As I have mentioned previously, the images of many saints in icons are just imaginary. No one knows what the person really looked like. This extends even to the images of Jesus and Mary. Their depictions as found in icons were simply “made up” at some point. Of course this runs counter to the notion in Eastern Orthodox theology that the veneration given the likeness (the depiction of the saint on the icon) goes to the prototype (the actual saint). If there is no likeness, the theory falls apart. But that simple fact has always been ignored in the painting and veneration of icons.
Add to this the fact that many saints venerated in icons and commemorated annually in the Eastern Orthodox calendar never even existed, but are entirely fictional. And then add to that the even greater number of saints who may have existed, but whose lives have been fictionalized to a greater or lesser extent, and you begin to have an idea why students of icons have a very different view of saints and their lives than the average Eastern Orthodox believer, who is seldom made aware of these basic facts by the Church. That is why many imaginary images and fictional saints were not only venerated in Eastern Orthodoxy in the past, but continue to be so today.
One glaring example is of course St. Ioasaph/Joasaph/Josaphat, “Prince of India,” who is annually commemorated in the Church Calendar and found in icons, but who is really a saint concocted out of the traditional early life of the Buddha. The tale came west on the Silk Road, and was adapted and distorted into the tale of a saint Ioasaph in Eastern Orthodoxy.
One saint previously largely ignored in Eastern Orthodoxy (even though he predates the Great Schism of 1054) but venerated in Roman Catholicism is St. Hubertus/Hubert. Now Hubert (c. 656 – 30 to 727 A.D.) actually existed, and was the first bishop of Liège in Belgium. However, like a great many saints, his life is partially fictionalized. The most notable example is the story of his conversion:
The tale relates that Hubert, of noble family, was out hunting one Good Friday morning. He was chasing a stag (male deer), when suddenly the stag stopped and turned and faced him. Hubert was surprised to see a cross between its antlers. He then heard a voice saying: “Hubert unless you turn to the Lord and lead a holy life, you will quickly go down to Hell.” Hubert dismounted and asked what he was to do, and the voice told him to go and seek Lambert [bishop of Maastricht] for instruction.
Well, it makes a good story, and it has become glued to the life of St. Hubert, who even today is primarily associated with the tale of the stag with the cross between its horns, as depicted in this fine stained glass window in St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Ottawa, Canada:
The problem, however, is that it never happened. The tale of Hubert and the stag was attached to his “life” in the 1400s. And it was borrowed from a much earlier saint who is generally considered by scholars to be entirely fictional — St. Eustace.
Here is an early 16th century anonymous Cretan icon of Eustace, known in Greek as Ευστάθιος/Eustathios, and in Russian icons as Евстафий/Evstafiy. There is the deer with the cross in its horns on the hill at upper right:
Now as you see, he is depicted as a warrior saint in armor, and he is considered a Μεγαλομάρτυς/Megalomartys in Greek, and in Slavic a Velikomuchenik — a “Great Martyr.”
His tale relates that he was a wealthy general in Rome in the time of Emperor Trajan. His name was originally Placidas. Though a polytheist and a fierce warrior, he was said to be very kind, merciful, and charitable.
One day he was out hunting on horseback with his servants when they came upon a herd of deer. Placidus went for the largest of the herd, and began the chase. The deer ran very swiftly on and on, and the servants could not maintain the pace, so Placidas, leaving them far behind, continued the chase alone. Suddenly the deer stopped and turned, and Placidas saw a shining cross between its antlers. Suddenly he heard a voice asking, “Why are you chasing me, O Placidas?” Well, as these stories go, the voice was Jesus, who then told Placidas to go to a Christian priest for baptism. And that is how he became a Christian, and was given the name Eustathios.
The tale (which is quite lengthy) goes on to relate how Emperor Trajan died and was replaced by Hadrian, who supposedly persecuted Eustathios and his family, first by having them put into an arena with carnivorous beasts, but the animals refused to do them any harm. The Emperor then, so the story goes, had them put into a blazing hot brass ox. Though they felt no pain it did kill them, and supposedly when Hadrian went to see their ashes in the ox the next morning, their bodies were found to be whole and unharmed, and they looked as though asleep.
So as you see, it is the typical kind of fantastic story so popular in hagiography. But touches like the tale of the deer with the cross between its horns helped to make the story appealing. There is a long tradition in folklore of strange things happening during the hunt for deer, a notion which may go as far back as prehistoric times.
And so the fictional account of the conversion of a fictional 2nd century saint was borrowed to become the tale of conversion of a real western European 8th century saint. Such borrowings are not unusual in hagiography. And, strangely enough, it is also the origin of the logo for the alcoholic drink Jägermeister (“Hunting Master”).