You have probably heard of the Church of Holy Wisdom (now a museum) in Istanbul, the city which, under the name Constantinople, was once the center not only of the Byzantine Empire but also of the Eastern Orthodox Church until it fell to the invading islamic Turks in 1453.  I mention it today because its name has led to some minor confusion.

That confusion arises largely from some calling the church “Saint Sophia.”  However, it was not dedicated to a saint named Sophia, but rather to Jesus in his manifestation as “Holy Wisdom,” which in Greek is Hagia Sophia.

Now you will recall that Hagia in Greek means “holy,” and so it is the word used as the equivalent of our English word “saint.”  So Hagia Sophia can be translated literally as “Holy Wisdom,” or it can be understood to mean “Saint Sophia.”  But “Holy Wisdom” is Jesus, not a saint.  There is, however, a saint found in Eastern Orthodox icons named Sophia.

Do you have all of that straight?  If so, we can move on to take a brief look not at “Holy Wisdom” but rather at the saint named Sophia.

Sophia, according to tradition, was an early Roman Christian, the mother of three daughters named (in Slavic) Vera, Nadezda, and Liubov (“Faith, Hope, and Love” — all supposedly martyred during the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian (ruled 117-138).

Here is an old Novgorodian icon of Sophia with her three daughters:

(Russian State Museum)
(Russian State Museum)

 If we translate their names, we get a mother named “Wisdom” whose daughters are “Faith,” “Hope,” and “Love” (or “Charity,” in KJV English).

Now this may seem a bit too contrived — a mother named Wisdom, with offspring named Faith, Hope, and Love, and some scholars think precisely that — that these are completely fictional saints.  Others would say that while the traditional accounts of their martyrdom are fictional, their martyrdom may have been real.  In later writings there seem to have been two groups of four martyrs by the same name — one mother and daughters group with Greek names, supposedly buried on the Aurelian Way at Rome, and another group of presumably unrelated companions with Latin names, supposedly buried on the Appian Way in the Cemetery of St. Callistus.

The end of the matter is that whether they were entirely or merely partly fictional remains uncertain, but in any case their images are not uncommon in both Russian and (generally later) Greek icons.

Here they are again, in a later Russian icon that also includes the Archangel Gabriel at left and Metropolitan Mikhail of Kiev at right:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

One sometimes encounters Westernized icons of the martyr Sophia kneeling beside a cross, an anchor, and a heart.  These symbolize Faith (the cross), Hope (the anchor) and Love (the heart).

Now aren’t you happy to get such a short and undemanding posting after yesterday’s very long one?




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