I often talk of how haphazard the very large list of officially-recognized saints in Eastern Orthodoxy is. There has never been any systematic investigation by the Eastern Orthodox Church of whether a given saint actually existed or whether the tales told of the saint have any historical validity. Instead, a great deal of it comes down through tradition, and tradition, as any museum curator can tell you, is notoriously unreliable.
Today I want to discuss one of the child saints popular in Russian Orthodoxy, “Righteous” Artemiy Verkolskiy (Праведный Артемий Веркольский). Artemiy (Artemius in Latinized form) is said to have been a 12-13 year-old peasant boy born at the village of Verkola in the Arkhangelsk region of Russia in 1532. He was out plowing in the fields with his father Kosma in the summer of 1545 when the sky grew dark and the growl of thunder was heard. Suddenly a bolt of lightning struck and the boy fell to the ground, dead.
The peasants were very troubled by the manner of Artemiy’s death, and thought it must be a punishment from God for secret sins of one kind or another, and given the manner in which Heaven had punished the boy, the villagers refused to give him a “Christian” burial. Instead, his body was taken far into the forest, laid on moss, and covered up with sticks and brush. Then a simple wooden fence was built around the pile.
Over 30 years later, the story goes, a cleric of the local church of St. Nicholas, named Agafonik, was out in the forest when he is said to have seen a light amid the trees. He went to see what it was, and found that the light was shining above the pile of decaying brush where Artemiy had been laid. He went through the old fence, pulled away the rotting wood, and beneath it he found the body of the boy lying uncorrupted. Now in Eastern Orthodoxy, a body that has not decayed is generally considered a sign of sanctity, as it is in Roman Catholicism. BUT it depends on what its associations are, and what signs are said to accompany it.
In folk belief, there may be in some cases unpleasant signs that the uncorrupted body is instead an Упирь “Upir” (Serbian вампир “vampir“) — a vampire, the characteristics of which vary in folklore from region to region. So whether an uncorrupted body is considered a saint or a vampire depends on what events accompany it. If presumed healings, etc. happened, it was said to be the body of a saint; if livestock or people began to die, etc., it was a vampire. We should not be surprised at this, because we can see from the uneasiness of the peasants at the story of how Artemiy died that they themselves did not know at first if he had been evil or good, though they concluded the former. It was only from subsequent supposed events attached to his name that he was determined to be a saint. We are not dealing with science here, but with popular beliefs among the uneducated.
In Artemiy’s case, it is said that the men of the village discussed what to do, and eventually they decided to take up the body and place it — covered over with birchbark — in a coffin in the porch of the Church of St. Nicholas.
In 1583 the son of a local peasant named Kallinik fell ill during an epidemic that was raging in the area. The father put birchbark from Artemiy’s coffin on the boy, and the boy, it is said, was healed. This upped Artemiy’s stock considerably, and other healings are said to have followed. A chapel was built, and the remains of Artemiy, placed into a new coffin, were transferred to it. Eventually Artemiy made his way, in the 17th and 18th centuries, into lists of saints, and then became an officially-accepted saint in Eastern Orthodoxy, though the precise chronology of events in his story and in his acceptance is rather confused.
Here is a lubok (лубок, a print popular with the lower and middle classes) showing Artemiy Verkolskiy and scenes from his hagiography:
The inscription in the arch above Artemiy’s head reads, “Image of the Righteous Artemiy Verkolskiy, Wonderworker.” Though not all luboks were of religious subjects, this one is and functioned as an icon.