THE PATRON OF ALCOHOLICS

Here is another prominent icon saint to add to your list of the fictional:

His name on Old Believer icons is generally spelled Внифантий/Vnifantiy or Вонифантий/Vonifantiy; on State Church icons Вонифатий/Vonifatiy.  His “location” title is Вонифатий Тарсийский/Tarsiyskiy — “Boniface of Tarsus,” or Римский/Rimskiy — “of Rome,” or both.  He is classified as a мученик/muchenik — a martyr.

Though supposedly martyred near the beginning of the 4th century (generally 307 c.e., though others say 290), his veneration did not really get under way until after his “acts” appeared in the 9th century — a strong indication that we are dealing with another one of those saints whose lives are fiction rather than history.

That suspicion is only confirmed when we look at his “life.”  It reads like one of those rather racy old Hollywood “biblical” movies.

His tale relates that Boniface was a slave in Rome (where he would have been named Bonifatius), and property of a very wealthy and attractive young Roman woman named Aglaia or Aglaida.  Aglaida and Boniface were carrying on a very torrid sexual relationship, which by the standards of the times was considered quite improper — a young woman and a male slave.  Aglaida was said to have other lovers as well.  Boniface, in addition to his liking for sex, was also supposedly addicted to drink.  Nonetheless, he was basically a nice guy — helping out the poor, aiding strangers, and doing other such good deeds.

Well, as these stories go, one day Aglaida was feeling pangs of guilt over her sexual relationship with Boniface.  She had heard that honoring the Christian martyrs then (supposedly) suffering in the East would be a big help in the salvation of sinners, so she wanted a martyr’s relics (read bodily remains, mostly) for her house, so she could venerate them and have the dead martyr as a heavenly advocate.  She sent Boniface off to get suitable relics and bring them back.

He jokingly asked her whether if he could not find relics, if she would accept his remains if he were martyred for Jesus during his search.

Now of course when Boniface got to his destination — the city of Tarsus — a crowd of Christians were being gruesomely martyred under the Emperor Diocletian and his co-ruler Maximian.  Boniface embraced and kissed the martyrs.  When the judge asked who he was, he replied that he was a Christian, and he refused to make the customary sacrifice to “idols” (i.e. the non-Christian gods).

Then follows the usual unlikely sequence of tortures commonly found in the tales of the saints.   Boniface is hung upside down, beaten to the bone, needles are driven under his fingernails and toenails, molten metal is poured down his throat, but no torture seems to harm him.  The next day he is thrown into a kettle of boiling tar, but that doesn’t harm him either.  He is helped by an angel who descends from heaven and pours the burning tar out at the onlookers.

Finally, it was decided to behead Boniface.  When that was done, milk and blood poured from the cut.

Now supposedly the companions of Boniface thought at first that he was somewhere enjoying women, but eventually they found that he had been martyred, and they looked for the body.  When they found it, they wept at their former misunderstandings about him.   They put his head back in place, and Boniface opened his eyes and gave them a gentle look.  Nonetheless, he was still dead, so they paid for the body, and brought it with them back to Rome.

Meanwhile, an angel appears to Aglaida, telling her to prepare to receive the martyr’s relics, and that the dead Boniface is to be her heavenly patron.  She receives his relics,  has a church built on the site where Boniface is buried, then enters a convent and spends the next 18 years of her life in repentance, and at her death she is buried near Boniface — she too having become a saint.

One can almost hear the swelling music at the end of the Technicolor, wide-screen movie.

As we have learned, however, being a fictional saint means little in Eastern Orthodoxy.  No one bothers to tell the masses of believers when a saint is fictional.  Instead, they are told to pray to Boniface of Tarsus for relief from alcoholism — he being the patron saint helper of those addicted to drink — alcoholism being a common curse in Russia as well as in many other countries of the world.

In icons, one may find Boniface/Vnifantiy/Vonifatiy depicted “with the life,” as in the first example on this page.  He may also be found standing with one or more other saints, as well as being depicted alone, either full-figure or often to the waist, as in the late State Church example below.