Blachernitissa (Greek: Βλαχερνίτισσα), also called Theotokos of Blachernae (Θεοτόκος των Βλαχερνών, Θεοτόκος η Βλαχερνίτισσα) or Our Lady of Blachernae (Παναγία η Βλαχερνίτισσα), is a 7th-century encaustic icon representing the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary. It is also the name given to the Church built in honour of the Virgin Mary in the Blachernae section of Constantinople.
The Theotokos was considered to be the intercessory protectress par excellence of Constantinople and, indeed, of the entire Eastern Roman Empire (called "Byzantium" by some modern Western scholars). Blachernitissa is unusual among Orthodox icons in that it is not flat, but is formed in bas relief. According to Sacred Tradition, the icon Blachernitissa was made of wax combined with the ashes of Christian martyrs who had been killed in the 6th century. The Church of St. Mary of Blachernae (which hosted the icon) was sited close to the Blachernae imperial palace.
The Theotokos' intercession, asked through veneration and prayer before the icon, was credited with saving Constantinople from the Persians during the reign of Heraclius and later from the Arabs. These miracles are commemorated annually in the Orthodox Church on the Saturday of the Akathist on the Fifth Saturday of Great Lent.
The icon was believed to have been lost after the fire that destroyed the church on February 29, 1434, although in later centuries its disappearance came to be associated with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Like many holy objects of Byzantine tradition, the Blachernitissa (or a copy thereof) resurfaced on Mount Athos in the mid-17th century.
Whether it is the same icon that was kept in Blachernae is a matter of scholarly debate, as the ancient icon is believed to have been of the Orans type, whereas the Athonite icon is of a style called Hodegetria (literally, "She who leads the way"). It has been suggested that the Athonite icon had its origins in the Blachernae quarter and perhaps even resided in the Church of St. Mary before being transferred to Mount Athos for "security reasons".   
It was in 1653 that the icon was sent by the Athonite monks to Moscow as their gift to Tsar Alexis. A Constantinople merchant, Demetrios Costinari, brought it to Moscow on October 16, 1653, with a letter from Patriarch Paisius I that endorsed the icon's authenticity. He was met by the Tsar in person, and Alexis had the icon enshrined in Moscow's main church, the Dormition Cathedral, opposite Russia's protectress, the Theotokos of Vladimir. This event is celebrated annually in the Russian Orthodox Church on July 7.
Veneration in Muscovy
Paul of Aleppo, who accompanied the Patriarch of Antioch to Moscow in early 1655, was impressed by the reverence in which the icon was held. According to his account, the Blachernitissa appears as "if she had a bodily form" and "it stands out against the background so strongly", that the viewer is penetrated with awe. It was encased in a sumptuous chasuble glittering with gold and precious stones, so that only the hands and the face of the Theotokos were left visible. Paul proceeds to describe how the Tsar had it placed in front of his own seat in a sledge and took it with him on the Smolensk campaign.
The Syrian clergyman, however, tells a different story about the icon's provenance than that adopted by the Russian Orthodox Church. It was a Constantinople widow who discovered the icon in her house, with an oil lamp burning in front of it. She donated the icon, identified by her as "that which Heraclius had had by his side in a Persian campaign", to a Jerusalem metochion, whose father superior refused to cede it to the Patriarch, though the latter spared no expense to obtain it.
The 1650s were a time when the Russian Church, steered by Patriarch Nikon, began to place great store on renewing its ties with the older members of the Pentarchy. This emphasis dovetailed neatly with the prevailing Third Rome doctrine which saw Moscow as the successor to Constantinople. With this in mind, the metochion sent the newly recovered Byzantine relic to Moscow and was "handsomely remunerated" with 800 dinars from the Tsar's coffers.
Study and restoration
When placed in the Kremlin, the icon was in disrepair from old age and use, so that Simon Ushakov and Nikita Pavlovets had to be summoned for "repairs" in 1674. Nikodim Kondakov was unable to determine the icon's age due to this and later restorations, which involved some amount of overpainting, but felt reasonably certain that "the composition was of ancient date".
The carved high relief icon has similarities to a set of 13th-century icons of St. George from the Crimea, Ohrid, and Castoria. An original Greek inscription recently discovered under the coat of wax paints has a parallel in a lead seal from a Trapezunt monastery, also datable to the 13th century. Thus the 13th century seems to be emerging as the most likely date for the icon.
Following the Bolshevik Revolution the icon was removed from the Kremlin to the Vozdvizhenka Church of the Cross's Exultation. Upon the church's demolition, the icon was returned to the Kremlin's museums; it is currently held by the Tretyakov Gallery.
The Blachernitissa never rose to the height of veneration accorded by the Russian Orthodox Church to the Theotokos of Kazan or even to the Theotokos of the Iveron, an Athonite icon whose copy was commissioned by Patriarch Nikon. After Nikon's downfall and Alexis's death, the icon was neglected so much that it was not evacuated from the Kremlin during Napoleon's occupation and was put at risk during the Great Fire of 1812.
The Theotokos Vlakhernskaya remained a cherished object of personal devotion of the Stroganov, Galitzine, Naryshkin, and Golovin noble families who had commissioned several copies of the icon at the height of its veneration in the mid-17th century. Of these copies, one was kept in a church on the grounds of the Galitzine Palace in the village of Vlakhernskoye near Moscow (to which it lends its name), another was placed by the Naryshkins in the Vysokopetrovsky Monastery, and a third was venerated at the Spaso-Vlakhernsky monastery near Dmitrov.
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