Most of us have never heard of the the saint depicted in this recent icon: “Holy Vyacheslav, Prince of the Czechs”: (Святый Вячеслав КнязьЧешский / Svyatuiy Vyacheslav Knyaz’ Cheshskiy). Sometimes his name is found as Vecheslav.
He was always rather obscure in Eastern Orthodoxy. In the Svodnuiy Ikonopisnuiy Podlinnik, he is not even given mention of a day of commemoration, other than that of the moving of his relics on March 4th. So there are very few icons of him, and almost all you will see are quite recent.
Though we do not know him under that Russianized form of his name, he is actually very familiar to most of us in English-speaking countries — particularly at this time of the year — under the name “Good King Wenceslas.”
In 1853, a new Christmas carol appeared in the book Carols for Christmastide. The words were written by the Englishman John Mason Neale, but the music to which it was set was the 14th century Latin song Tempus Adest Floridum.
Here are the words:
On the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight
Gathering winter fuel.
If thou knowst it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?
Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes fountain.
Bring me pine logs hither.
Thou and I shall see him dine
When we bear them thither.
Page and monarch, forth they went
Forth they went together,
Through the rude winds wild lament
And the bitter weather.
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how
I can go no longer.
Mark my footsteps, good my page
Tread thou in them boldly.
Thou shall find the winters rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing.
Ye, who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.
As you see, this song not only tells us of the goodness of Wenceslas, but also gives us the “miracle” of his footprints that warmed his following helper.
“Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen.” Well, the Feast of Stephen is on December 26th, commemorating the traditional first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, whose death is described in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles.
Now we must begin by saying that very little is known for certain about this Wenceslas/Vyacheslav. In the Czech lands he would have been known by the name Venceslav, now found in the form Václav, pronounced Vatslav.
All the legends surrounding him are based on the life of Wenceslas I, Duke of Bohemia, who is said to have lived from 907 to about 935. This was in the days before the Great Schism split Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, but even in those times there was a struggle going on between the Eastern Orthodox and western Latin rites and authority in the Czech lands.
The life of Duke Wenceslas — posthumously given the title “King Wenceslas” by the Holy Roman Emperor, is sadly rather violent and took place in the midst of power struggles.
When Wenceslas reached the age of 18, he banished his regent mother and became ruler of half the country. The other half was given to his younger brother Boleslaus, generally known as Boleslaus the Cruel. Not without reason. He formed a plot to kill Wenceslas. On September 28, 935, Boleslaus and three cohorts attacked Wenceslas at the door of the church as he was going to mass, the three stabbing him and Boleslaus his brother thrusting a lance though his body.
Almost immediately after his death, the reputation of Wenceslas as a holy martyr began. There were reports of miracles happening at his tomb. And with that reputation went tales of his kindness and goodness, as expressed in the remarks of Cosmas of Prague in 1119:
“His deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.”
Some think that because Wenceslas — according to tradition — so loved his page and valet Podiven, who was also later killed by Boleslaus for his devotion to Wenceslas, that he must have also been “Gay King Wenceslas.” My view is that in our time too strong a division is made between “straight” and “gay.” Those are rather artificial boxes into which we place people. Really it is not often an either/or matter, because sexuality is more a wide scale than a simple division, with people found at various points on it. Some prefer their own sex. Some prefer their own sex and the other sex. And some prefer only the other sex. And of course one can love someone of the opposite gender or the same gender without sex even entering into it. There can be love without sex; there can be sex without love. People are just people, whatever their sexual orientation or gender preference. What matters is not who you love or how you love, but that you love.
In the earliest account of the good deeds of Wenceslas, the squire who assisted him is not named. Later accounts give him the name Podiven. Remains said to be those of “Blessed” Podiven are interred in the same St. Vitus Cathedral where those of Wenceslas are kept.
So little is known historically about Wenceslas and his page that much of what is said of them comes from legend rather than history, but in any case the tale has provided us with one of the most beloved old Christmas carols.
Here is a Russian icon of Vyacheslav painted by Osip Chirikov close to 1900:
(State Hermitage Museum)
The inscription at the base reads: Month of September, 28th Day. That is the traditional date of the death of Vyacheslav.