Thursday, May 24, 2007

Annunciation Scene: "Ustyug Annunciation"

This week's annunciation scene is a Russian icon from the Novgorod School, dating to the first half of the twelfth century. It is now held by the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The icon is commonly known by the name the "Ustyug Annunciation."

One of the distinctive features of the Orthodox tradition of depicting the annunciation is that Mary is usually shown spinning, as opposed to the western European tradition which often depicts her as reading. In this icon, Mary is holding a drop spindle, spinning a crimson thread. Here is a close-up of Mary's hand, holding the drop spindle:

What is certainly most remarkable about this icon, however, is the way that Mary is shown already cradling an image of the infant. This is not a child in arms, but a mystical image which she seems to perceive and embrace with her right arm, as the child is spirited into her from God the Father who can be seen above, surrounded by cherubim and seraphim.

The icon is associated with a famous legend about Saint Procopius. Here is one version of the story: "It was before this Icon that St Procopius of Ustiug prayed and performed many miracles. A fool-for-Christ’s-sake, Procopius was in a long shirt during a time of terrible winter weather in Ustiug. No one wanted to give him shelter and even a group of dogs huddling together ran away when they saw him. For this, Procopius prayed and thanked God. He was then given the gift of inner warmth and was saved from freezing. Holy oil came from his hands as he prayed before this Icon."

Here is another version of the story of Procopius, in which he saved the city of Ustiug from destruction: "In the year 1290, the blessed one, in the course of a week, went about the city calling the inhabitants to repent and pray that the Lord would deliver the city from the lot of Sodom and Gomorrha. No one believed him. All of a sudden an ominous cloud appeared in the sky. It grew and grew, so that the day was turned into night. Lightning flashed and thunder rolled, shaking the walls of buildings, so that human voices could not be heard. A foreboding of destruction came on. The inhabitants rushed to the cathedral church, where the blessed one was already praying before the icon of the Annunciation of the Theotokos. Before everyone's eyes, a miracle occurred: On the icon, myrrh began to flow, as a sign of the merciful­kindness of the Mother of God performed over the city. A fragrance filled the church. Myrrh from the wonderworking icon flowed to such an extent that the church vessels were filled with it. Those anointed with it received healing from various illnesses. After this, the stifling air became fresh and the sun peeped out. Twenty versts [13.25 miles] from Ustiug, at the Kotoval dale, the clouds burst forth with hail and lightening. Hail broke the age-­old forest to pieces, not bringing harm, however, either to man or beast. In memory of the city's deliverance from destruction, the celebration of the Ustiug Icon of the Mother of God was instituted."

Here, then, is the icon to which Procopius, the fool-for-Christ, prayed:

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