ONE HAIRY JOHN, ONE NOT SO HAIRY

This is an image of a Russian saint called Иоа́нн Власатый — Ioann Vlasatuiy — “John the Hairy.”  He is said to have that title because of the long and abundant hair on his head.

The abbreviated title inscription (with missing letters added) reads:
СВЯТЫ ИОАНН РОСТОВСКИЙ ЧУДОТВОРЕЦ МИЛОСТИВЫЙ
Svyatui Ioann Rostovskiy Chudotvorets Milostivuiy
Holy    John of-Rostov     Wonderworker Merciful
“Holy John of Rostov, Wonderworker, the Merciful”

The image is part of this larger 18th century Rostov icon showing scenes from his life as well as a Deisis at the top:

John is one of those saints called Блаженный —  Blazhennuiy  — “Blessed,” the title used for a юродивый — iurodivuiy/yurodivy — a “fool for Christ’s sake” — one of those fellows who behaved as though crazy, supposedly out of humility.

No one seems to know where John came from.  He lived in Rostov during the reign of Ivan Groznuiy — “Ivan the Terrible” (1547-1584), and is thought to have been educated and to have known Latin, because he carried with him and read a Latin Psalter.  It is supposed that he may have left Moscow to avoid all the troubles under Tsar Ivan, going to Rostov to live as a “holy fool.”  John died on September 3, 1580, and there was a terrible storm during his funeral, with much thunder and lightning.  The old stories say that many people who took sand from his grave and mixed it with water and drank it, or smeared it on their bodies, were healed by it.

John was supposedly named for another saint who is also called “John the Merciful,” but that would be the John who was Patriarch of Alexandria in the early 7th century, though he is said to have died in Cyprus.  It is easy to distinguish him from John the Hairy by his bishop’s robe, his shorter hair, and his long, sharp grey beard.

We see this earlier John the Merciful’s title inscription at left and right, with a slightly different spelling in the abbreviation, but easily recognizable nonetheless.  John’s scroll inscription is an excerpt from a prayer that the priest says quietly during the Liturgy of John Chrysostom:

Тебе предлагаем живот наш весь и надежду, Владыко Человеколюбче, и просим, и молим, и милися деем: [сподоби нас причаститися Небесных Твоих и Страшных Таин, сея священныя и духовныя Трапезы, с чистою совестию, во оставление грехов, в прощение согрешений, во общение Духа Святаго, в наследие Царствия Небеснаго, и дерзновение еже к Тебе, не в суд или во осуждение.]

We entrust to you, man-loving Master, our whole life and hope, and we
ask, pray, and entreat: [make us worthy to partake of your heavenly
and awesome mysteries from this holy and spiritual table with a
clean conscience; for the remission of sins, forgiveness of
transgressions, communion of the Holy Spirit, inheritance of the
Kingdom of Heaven, confidence before You, and not in judgment or
condemnation.]

 

 

A READER QUESTION: WHY IS VASILIY “BARE”?

A reader asked a question regarding the icon of St. Vasiliy (Basil)  in a previous posting:

ICON OF BLESSED VASILIY, FOOL FOR CHRIST'S SAKE (with and without metal cover; photo courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

ICON OF BLESSED VASILIY, FOOL FOR CHRIST’S SAKE (with and without metal cover; photo courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The question was, why is Vasiliy “bare”?

The answer to that takes us into an interesting phenomenon in the history of Russian Orthodoxy — the category of saint commonly called “Holy Fool,” or more accurately, “Fool for Christ’s sake (Khrista radi yurodivy).

This peculiar kind of Russian saint (and not just Russian) originated in the New Testament writings of the Apostle Paul, who said in 1 Corinthians 3:18:

Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seems to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise.

Well, some took it quite literally, and decided that behaving like a lunatic was just the right way to live a Christian life while avoiding pride and arrogance.  It is hard to be arrogant when everyone thinks you are a total fool.  Of course to make people think that, one had to play a fool, and to behave in ways that far exceeded normal social conduct, and often irritated people to no end.   One of the things Vasiliy did was to attach no importance to whether he was clothed or not.  Whether it was summer or winter, residents of Moscow might see him wandering around the city naked.

If you look at this central image from an icon of the Bogoliubskaya Mother of God, you will see a gathering of saints at the right.  Among them (the first two in the second row) are two semi-nude “Fools for Christ,” one Vasily, and the other Maxim.  Vasilily was believed to be clairvoyant, able to heal and to predict the future.  His reputation was such that even the notorious Tsar Ivan the Terrible feared him.  Maxim also wandered about in all weather nearly naked, and many healings were attributed to him after his death.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The problem with Holy Fools, of course, is this:  How does one separate those who are being fools for the sake of Christ from those who are being fools because they are mentally ill or damaged?  In Russia there was no clear standard for distinguishing them other than the verdict of time.

The Bogoliubskaya icon pictured here, by the way, is a variant on the standard type, and it is called the “Moscow” Bogoliubskaya because all of those saints at the right are local Moscow saints.  That is why both Vasiliy and Maxim, both holy fools in Moscow, are included.  I won’t go into the history of the famous Bogoliubskaya type, because my purpose today is just to clarify why some Russian saints are depicted “bare.”

By the way, most people have seen photos of the famous Cathedral of St. Basil in Red Square in Moscow.  Well, the Holy Fool Vasiliy discussed today is that St. Basil.  His remains were interred inside the cathedral.

It is worth keeping in mind that not all near-naked saints in icons are holy fools.  Some  are merely ascetics who did not take on the strange role of “Fool for Christ’s Sake.”

David