Those of you familiar with cinematic history will know the famous 1938 black and white movie Alexander Nevsky, with its remarkable musical score by Sergei Prokofiev. It was directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Those of you who have not seen it may watch the film (with English subtitles) here:
Many of those familiar with the movie have no idea that Alexander Nevsky/Nevskiy (Александр Невский ) is also considered a saint in Russian Orthodoxy, and there are many icons of him. Here is one example, from the year 1880:
Two icons are above him: the “Iverskaya” Marian icon on the left, and the standard “Lord Almighty” icon of Jesus at right.
Alexander Nevskiy was a prince in the great northern city of Novgorod during the time of the Mongol invasions in the early 1200s. At that time Eastern Orthodox Novgorod was threatened on the West by Roman Catholic Swedes — the “Latins.”
Before Alexander went out to battle the Swedes, he went into the Church of Holy Wisdom to pray, and when he came out, he is said to have roused his men by saying,
Не в силе Бог, а в правде. Иные — с оружием, иные — на конях, а мы Имя Господа Бога нашего призовем!
“God is not in power, but in truth. Others are in armor — others are on horses — but we shall call on the name of our Lord God.”
Tradition relates that one of his soldiers saw a kind of vision — a boat floating upon the water, and in the boat — dressed in crimson robes — were the first two “Russian” saints, the Princes Boris and Gleb. That was considered a sign that God was with Novgorod against its enemies, and Alexander and his forces defeated the Swedes in a battle at the Neva River on Juy 15, 1240. That of course gave him his title — Alexander “of the Neva” — Alexander Nevskiy. At the time, Alexander is said to have been only 19. There is some doubt among historians as to the historical authenticity of this victory over the Swedes, but it is part of the traditional tale of Alexander.
To film buffs, however, his most famous battle was that against the Teutonic Knights, whom he met at frozen Lake Peipus/Peipsi — which the Russians call Чудское озеро/Chudskoe ozero –on April 5th of 1242. I won’t tell you what happened there, because if you have not seen the Eisenstein movie, I don’t want to give a “spoiler.”
Alexander developed good relations with the Mongol Golden Horde, and paid regular tribute as a vassal prince. He was made Grand Prince (Velikiy Knyaz) of Vladimir in 1252, and died some 12 years later. Shortly before his death he became a monk and put on a monk’s habit.
Alexander was officially “glorified” as a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow in 1547, and is commonly given the title Благоверный Великий Князь/Blagovernuiy Velikiy Knyaz’ — “Pious/Orthodox Great Prince.”
There is of course much more to his traditional “life,” and this is just a brief summary.
As the centuries passed, Alexander became an important national symbol for Russia. He is depicted in two quite different ways. Early icons and those of the Old Believers show him dressed as a monk, as in this 16th century Moscow icon that titles him Blagovernuiy Knyaz’ Velikiy Alexandr Nevskiy Chudotvorets — “Pious Prince Great Alexander Nevskiy, Wonderworker.”
Post-schism State Church iconography, however, favored showing him in military and royal garb — often standing by a table on which lay his scepter and crown, as in this example from the late 19th-beginning of the 20th century:
It is only in recent years that the Russian Orthodox Church — the State Church, that is — began advocating a return to the old iconography depicting him as a monk. Old Believer icons always preferred showing Alexander in a monk’s habit.