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November 27, 2019

Synaxis of the Icon of the Mother of God of the Sign in Novgorod

Synaxis of the Icon of the Theotokos of the Sign (Feast Day - November 27)

The term Mother of God of the Sign is a reference to the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14: "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel."

The image of the Christ child represents him at the moment of his conception in the womb of the Virgin. He is depicted not as a fetus, but rather vested in divine robes, and often holding a scroll, symbolic of his role as teacher. Sometimes his robes are gold or white, symbolizing divine glory; sometimes they are blue and red, symbolizing the two natures of Christ.

The depiction of the Virgin Mary with her hands upraised in prayer ("orans") is of very ancient origin in Christian art. In the mausoleum of Saint Agnes in Rome is a depiction dating to the fourth century which depicts the Theotokos with hands raised in prayer and the infant Jesus sitting upon her knees. There is also an ancient icon of the Mother of God "Nikopea" from the sixth century, where the Virgin Mary is depicted seated upon a throne and holding in her hands an oval shield with the image of "Emmanuel".

The Icon of the Mother of God of the Sign in Novgorod is 2-sided: Saints Joachim and Anna praying are pictured on the back side. It has a shaft which for an icon indicates the ability to be carried in procession outside. In the seventeenth century the paint was refreshed: Macarius, the Metropolitan of Moscow, is believed to be the possible executor. The initial ancient paint is retained only in fragments (some on the Virgin’s dress, and the circle around Jesus). The back side image is absolutely original, in the ancient paint.

The origins of the icon are unknown. A miracle reportedly occurred in 1170, when Novgorod was besieged by the army of Andrei Bogolubsky, the prince of Suzdal. In 1170 the united army of four Russian kingdoms (duchy of Vladimir, duchy of Smolensk, duchy of Murom and duchy of Polotsk) had come toward the walls of Novgorod and laid siege to the city. For the people of Novgorod, their only remaining hope was that God would help them. Day and night they prayed, beseeching the Lord not to forsake them. On the third night Bishop Elias of Novgorod heard a wondrous voice commanding that the icon of the Most Holy Theotokos be taken out of the Church of the Savior’s Transfiguration on Ilina Street, and carried about on the city walls.

When they carried the icon, the enemy fired a volley of arrows at the procession, and one of them pierced the iconographic face of the Mother of God. Tears trickled from her eyes, and the icon turned its face towards the city. After this divine sign an inexpressible terror suddenly fell upon the enemy. They began to strike one another, and taking encouragement from the Lord, the people of Novgorod fearlessly gave battle and won the victory.

In remembrance of the miraculous intercession of the Queen of Heaven, Archbishop Elias established a feast day in honor of the Sign of the Mother of God, which the Russian Church celebrates to the present day. The Athonite Hieromonk Pachomios the Logothete, who was present at the festal celebration of the icon in Russia, composed two Canons for this feast.

On certain Novgorod Icons of the Sign, the miraculous occurrences of the year 1170 were also depicted. For 186 years afterwards, the wonderworking icon remained in the Savior-Transfiguration Church on Ilina Street. In 1356 it was transferred to a church built in Novgorod in honor of the Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos of the Sign, which became the cathedral church of the Monastery of the Sign. The last isn't preserved, as in 1682 it was replaced with the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sign in Novgorod. In 1992 the icon was moved into the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, where it dwells now.

Numerous copies of the Sign Icon are known throughout Russia. Many of them were also glorified by miracles in their local churches, and were then named for the place of the appearance of the miracle. Similar copies of the Sign Icon are the icons of Dionysievo-Glushets, Abalaka, Kursk, Seraphim-Ponetaev and others.