There is no historical evidence about the life of the venerable Alexis, the man of God. His hagiography was probably written based on an oral legend of a man who preferred ascetism to wealth. The Life of the Venerable Alexis is believed to have appeared in the second half of the 5th – early 6th century and had originated in Syria. Numerous versions of the hagiography appeared later in Greek, Arab and Latin.
In the Syrian redaction of the hagiography, the saint is not mentioned by name. One of the earliest Syrian versions reports that a young man from a wealthy and noble Roman family abandoned his house before the wedding, boarded a ship and sailed first to Seleucia in Syria and then to Edessa. There he spent all his life on the church porch, taking alms from the church-goers. The servants of his family who had been sent to search him did not recognize him in rags. He didn’t disclose his name to anyone not wishing to draw attention to himself. The only person the venerable Alexis shared his secret with was an ostiary who was amazed with Alexis’ devotion to God. The saint died in hospital where he had been put to by the ostiary, and died along with other poor. Being told about the saint’s death, the ostiary asked the bishop Rabula of Edessa to bury St. Alexis with honors in a place he deserved. But when the tomb was opened, there were only rags therein.
In later versions of his life the saint is called Alexis, while his parents are named Euphimian and Aglaida. These versions have other distinctions from the Syrian redaction. Thus, widespread were the versions of his life claiming that St. Alexis returned home by the will of God and lived there unrecognized under the stairs, suffering humiliation from the house servants. When he died, an unseen voice was heard coming from the altar in a church during a liturgy proclaiming: “Search the Man of God. Let him pray for the city.” The saint’s relics that were found in his family house and put in church for veneration worked healing and miracles.
The earliest translation of the life of St. Alexis into Slavonic language is believed to have been made in the late 11th century. This version was later corrected based on Greek texts. The venerable Alexis the Man of God, was the heavenly patron of the Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, so his veneration in the 17th century was especially widespread.
In Byzantine and Russian art the venerable Alexis the Man of God is portrayed as a middle-aged man with black long hair and a beard. He is often depicted wearing rags with a scroll in his hands. There are two variants of the icon. The former variant represents the saint in prayer, his figure is turned to right or left. The latter type represents the saint in a frontal pose; his hands are usually folded on the chest. The earliest images of St. Alexis are found on the murals. One of the earliest icons of St. Alexis was in the Church on Nereditsa near Novgorod.
The St. Alexis icons were especially widespread in the reign of the Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich. He is encountered both individually and together with Mary of Egypt, the heavenly protector of Maria Miloslavskaya, the first wife of the tsar (e.g. the icon of Mary of Egypt and St. Alexis the Man of God, 17th century, the Andrei Rublev Museum). On other icons St. Alexis is portrayed with the martyr Natalia, the heavenly patron of Natalia Naryshkina, the second wife of the Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich.
Zhanna G. Belik,
Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.
Olga E. Savchenko,
research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.
The feast day of St. Alexis is celebrated on March 30th (March 17th, O.S.).
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