A reader asked a question regarding the icon of St. Vasiliy (Basil) in a previous posting:
The question was, why is Vasiliy “bare”?
The answer to that takes us into an interesting phenomenon in the history of Russian Orthodoxy — the category of saint commonly called “Holy Fool,” or more accurately, “Fool for Christ’s sake (Khrista radi yurodivy).
This peculiar kind of Russian saint (and not just Russian) originated in the New Testament writings of the Apostle Paul, who said in 1 Corinthians 3:18:
Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seems to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise.
Well, some took it quite literally, and decided that behaving like a lunatic was just the right way to live a Christian life while avoiding pride and arrogance. It is hard to be arrogant when everyone thinks you are a total fool. Of course to make people think that, one had to play a fool, and to behave in ways that far exceeded normal social conduct, and often irritated people to no end. One of the things Vasiliy did was to attach no importance to whether he was clothed or not. Whether it was summer or winter, residents of Moscow might see him wandering around the city naked.
If you look at this central image from an icon of the Bogoliubskaya Mother of God, you will see a gathering of saints at the right. Among them (the first two in the second row) are two semi-nude “Fools for Christ,” one Vasily, and the other Maxim. Vasilily was believed to be clairvoyant, able to heal and to predict the future. His reputation was such that even the notorious Tsar Ivan the Terrible feared him. Maxim also wandered about in all weather nearly naked, and many healings were attributed to him after his death.
The problem with Holy Fools, of course, is this: How does one separate those who are being fools for the sake of Christ from those who are being fools because they are mentally ill or damaged? In Russia there was no clear standard for distinguishing them other than the verdict of time.
The Bogoliubskaya icon pictured here, by the way, is a variant on the standard type, and it is called the “Moscow” Bogoliubskaya because all of those saints at the right are local Moscow saints. That is why both Vasiliy and Maxim, both holy fools in Moscow, are included. I won’t go into the history of the famous Bogoliubskaya type, because my purpose today is just to clarify why some Russian saints are depicted “bare.”
By the way, most people have seen photos of the famous Cathedral of St. Basil in Red Square in Moscow. Well, the Holy Fool Vasiliy discussed today is that St. Basil. His remains were interred inside the cathedral.
It is worth keeping in mind that not all near-naked saints in icons are holy fools. Some are merely ascetics who did not take on the strange role of “Fool for Christ’s Sake.”