One of the most famous sacred icons in Orthodox Christianity made a rare stop in Western New York this week.
A few hundred area Orthodox Christians turned out at three area churches Monday and Tuesday to view the Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God.
Called the "wonder-working" icon, it is believed to have been discovered 715 years ago at the root of a large oak tree along the Tuskar River near Kursk, Russia.
For Orthodox Christians, icons are not simply pretty paintings but portals to heaven, and their veneration is a long-held tradition.
The Kursk Root Icon holds special significance because it is thought to have a miraculous history, beginning with its unusual discovery in 1295 by a pious hunter, who watched a new spring flow inexplicably from the root after picking up the wooden icon, which depicts Mary and a young Jesus within her outstretched arms.
Since then, the icon endured being hacked in half and thrown away in the woods by a band of Tartar raiders who sacked the hermitage and chapel in Kursk where it was kept.
The fervent prayers of a priest led to the finding of the two halves, which then seamlessly bonded together with no visible damage, according to Orthodox tradition.
The icon survived numerous Mongol attacks, bombings in 1898 and 1925, and a theft in 1918. It is believed to have inspired countless healings and other miracles.
Since 1951, the icon has been kept in the Orthodox Cathedral of the Mother of God of the Sign in Manhattan.
Its fame has grown as it has aged. On its return to Russia in 2009 for the first time in 90 years, the icon attracted upwards of a million people for a glimpse and a prayer.
"You have to believe, and you have to have that faith inside you," said the Rev. Serge Lukianov, archpriest and secretary of the Eastern American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, which is organizing a tour of the icon to 85 Orthodox churches on the East Coast.
Today, the icon is headed to Rochester, and later it will go to Syracuse and Utica.
St. Stephen Serbian Orthodox Church in Lackawanna and Hellenic Orthodox Church of the Annunciation on West Utica Street hosted the icon Tuesday.
And at St. Theodore Russian Orthodox Church in Williamsville, about 50 parishioners turned out Monday evening for a special "moleben" prayer service.
The icon -- which is protected at all times by a decorative covering of jewels, glass and precious metals that by itself is a work of art -- was placed on a stand surrounded by lighted candles and poinsettias.
The faithful prostrated themselves on an oriental carpet before approaching to kiss the icon and ask the Holy Mother to pray on their behalf.
"First and foremost, [icons are] viewed as instruments in prayer. They're venerated as windows to the godly," said Reader Gregory Levitsky, who assists Lukianov. "We'll kiss icons because of what they represent, not because of what they are."