Valaam Icon of the Mother of God

One of the greatest treasures in the possession of the Monastery of New Valamo in Heinävesi, Finland is the wonder-working icon of the Mother of God of Valaam. Painted on lime wood, the 132 x 79.5 cm icon depicts the Virgin Mary as a full-length figure standing on a cloud with lowered gaze, clothed in a bright red cloak and a dark turquoise undergarment. She is holding the Christ child, who is dressed in a thin, pale yellow smock, on her left arm. With her right hand, she points to Christ, in the style of the “hodigitria” icons of the Mother of God. Christ blesses with His right hand and holds an orb, surmounted by a cross, in His left hand, signifying that He is the Creator of the world and King of all.

According to the inscription, the icon was painted in 1878, “the work of the monks of Valaam.” It is customarily attributed, however, to Father Alipy, one of the leading iconographers at the original Valaam Monastery in Lake Ladoga in Russian Karelia. Father Alipy painted the icon only a few years after he arrived at the monastery, before he had become a novice there. He was tonsured to monastic orders in 1884 and ordained as priestmonk in 1893.

Following the conventions of the late 19th century, the icon was painted in a “naturalistic” style, employing a technique that combined the use of tempera and oils.

Originally, the icon was to have been placed in the Valaam Monastery’s Church of the Dormition. This never occurred, however, and subsequently the icon was misplaced. In 1897, the icon was rediscovered and gained its miracle-working reputation on the strength of a succession of visions of the Mother of God experienced by an elderly woman with serious rheumatoid arthritis, Natalia Andreyevna Andreyeva, who was cured of her illness.

Despite the Valaam Monastery’s long history, it had never had an icon of the Mother of God of its own design, although Father Alipy’s icon came to occupy such a position in subsequent years. In the turmoil of World War II, the icon was transported to safety in Finland, along with many other treasures from Valaam and the majority of the monks. It now occupies a prominent position in the Church of the Transfiguration of Our Lord at the New Valaam Monastery.

In 1987, the bishops of the autonomous Orthodox Church of Finland established an annual feast in the Valaam Icon’s honor on August 7. The troparion and kontakion for the feast were written by the late Archbishop Paul of Finland.

On July 29, 2005, the Valaam Icon of the Mother of God was brought for the first time to North America by His Eminence, Archbishop Leo of Karelia and All Finland.

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“Mother dear, is it true that you live at Valaam?”

The story of the icon of the Mother of God of Valaam, as recorded in 1897

In a corner behind the choir enclosure on the south side of the lower main church at the monastery of Valaam, where the miracle-working remains of the monastery’s founders, the Saints Sergei and Herman of Valaam, lie at rest interred in the rock, stands an icon of the All-Holy Mother of God. This full length image of the Queen of Heaven holding the divine child in her arms is known as the icon of the Mother of God of Valaam. It is a work of considerable artistic merit that was painted by a local artist-monk and later hieromonk, Father Alipi, in 1878. Nowadays this icon is one of the most cherished objects of reverence at Valaam.

As if by some divine providence, no suitable place could be found for the icon at first when it was finished, and it was placed in the entrance hall to the upper main church, where it remained until that church was demolished to make way for a new one. At that stage the majority of the icons, including this one, were taken to the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God, where the monastery held its regular services until the lower main church was completed. The icon was hung in a relatively high position on a pillar to the left of the entrance to the church.

When the lower main church was ready for consecration, all the icons that had been moved to the Church of the Dormition were returned to it, but again, for some inexplicable reason known only to God, no place could be found for this one. As scarcely any services were held in the Church of the Dormition any longer, this icon, along with some others, was placed in temporary storage in the Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Worker. There it lay forgotten for many years, until it was moved to its present place in response to a vision experienced by a holy woman servant of God. The story of the indescribable act of grace bestowed upon this woman by the Queen of Heaven is recounted below in her own words.

‘I am a member of the peasant estate from the village of Zarino in the parish of Paskina, part of the district of Korchevski within the province of Tver. My name is Natalia Andreyevna Andreyeva. I am now sixty-four years of age and live in St Petersburg, in the Brusnitsyn old peoples’ home, at Kosaya Line no. 15 on Vasili Island. I was placed in this home, through the grace of God, by the lady in whose service I was a serf in former days.

In the year 1878 or 1879 I caught a bad cold on one occasion when washing clothes and developed rheumatism in my arms and legs. I began to seek treatment for this, but my health became worse year by year. I went to the Mariski Hospital for massage for a long time, but it didn’t help, and I went to the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna’s clinic opposite the Tauria gardens for as long as I could. I was more or less a cripple for most of the winter. All my money went on doctors’ fees and medicines, but the Lord God didn’t look kindly on my afflictions. In the end I was told that my illness had reached the stage of serious rheumatoid arthritis and that the only way of curing it was to go to a spa and take warm water baths.

What could I do? By that time I could scarcely afford to eat, so how could I find the money for treatment at a spa? And so, sinner that I am, I began to pray ardently to the Mother of God that in her mercy she would help me in my sufferings. I could walk only with great difficulty, leaning on a stick, and I had such pains in my hands and arms from time to time that I could no longer hold on to the stick. Sometimes I could make my way into the Church of the Sign only by crawling up the steps on all fours. I lived as a beggar, on food that people gave me as alms. This went on until 1887.

At that point my former mistress heard about my pitiful state and invited me to come and live with her at Käkisalmi in the province of Viipuri in Finland and look after her children as far as my health would permit. There was no other work that I could think of doing in the condition that I was in. The family was not a rich one, and so I was not to receive any wages for this - but, thank God, at least I was sure of food and a roof over my head.

While I was at Käkisalmi I heard many accounts of the miraculous cures that had taken place at the tomb of the Saints Sergei and Herman of Valaam, and this aroused a powerful desire in me to visit Valaam and prostrate myself before the tomb of these saints who had been acceptable unto the Lord and entreat their help in my serious state of illness. I had heard a lot about Valaam earlier, while I was living in St Petersburg, and I had often thought of visiting the monastery to pay reverence to its founder saints, but in all the vanities of life I had never got round to it. The main reason had been the cost of the journey, of course, but now the monastery was closer. Also, there was an inner voice speaking to me all the time, “Go to Valaam and be cured!”

I could no longer resist this desire, and I asked the lady of the house for leave to go there. As I had no money at all, I pawned my warm scarf for four roubles and started to make preparations for the journey.

As the day of departure approached I began to feel uneasy and distressed. I was an old woman who was utterly sick and lacking in strength. How could I travel alone? I had very little money, only just enough for the journey. How could I set out at all on such a journey? And if something were to happen, what would a poor creature like me do then? Thoughts like this began to haunt me until I was quite distraught.

The night before I set out I just lay on my bed and wept. What should I do? I wanted so much to make this journey, but still I was frightened for some reason. Then - I don’t know whether I was asleep or awake - I saw quite clearly a tall woman clad in pink velvet and with a child in her arms, surrounded by an amazing light. The thought immediately struck me, could this be the Mother of God? I didn’t dare to call out to her by that name, though. I wanted to go to her, but she stepped back and said, “Don’t weep. The Saviour is coming, and I am coming to you!”

Then I said to her, “Mother dear, how beautiful and good you are! Is it true that you live at Valaam?”

“Yes, I live there. You will see me at Valaam!” After that the vision disappeared, but now that the Mother of God had spoken to me it was as if a stone had been lifted from my heart. My mind was at ease and all my fears had been swept away.

The next day the ship came and I set out joyfully on my journey. The old ladies sitting beside me began to offer me food and drink, one bread, another tea and yet another coffee, so that I was not short of anything all the way. It was a happy journey. The only problem was that my legs were very painful because of the rocking of the ship. At Valaam they were celebrating not only the annual feast of the Saints Sergei and Herman but also the laying of the foundation stone for a new church. There were a huge number of pilgrims there, and also the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich and his wife the Duchess. There were throngs of people everywhere.

Once I had arrived and rested after the strenuous journey, I made my way to the tomb of the Saints Sergei and Herman and prayed there ardently so that the tears streamed from my eyes. I asked the saints who had been acceptable unto God to help me, to grant me, sinful as I was, relief from my illness. I spent the last coins that I had on a short service of prayer to them, so that I had nothing left but twenty kopecks and my return fare.

The evening service was held in the Church of the Dormition, and the crowd was so enormous that with my illness, I stood no chance of pushing my way into the church but had to stand, or rather sit, in the entrance.

The following day I had to return home. I would have liked to stay there longer to pray, but I couldn’t, as even a few days would have cost so much that I would not have had any money for the fare home.

Just before the ship was due to leave, some unseen force began to drive me back to the Church of the Dormition once more to pray. Although I was frightened of missing the ship, I didn’t dare to resist this inner voice which ordered me into the church, so I gathered up all my strength and practically ran back there.

As soon as I stepped into the church I involuntarily looked to the left - and stood rooted to the spot. My legs went weak beneath me, and I would certainly have fallen down if it hadn’t been for the railings beside the stairs leading to the upper church.

The reason for my surprise and bewilderment was something quite miraculous. Hanging on the pillar to the left of the door, in a golden frame, and looking at me was the Mother of God! And what was more, I recognised in Her the same figure who had appeared to me in a dream on the eve of my departure for Valaam and strengthened my failing spirit for the journey. I couldn’t take my eyes off the icon, and I became more and more convinced that this was the same dear mother who had been gracious enough to visit me in a dream. I recognised Her radiant face and Her merciful gaze. Even Her clothing was the same, and She held the Child in just the same way as I had seen in my dream.

As soon as I had recalled all this I wanted to have a service of prayer for the Mother of God and to kiss Her holy icon, but this was evidently not a suitable moment for Her, as our defender, to receive my unworthy prayers. The ship’s siren sounded in the distance, announcing its departure, and the icon was hung so high up that it was impossible for me to kiss it. I just had time to buy a candle with my last twenty kopecks and place it in front of the icon. Then, with tears in my eyes, I had to leave for the ship.

It was only during the voyage that I recovered my composure. I was delighted beyond words with this miracle that had been granted to me, a sinner, although I was also saddened by the fact that I had seen the icon of the All-Holy Mother of God only in the last few minutes before leaving Valaam. This had evidently been Her wish.

* * * * * * * *

A few days after I arrived back in Käkisalmi I began to feel much better. I could walk without a stick and do little jobs around the house. I resolved at once to go back to the monastery again at the first opportunity to thank God and the holy fathers and definitely to have a service of prayer said in front of the icon of the Mother of God. But the Lord determined otherwise.

The lady in whose house I was living decided to move into the country, and I had to go back to St Petersburg again and rely on assistance from the good people there. The years went by. My life was a hard one, and I was often facing hunger. My illness became worse, and I again had to walk with a stick. I prayed ardently to the Mother of God for help. Then, in 1896, nine years after my visit to Valaam, I came home from Vespers one Saturday evening, said my prayers and went to bed. Again I had a dream. The Mother of God appeared to me in exactly the same form as on the first occasion, and said, “So your enthusiasm has waned and you’ve forgotten your promise to return to Valaam. You were shown the way, but you didn’t follow it.”

“I am poor,” I answered, “I haven’t the money.”

“You find money for everything else, but not for this. Alas, this is a bitter disappointment for me,” the Mother of God complained.

I was horrified at this vision. I had evidently offended our dear mother. What was I to do now? Suddenly I heard that my former mistress had recently returned to St Petersburg, and so I went to her and told her the reason for my sorrow. She again came to my rescue - may God grant her all his goodness - and unexpectedly gave me five roubles. With these I was able to travel to Valaam at once.

As soon as I reached the monastery I went to the new church to pray at the tomb of the founder saints, and then to the Church of the Dormition to pray to the Mother of God. To my great sorrow, however, I couldn’t find Her icon where it had been on the first occasion. I began to ask the monks where it was, and the former treasurer Father Evgeni advised me to ask the master of the church furnishings, Father Pafnuti, who was responsible for all the icons. Even he couldn’t tell me exactly where the icon of the Mother of God that had been in the Church of the Dormition now was, and thought it might have been sent to the monastery’s chapel on Vasili Island in St Petersburg. I was very, very upset that I had not found my Queen of Heaven, and shed many bitter tears as I prayed to the Mother of God and the Saints Sergei and Herman that they would not abandon me in my sin.

I stayed at Valaam for two and a half weeks, looking everywhere for the icon, but I couldn’t find it. My health was poor, and my soul weighed heavy within me. Eventually I went back to St Petersburg and called at the Valaam chapel on Vasili Island, but the icon was not there, either. I was more grief-stricken than ever.

Another year passed, and my illness began to grow worse again, so that I could scarcely walk even with a stick. I had scrimped and saved all year and gradually collected the kopecks together for another journey to Valaam. I set out to spend the feast of St Peter at the monastery and to look for the icon of the Mother of God once again.

Although I was exhausted by the time I arrived, I prayed earnestly at the tomb of the founder saints and with tears in my eyes prayed to the Mother of God that she would show me where I could find Her blessed icon. And my prayer was answered.

That night I had another dream. I was walking through the yard of the monastery and past the now abandoned Church of St Nicholas. I was crying and praying to the Mother of God, “Oh mother dear, if only I could see you once more!” I was greatly surprised, but I went on praying.

Again I heard a voice, but this time it was someone else’s. “What are you so sad about? What are you looking for?” I turned round and there was a grey-bearded old monk in a blue biretta standing behind me.

“I am looking for the Mother of God,” I replied.

“Wait. We will find Her.”

“How can you find Her so quickly,” I asked, “when Father Pafnuti searched for three weeks without finding her?”

“He searched in the wrong places. He had forgotten where She is,” the old monk said.

I followed him to a door. “This door is closed,” I said.

He opened it. “She is in here.”

I looked into the inside of the church, and in one corner, amidst a heap of furnishings and old icons, was the icon of the Mother of God, half wrapped in a linen cloth and sacking. I recognised it at once as the icon I was looking for. “Here She is!” I exclaimed in a loud voice. It was then that the other women in the same room woke me up.

The next day, a Wednesday, I went to the Liturgy early in the morning, after which Father Pafnuti conducted a service of prayer at the tomb of the founder saints. I told him about my dream. “In the name of God, forgive me,” he said. “I looked for the icon at first and then forgot all about it. I will go and search for it at once. Now I remember. I’m sure it’s in the Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Worker.”

I intended to take Communion on the Saturday, and the night before I had another dream. It was as if I were standing alone in the lower church. There were just two monks beside the founders’ tomb, Father Seraphim and Father Nikolai. I was waiting impatiently for something and could not take my eyes off the outer door. Suddenly the door opened and the icon of the Mother of God was carried in by Father Pafnuti and a young monk in a short, grey cassock. “There She is, my dear mother!” I cried, and threw myself on the floor, thinking that the icon would be carried over me and I would be made well. But Father Pufnuti said, “There is nothing ready for you here. We have to hold a short service to bless the holy water before a sick person can be made well.” And at that I awoke.

In the morning I took Communion. I told Father Pafnuti of my dream and, sobbing, entreated him to go and look for the icon. Before the later Liturgy I was in a chapel when I suddenly saw a crowd of people hurrying from the hotel to the church. “What is happening?” I asked. They told me that the missing icon of the Mother of God had been found and that it was being taken to the lower church. I went into the church and saw the icon on the steps in front of the iconostasis.

“Is this the icon you meant?” Father Pafnuti asked me.

“Yes, this is the one,” I replied.

“Then be comforted and pray to the Holy Mother of God,” he said. I asked him to hold a service of prayer to the Mother of God, and he did so, with a blessing of water as well, and lit a lamp in front of the icon.

Hieromonk Alipi was reading a service of prayer at the tomb of the founder saints just then, and I was told that it was he who had painted the icon. I went to him and bowed down to the ground before him. My breath stuck in my throat and tears streamed down my cheeks from the sheer joy of finding at last the icon of the Mother of God who had appeared to me, and I gave thanks to the Lord with all my heart for the unspeakable mercy he had shown to me.

The holy water was poured into a bottle for me, and when I drank it I felt my strength return. I took some oil from the lamp and went to my room. There I spread it on my hands and feet. The pain abated, and for the first time for many years I was able to sleep peacefully. I week later I could walk without a stick.

After giving thanks with all my soul and from the bottom of my heart to the Mother of God for the miracle that She had worked on me in my unworthiness, I returned to St Petersburg. I began to gain in strength all the time without any medicine, and by Easter I had completely recovered. It was then that I decided that I would buy a lamp for the icon. By the grace of God I managed to gather together eight roubles from the little that I had, but a lamp cost ten roubles. Then a friend of mine who had bought a charity lottery ticket promised that if she won she would give me the two roubles I needed, and she did win a gold watch, so that I was able to buy the lamp and send it to the monastery. Many people asked me to give them a photograph of the icon. Now I am in perfect health. I can do washing and scrub floors, and I have even been helping with the haymaking at the Konevits Monastery. I have no pain at all in my legs. Altogether the illness lasted twelve years. At one time I couldn’t even get my arms into the sleeves of my clothes, and sometimes I could only climb steps by crawling on my hands and knees. I shed countless tears at such times and prayed to the Mother of God that I might be cured. Now I am healthy again and have everything that I need. There are even good people around me who have put me in an old people’s home. Glory be to the Queen of Heaven!’

Natalia Andreyevna’s story of the discovery of the icon in the abandoned Church of St Nicholas is thoroughly plausible. It would have been impossible for her to know anything about the contents of the church or about the objects stored there beforehand. The church is kept closed and no people other than the monastery staff are allowed into it. Everything really happened as she had seen in her dream. Following her instructions, Father Pafnuti went into the church, found the icon in a corner and brought it to the lower main church. There he placed it on the right-hand side of the church, on a pillar behind the right-hand choir enclosure, where it has been to this day. And by some miraculous means the person who helped Father Pufnuti carry the icon was indeed dressed in a short, grey cassock.

Natalia Andreyevna released this account of her visions on 7th August 1897, and it was written down in the present form on 26th July 1898.