The 4th century (the 300s c.e.) was an important time for the development of Christianity. That is when it was legalized in the Roman Empire and also when it was given the favor and support of the Emperor Constantine. It was also significant in the development and standardization of Christian dogma. And it was the beginning of the time of reversal, when Christians went from being a persecuted minority to being themselves the persecutors of non-Christians and those who did not toe the favored line doctrinally within Christianity. It was the time of the first great church council — the Council of Nicaea, out of which came a fundamental dogmatic statement of later mainstream Christianity — the Nicene Creed. It was a time when the notion of “heresy” — of scorning other ways of Christian belief — became firmly established in the Imperially-favored church. It was the beginning of the solidification of “official” Christian dogma, in contrast to the earlier wide variations in belief and practice.
As I hope you know by now, some icon types are fixed groupings of certain saints. Today’s image — a Russian icon — is one of them. It depicts three historically-important figures in the development of Eastern Orthodoxy. This example is a little unusual in that the three are commonly depicted on the same panel, but here they are shown as a three-panel set. Nonetheless, the type remains the same.
If you have been reading this site for some time, you should recognize immediately that this is an Old Believer rather than a State Church icon. The two clues are the stylization of the figures, and of course the position of the fingers of the blessing hand, with the “two-fingered” blessing that is the mark of Old Believers quite clear in the central panel.
The figures shown are, from left: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom. Each is dressed in the robes of a bishop, with the standard omophorion (the long stole) about his neck; and each holds the book of the Gospels, and a little cloth beneath it to show veneration. The arrangement of the three varies from example to example.
The Greeks call them Οἱ Τρεῖς Ἱεράρχαι — Hoi Treis Hierarkhai; in Russia they are generally called either Три святителя — Tri Svyatityelya — “The Three Bishops,” or Три учителя — Tri Uchityelya — “The Three Teachers.” In English the type is commonly found as “The Three Hierarchs.”
Basil is called Василий Великий in Slavic — Vasiliy Velikiy — “Vasiliy the Great.” Gregory is Григорий Богослов — Grigoriy Bogoslov — “Gregory the Theologian.” And John is Иоанн Златоуст — Ioann Zlatoust — “John the Golden-mouthed.” In Greek they are Βασίλειος ὁ Μέγας — Vasilios ho Megas, Γρηγόριος ὁ Θεολόγος — Gregorios ho Theologos — and Ιωάννης ὁ Χρυσόστομος — Ioannes ho Khrysostomos, all with the same meanings as in Slavic.
Just who were these guys?
Basil the Great lived in the 4th century (300s c.e.). He began his career in law, then became a monk and the abbot of a monastery, and eventually founded more and wrote an enduring rule of life for the monks. In 370 he was made a bishop. He is often given credit for the victory of the “Nicene” view of the Trinity over that of Arius. His name is given to the form of Eucharistic liturgy called the “Liturgy of St. Basil.” Basil died in 379.
Gregory the Theologian also lived in the 4th century. He is sometimes called Gregory Nazianzen, after a Cappadocian city. He studied in Athens for six years, and was a school friend of Basil the Great. He later spent several years with Basil in a monastery. Like Basil, Gregory was active in the struggle against the views of the Arians. He was for a time Patriarch of Constantinople, but there was controversy over his appointment, and he eventually withdrew. Gregory died in 390.
John Chrysostom was born in the 4th century, but lived into the early 5th. He became a hermit in 375 c.e., and a priest in 386. He became known as an excellent speaker –thus his name — but he was also virulently anti-Semitic. In 397 he was made archbishop of Constantinople. An intolerant fellow, John supported the destruction of non-Christian temples and shrines, and his mouth got him into so much trouble that he was banished into exile, and died in 407. His name is attached to the common liturgy celebrated in Eastern Orthodoxy, the “Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.”
There is another icon type depicting the three, but you are unlikely to come across an actual painted icon of it, unless in a museum or monastery, because it is a very uncommon type. Here is a pattern for it from the transfers of old Russian icons made by Vasiliy P. Guryanov:
It is commonly called Беседа трех святителей (Beseda trekh svyatiteley), meaning “The Conversation of the three Hierarchs/Bishops.” An alternate title for it is “The Blessed Fruits of Doctrine” It is a symbolic icon showing Basel seated at upper left, Gregory below left, and John at center right. Each holds a scroll, and is imparting teachings symbolically seen in the form of curling and streaming waters, which some are seen receiving and drinking in cups. The subject is found in the monastic fresco at Lesovo in Macedonia, and appeared in Russia in the 16th-17th century. There is an apocryphal text with many questions and answers (some quite odd) from the three shown in the icon, titled The Conversation of the Three Hierarchs. In it, Basil asks a question, and Gregory answers “Вода — учение книжное, а морем называется мир” — “The water is the teaching of books, and the sea is called the world.”
If we look at the very long vyaz’ title at the top of the icon, we can see it expands the common title a bit:
It reads : “The Conversation of the Three Hierarchs Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom.”
Here is another transfer from the same icon, this time with the portions having light highlights shown in read, for the convenience of painters:
The two words written at the base read ПИСМО ГРЕЧЕСКО — Pismo Grechesko — meaning “Greek Painting.”
Here is a painted example: