Ukraine's national holiday -- celebrated October 14 -- is the feast day of the Pokrov icon. It commemorates an appearance of the Virgin Mary in Constantinople.
To understand the love of Ukrainians for the Madonna of Pokrov, we must go back to the 10th century. At that time, whenever the Byzantine Empire (recall that its capital city was Constantinople) was threatened by the Arabs or Slavs, the Virgin Mary appeared with St. John the Baptist and St. John.
The Virgin Mary and these two saints appeared to St. Andrew, called Andrew the “Fool in Christ,” in the Church of the Blacherns in Constantinople. This church is an illustrious Marian shrine and a very beautiful church in the city. During the apparition, the Blessed Mother went in tears to the altar, placing her own veil that covered her head over the people to protect and save them.
“Pokrov” means “the veil” in the literal sense and borrows, from the Hebrew of the Old Testament, seter (veil), the figurative sense of “protection” or “security.” The feast of the Pokrov icon therefore means, in other words, Our Lady of Protection. This feast, which commemorates her appearance, has been proclaimed the national holiday of Ukraine. It is celebrated on October 14.
During the time of the Soviet and Nazi occupation, this icon took on immense importance for the Ukrainian nation, which reveres it as one of its favorite icons. Interestingly, this festival was established in Russia in the 12th century during the reign of Vladimir Prince Andrew Bogolioubsky (1157-1174), whose patron saint was St. Andrew. Outside Russia, it is celebrated in Ukraine, but also in Bulgaria, Romania and also in Greece.
A veil of protection
The icon of Pokrov represents the Mother of God standing in orans (praying position) with her arms raised, in a Byzantine church decor, and accompanied by the saints. Two variations exist: either the Virgin herself spreads her veil widely, or two angels spread the veil over the people. Above the extended veil stands the bust of Christ. Pokrov’s prayer to the Virgin alludes to her veil shining over the saved crowd:
Cover us, O Queen with the mantle of mercy, O Pokrov and defense of men, Pokrov and defense of believers. By your help the Orthodox kings are crowned …
On this day we celebrate your luminous feast, O Mother of God, we the faithful protected by your coming and, contemplating your venerable icon, with tenderness we say: cover us with your holy protection and deliver us from all evil, praying your Son, Christ our God, to grant our souls salvation.”