Why Is Our Lady of Kyiv and Our Lady of Vladimir Revered by Ukrainians and Russians?

Under three titles for one icon, Our Lady is revered by both Ukrainians and Russians, and several other countries, too, who know her by another title.

Theotokos of Vladimir
Theotokos of Vladimir (photo: Public Domain)

Our Lady of Kyiv is one of the most revered icons in the Eastern world both by the Ukrainians and by the Russians, and it’s considered one of the most famous icons in the world. Today, the icon is known more familiarly as Our Lady of Vladimir. And it is one of the oldest also, having arrived in Kyiv 888 years ago in 1134. In addition, it became a very significant icon for another major reason. First, a bit of the history will set the scene.

“Kyiv is a holy city because it is a Marian city ‘par excellence,’” Pope St. John Paul II said when he visited on Nov. 22, 1987. “In it, the praying Madonna is invoked as protectress of the city.” At the time he was referring to the “Holy Oranta,” a centuries-old mosaic depiction of Our Lady in St. Sophia Cathedral. The description can also fit Our Lady of Kyiv.

The Byzantine icon of Our Lady of Kyiv arrived not long after the time Kievan Rus became Christian as a whole in 988. Half a century later, in 1037, Yaroslav the Wise, the Grand Prince of Kyiv, dedicated Ukraine to Mary. From then to the present, Our Blessed Mother is known as “Queen of Ukraine.”

Three years earlier, in 1034, the icon of Our Lady of Kyiv arrived from Constantinople. Indications are that it was most likely written by a monk then sent as a gift from the Patriarch of Constantinople to Prince Mstislav at Kyiv. He was son of King Volodymyr of Kyiv Rus.

Yet soon the icon was moved.

By 1136 the icon of Our Lady of Kyiv was transferred 14 miles directly north to Vyshorod and the “home” church of the prince. The accounts for Ukrainians also calling this icon the Virgin of Vyshorod. Already the icon was very well known and revered.  Dmytro Stepovyk of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine wrote that at the time Volodymyr and his sons ruled, this icon “was said to work miracles, healing ailing people.” People prayed for protection, and “this icon helped all true believers who begged our Lord to rid them of their deadly ills.”

But by the mid-1100s, along came Prince Andrey Bogolyubsky who plundered and destroyed Kyiv, set up his residence 565 miles away in Vladimir which is 120 miles east of present-day Moscow, and took along the icon of Our Lady of Kyiv.

In this new capital city, the icon became known as our Lady of Vladimir and placed in the Assumption Cathedral where it remained until about 1395 when it was brought to Moscow for, as the story goes, protection against Mongol invaders.

By the 16th century Our Lady of Vladimir was placed in the Dormition Cathedral in Moscow’s Cathedral Square until in the early 20th century. Then it was moved to the city’s State Tretyakov Gallery. Near the end of the 20th century the icon found a new home when it was placed in the Church of St. Nicholas in Tolmachi, which is actually attached to the museum and where religious services are again held.

Of course, Our Lady of Vladimir is a most cherished part of Ukrainian and Russian history and most beloved icon in Russia.

Yet there is much more about this icon that is of major significance.


An Icon for All Ages

Our Lady of Tenderness is also a beautiful title by which many people and countries call this icon. They may not recognize her original two titles, but they know and respond to the spiritual magnetism and depth of the message this masterpiece of iconography brings to us.

The icon is large — 30.75 inches by 21.5 inches. The way it portrays Our Lady and the Christ Child was steps ahead of the standard Byzantine iconography of the early 12th century. It became a prime early example and model of Eleusa iconographic style. In it, Our Lady shows tenderness or mercy, with the Christ Child next to her cheek or touching it. Our Lady shows great tenderness for her Child Jesus — hence the added title, Our Lady of Tenderness. At the same time, there is a touch of sadness as she realizes what will come, yet with the mercy it entails. “In her eyes one can glimpse prayer, hope, and sorrow. A closer look at the Child shows that He is looking upward, seeking His Father,” wrote Stepovyk.

Together with spiritual depth, the definite emotions presented in the icon departed from the stricter iconography of the times.

It became the model of Marian icons. Its influence even came to be seen in the Western Church’s very familiar image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help which combines two iconographic styles, this being one of them.

There is something more to consider concerning this icon of Our Lady of Vladimir, especially as we look at the present situation and times. Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, an exorcist, writes that for years he has prayed with this icon daily. He adds that he is “convinced of three things”:

“The war in the Ukraine has immense spiritual significance.”

“The faith and strength of the men and women of the Ukraine are astounding.”

“Our Lady is involved intensely with all that is going on and her Immaculate Heart will triumph!”

“I join in Our Lady's urgent request to pray for peace,” he adds. “I have a strong hope that the days are rapidly coming when Satan and the forces of evil will be definitively crushed under Our Lady’s heel (Genesis 3:15).”

May we all pray to Our Lady of Kyiv, Our Lady of Vladimir, Our Lady of Tenderness with the same in mind.