In the history of Russian icons, one image is pre-eminent as the most copied, most decorated and most adored: “Our Lady of Kazan.”

The image, so legend goes, was discovered by a 10-year-old girl named Matryona in the ruins of a house in the western Russian city of Kazan on July 8, 1579. The girl claimed to have been shown the image in a dream, and its mysterious origins and reputed miracle-working powers soon won it a place as the principal treasure of the city of Kazan.

The icon was carried into battle by Prince Pozharsky in 1612, when Russian forces repelled a strong Polish attack. Had the invasion been successful, Russia’s Orthodox Christians might have been forcibly converted to Roman Catholicism. Instead, the icon was credited with miraculously turning the tide of battle.

“Our Lady of Kazan” was then installed in a purpose-built cathedral in Moscow. Copies of it appeared throughout Russia and many were credited with working miracles.

In 1821, the original icon was moved to St. Petersburg, where it was enshrined in the heart of the city in the new Kazan Cathedral on Nevsky Prospekt. By this time, the image had been ornamented with emeralds and diamonds and encased in gold.

The original was seized by the Soviet government in 1918 and disappeared. It eventually found its way into the hands of an American collector. A Catholic organization purchased it for $3 million and gave it as a gift to Pope John Paul II in 1993.

The icon is now kept in the pope’s private apartment in the Vatican. But Pravda reported Jan. 4, 2002, that “Pope John Paul II is eager to return the icon to Kazan in his lifetime.”

The pope reportedly hopes to deliver the icon into the keeping of the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Aleksy II of Moscow. However, the patriarch has refused to meet the pope, claiming that Catholics are proselytizing in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

So for now, “Our Lady of Kazan” remains in magnificent exile.

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