History of the Portrait of St. Seraphim of Sarov

“Who am I, a wretched man, that my portrait should be painted? It is good to depict the faces of God and the saints, but we are men, and sinful men,” the Elder said; and only giving in to the enthusiasm of those who held him in honor, did he permit several faithful depictions of himself to be made. Among these is the remarkable image of the saint here described, which portrays him full figure, as a stoop- shouldered elder in his declining years, clad in a leather half-mantle and cowl, girded about, as was his wont, with a white towel. The saint’s right hand rests on a staff; in his left, which is hanging down, he holds a prayer-rope. The wonderful visage of the saint remained totally unaffected by time. On the pale face of the holy one, emaciated by his ascetic struggles, framed by graying hair and a similar beard, the blue, amazingly penetrating eyes of the elder look out at us. It is impossible to tear oneself away from this gaze. He looks directly at us, into our soul, and it seems that the gaze of the venerable one, at times benevolent, at times stern, penetrates into all its corners and convolutions. This image has witnessed much in the course of its existence. It beheld the tears of Saint Seraphim’s orphans, who had lost their father and guide, whom no one could replace. The troubled years of upheaval experienced by the Diveyevo Convent passed before it. Before it were secretly offered up the prayers, incomprehensible to the world, of those “of whom the whole world was not worthy”, the blessed mothers of Diveyevo, beseeching that their convent be defended against the wiles of the devil and the malice of men. At the time of the canonization of the saint of God, the entire Imperial Family prayed fervently before this image.

Portrait of St. Seraphim of Sarov
It is well known that Saint Seraphim only agreed to the painting of this portrait with the greatest reluctance.

When it came time for grace-filled Diveyevo also to quaff the cup of sufferings, the elder of the convent decided, in accordance with God’s providence, that the convent’s deeply venerated holy object, the image of Saint Seraphim, should be entrusted for safekeeping to one of the clergymen who frequented Sarov and Diveyevo and who held the holy one in particular veneration. For this purpose, the names of more than a hundred clergymen were written on slips of paper. After a prayer, lots were drawn three times; and three times the name of the city of Kiev was chosen. The will of God was clear. Saint Seraphim left, in his image, for that city from whence he had once begun his path toward salvation; there it remained until 1943, carried from the Church of Saint Nicholas-on-the-Banks to the Church of the Holy Protection, newly opened by the Germans in Podolya.

Before it was removed from Kiev in September of 1943, the Germans ordered the general evacuation of the city’s populace and patrolled with tracking dogs, searching out those hapless inhabitants who were still in hiding. One of their interpreters, a certain Ts-, who was accompanying the commandant of the city, entered “by chance” the Church of the Holy Protection, and saw the image of the saint. As he himself related afterward, he was overcome with an extraordinary sense of agitation and an insuperable desire to take the portrait with him. It seemed to him that with the destruction of the city inevitable during the coming battles, this holy object could well be destroyed too. On the other hand, it was dangerous for him arbitrarily to decide to save it. Finally, Ts-, having crossed himself, flipped a coin to determine whether he would take the portrait or not. “Chance” indicated he was to take it. To Ts-‘s astonishment, the German commandant offered no objection, and the holy object was dispatched to Ts-‘s relatives in the city of Lodz. When he learned that Mitered Archpriest Adrian Rimarenko (later Archbishop Andrei of Rockland), the spiritual father of all the local clergy, monastic and non-monastic, had just been evacuated to Berlin, Ts- immediately sent him a telegram, asking him to accept the holy object; and the image was set up in the Berlin cathedral, to which Fr. Adrian had been assigned as rector.

In telling of this holy object’s sojourn in the Cathedral, one cannot remain silent concerning the following remarkable occurrence. As they were returning from the air-raid shelters following one of the ferocious night bombings of Berlin, they saw that an incendiary bomb had crashed through the dome of the church, falling into the north side-chapel. The epitaphion [plashchanitsa], which stood there, and the image of Saint Seraphim were shrouded in flames; nearby, the standing Cross was burning, as was the adjacent icon of Saint Gurias, Samonas and Abibus. The fire was quickly extinguished, and it became evident that neither the epitaphion, nor the portrait of Saint Seraphim, had suffered the least harm from the flames, even though everything around them had been charred. Miraculously, only a small hole burnt through the icon, just below the right arm of Saint Seraphim. Night passed. The morning service was begun, but the stench of the burning had not dissipated; on the contrary, it had grown stronger. They frantically began to search, and in the Cathedral’s attic they discovered a second, smoldering incendiary bomb. No sooner did they touch it than a vast shaft of flame shot upward and was quickly extinguished. Thus, the fire had smoldered for twelve hours, but had not broken into flame. From that time on, the Cathedral never suffered again from fire, even though everything around it was burned and destroyed.

Then, in accordance with the unfathomable ways of God, a torrent of Russian people poured into America, and the treasure of Diveyevo-the portrait of the saint-came with them. Here in America, even before the arrival of the holy object, the hierarchal authorities had decided to found a convent, choosing as its name the Novo-Diveevo Convent in Honor of Saint Seraphim. It is noteworthy that it was suggested to many people that they take upon themselves the burden of building the convent, yet they declined for various reasons. But with the arrival of the portrait during the autumn of 1949, the decision became a reality, and Fr. Adrian Rimarenko was named the founder of the Novo-Diveevo Convent. And was it not another miracle that Saint Seraphim came in his image, not just anywhere, but to his own Convent, to the newly erected Novo-Diveevo Convent.

O venerable father Seraphim pray unto God for us!

Saint Seraphim of Sarov: for the 50th Anniversary of His Canonization by Anotoly Timofeyevich (The Bronx, NY: Diocesan Publishing House, 1953)