Three-Handed Mother of God


I recently bought this icon at the Odessa flea market. It follows the popular Hodegetria (She who points the way) type, in which Mary holds Jesus with one hand, and with her other hand points at him as the source of salvation. The model-setting icon of Hodegetria was preserved in Constantinople until the fall of the city in 1453, and it was the most revered icon and protector of the city, which became one of the most common types of the Mother of God.

On this icon, even the uninitiated eye notices two unusual things. One is that only the faces, the hands and one foot of Christ are painted, as if it were a dressable figure, whose unpainted surface will be covered with clothes anyway. And that’s exactly what it is. Since the late Middle Ages, icons began to be “clothed”, covered with embossed silver, gilded silver or copper icon covers, “revestments”, which left exposed only the central subject of the depiction, with reference to the biblical place where the Lord commands Moses to prepare the ark of the covenant: “Overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out, and make a gold molding around it.” (Exod 25:11). The purpose of the cover was, on the one hand, to raise the dignity of the icon, and on the other hand, as I wrote earlier, to “remove” it from the believer, to emphasize its not-of-this-worldliness. The icon cover is called in Russian оклад, and in Greek ἐπένδυση, that is, ʻblanket’, but if it covers everything except faces, hands and feet, it is already called риза or ἔνδυμα, that is, ʻcloth’. This kind of small, mass-produced 19th.-c. icon, where the surfaces intended to be covered with riza were not even painted, were called подокладница, ʻunder the oklad’. The nails holding the former cover in place are still visible on the icon. The cover itself was probably torn off because of its copper or silver content, in an age when that was considered more valuable than the icon.

The other unusual thing: how many hands do you see on the picture? Inclduing mine, holding the icon: six, but excluding it: five, which is an overcount for only two figures. Mary hold Christ with two right hands, pointing to him only with her left.

You could explain it by saying that the customer him- or herself decided which hand they preferred, and it was left uncovered by the maker of the riza, but this subjective approach is alien to the use of the icon. The truth is that, in the model for this picture, Mary also had three hands. This is the icon of the Three-Handed Mother of God, Икона Божией Матери «Троеручицы», Παναγία Τριχερούσα, or Bogorodica Trojeručica.

Two Troieruchitsa icons from Russia, 19th c.


This icon type has a peculiar and winding story. Its origins go back to St. John of Damascus (ca. 675 – 749), who was a great defender of the icons during the Byzantine iconoclastic debates. The iconoclastic emperor Leo III thus slandered him to the caliph of Damascus, in whose service John was (in fact, John’s grandfather, as Damascus’s governor, had handed over the city to the Arabs, and therefore the Christian administration remained in place for some time). The emperor forwarded forged letters to the caliph, stating that John had encouraged him to attack the Arabs. The caliph gave credit to the letters, and threw John into prison, where he cut off the treacherous hand with which he had supposedly written the letters as a complementary punishment. John prayed all night in front of the image of the Mother of God, then fell asleep, and by the time he awoke, Mary had miraculously restored his hand to its place. John rejoiced so much that he wrote the hymn In thee rejoiceth every creature in honor of the Mother of God, and he placed a silver copy of his hand on the icon as an ex voto. In the following 19th-c. Russian icon (from Jackson’s auction site) we see both John’s prayer and the ex voto already placed on the picture.


The hymn, which is still sung in the liturgy of St. Basil the Great and in the morning service, has its “own icon”. In the center of it, the Mother of God sits on a throne (“he made your body a throne”), with a church above and a flowering garden around her (“hallowed temple and spiritual paradise”), the “ranks of angels” around her and “the race of man” under her feet. And before her, St. John of Damascus, bowing, and showing the text of the hymn on a scroll.

Novgorod, 16th c. From the church of St. Peter and Paul in Kozheviki. Novgorod, Museum

The original Greek version of the hymn, performed by Nektaria Karantzi:


Ἐπὶ σοὶ χαίρει, Κεχαριτωμένη, πᾶσα ἡ κτίσις • All of creation rejoices in you, O full of grace

Ἐπὶ σοὶ χαίρει, Κεχαριτωμένη, πᾶσα ἡ κτίσις·
Ἀγγέλων τὸ σύστημα καὶ ἀνθρώπων τὸ γένος,
ἡγιασμένε ναὲ καὶ παράδεισε λογικέ,
παρθενικὸν καύχημα,
ἐξ ἧς Θεός ἐσαρκώθη καὶ παιδίον γέγονεν,
ὁ πρὸ αἰώνων ὑπάρχων Θεὸς ἡμῶν·
τὴν γὰρ σὴν μήτραν θρόνον ἐποίησε,
καὶ τὴν σὴν γαστέρα πλατυτέραν οὐρανῶν ἀπειργάσατο.
Ἐπὶ σοὶ χαίρει, Κεχαριτωμένη, πᾶσα ἡ κτίσις
δόξα σοι.
All of creation rejoices in you, O full of grace,
the ranks of Angels and the human race;
hallowed Temple and spiritual Paradise, glory of Virgins;
from you God was incarnate,
and He, who is our God before the ages,
became a little child.
for He made your body a throne
and made your womb more spacious than the heavens.
All of creation rejoices in you, O full of grace;
glory to you!

In Russian, with the male choir of Valaam Singing Cultural Institute:


О Тебе радуется, Благодатная, всякая тварь • All of creation rejoices in you, O full of grace

О Тебе радуется, Благодатная, всякая тварь,
Ангельский собор и человеческий род,
Освященный Храме и Раю Словесный,
Девственная похвало.
Из Неяже Бог воплотися и Младенец бысть,
прежде век Сый Бог наш.
Ложесна бо Твоя Престол сотвори.
И чрево Твое пространнее небес содела.
О Тебе радуется, Благодатная, всякая тварь,
Слава Тебе.
All of creation rejoices in you, O full of grace,
the ranks of Angels and the human race;
hallowed Temple and spiritual Paradise, glory of Virgins;
from you God was incarnate,
and He, who is our God before the ages,
became a little child.
for He made your body a throne
and made your womb more spacious than the heavens.
All of creation rejoices in you, O full of grace;
glory to you!

and in Arabic, the mother tongue of St. John of Damascus, sung by Gabriel Maalouf in the Arab Christian cathedral of St. Nicholas in Los Angeles:


إن البرايا بأسرها تفرح بك يا ممتلئة نعمة • All of creation rejoices in you, O full of grace

But back to the icon. Shortly after this incident, St. John of Damascus withdrew from the caliph’s service and became a monk in the Saint Sabbas Monastery in the Holy Land.

The Saint Sabbas (Mar Saba) Greek Orthodox monastery, named  after its Syriac monk founder (483) next to Kidron Creek, today in the West Bank Palestinian Autonomous Region. After the Crusades, the monastery was burned down by the Bedouins. In 1504 it was bought by Serbian monks who lived here until 1630 with the financial support of the Russian Tsar, who used them as a counterweight to the Greek Patriarchate of Jerusalem. With the end of the Tsar’s support, the Serbs were forced to sell the monastery to the Patriarchate, to which it belongs today. Here lived and is buried St. John of Damascus.

He also took with him the miraculous icon, with the silver ex voto. After his death, the icon was preserved in the monastery. When St Sava (1174-1236), a son of the Serbian king Stefan Nemanja, the first archbishop of the independent Serbian church, and the later abbot of the monastery of Studenica, visited the monastery, they gave him the icon as a gift. Sava brought it to Hilandar Monastery on Mount Athos, reestablished by him for the Serbian monks. The icon stayed there until 1347, when King Dušan took it with him to Serbia, where it was placed in Studenica Monastery. With the intensification of Turkish attacks, sometime in the 15th century, it was sent back to Hilandar, according to the legend, by being placed on the back of a donkey, which went by itself directly to the monastery in Mount Athos. During an abbot election, a quarrel started in the monastery, so Mary took over the leadership of the community. Since then, the icon of the Three-Handed Mother of God has been the abbot of the monastery, and they only elect a vicar for her.

The Three-Handed Mother of God today in Hilandar

Numerous copies of the icon have been made over the centuries, which also copied the silver hand placed on it. One of them was taken by the Russian patriarch Nikon (1605-1681) from his visit to Hilandar, and its veneration also spread in the Russian church. There, the origin of the third hand was no longer clear to many painters, but it could not be ignored because of the authority of the original: so it was simply accepted and continued to be painted as if it were a third hand of Mary. An evidence for this fact is that the “third hand” is also painted on my icon as a real hand, even though it was obviously intended to be surrounded by an oklad. It would have been more faithful to the original to depict the added hand only on the oklad.

The icon of the Three-Handed Mother of God, together with the story of its origin, in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church in Tallinn

This 1845 icon from St. Petersburg is not covered with a riza but with an oklad, which allows you to see the dress of the Mother of God. The “third hand” apparently reaches out from a similar sleeve, although its color is darker than the other two.

Dog-headed Saint Christopher

In the previous post, I omitted one of the popular warrior saints, whose story is so different from the others that it requires a separate post.

The Martyrs St. Stephen and Dog-headed St. Christopher. Greek, early 18th c. Recklinghausen, Icon Museum

The Martyr St. Christopher the Dog-headed – Ἅγιος Χριστόφορος ὁ Κυνοκέφαλος, Hagios Christophoros ho Kynokephalos – is revered in the Orthodox Church to this day. At first sight, even the most unshakable believer raises his eyebrows, but once he gets to know the background, he will understand that there is plenty of logic and moral lesson in his veneration.

Christopher’s story has survived in his 8th-c. Latin martyr’s act (which you can read here, on pages X. 393-405 of Analecta Bollandiana), but it was apparently translated from Greek, even if the surviving Greek version is later, and a church was dedicated to the saint on Greek soil as early as 452. The source dates his martyrdom to the time of Emperor Decius (259-261). It says that Christopher “came from a foreign land, the land of man-eaters. He had a terrible look and a dog-head.” Or as the palace servant later describes him to the emperor: “His head is a terrible dog-head. His hair is long and shines like gold. His eyes are like the morning star, and his teeth protrude like the fangs of a wild boar. There is no word to describe his greatness.” Christopher served as a soldier in the imperial court, and when he heard Decius’s decree that everyone should sacrifice to the gods under penalty of death, he, as a Christian, refused to do so, and began to preach. As a proof of his truth, he drove his stick into the ground, and it immediately blossomed and bore fruit. Thousands in the city converted as the effect of his sermon, including the soldiers sent to capture him. He voluntarily went with them to the emperor, and continued his sermon there.

Martyr St. Christopher, with an inserted picture: Christopher before the gentile ruler. Athos, 18th c.



The emperor sent him to prison, and sent two beautiful young servants or prostitutes to seduce him and persuade him to sacrifice to the gods. But the two servants also converted. Returning to the emperor, they announced that they had succeeded in convincing Christopher. So the emperor organizes a great feast so the sacrifice should have great publicity. In the banquet hall, however, Christopher and the servants pull all the statues off the walls and shatter them on the ground. Then the emperor orders the execution of Christopher, but neither does fire kill him nor do arrows hit him. Eventually, he is beheaded.

St. Christopher, with scenes of his martyrdom. Greek, 19th c. Recklinghausen, Icon Museum

St. Christopher is baked on a hot iron plate. Vetka, 19th c. The iron plate melted before the saint was harmed.

They try to execute St. Christopher with arrows. Vetka, 19th c. One arrow bounces back, and hits the eye of the gentile ruler. Christopher promises him that after his death, he will heal him with his blood. The king anoints his eye with the beheaded Christopher’s blood, and is indeed healed, so he also converts to Christianity.

In its broad strokes, the story coincides with other martyrdom stories. However, it does not explain Christopher’s most striking feature, his dog’s head. It is a fixed attribute of him from the very beginning: so the story must have taken it from somewhere else.

The source is another prominent martyr’s act that of Apostle St. Bartholomew, which originated in Syriac territory in the first half of the 400s. St. Bartholomew and his companions were on a mission to Persia, and on reaching the city of cannibals, an inhabitant of it – who, like all the inhabitants of the city, was of giant stature and dog-headed – was assigned to them by an angel as a protector. St. Bartholomew baptized him, and replaced his original name Reprobus – ʻoutcast’, ʻdiscarded’ – with Christophorus – Christo-phoros, ʻChrist-bearing’. Upon baptism, the giant immediately learned to speak human language. Arriving at a Parthian city, the king invited them to a feast, where he invited them to sacrifice to the gods. Christopher then destroys the statues of the gods

Wonders and martyrdom of St. Bartholomew. Hungarian Anjou Legendary, 1325-1335. Vatican Library

It is apparent that the two stories are connected. We could say that the authors decided to continue the successful first season, by making its only survivor and most spectacular figure, Christopher, the protagonist of the second season, reprising the most magnificent action scene of the previous season. The protagonist introduces himself in the second story, too: I was called Rebrebus, but now I am Christophorus. “Rebrebus” is obviously a distorted form of the Latin Reprobus in the Syriac/Greek original, which was not recognized by the Latin translator. Yet if he had recognized it, he would have found its explanation in Psalm 117:22-23: “Lapis quem reprobaverunt aedificantes hic factus est in caput anguli. A Domino factus est: hic est mirabilis in oculis nostris” – “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is from the Lord: it is marvellous in our eyes.” Jesus explains this verse to the Pharisees in Mt 21:43: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce fruit for it.” The story of Reprobus, who became a Christ-bearing martyr, exemplifies that God can raise followers for himself even from the farthest regions and strangest people of the earth.

What strange people is this?

The Ionic – that is, Persian Greek – physician Ctesias was the court doctor of the Persian king Artaxerxes II in the 5th c. BC. Xenophon also mentions him in the Anabase: he negotiated on behalf of the king with the Spartan mercenaries of his younger brother Cyrus who had revolted against him but had been defeated, and he warned them that the king wanted to slaughter them. His country descriptions Persica and Indica as works of a local author were widely read sources among the Greeks, although we know that he obtained most of his information second-hand, from traders arriving on the Silk Road. He also included such a report about the dog-headed people beyond the Indus:


“They speak no language, but bark like dogs, and in this manner make themselves understood by each other. Their teeth are larger than those of dogs, their nails like those of these animals, but longer and rounder. They inhabit the mountains as far as the river Indus. Their complexion is swarthy. They are extremely just, like the rest of the Indians with whom they associate. They understand the Indian language but are unable to converse, only barking or making signs with their hands and fingers by way of reply ... They live on raw meat. They number about 120,000.

The Cynocephali living on the mountains do not practice any trade but live by hunting. When they have killed an animal they roast it in the sun. They also rear numbers of sheep, goats, and asses, drinking the milk of the sheep and whey made from it. They eat the fruit of the Siptakhora, whence amber is procured, since it is sweet. They also dry it and keep it in baskets, as the Greeks keep their dried grapes. They make rafts which they load with this fruit together with well-cleaned purple flowers and 260 talents of amber, with the same quantity of the purple dye, and thousand additional talents of amber, which they send annually to the king of India. "They exchange the rest for bread, flour, and cotton stuffs with the Indians, from whom they also buy swords for hunting wild beasts, bows, and arrows, being very skillful in drawing the bow and hurling the spear. They cannot be defeated in war, since they inhabit lofty and inaccessible mountains. Every five years the king sends them a present of 300,000 bows, as many spears, 120,000 shields, and 50,000 swords.

They do not live in houses, but in caves. They set out for the chase with bows and spears, and as they are very swift of foot, they pursue and soon overtake their quarry. The women have a bath once a month, the men do not have a bath at all, but only wash their hands. They anoint themselves three times a month with oil made from milk and wipe themselves with skins. The clothes of men and women alike are not skins with the hair on, but skins tanned and very fine. The richest wear linen clothes, but they are few in number. They have no beds, but sleep on leaves or grass. He who possesses the greatest number of sheep is considered the richest, and so in regard to their other possessions. All, both men and women, have tails above their hips, like dogs, but longer and more hairy.

They are just, and live longer than any other men, 170, sometimes 200 years.”


Circle of Master Boucicaut: Livre des Merveilles, ca. 1410-20. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale

The report was taken for granted not only by the Greeks, but also by later ages, and the country of the dog-headed people was included on the mental map of the Middle Ages. They were also mentioned in the Alexander Romance about the deeds and conquests of Alexander the Great, in the 14th-century wonderful travels of John of Mandeville, and in Marco Polo’s Milione as well. And the need for their vision was served by the tabloid genres of the age, from vernacular chronicles to woodcut calendars.

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To prevent misunderstandings, I should also mention a subordinate case of the medieval depictions of dog-headed people: the illustration of Psalm 22:17 (“For many dogs have encompassed me, the council of the malignant…”), such as in the Byzantine Theodore Psalter of 1066, or the Kiev Psalter of 1397 copying it. Among the dog-headed soldiers we see Christ himself, as on the basis of His “seven words on the cross”, this was the psalm which he prayed before His death:



And if the dog-headed people exist, then they are also subject to Christ’s call to the apostles: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.” (Mt 28,19). That is why dog-headed persons as an emblem of the completeness of “all nations” figure in such depictions as the gate of the Magdalene Church in Vézelay (1140-50), where Jesus is just saying the above to the apostles, and among all nations represented in the arch of the gate, the closest ones to Christ is a dog-headed couple. Or in the Armenian miniatures of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, where in the lower arch, in place of the allegoric figure of the world to be converted, representatives of some people are waiting, including the one with a dog’s head.






The Assyrian Dioscoros Theodoros Lectionarium, 12-13th c. Mardin, Assyrian monastery

The original formula of the icon of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, with the allegory of the world under the arch, keeping the cities of the world in his shawl

The first known depiction of the dog-headed saint is relatively early: a 5-6th century ceramic icon found in the 1980s in Vinica, near Skopje, Northern Macedonia. It is also the first icon representing St. George as a snake-slayer.


After that, for almost a thousand years we find no depiction of Dog-headed St. Christopher. Yet his cult was continuous, churches were dedicated to him, he was mentioned in menologia. Most probably, his figure was found to be disturbing in later ages, and his pictures were replaced or repainted. Evidence of such a case can be found in the fresco of the Yaroslavl Cathedral, where the outlines of the former dog’s head emerge behind Christopher’s youthful human head.


In the meantime, the cult of the saint also spread to the West. It was probably first brought to Sicily and southern Italy by Byzantines fleeing the iconoclasm, and to southern Spain by north African Christians fleeing Arabs. From here it rapidly spread north, as evidenced by the 8th-century Latin martyr’s act cited above. But something changes. In the West, after the loss of the knowledge of the Greek language, no one reads Ctesias or Diodorus Siculus who cited him in abudance, thus, before the popularity of the Alexander Romance in the late Middle Ages, only few know about the dog-headed people. Christopher is portrayed as a giant, but his dog’s head is considered an exaggeration, and is replaced by a human head. They also give a new explanation for his name. The original Greek name refers to St. Paul’s statement that the Christian bears Christ within himself. The new Western legend, however, which was popularized from about 1260 on by the Legenda Aurea, says that the giant Christopher, who wanted to serve the most powerful lord, eventually starts to work as a ferryman at a river, and at one time he takes through it the child Christ, who carries the sphere of the world, so Christopher can barely carry him, in spite of his giant stature.

St. Christopher in a book of hours of Bruges, ca. 1520. The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.307, fol. 160v.

In Western Christianity, this depiction will be infinitely popular, especially because of the widespread belief that whoever saw the image of St. Christopher will not die that day (or, according to other opinions, will not die without sacraments). His giant figure was often painted on the outer wall of churches, and he became the patron saint of travelers. However, his stick continues to be a flowering or greenish tree, or a fruit-bearing palm, a survival of the blossoming stick of the original Orthodox icons.

Ráj duše, 1433-1500 k. Prague, National Library

Interestingly, when we again find depictions of Christopher in the East from the 16th century onwards, some icons import the new Western development, and place the child Jesus on the shoulders of the dog-headed Christopher.





The composition of these images is more or less similar to each other. St. Christopher stands in military uniform and with weapons, or in a long shirt as a martyr, turning to us, exposed to our veneration. He turns his head to the side: partly because it is easiest to depict a dog’s head in profile, and partly because he looks upwards, from where Christ or the divine hand blesses him or gives him a martyr’s crown. He is depicted on icons, frescoes, and on the gates of the iconostasis, as its guardian.

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Among the dog-headed St. Christophers we also find some which show two fingers, a characteristic gesture of the Old Believers. In fact, in 1722, the synod of the Russian Church, which at that time no longer considered the dog-headed Christopher as a symbol of the completeness of “all nations”, but only a superstitious and indecent representation, incompatible with the spirit of the new times, banned this representation. And for the Old Believers, which considered the leadership of the official church the Antichrist, this was a proof of the correctness of the traditional dog-headed icon.



A dialogue of apocryphal saints. Dog-headed St. Christopher and Lady Sophia (Wisdom) with her three daugters Faith, Hope and Love


However, in 1971, the Russian Synod abolished all prohibitions and anathemes against the Old Believers and their rites. And the other Orthodox churches had never banned the depiction of Dog-headed St. Christopher. The saint therefore continues to enjoy great popularity, especially in Greece. The Orthodox believer can choose from several icons of St Christopher: with a young man’s face, with the child Jesus on his shoulder, or with the good old dog’s head.


Saint George and other warrior saints

The protagonists of our post, the warrior saints George, Theodore and Demetrius, ca. 1100. St. Petersburg, Hermitage

Warrior saints were extremely popular in medieval Christianity, especially in its eastern half. Many countries choose them as their patron saints, even replacing or pushing into the background such names as the Virgin Mary, for example. Their cults, churches and images were widespread, and the latter can still be found in most Orthodox homes today. Images of them were sewn onto the flags of many regiments, and the highest honor of the Russian army, the Order of St. George, founded in 1769, still bears the name of one of them.

Viktor Vasnetsov: Fundraising poster and stamp for the victims of the war, 1914


Warrior saints in Christianity? The absurdity of the concept is difficult to grasp for us, as the religion, radically pacifist from the start, has largely refuted its original principles over the past two thousand years. But for an early Christian, the concept would have been just as shocking, as, say, the term “Buddhist death squads” is for us, even though we have witnessed their role in the extermination of the Rohingyas in Burma.

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, says: “You have heard that it was said: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Mt 5:38-39). Therefore, according to the church fathers of the first centuries, a Christian cannot kill a man even as a soldier. St. Basil the Great says in his 13th canon that if a Christian soldier kills a man in war, he should not take communion for three years.

St. Basil the Great – ironically – between two warrior soldiers. Greek, 18th c.

The first Christians could easily do this. They lived within the framework of a gentile society, accepting, on the recommendation of St. Paul (Rom 13:4), its administration and organization of violence, as well as the fact that the gentile administration would defend the empire with weapons according to its own ethics. After all, all this will last only a short time, and soon Christ will come again. But when the tide turned, and, with the acceptance of Christianity and then its conversion into a state religion, Christians had to perform the task of national defense, and in an extremely difficult situation, during the age of migrations, the problem became very topical. Many Christians, if they could, chose disarmament, as St. Martin of Tours did, who, although being a legionary officer, refused to take weapon for matters of conscience on the eve of the battle with the Germans. He was condemned to death as a deserter, but he asked the emperor for only one night of patience. He spent the night in prayer, and the next day the Germans surrendered instead of fighting, and asked for peace. The Christian method was proven, and Martin was released.

Simone Martini: Saint Martin refuses to take weapons, 1312-17. Assisi, Cappella di San Martino

It is not known whether all barbaric peoples would have surrendered and asked for peace if all Christian soldiers had rejected the weapon and prayed. The leadership of the empire did not allow themselves this experiment. Christian soldiers also had to fight, and most of them did so in good conscience, as they defended their homeland, and because in Roman society every free citizen held either a civilian or a military post. And the Church, even if it did not approve, at least accepted this cognitive dissonance. From Saint August on, the Western Church attempted to establish the concept of a “just war”, elaborated in detail by St. Thomas Aquinas and the Thomist School in Salamanca. This makes war acceptable to the Christian citizen on such conditions that if all Christian soldiers and generals today would observe them, the world would be a much more peaceful place. The Eastern Church did not create such a concept, and it still does not approve the Christian man’s participation in war. It only considers it a “minor evil” in the event of an enemy attack, and demands repentance and spiritual recovery from the Christian soldier if he kills an enemy in a war.

The warrior saints became popular not as soldiers but as martyrs. They all began their glorious this-worldly careers by firmly sticking to their faith during the persecutions, and therefore suffering tortures and martyrdom. Their previous lives are not really important, and they are more or less similar: they were born somewhere in the provinces in the 2nd or 3rd century, then they either enlisted in the army or not (yes, many warrior saints were not soldiers), and at one point they had to choose whether to sacrifice to the gods who patronized the army or to the emperor, regarded as a god, or not. The rejection of this and the consequent suffering and death became the most important moment of their lives, the stirb und werde that converted them into wonderful examples of martyrdom, into mighty heavenly saints, for whose help masses of Christians pilgrimaged to their graves. It is characteristic that when first mentioned – in the records of martyrs from the 4th and 5th centuries, or, in the case of St. Theodore Tyron, in praise of St. Gregory of Nyssa –, no word is said about their acts of war, only about their courage as martyrs. And in the earliest representations they do not kill dragons, nor gentiles, but stand as glorious saints, alone or by the heavenly throne of God.

Saint Theodore Tyron and Saint George at the throne of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. 6th c., Sinai Monastery

It was their popularity as martyrs that made them great warrior saints, centuries after their deaths, when, during the siege of a city, the inhabitants prayed to them, trusting in their power. And when the city survived the siege, it was obvious to whom was owed their gratitude. A good example of this is St. Demetrius, the second most revered warrior saint next to St. George. He lived and suffered martyrdom in Sirmium (now Sremska Mitrovica / Szávaszentdemeter in Serbia’s Vojvodina region), which was then the Roman provincial center of the Balkans. According to his martyr’s records, he was not even a soldier, but a civil servant and a deacon. The Goths soon ravaged the region, so the provincial center had to be relocated to Thessalonica. There, a basilica was built for the saint, which later became popular, and his body was also transferred there. The Slavs flocking to the Balkans repeatedly besieged Thessalonica, but each time the defenders repulsed them, begging for the help of St. Demetrius, and some even saw a vision of him fighting in full armor, on horseback. And in the 1380 Battle of Kulikovo, the army of Muscovy defeated the Golden Horde under his patronage, thereby making him a warrior saint of Russia as well.

Christ and St. Demetrius. Greek, 18th c.

In a similar way, the peace-loving apostle of Christ, St. James resting in Compostela, became San Jaume Matamoros, St. James Killer of the Moors, and patron of the Reconquista of Spain, after slashing at Moors from a white horse in the Battle of Clavijo (which never took place).

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo: St. James of Compostela defeating the Moors, ca. 1750 Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts

After they became warriors, the martyrs still appeared on the icons alone or in pairs, but in arms. And if their icons were also framed by житие / vita, small biographical images, it was mostly the scenes of their martyrdom, and not their acts of warfare, that appeared as references to their holiness.

St. Theodore Stratilates. Mid-16th c. Novgorod, Museum

St. Theodore Tyron. Detail of the 14th-c. Novgorod Annunciation published in the previous post. Novgorod, Museum

St. George, 13th c. Sinai Monastery

Master Jovan (Ochrid and Western Macedonia): St. George, 1266-67

St. George from Novgorod’s St. George Monastery. Today in Moscow’s Uspensky Cathedral (see the previous post)

St. George. Constantinople, 12th c.

St. Demetrius. Constantinople, 10th c. New York, Metropolitan Museum

St. Demetrius. A Greek icon, presented by the Greek Cardinal Bessarion to Niccolò Perotti in the 15th century. With an oil holder on the top, containing holy oil from the saint’s tomb in Thessalonica. Sassoferrato, Museo Municipale

St. George and Demetrius. Kastoria, Church of St. Cosmas and Damian, 1180-1200

From the 9th century on, representations of the warrior saints become more vivid. This is due, on the one hand, to the revival of icon painting after the century of iconoclasm, and on the other, to the fact that new apocryphal stories start to seek admission into the legends of the saints. The process is bilateral: not only do new texts ask for representation, but new image formulas also inspire new stories.

The most striking change is that suddenly every warrior mounts a horse and begins to stab something evil with a spear: an evil enemy, a Christian-persecuting ruler, or an evil dragon. Where does this topos come from?

St. Demetrius kills the Bulgarian Tsar Kaloyan. Next to him, his disciple Nestor. Kiev, 12th c.

A widespread visual source of Late Antiquity, that we are not accustomed to considering, although they were in everyday use in Roman and Byzantine territory, and are still to be seen in abundance in museums and online numismatic auctions today, are the apotropaic amulets and talismans worn against the evil eye. Between the 3rd and 6th centuries, an important handbook about them existed,  the Judeo-Christian magic book Salomon’s Testament which survives to this day. According to this, King Solomon himself received magic spells and a seal from the Archangel Michael against demons, especially the female demon Lilith or Abyzou/Obyzouth, the killer of newborn babies. On the seal, Solomon himself sits on a rampant horse, as he spears down a demon lying on the ground, or in many cases a serpent in its place.

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Thanks to the amulet, the pictorial formula of the “sacred horseman” who defeats evil was widespread in Late Antiquity. When, around the 8th or 9th century as the latest, the Testament was abandoned by Christians due to its Jewish origin and magical content, the still widespread pictorial formula had to find some new content. It seems that the warrior saints have entered this space. From the 6th century, we know a Macedonian ceramic icon, on which the snake is speared – albeit without a horse – by two warrior saints, George and Christopher.


The first depictions where the pictorial topos was entirely assumed by a warrior saint, that is, sitting on a rampant horse and striking an evil being with a spear, come from 10th-c. Georgia. Apparently here, on the fringes of the empire, they first felt the need – and also the freedom – to fill the emptied visual formula with a familiar saint. This was St. George, whose cult unfolded around his tomb in Lydda in the Holy Land (today Lod, 15 km south of Tel Aviv) – also supported by Constantine the Great and regularly visited and spoken of by pilgrims –, but then it moved to the Syrian cave monasteries of Cappadocia. Georgia was in regular contact with both cult centers: the country was converted by Syriac monks from Cappadocia, and Georgian pilgrims regularly visited Jerusalem, where there was also a Georgian monastery.

St. George’s ruined sepulchral church next to a mosque in Lydda. Konrad von Grünenberg, Beschreibung der Reise von Konstanz nach Jerusalem, 1487, fol 33r

In these gilded silver icons, typical of the Northern Georgian, primarily Svanetian mining region, St. George kills not a dragon, but a man. And the man is none other than the Emperor Diocletian. The Georgian temperament could not bear that this emperor, persecutor of Christians, is gonna get away scot-free, and the Great warrior Martyr was sent to kill him.








But how does the dragon come into the picture?

The stabbing of the dragon/snake/serpent/ancient fish as the subjugation of cosmic evil is a very archaic motif tied to the creation of the world in ancient Mesopotamian mythology. I have already written, apropos of the Ethiopian “St. Raphael the whale-slayer”, that in these myths, the creation of the world begins with the hunting or capturing of the great ancient fish – Tiamat, Leviathan, and so on – living in the depths of the waters. It figured thus in the Hebrew creation story as well, before it was omitted at the final edits of the 6th c. BC, but its remnants are scattered throughout the Psalms and in the Book of Job.

Horus stabbing the Seth-crocodile. Detail of a window frame, 4th c. AD. Louvre

Archangel Rafael (right) fixes with his spear the whale on which a monastery was built. On one of the gates of Ura Kidane Mihret monastery church on Lake Tana, Ethiopia

It is no wonder that in many amulets, the “sacred horseman” of Solomon’s steal stabs a snake or dragon instead of the demon, or that the demon takes the image of these. And it is also no wonder that, when the “sacred horseman” is replaced by a holy warrior, this latter, too, also pierces a serpent or a dragon with his spear as a symbol of evil.

The first known dragon killing is linked not to St. George, but to St. Theodore Tyron. In the previous post we saw, that in his apocryphal 9th-c. legend, he had to kill a dragon that held his mother captive.

Nikifor Istomin Savin: St. Theodore Tyron kills the dragon that kept his mother captive, and leads her home. Early 17th c., Stroganov School, Saintpetersburg, Russian Museum

Therefore, the first surviving equestrian dragon killing is also performed by St. Theodore. St. George, who is paired with him, sill strikes Diocletian.

St. Theodore piercing a snake and St. George a man with their spears, 10th c. Sinai Monastery. According to Weitzmann, work of Georgian monks living there.

St. Theodore (or Demetrius) and St. George riding together and killing an emperor and a snake with their spears. Fragment of a Georgian icon, 12th c. Mestia, Svaneti National Museum

But the roles of the warrior saints are carried over to each other by their followers, and thus the images of St. George the dragon slayer soon appear.

An enamel icon of St George. Georgian, 12th c. Tbilisi, National Museum

St. Theodore and St. George killing a snake together. Cappadocia, Yılanlı Kilise, 10th c.

The apocryphal legend of St. George the dragon slayer was born in Georgia in the 11th century. From there it comes to Europe with the crusaders, where, around 1260, Jacobus da Varagine inserts it in the Legenda Aurea, the standard collection of legends of the saints for medieval Europe. According to this story, the Lybian town of Silene was plagued by a dragon living in a nearby lake, which demanded virgin girls for food. When the cast fell on the king’s daughter, and she had already been escorted to the lake, and the dragon had climbed out to devour her, suddenly St. George appeared on a white horse, and killed the dragon with his spear. Then he ordered the girl to tie the dragon with her belt and drag it into the city. The king, in gratitude, gave the knight a lot of money, who then turned around and distributed it among the poor and then disappeared. The people of the city, overwhelmed and amazed, converted to Christianity.

St. George’s icon with vita, Novgorod, 14th c. St. Petersburg, Russian Museum. The plot, floating like a fairy tale, is even here surrounded by the scenes of the saint’s martyrdom

St. George, Novgorod, 15th c. St. Petersburg, Russian Museum. This masterfully composed icon will be the model of most later icons of St. George and other warrior saints.

St. George. Crete, ca. 1500. Venice, Istituto Ellenico

The composition of St. George the dragon slayer can then be enriched with further details. In the following Russian icon, for example, you might wish to observe closely the hand holding the spear:



The raised two fingers clearly indicate to the initiate that it is an icon of Old Believers (staroobryadtsi, raskolniki). They were the Orthodox believers who did not accept the ritual reforms introduced in 1652 by the Moscow patriarch Nikon (which essentially served to harmonize the Russian and Greek rites). From then on, they were subjected to severe persecution. Many of them emigrated to the border regions of the empire, where they were more or less left in peace. I have written about the cemetery of such a community. One of their distinguishing signs was the two fingers raised, because the followers of the reform made the sign of the cross with three fingers, while the adherents of the old rites with two. They also adhered more to the traditional icons, while the reformers took over many novelties from Western art.

Vasily Surikov: The abduction of the Old Believer Boyarina Morozova, 1887. Tretyakov Gallery. The boyarina stubbornly raises her two fingers, reciprocated by some of the bystanders

Another motif is the little boy sitting in the saddle behind the knight. This was a Greek boy who had been abducted by the Turks from Mytilene just on St. George’s Day, and sold to a pasha. He and his mother constantly prayed for his freedom, and the next year, on St. George’s Day, on exactly the hour when he was kidnapped, St. George appeared on a white horse in the pasha’s court, grabbed the boy who was just then bringing coffee/wine to the pasha, and flew back with him to where he was abducted. This is why the boy is holding the coffee pot or glass of wine that he did not even have time to set down.




The image of the other warriors is also adapted to the formula of the “sacred horseman”, and they usually take on the admitted posture of St. George. St. Demetrius, for example, also develops his own spear legend: in 1207, during another siege of Thessalonica, he rode out into the Bulgarian camp, and he personally killed the Bulgarian Tsar Kaloyan in the middle of it.

St. Demetrius of Solun. Rostov, 16th c.

St. Demetrius on a 19th-c. Russian copper icon

St. Demetrius, with St. George and St. Mercurius. Greek, 16th c.

In many icons, the warrior saints perform their miracles together, reinforcing each other’s power, and repeating the common motif of the ancient Dioscuri and the Indo-European twin riders.

St. George and St. Demetrius. Bulgarian, Perushtitsa, 18th c. Sofia, National Gallery

St. George and St. Demetrius. Sachkhere, Georgia, 12th c.

Particularly beautiful, colorful and exciting versions of St. George are the Ethiopian icons and frescoes, like the following ones from the monasteries of Lake Tana and the Gondar Cathedral. I will write about their specific iconography later.