A series of feasts throughout the Orthodox ecclesiastical year join together many important events in the history of the Church, all connected in unexpected ways by the relics now known as the Robe of the Theotokos and the Protecting Veil.
The Protection of the Mother of God is one of the most beloved feast days on the Orthodox calendar among the Slavic peoples, commemorated on October 1/14.
The Russian word Pokrov (Покров – in Greek, Skepi Σκέπη) has a dual meaning of “veil” and “protection.” It refers to a cloak or covering garment, but it also means protection or intercession. For this reason, the name of the feast is variously translated as the Protecting Veil of the Theotokos, the Protection of the Theotokos, or the Intercession of the Theotokos.
The feast day celebrates the appearance of the Mother of God at Blachernae in the tenth century. At the end of the life of Saint Andrew of Constantinople, he, with his disciple St. Epiphanius and a group of people, saw the Mother of God, St. John the Baptist, and several other saints and angels during a vigil in the Church of Blachernae. The Blachernae Palace church was where several of her relics were kept. The relics were her robe, veil, and part of her belt that had been transferred from Palestine during the fifth century.
The Theotokos knelt down in the center of the church and remained in prayer for a long time. Her face was covered in tears. Then she took her veil off and spread it over the people as a sign of protection. During the time, the people in the city were threatened by an invasion of the Rus, who were not yet Christian. After the appearance of the Mother of God, the danger was averted and the city was spared from bloodshed and suffering.
How did the robe of the Most Holy Theotokos come to be in Constantinople?
500 years earlier, in the late fifth century, the brothers Galbius and Candidus, associates of the emperor, set out from Constantinople to Palestine to venerate the holy places. In Nazareth they stayed in the home of a certain old Jewish woman. In her house they noticed a room where many lamps were lit, incense burned, and sick people were gathered. When they asked her what the room contained, the pious woman did not want to give an answer for a long time. After persistent requests, she said that she had a very precious sacred item: the robe of the Mother of God, at which many miracles and healings had occurrred. Before her Dormition the Virgin had given one of her garments to a pious Jewish girl, an ancestor of the old woman, instructing her to leave it to another virgin after her death. In this way the robe of the Mother of God was preserved in this family from generation to generation.
In his second homily on the Dormition of the Theotokos, Saint John of Damascus (+749) reveals more, referring to events in the 40th chapter of the Life of St Euthymios:
The Empress Pulcheria had already erected many churches for Christ in Constantinople. One of these is the church in the district of Blachernae, built at the beginning of the reign of [her husband,] Emperor Marcian [reigned 450-457]. After the two of them built a worthy temple there for the all-glorious and all-holy Mother of God, the ever-virgin Mary, and adorned it with every sort of decoration, they hoped to find her holy body, which had been the dwelling-place of God.
And summoning Juvenal, the Archbishop of Jerusalem, and those bishops from Palestine who were staying in the capital because of the synod then being held in Chalcedon [October, 451], they said to them: “We have heard that the first and most outstanding church of the all-holy Mother of God, the ever-virgin Mary, is in Jerusalem, at the place called Gethsemane, where her life-giving body was put in a coffin. We now wish to bring this relic here, to protect this royal city.”
Juvenal answered on behalf of them all:
“There is nothing in the holy, inspired Scripture about the death of Mary, the holy Mother of God; but we know from ancient and wholly reliable tradition that at the time she so gloriously fell asleep, all the holy Apostles who were traveling the world for the salvation of the peoples were lifted up in a single instant of time and were gathered at Jerusalem. And as they stood by her, they saw a vision of angels, and heard the divine chanting of the higher powers. So it was that she gave her soul in an inexpressible way into God’s hands, surrounded by the glory of God and all heaven.
“Her body, which had been God’s dwelling place, was brought for burial amidst the singing of the angels and the Apostles, and laid to rest in a coffin in Gethsemane; and the angelic dancing and singing continued without pause in that place for three days. But after three days the song of the angels ceased; the Apostles were there, and since one of them — Thomas — had not been present for her burial and came at the end of three days, and wished to reverence that body which had housed God, they opened the coffin. And they could not find her body, which had been the object of such praise; all that they found were her burial wrappings. And being overcome by the ineffable fragrance that came out of the wrappings, they closed the coffin again.
“Amazed by this miraculous discovery, they could only draw a single conclusion: The One who had deigned to become flesh in her own person and to take His humanity from her, the One who willed to be born in human flesh as God the Word, the Lord of glory, and who had preserved her virginity intact even after childbirth, now chose after her departure from this world to honor her pure and immaculate body with the gift of incorruptibility, and with a change of state even before the common, universal resurrection.”
When the imperial couple heard this, they asked Archbishop Juvenal to send them the holy coffin, properly sealed, with the funeral garments in it of the glorious, all-holy Mary, Mother of God. And when he had sent it, they placed it in the church of the holy Theotokos that had been built at Blachernae.
The jeweled chest, containing the sacred Robe, was transferred to Constantinople during the reign of Leo the Great [457-474]. Saint Gennadius, Patriarch of Constantinople, and the emperor Leo, having learned of this sacred treasure, were convinced of the incorrupt state of the holy Robe, and they certified its authenticity. On June 2, 458 Patriarch Gennadius transferred the sacred Robe into the church at Blachernae, near the city gates at the seacoast, placing the relic within a new reliquary.
Afterwards, the maphorion (i.e., the great veil or outer robe) of the Mother of God, and part of her belt were also put into the reliquary with her Robe. This circumstance also influenced the Orthodox iconography of the feast, in connecting the two events: the Placing of the Robe [feast day July 2/15], and the Placing of the Belt of the Mother of God [feast day Aug. 31/Sept. 12] in Blachernae. The Russian pilgrim Stephen of Novgorod, visiting Constantinople in about the year 1350, testifies: “We arrived at Blachernae, where the Robe lies upon an altar in a sealed reliquary.”
On June 18, 860 the Russian fleet of Prince Askold, a force comprising more than 200 ships, raided the coastal regions of the Black Sea and the Bosphorus, then entered into Constantinople’s harbor and threatened the city. The Russian ships sailed within sight of the city, setting ashore troops who “proceeded before the city, stretching forth their swords.” The emperor Michael III [842-867], interrupted his campaign of resistance against the Arabs and returned to the capital. All night he prayed prostrated upon the stone tiles of the church of the Mother of God at Blachernae. Saint Photius [+893] was patriarch of Constantinople at this time. He spoke to his flock, calling for tears of repentance to wash away sins, and to seek the intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos with fervent prayer. Many scholars associate the composition of the Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos with this event.
The danger grew with each passing hour. The decision was made to save the church’s sacred objects, especially the holy Robe of the Mother of God, which was kept in the Blachernae church, near the shore.
After serving an all-night Vigil, and taking the sacred Robe of the Mother of God out from the Blachernae church, they carried it in a procession around the city walls. They dipped it into the waters of the sea, and then they transported it to the center of Constantinople into the church of Hagia Sophia. The Mother of God protected the city and quelled the fury of the Russian warriors. An honorable truce was concluded, and Askold lifted the siege of Constantinople.
On June 25 the Russian army began to leave, taking with them a large tribute payment. A week afterwards, on July 2, the wonderworking Robe of the Mother of God was solemnly returned to its place in the Blachernae church. In remembrance of these events an annual feastday of the Placing of the Robe of the Mother of God was established on July 2/15 by holy Patriarch Photius.
Soon, in October-November of the year 860, a Russian delegation arrived in Constantinople to conclude a treaty “in love and peace.” Some of the conditions of the peace treaty included articles concerning the Baptism of Kievan Rus, the payment of an annual tribute by the Byzantines to the Russians, permission for Russians to serve with the Byzantine army, an agreement to trade in the territory of the Empire (primarily in Constantinople), and to send a diplomatic mission to Byzantium.
The continuator of the Byzantine “Theophanes Chronicles” relates that “their delegation arrived in Constantinople with a request for them to receive holy Baptism, which also was fulfilled.” An Orthodox mission was sent to Kiev to fulfill this mutual wish of the Russians and the Greeks. Not very long before this (in 855) Saint Cyril the Philosopher had created a Slavonic alphabet and translated the Gospel. St Cyril was sent with his brother St Methodius, on a mission to Kiev with books translated into Slavonic.
The Russian Prince Askold accepted holy Baptism with the name Nicholas, and many of his followers were also baptized, and St Photius appointed Metropolitan Michael to Kiev.
In this way the Feast of the Placing of the Robe of the Most Holy Theotokos in Blachernae also marks the canonical establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Robe in Moscow
In the twelfth century, Saint Andrew Bogoliubsky [+1174] built a church in the city of Vladimir at the Golden Gates, in honor of the Feast of the Placing of the Robe at Blachernae. At the end of the fourteenth century, a portion of the Robe of the Mother of God was transferred from Constantinople to Rus by St Dionysius, Archbishop of Suzdal.
The holy Robe of the Mother of God, which previously saved Constantinople, later saved Moscow from hostilities. Tatars of the horde of the princeling Mazovshi approached the walls of Moscow in the summer of 1451. Saint Jonah, Metropolitan of Moscow, encouraged the defenders of the capital with constant prayer and church services. On the night of July 2, the Chronicle relates, great confusion occurred within the Tatar camp. The enemy abandoned their plundered goods and speedily departed in disarray.
In memory of the miraculous deliverance of Moscow, St Jonah built the church of the Placing of the Robe in the Kremlin, making it his primary church. The church burned down, but in its place in the years 1484-1486 a new church, also dedicated to this Feast, was built thirty years later. This temple, standing at present, continued to serve as the primary church of Russian metropolitans and patriarchs until the cathedral of the Twelve Apostles was built under Patriarch Nikon.
The Robe in Georgia
A history museum in Zugdidi, western Georgia, has preserved many of the sacred artifacts confiscated from churches and monasteries at the beginning of the Soviet rule, from 1923 to 1936. Included among the artifacts is the Robe of the Most Holy Theotokos, which was brought there from the Dormition Monastery in Khobi (near Zugdidi).
There are several different explanations as to how the Robe came from Russia to Georgia. In 1640 the Russian envoys Fedot Elchin and Pavel Zakharev visited western Georgia and reported having seen the Precious Robe. It was also described in the accounts of various travelers through western Georgia including Giuseppe Maria Zampi the Italian missionary, the patriarch of Alexandria (in the 17th century); and several monks of Mt. Athos.
The Robe of the Theotokos was preserved in a silver case on the altar in Khobi, under the seals of both the catholicos and Prince Levan II Dadiani. According to tradition, many miracles have occurred and a great number of people have been healed by the wonder-working Robe.
Every year on July 2/15, the Most Precious Robe is carried from the Zugdidi Museum to the city’s Cathedral of the Blachernae Icon. After the festal Liturgy the faithful joyfully venerate this most priceless treasure of the Christian Faith. Pilgrims from many countries travel to Zugdidi to venerate the Robe of the Most Holy Mother of God.