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This popular Russian iconography shows the Mother of God in the centre of the panel standing on a celestial cloud in mid-air, surrounded by archangels and saints (usually apostles and Church Fathers), as she spreads her veil - a symbol of divine protection - over the congregation. The gesture of the Virgin echoes the iconography of the Virgin Orans, which was used in the Blachernae church in Constantinople (see below) during celebrations of the maphorion relic. Mary is surrounded by four angels, John the Baptist and apostles. Directly above this section are 10 saints - five on either side. Directly above the Virgin within a celestial cloud we see Christ blessing the scene and accompanied by two angels who also hold a veil. In the lower tier - which can be understood to represent the earthly sphere - St Andrew points out the vision to his disciple Epiphanius (see below), while in the centre standing on an ambo (dais) is the sixth-century hymnographer St Romanos the Melodist, included here because his feast falls on the same day as the Pokrov (1st October). In his hand he holds a scroll. Though the text has been obscured, it was most likely from his kontakion to the Virgin, as we find in other versions:
The Virgin today stands in the church, and with choirs of invisible saints prays to God for us. Angels and bishops [literally arch-priests] venerate her, apostles with prophets rejoice, because for our sake the Mother of God prays to the God before the ages.
St Romanos is attended by Patriarch Tarasiy of Constantinople (also standing on an ambo), and further to his right, Emperor Leo the Wise VI and his wife the Empress Zoe. In a separate section on the far-right is another scene relating to Romanos. According to tradition, Romanos led an all-night vigil but the congregation were unhappy with his singing. That night he prayed to the Virgin to give him a voice worthy to sing her praises. The Virgin visited him in a dream and gave him a scroll to eat - echoing the biblical traditions of prophets (e.g. Ezekiel, Habbakuk, St John the Divine). The next time he sang the people would be mesmerised by his voice. The icon shows Romanos on a bed being visited by the Virgin who is feeding him a scroll - a detail that first appears in later representations of the Pokrov, but which can be found in Byzantine manuscripts (fig. b)
The basic structure - which can be understood as representing a cosmic, spiritual hierarchy - derives from the medieval Russian versions of the iconography (for example, see fig. a).
The Protecting Veil (Pokrov) is one of the most popular iconographies in Russia and has the status of being a kind of 'national' image, as the feast and iconography developed here (not in Greece) at the instigation of the Grand Prince of Vladimir-Suzdal, Andrei Bogolyubsky in the 12th century.
The history of the image goes back to an event described in the Life of St Andrew the Holy Fool that, according to the text, occurred in 10th century Constantinople. The text states that during a time when the Byzantine capital was under threat from a foreign invasion, the people of the city gathered in the Church of the Blachernae, where a relic of the Virgin's maphorion (or veil) was kept. As they were praying St Andrew (along with his disciple the Epiphanius) had a vision of the Mother of God spreading her veil over the congregation as a symbol of her protection. Mary was surrounded by various saints including St John the Baptist. The synaxarion for the feast day relates that during the vision St Andrew turned to his disciple and said: "Do you see, brother, the Holy Theotokos, praying for all the world?" And Epiphanius answered, "I do see, holy Father, and I am in awe." The church architecture in the iconography represents the Blachernae church, but is in the style of traditional Russian churches.
The style of the current icon suggests that it was painted by a workshop in the Mstera region in the 19th century. The detailed ornamentation and the billowy clouds are elements associated with this well-known school. A version of the same iconography attributed to the Mstera School (fig. c) can be compared with our icon, especially the composition, the decorative atmosphere and the fine attention to detail; though our version is likely to have been created a little earlier in the 19th century.