There are quite a number of traditionally paired saints in Eastern Orthodox iconography — Zosima and Savvatiy, Cosmas and Damian, Florus and Laurus, and so on.
Today I would like to briefly discuss another prominent pair of saints. Their names in latinized form are Sergius and Bacchus.
Traditionally, Sergius and Bacchus were supposed to have been Roman soldiers and secret Christians martyred in the 4th century during the reign of the Roman emperor Galerius Maximianus (305-11) because they refused to sacrifice to the gods. Their names were included in early accounts of martyrs, and they were popularly venerated as early as the 5th century, but their tale is filled with anachronisms and pious fantasy. It is likely that they never existed at all, at least as they are represented in their hagiography.
However their story came to be, oddly enough Sergius and Bacchus are best known today as “gay” icons, and some newly-painted images with that focus depict them in rather more intimate closeness than the majority of older images. This is due to a book written in the late 20th century that, with not unquestioned scholarship, presented the premise that Sergius and Bacchus were a romantically homosexual couple.
Well, as we have seen, though they have a centuries-long history of veneration in Eastern Orthodoxy and in Catholicism, the most interesting thing about Sergius and Bacchus is that they apparently never existed at all as the traditional lives of saints depict them. The Catholic Encyclopedia states “their existing Acts are not genuine,” which is a polite way of saying that the accounts of their lives and martyrdom are as historical as Pinocchio. Eastern Orthodoxy, however, has never reviewed its vast list of saints to try to separate those who are “fake” from those who did exist, so there are quite a number of saints in the Eastern Orthodox Church calendars and icons today who — like Sergius and Bacchus — have fictional life stories or who did not exist at all.
That leaves us with the question of whether Sergius and Bacchus are represented anywhere in their hagiography as a romantically homosexual couple, and there we do find some strong evidence, at least in one period of time.
In the 10th century revision of the “passion” of Sergius and Bacchus by Symeon/Simeon Metaphrastes, (included in his Menologion), we find a segment describing the state of Sergius after the martyrdom of his companion Bacchus:
Ὁ σύναθλος δέ Σέργιος ἀπολειφθεὶς λύπῃ τε διὰ τὸν χωρισμὸν καὶ ἡδονῇ πάλιν διὰ τὰ προσδοκώμενα ἐμερίζετο. Ἀλλ’οὺ περιεῖδεν αὐτὸν τῷ χωρισμῷ κάμνοντα ὁ γλυκὺς ἑταῖρος καὶ ἐραστής: ἀλλὰ φαιδρᾷ τῇ ὄψει ὁ θεῖος Βάκχος καὶ συνήθει τῷ τῆς στρατείας σχήματι νυκτὸς ἐπιφανεὶς καὶ διαλεχθεὶς τῷ φίλῷ καὶ θάρσους ἐμπλήσας, τὸ σκυθρωπὸν τε τῆς ἀθυμίας διέλυσε, καὶ ἀσφαλέστερον ἅμα καὶ γενναιότερον πρὸς τὰς μελλούσας τιμωρίας διέθηκεν. [Metaphrastes, 1024.]
In it, the martyred Bacchus is described as ὁ γλυκὺς ἑταῖρος καὶ ἐραστής / ho glykys hetairos kai erastes — the “sweet friend/companion and lover” of Sergius. In Greek, an erastes was commonly the dominant figure in a romantic/sexual relationship. Even in modern Greek, an erastes is a “lover” in the sexual sense. We can hardly go back and ask Simeon Metaphrastes why those specific words were used, but we can certainly see that as they stand, whether so intended or not, they are easily interpreted as indicating a romantic and sexual relationship between Sergius and Bacchus. It is no wonder then that the the pair of saints, though they probably never existed, have become known as homosexual “icons,” much to the dismay of more conservative Eastern Orthodox believers.
Aside from all that, Sergius and Bacchus can still be put to some practical use in helping improve ability to read Greek icon inscriptions, so let’s take a look at some examples.
Here is a 16th-century fresco of the pair by Theophanes the Cretan, found in the Lavra of Athanasios on Mount Athos. Note that each holds a cross, signifying martyrdom for the Christian faith.
The title inscriptions should be easy for you to read if you have been following my earlier postings on reading Greek inscriptions.
Here is the left inscription:
By now you should know that the three letters at upper left stand for Ο ΑΓΙΟC — Ho Hagios — meaning “The Holy.” Below that is the saint’s name, written partly to his left, partly to his right: CΕΡΓΙΟς — Sergios.
And here is the right inscription:
We see the same Ho Hagios abbreviation at upper left, and below is the saint’s name: ΒΑΚΧΟC — Bakkhos, which we usually see in its latinized form, Bacchus. You will recall that the letter X (chi) in Greek has the rough, gutteral pronunciation of the last ch in the name of the composer Bach.
That was really easy, so here is something more challenging, the inscription from another Mount Athos fresco of the martyrdom of Sergius and Bacchus, this time by the 16th-century Cretan painter Tzortzis:
It is quite gruesome, as are many scenes of martyrdom in Eastern Orthodox iconography, so let’s concentrate on the title inscription at the top:
If we separate the words in that, we get:
Martyrion Ton Hagion Sergiou Kai Bakkhou
Martyrdom of-the Holy Sergios and Bakkhos
As you can see, the word Hagios and names Sergios and Bakkhos take on different grammatical endings here.
You should know that the Greek word μαρτύριον (martyrion) originally meant a testimony, as in giving one’s testimony or witness; it gradually took on the looser meaning of “martyrdom” — being killed for one’s testimony or cause.
Here is a less sophisticated 17th century icon of Sergios and Bakkhos, from the Khilandari Monastery on Mount Athos: