In 2014 the foundations of what is reputed to be a fourth-century basilica were found just offshore in Lake İznik at the site of what was ancient Nicaea, in Turkey. Archeologists say the church was dedicated to a martyr named Neophytos.
In iconography and hagiography, he is referred to as Neophytos of Nicaea. Though his “acts” — that is, the account of his life and miracles — are unreliable, he may have actually been a martyr of the early 300s c.e, from just before the legalization of Christianity under the Roman Emperor Constantine. It is said that the basilica was built for his relics (that is, his remains) on the site of his martyrdom.
Neophytos — Неофит (Neophit) in Slavic — is not a common saint in icons, but there is one interesting thing about him. His iconography depicts him with a dove, so one should not confuse him with St. Triphon (Trifon), who is also shown with a bird.
The Stroganov Podlinnik depicts him, but gives only “Holy Martyr Neofit” as identification, without any painting instructions:
The Bolshakov Podlinnik offers only a bit more information under his day of commemoration — January 21 — beginning with the last word of the first line here:
I svyatago muchenika neofita, mlad aki dimitriy, rizui prostuiya.
“And of Holy Martyr Neofit, youth like Dimitriy [Demetrios of Thessaloniki], robe simple [meaning the ordinary, basic garment] .”
I mentioned that his “acts” are unreliable and highly fanciful. They are interesting to read as an example of the extravagance of such pious tales.
Dmitriy Rostovskiy wrote that Neophytos was born at Nicea of parents name Theodoulos and Florence. They had him baptized and raised as a Christian.
As a little boy, Neophytos is said to have daily brought his poor school friends home and to have given them his dinner, himself going without. He had the custom of worshiping at the eastern gate of the city, where he traced a cross on the wall and venerated it. His little friends, having eaten, found him praying there. He struck a stone and water poured forth from it, so that his friends could drink and satisfy their thirst. He made them promise not to tell anyone about it.
Florence, Neophytos’ mother, had a dream in which she saw her son striking a stone and bringing forth water to give his friends, as Moses had similarly struck a stone in the Old Testament. She woke and prayed to the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth to her about her son. A brilliantly shining white dove descended from Heaven, sat on Neophytos’ bed, and spoke these words: “I am sent from the Savior to keep your bed clean.”
Florence was so terrified by the experience that she fell down dead. The news quickly got around, and lots of people gathered in the house. Word was sent to the father Theodoulos, and he rushed home in tears.
Meeting him outside the house, Neophytos said:
Зачем ты скорбишь, отец? Не умерла мать моя, а крепко уснула.
“Why are you mourning, Father? My mother did not die, but fell asleep.”
He brought him into the house, took his mother’s hand, and said:
Встань, мать моя; ты заснула крепко.
“Wake, my mother — you fell sound asleep.”
And his mother was raised from the dead.
Having been restored to life, Florence told her husband of her visions concerning Neophytos, and word quickly spread around, so that even “pagans” were converted to Christianity.
The dove kept coming to Neophytos’ bed and talking to him. One day it said:
Выйди, Неофит, из дома отца твоего, и иди вслед за мною.
“Go forth, Neophytos, from your father’s house, and follow after me.”
The dove led him to a cave on Mount Olympos, and in the cave lived a lion. Neophytos said to the lion, “Get out of here, and go find yourself another cave, because the Lord has commanded me to live here.” The lion obediently left.
Neophytos lived in the cave, and was fed by an angel. When his parents were about to die a year later, he went to the city, kissed them goodbye, and then sold the property, giving the money to the poor. Then he returned to his cave, where he is said to have remained until the age of 15.
At this time Decius came to the city, and announced a day when all the inhabitants of the region were to offer sacrifice to the gods. When this happened, angels brought Neophytus from his cave, and set him down in the middle of the Nicaeans. There he began to berate Decius for the worship of the gods.
I won’t go into all the gory details used to ornament his martyrdom, but at one point Neophytos, according to the tale, was thrown into a furnace, where he remained cool and unharmed, like the “Three Hebrew Children” in the Old Testament story from the book of Daniel (Daniel 3). And when the “pagans” came to open the furnace, the flames shot out of it and burned them, while Neophytus was untouched by the heat. Seeing this, the others accused Neophytos of sorcery.
Then they decided to tie him to a post and set bears upon him. But the bears would not harm him. Then they got a very large, recently-captured lion, and released it to attack Neophytos. But the lion just wept, and licked Neophytos’ feet. It was the same lion Neophytos had sent out from his cave at Mount Olympos, and it would not harm him. Neophytos told the lion to return to his cave, and the lion, roaring loudly, broke out the gates, walking among the terrified people of the city, and went back to his former home on the mountain without harming anyone, as Neophytos had commanded him.
Finally, a vicious man with a spear ran at Neophytos, piercing him through the chest, and the saint at last died, so it is said, on January 21 at the age of 15 and four months.
This far-fetched tale gives a very good idea of how various details were assembled to create these fictional “acts” or lives of saints such as Neophytos. We have the childhood miracles, as in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas — in this case water from a stone, as was said of Moses in Numbers 20; we have the mother raised from the dead after having been said to be asleep, as done by Jesus with a girl in the New Testament (Matthew 9:24); we have the dove, as at Jesus’ baptism; the feeding by an angel, like Elijah in 1 Kings 19:5-8; there is a friendly lion, as in the hagiographic tales of Gerasim of the Jordan and of Jerome, as well as survival inside a fiery furnace, as in Daniel 3. These were the days before novels, and such tales provided entertainment and religious instruction for the pious, who thought all the marvels related in them quite factual.