If you have been reading this site for a while, you will of course know that the standard Russian title for a saint is Svyatuiy for a male and Svyataya for a female. Many saints also have secondary titles, and one of the most interesting of these is Strastoterpets (страстотерпец), meaning “Passion-bearer.”
Whenever one hears this title, the first saints that come to mind are Boris and his brother Gleb. Here is an icon of them:
Of course Eastern Orthodox will tell you that in its most general sense, all martyrs are “passion bearers,” those who suffer for their faith. But that is not the way the term is commonly used in the hagiography of Russian icons. Instead, “Passion-bearer” is used in icons in a more particular sense. It means an Eastern Orthodox believer, innocent in character, who suffers because of other “Orthodox” who conspire against him and persecute him (or her, of course). So the word “passion” in this case is used in its old meaning of “suffering” (not in the more modern sense of fiery romantic attachment, though that can lead to suffering as well!).
Historically, this kind of suffering tends to happen because of political intrigue of one kind or another. That is why Boris and Gleb are the prime examples and pattern-setters of “Holy Passion-bearers.”
The story goes right back to the beginnings of state Orthodoxy in Kievan Rus (now the Ukraine); Great Prince Vladimir converted his people to Eastern Orthodoxy Christianity by edict, basically “Convert or else…”. That is why he is a saint in Eastern Orthodoxy.
According to the old story, when Vladimir died, advisors told Boris that he should eliminate his half-brother Svyatopolk, the eldest son of Vladimir, and take control of Kiev. Boris refused to raise his hand against his brother.
Svyatopolk, however, was not so ethical. He sent assassins to kill Boris. They supposedly found him praying before an icon of Jesus. When he saw what was happening, Boris submissively prayed for strength and allowed himself to be killed. Svyatopolk wanted all the wealth and power, with no possible rivals.
Svyatopolk then sent word to the other brother, Gleb, saying that he should come because their father was ill. On his way there by boat, news came to him that their father had died and that his brother Boris had been assassinated by Svyatopolk. He wept for them. His boat was taken by the assasins, and Gleb too was killed.
Because of their innocent and submissive deaths (at least according to the account passed down), Boris and Gleb were declared the first “native” saints of Kievan Rus. This official declaration and acceptance by the church of a person’s sainthood is called “glorification” in Russian Orthodoxy. So Boris and Gleb were “glorified” in 1071, the first “Russian” saints (even though Kievan Rus and the later Russia are not at all equivalent).
It should be mentioned that the traditional account of the deaths of Boris and Gleb does not accord precisely with all historical evidence of that time, but again, we are dealing with hagiography here, stories told for religious or religio-political reasons, so we should not expect them to be factual in all respects.
There are other “Holy Passion Bearers” in Russian Orthodoxy as well. Probably the most controversial is also one of the most recent. — Tsar Nicholas II, who in spite of his disastrous incompetence as Tsar and his questionable private life, was “glorified” as a “passion-bearer” saint by the Russian Orthodox Church on August 20, 2000, because he and his family (who were also declared “passion-bearers”) were murdered by the Communists.
But let’s look at a more sophisticated icon of Boris alone. This finely-painted example, from the late 19th century, is in the “neo-Byzantine” manner. You will recall that there are three styles of Russian icon painting, loosely speaking: the old stylized manner, the later “western” or realistic manner adopted under western European influence, and a mixture of the two. The neo-Byzantine style is a sub-category of the “realistic” manner that mixes more realistic painting with the formal, “hieratic” appearance of earlier Byzantine art, thus the name “neo-Byzantine”:
Boris is dressed in very elaborate royal robes, with a spear in one hand (to show his authority) and a jeweled cross of martyrdom in the other.
The appearance of this icon, with its elaborate false-enamel border and its heavily incised and patterned gold background, is very typical of the latter part of the 19th-early 20th century, but the detail in this example is rather striking. Look at how carefully the painter has depicted the ornate robes, sewn with pearls and encrusted with gems, and the elaborate “damask” patterns on the robes and even on the slippers:
As in many icons, Jesus is depicted in clouds above the saint. But here the inscription on the Gospel book he holds open is notably different. Instead of any usual inscription, this book has the text of John 16:21:
Zhena egda razhdaet, skorb’ imat, iako priide god egda zhe rodit otrocha, ktomou ne pomnit skorbi za radost, iako rodisya chelovyek v mir.
“A woman when she is in travail has sorrow, because her hour is come; but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembers no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world.”
This is used here as an analogy. The meaning is that the “holy passion-bearers” such as Boris must go through a period of suffering and sorrow (their martyrdom) but after that is past, then comes the joy of heaven.