Friday, July 24, 2015

The Holy Passion-Bearers Ss Boris and Gleb

Since we mentioned the 1000th anniversary of the death of St Vladimir last week, it seems fitting to say a bit about his sons Ss Boris and Gleb, whose feast day is today.

The Italians have a proverb that “Great sinners by repentance become great Saints,” and of this St Vladimir was an outstanding example. The Primary Chronicle, an essential source for the history of Kievan Rus’, records many acts of cruelty and violence before his conversion, and calls him “insatiable in vice”, comparing his desire for women to that of Solomon. (But where the latter “was wise, and yet came to ruin, … Vladimir, though at first deluded, eventually found salvation.”) Among his many children, his dearest were Boris and Gleb, whom the Chronicle says were born from a wife of Bulgarian origin. (It is disputed by modern historians whether Boris and Gleb were in fact sons of the same mother; many believe they were not, and that Boris was much older than Gleb.) Another son, Sviatopolk, was Vladimir’s son by a Greek woman who had formerly been the mistress of his brother Yaropolk, but before that, a nun; the Chronicle says of him “from a sinful root an evil fruit is produced”, and he is now distinguished from a later king of the same name by the epithet “the Accursed.”
A Russian icon of St Vladmir, and his sons, Ss Boris and Gleb. (ca. 1560.)
Already as a young prince, this Sviatopolk had been imprisoned by St Vladimir for plotting against him; released shortly before his father’s death, he would ultimately kill three of his brothers to secure his place on the throne, before being defeated in battle and overthrown by a fourth brother, Yaroslav I, called “the Wise.” Boris was popular as the former chief of his father’s bodyguards, and might have opposed his brother, but was unwilling to take the throne by violence, saying, “Be it not for me to raise my hand against my elder brother. Now that my father has passed away, let him take the place of my father in my heart.” He dismissed his supporters, and was soon killed by Sviatopolk’s men, along with a several of his servants, as he prayed by the banks of the river Alta. The Chronicle records his prayer before he was set upon: “Lord Jesus Christ, who in this image hast appeared on earth for our salvation, and who, having voluntarily suffered thy hands to be nailed to the cross, didst endure thy passion for our sins, so help me now to endure my passion. For I accept it not from those who are my enemies, but from the hand of my own brother. Hold it not against him as a sin, O Lord!”

Sviatopolk then tricked Gleb into coming to him by sending a messenger that their father was dying, but Gleb was warned by Yaroslav that Vladimir was already dead and Boris murdered. He then prayed, again according to the Primary Chronicle, “Woe is me, O Lord! It were better for me to die with my brother than to live on in this world. O my brother, had I but seen thy angelic countenance, I should have died with thee. Why am I now left alone? Where are thy words that thou didst say to me, my brother? No longer do I hear thy sweet counsel. If thou hast received affliction from God, pray for me that I may endure the same passion. For it were better for me to dwell with thee than in this deceitful world.” He was attacked while on a boat, and slain by his own cook, who was forced to the murder by Sviatopolk’s men, “offered up as a sacrifice to God like an innocent lamb, a glorious offering amid the perfume of incense, and he received the crown of glory.”

Ss Boris and Gleb, depicted in a famous icon written about 1340, now in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
The deaths of the two princes took place very shortly after their father’s death in 1015. When Yaroslav had secured the throne five years later, Sviatpolk being now defeated and dead, he had the incorrupt bodies of his slain brothers brought to the church of St Basil in the town of Vyshgorod, the royal residence close to Kiev. The tomb at once became a place of pilgrimage, and the site of many miracles, such that Yaroslav asked the Church to formally recognize them as Saints. The metropolitan of Kiev (a Greek, since the hierarchy had only just been established out of Constantinople) was skeptical; Boris and Gleb were not martyrs, since they had not died for the Faith, nor were they ascetics, or bishops, or great teachers. But popular devotion would not be denied, and the brothers were officially recognized as the first of a new category of Saint, called “Passion-bearers” (страстотéрпецъ in Old Church Slavonic, ‘strastoterpets’); that is, Saints who, in imitation of Christ’s humility, have accepted suffering and death, even where they might have resisted it justly, for the sake of His name. By the end of the eleventh century, devotion to them had reached even to Constantinople itself, and an icon of them was exposed in Hagia Sophia.

Prince Igor of Kiev and Chernigov, a great-grandson of Yaroslav the Wise who was murdered in another round of dynastic struggles in the following century, is also called a Passion-bearer. More recently, the title has been accorded by the Russian Orthodox Church to the seven members of the Imperial family who were murdered by the Bolsheviks on July 17, 1918, exactly one week before the feast of Ss Boris and Gleb. A church has been built in the city of Yekaterinburg over the site of their murder, called “the Church on the Blood”, but their relics are interred in the cathedral of Ss Peter and Paul in St Petersburg. Sadly, the relics of Ss Boris and Gleb were lost when the church of St Basil in Vyshgorod was destroyed by Mongol invaders in 1240.

The Church on the Blood, completed in 2003 
The Troparion of Ss. Boris and Gleb

O Passion-bearers and fulfillers of the Gospel of Christ, chaste Boris and guileless Gleb: you did not oppose the attacks of the enemy, your brother, when he killed your bodies, but could not touch your souls. Let him therefore mourn, while you rejoice with the Angels, standing before the Holy Trinity. Pray that those who honor your memory may find grace with God, and that all orthodox people may be saved.

The Kontakion

Today your memory shines forth, noble sufferers, and summons us to glorify Christ our God. Those who come to the shrine of your relics receive healing through your prayers, for you are holy physicians.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: