'Passion' icon, and generally in the West as 'Our Lady of Perpetual Help'. 
The original of the icon has resided in Rome since the late 1400s. The Eastern Catholics call it "Holy Theotokos of the Passion."  

The image depicts the Blessed Virgin Mary wearing a blue mantle and veil. On the left side is the Archangel Michael, carrying the lance and sponge of the crucifixion of Jesus. On the right is the Archangel Gabriel carrying the cross and nails. The Christchild rests in her arms and looks intently at the cross.

Tradition states that the icon memorializes an occasion in which the young Christ awoke from a dream in which He saw the instruments of His passion. Mary comforted Him, but remained solemn since she knew that that the dream was a portent of her Son's future passion. The icon brilliantly captures both the reality of the incarnation and the reality of the crucifixion of Christ in one single image that mystically links the events to Mary - who was present for each.

The icon was brought to Rome by a pious merchant, who desired that the picture should be exposed in a church for public veneration. It was exposed in the church of San Matteo, Via Merulana, between St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran.

The French invaded Rome in 1812 and destroyed the church - and the icon disappeared.

In 1865, the icon was rediscovered to the joy of many. Pope Pius IX as a boy had prayed before the icon in the church of San Matteo before it was lost during the French invasion. Pius IX took great interest when the icon was finally rediscovered - since he had been especially devoted to it. He subsequently approved a liturgical feast in commemoration of the icon.

It is not clear how a copy of the icon came into the possession of the church. Its case is visible in a photograph in the History of S. Jude-on-the-Hill (1923) which records a visit to the church of the Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia (1847 – 1928).

Marie with her sister Alexandra

Born Princess Dagmar of Denmark, Marie was the consort of Tsar Alexander III, and the mother of the last Russian monarch, Nicholas II (whom she outlived by ten years). She had fled revolutionary Russia in 1919 on a British warship and been received in London by her sister Queen Alexandra (then Queen Mother). She eventually returned to Denmark. For the remainder of her life she was considered by many Russian royalists to be the head of the imperial dyansty. In 2006 her remains were interred, in accordance with her wishes, next to those of her husband in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg.

Marie with her son, Tsar Nicholas II and his four daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia

Some accounts suggest that the icon was given to the church by the Empress, others that she gave another which has since been stolen or replaced. Icons are now very popular and not unusual in Anglican churches, but the St Jude's
madonna must one of the earliest examples by many decades.