The Shroud of the Most Holy Mother of God in Orthodox Iconography

Today is the Intercession of the Most Holy Mother of God, a significant holiday that marks the protective attitude of the Mother of God towards humanity. The first literary sources on the subject of the Shroud date from the 12th century. The oldest preserved icons depicting the Shroud come from the Shroud Monastery in Suzdal (1365) and the Novgorod Monastery of the Beast (c. 1399).
(illustration, Shroud, icon, Zverine Monastery, Novgorod, Russia, around 1399 (left); icon, Novgorod, Russia, early 15th century (right)

The two events shown on the icon of the Intercession are related to the cult of the Mother of God maphorion, which was kept in the Vlaherinska church. In the year 458, Emperor Leon I (457-474) received a maphorion from Jerusalem and ordered the construction of the Church of Vlacherina, whose special purpose would be to preserve this precious relic.

Shroud, icon, Shroud Monastery, Suzdal, Russia, around 1365 (left); icon, Suzdal, Russia, late 15th century (right)

Written sources

The basic motif of the Shroud originates from the life of Saint Andrew the Fool (+911). The term “foolish” means “crazy for Christ’s sake” and refers to people who, under the guise of poverty and mental disorder, were able to preach unhindered. The ancient Eastern heritage accepted the mentally ill as a sign of God and no one disturbed them. On the contrary, people helped them.

Saint Andrew the Fool was a Scythian and lived in the time of Emperor Leon VI the Philosopher (886-912), and he dedicated himself to God after the vision he experienced in the Vlaherin Church in Constantinople. One night, in 902, St. Andrew attended a night worship service and, before morning, he saw the Mother of God accompanied by St. John the Baptist, St. John the Theologian and several other saints in white robes. The Mother of God approached the pulpit (the pulpit in the basilicas) and prayed for a long time, and then she entered the altar, took off her maphorion and spread it over the faithful. This act meant that she confirmed her protection to the people and reminded them of her role as a mediator between God and Humanity.

The first literary sources on the subject of the Shroud date from the 12th century in the form of a text in the book “Alexiada” (Chapter 13) written by Princess Anne of the Comnenus dynasty. In the same century, Archbishop Antonije of Novgorod mentioned this miraculous event, and a little later, in 1204, a Novgorod chronicle spoke about it. Having so much significance, the Russian Church officially accepted the holiday and celebrated it, for the first time, in the sixties of the 12th century, during the reign of Prince Andrej Bogoljubski.


Veil, icon, Pskov, Russia, 15th century

Russian tradition

The oldest known depiction of the Shroud is located in Suzdal on the west door of the Church of the Nativity. The Mother of God from that composition resembles the motif of the Halkopratijska Bogorodica, more precisely, her Russian version – the God-loving Mother of God. The second depiction dates from 1313 and is a fresco of the Snetogorski monastery in Pskov. The oldest preserved icons depicting the Shroud come from the Pokrovski Monastery in Suzdal (1365) and the Novgorod Monastery Zverine (around 1399).

During the second half of the 14th century, two versions of the Shroud were created: the Middle Russian type (Moscow, Suzdal) and the Novgorod type (Novgorod, Pskov). The most important difference between these two types is expressed through the position of the maphorion. The Central Russian version is based on the icon of the Pokrovski Monastery in Suzdal and depicts the Mother of God holding a maphorion. The Novgorod version, based on a fresco of the church dedicated to Saint Theodore Stratilat (1380) in Novgorod, depicts the Mother of God in an plowed position, while angels spread a maphorion above the faithful. There is another variation of the Novgorod motif of the Intercession with Christ the Almighty above the Mother of God and the saints depicted half-length in architecture.

Beginning in the 16th century, all the elements of the Shroud were united, so that it is possible to meet both Novgorod types, the Middle Russian or the Shroud from the Suzdal Gate in one composition.

The architectural background consists of a church with three or five domes, and it is possible to distinguish two iconographic heritage. The architectural background processed by the poster is based on the Novgorod tradition of the 13th and 14th centuries, while the architecture in axonometry from several angles follows the paleological tradition of the 14th century.

Often, on later icons, instead of the Virgin’s maphorion, iconographers depicted omophorion, which emphasized the liturgical meaning of the icon. Omoforion covers the shoulders of the archbishop during the worship service and he is a sign of his role as the spiritual Father. He continues Christ’s task, because the omophorion represents the lost lamb that Christ found and brought on his shoulders (Luke 15: 4-5), in other words, the vision of Christ the Good Shepherd.

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Veil, icon, Russia, 16th century

Roman Slatkopojac

In later iconography, the composition of the Shroud is divided into two parts. In the upper part there is a depiction of the vision of St. Andrew the Foolish, and in the lower part there is a painting of a miracle that happened to the church minister Roman in the Vlaherin church, in the 6th century.

Roman was born in the 5th century in Emes, Syria, and later he became a clergyman in a Beirut church. At the beginning of the reign of Anastasia I (491-518), he went to Constantinople where he began working in the church of the Mother of God of Kirov. During the day, Roman served in the temple, and spent the nights praying in the Vlaherin church. Very soon, Patriarch Jevtimija (491-496) noticed his great piety and appointed him a church minister in the Vlaherinska church. For a very conscientious and dedicated performance of duties, Roman received the same salary as the singers.

The singers of the Vlaherin church were offended because an ordinary churchman received the same reward as them, and they decided to take revenge on him. On one occasion, when the emperor was attending a service, jealous singers forced Roman to sing with them, which was impossible because Roman was illiterate and did not know melodies.

After the service, humiliated and distressed, he prayed in front of the icon of the Mother of God, and then went home. While he was sleeping, the Mother of God appeared and let him swallow a scroll. The next day, Roman could not only read and write, but he also had great knowledge. When he arrived at the church, he climbed on the pulpit and sang the ode he had just composed. Everyone was amazed and enchanted by the beauty of the anthem and its voice, even its enemies. That is how Roman became a deacon and the creator of a thousand famous kondakions. He died in 536.

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Veil, icon, Lipoven, Bessarabia, 19th century

Protection of the Mother of God

In the iconography of the Shroud, this event is shown in the lower part of the composition with Saint Roman Slatkopojec on the pulpit. He was trained as a deacon in Dalmatia and surrounded by St. Andrew the Fool, St. Epiphanius, St. Andrew’s disciple, St. Ananias who baptized St. Paul (Acts 9:10), and sometimes several church fathers.

The feast of St. Roman Slatkopojec was celebrated on October 1, and then the Russians added the Veil to it, thus creating a new iconographic composition and a new Church feast. This change could be explained by the fact that both miracles are connected by the place, the Vlaherin church, and the act, protection and constant help of the Mother of God. The Feast of the Intercession is a feature of the Slavic Orthodox and it has never been accepted in other Orthodox Churches.

Source: Balkan Magazin – Aktuelnosti by

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