Our Lady is much venerated in Orthodox Christianity and her presence in the faith and cultures of these peoples are very striking.
The most common Our Lady´s icon in Orthodoxy is Theotokos, which in Greek means "Mother of God". Russia, the country with the largest Orthodox population in the world, received from ancient Byzantium this aspect of Christianity, artistic tradition, the form of government and many elements governing social order. Historically the Russians called their land "House of the Most Holy Mother of God", a reference to the nation as the holder of a Christian heritage, in it´s view legitimate, and clearly expressed in the "Third Rome" myth developed from the late 15th century. Theotokos is the Russia´s protective patroness.
But what is the relationship between the Mother of God´s picture and the "Third Rome"?
In fact Theotokos is one of the elements of historical tales and philosophic texts that have helped to create or have been used to legimitate the ideia that Russia was legitimate heir of Byzantiun, the "Second Rome" (with the city of Rome the "first").
According to historian Andrew Wilson in his book "The Ukranians. Unexpected Nation", the Theotokos icon that is related to the legitimationz of the kings´ power of the ancient Kievan Rus was brought from Constantinople to the Kiev region in 1134, having been manufactured around 1120. The Virgin of Vyshhorod (town near Kiev), as it was known at the time, was one of the main symbols of the Kievan king´s divine authority. This same icon is now known as Our Lady of Vladimir, or Theotokos of Vladimir.
After the schism between Rome and Constantinople in 1054 that gave rise to the Catholic-Orthodox division there were some attempts to establish autocephalous, ie, autonomy of the local Orthodox churches in relation to Kiev Patriarchate. These initiatives originated already in the same century of the schism when divergences among "regional" Orthodox leaders and those more loyal to Kiev began.
The icon was trasnferred to the Moscow Kremlin in 1395, and it´s assigned to it the Moscovy principality´s victory in arresting the Mongol attack lead by Tamerlane. The city of Moscow, which led to the principality, has been founded by a "northerner", Yurii Dolgorukii, around 1150, which shows that from it´s origin this city and Kiev were in opposite poles on the legitimacy of the Kievan Rus´ legacy.
The shock of Constantinople´s fall in 1453 and the consequent attempt to legitimize the Moscovy´s new role were the main events that granted Russia the title of "Third Rome" and it´s Orthodoxy leadership claim. According to Wilson, the Russia sovereignty over "all Rus" would be and "invented tradition", thesis also held regarding of the Third Rome doctrine by the Harvard historian Marshall Tillbroke Poe.
Wilson states that this tradition is rooted in the transfer of the Our Lady of Vladimir icon to Moscow in 1395 and the first attempt by the King Simeon, the Proud, to take full control of the Orthodox Church of Rus. These events were aimed to make the kingdom guardion of Orthodoxy and the Kievan Rus legacy in the presence of Theotokos. The historian also lists some historical events that were decisive to the Muscovy´s power growth from 15th century: the Russian Orthodox Church autocephaly in 1448 fearing the Constantinople´s fall to the Muslims, the consequent rise of the Moscovite kingdom claims due this fall, and the final expulsion of the Mongols from the region in 1480. Soon after the establishment of the Church in Russia, the state began to publish a series of tales that legitimized the new Muscovy´s religious authority.
In the late 15th century the Third Rome doctrine was circulating in Russian cities as Tver and Novgorod, and in the later the first expressed record of this term. It was from the reign of the Grand Prince of Muscovy, Vasili III (1505-1533), which started the penetration of the myth in the kingdom´s official circles. The first record that reaches the authorities comes from Filofei, monk from Pskov, near Moscow, who writes a series of letters for a Vasili´s representative in his city in 1523-24, to Vasili and then to his successor, Ivan IV, the Terrible. For the monk, Rome had fallen into heresy, and Constantinople had been punished by God with the Muslim rule in his attempt to unite the Orthodoxs with Rome at the Florence Council (1439). Thus Moscovy was the only rightful heir kingdom of Christianity and the natural Byzantium´s sucessor, since all other Christian kingdoms had fallen into enemies´ hands. According to Filofei, prophecies (of which he don´t indicate the source) state that there wouldn´t be a "Fourth Rome", being Muscovy with the mission of building an empire in order to protect and disseminate the true Christian Faith until the end of time. To fulfill this rule, the leader should be excepcionally skilled and inteligent able to guide the kingdom in an universal and escathological mission. Therefore, the king acted under inspiration of God himself, and his authority over the empire and his rule as church´s protector divinaly conferred. Muscovy bequeathed the Byzantium´s "divine authority", then Constantinople´s protector.
The "Third Rome" idea appears at first in an official text in 1547 at the Ivan IV´s coronation as Czar of Russia, which meaning is "Caesar", what gave to the leader imperial projection. The coronation´s text was written or inspired by then Metropolitan Makary, one of the Third Rome doctrine formulators at the time. In 1589, five years after Ivan´s death, the Russian Orthodox Church was elevated to Patriarchate in an agreement which Moscow left prevailed on Constantinople, since this was under Muslim occupation and depended of Russian resources.
With the taking of Kazan, capital of the khanate opponent of Russia, Ivan IV ordered the construction of the Saint Basil Cathedral, in Moscow, now the main symbol of the country. It´s oficial name carries the Theotokos´ identity: it calls Cathedral of the Most Holy Theotokos of the Moat. It´s structure forms a eight point star, number symbol of the Christ ressurrection. The star is also a reference to the Star of Bethlehem which guided the Magi to Jesus and the New Jerusalem as the guide of humanity. The Third Rome myth also calls Moscow New Jerusalem, a reference to it´s sacredness. The city´s urbanization centered on the Red Square and the Kremlin clearly shows, in the architectural plan, Moscow as guide of Russia and all Orthodoxy (see page 95).
After the Ivan´s reign, the Third Rome myth circulated only among Orthodox religious, especifically the staroveri, or "old belivers", religious group that denies as heretical the modernizing reform of the Russian Church in 18th century, there was no mention of the docrtine in state documents. The Russian kingdom (and later Empire) expanded without official references to the original messianism. Only in the mid-19th century the "Third Rome" returned to the intellectuals´ voices, especially from the 1860s with the publications of the Filofei´s letters. No coincidentally Alexander Dugin, main Kremlin´s ideologist and responsible for the Russian geopolitics redesign on messianic bases, considers the old belivers the keepers of the true Orthodox tradition and, therefore, of legitimate spiritual tradition of the Russian people.
The great popularization of the Third Rome myth led many intellectuals to promote a national mission, a specifically Russian messianism, like the Soloviev´s Christian universalism. The spread and rise of communism found resonance of it´s eschatological mission among intellectuals of the time, and until recent decades other movements emerged offering to Russia a new mission in the world, the conquest of Eurasia, the Artic and even space.
After dwelling for centuries the Dormition Cathedral inside the Moscow Kremlin, Theotokos was removed for restauration in the Bolshevik period and is now kept at State Tretyakov Gallery. Although no longer within the Kremlin´s walls, it still enjoys state protection. Legitimate or not, the Mother of God´s Picture, Our Lady of Vladimir, is still linked to the Russian power, which still believes having to fulfill a mission in the world, whether divine or human.
* Published in Portuguese on March 2nd 2016.