St. Grand Prince the Pious Alexander Yaroslavich Nevsky (monastic name Alexis) was the second son of Prince Yaroslav Vsevolodovich, the grandson of Prince Vsevolod the Big Nest. Alexander Yaroslavich was born ca. 1219 – 1220. As early as 1228 Alexander, together with his elder brother Theodor (Fedor), was appointed namestnik (mayor) of his father in Novgorod. In 1236, his father became Grand Prince of Kiev, leaving Alexander in charge of Novgorod. The reign of Alexander Nevsky in Novgorod coincided with the devastation of Russian principalities by the Mongolian hordes, which was taken advantage of by the Western neighbors of Novgorod who, almost simultaneously, assumed the offensive of Novgorod. In 1240 the Livonian Order allied with the Teutonic Order and occupied Pskov, Izborsk and the Novgorod-controlled lands on the river Luga. In the same year Sweden assumed the offensive of the Novgorodian lands. The Swedes wanted to build a fortress on Neva to cut Novgorod off Karelia or seize Ladoga. But Alexander Nevsky with his druzhina and Novgorod’s irregular units suddenly attacked and crushed on July 15, 1240 the Swedish troops on Neva. Because of this battle Alexander Nevsky was given the sobriquet Nevsky (of Neva). In 1241, Alexander Nevsky took back the city of Koporye, and a year later, in 1242, re-captured Pskov. In the winter of 1241/1242 Alexander Yaroslavich, together with the Suzdalian troops, under the command of his younger brother, Andrei Yaroslavich, set out against Eastern Estland. On April, 5 1242 they defeated the troops of the Livonian order and Prince-Bishop Hermann of Dorpat on the ice of Lake Peipus (Chudskoe ozero). With the death of Prince Yaroslav Vsevolodich, a feud flared up over the reign of the principality of Novgorod. Alexander Nevsky journeyed several times to the Golden Horde where he, in 1249, received the jarlik authorizing his rule of “Kiev and the entire Russian land” and in 1252, the jarlik authorizing his reign of the principality of Vladimir. In 1257-1259, with support from Alexander Yaroslavich, the Mongolian officials conducted a census of population to regulate tax collection and participation of the Russian troops in the Horde campaigns. This measure led to mass popular rebellions. In 1262, the citizens of Vladimir, Suzdal, Rostov, Pereyaslavl and Yaroslavl killed the Mongolian tax collectors. Alexander Nevsky had to go the Golden Horde to “pray God to avert trouble from the people”. The prince died on his way back home, having taken monastic vows shortly before his death. He was buried on November 23, 1263 at the Bogolubsky Monastery of the Nativity of the Holy Mother of God. In 1724, on orders from Peter the Great, his relics were solemnly reburied at the Alexandro-Nevsky Laura in St. Petersburg.
Historians have mixed opinions of Alexander Nevsky’s historical role. While entering into alliance with the Golden Horde to strengthen his rule, he opposed military, political, clerical and ideological expansion of the Western Catholicism in Rus by refusing to conclude a union with Rome in 1250. Alexander Nevsky’s political doctrine would later become traditional for the princes of the Moscow House. In combating the Western Catholicism, Alexander Yaroslavich leaned upon the Russian Orthodox Church led by the Metropolitan of Kiev Cyrill II. With the blessing of the Metropolitan and on orders from the Prince of Vladimir Dimitri Alexandrovich, the son of Alexander Nevsky, an unknown monk of Vladimir’s Monastery of the Nativity of the Holy Virgin wrote a biography of Alexander Nevsky – The Tale of the Life of Alexander Yaroslavich Nevsky. This fact suggests that as early as the 1280s Alexander Nevsky was revered by the Monastery as a local saint. The translation of his relics occurred in 1380. Alexander Nevsky was canonized by the Moscow Church Council in 1547.
The earliest images of St. Prince the Pious Alexander Nevsky date back to the mid-16th century. There are two iconographic variants of the saint, one showing the prince wearing monastic vestment, and the other portraying him dressed in princely clothes. Both iconographic variants appeared simultaneously. Before the 18th century, Alexander Nevsky was portrayed on the icons as the venerable (e.g. The Venerable John, Avraami Rostovsky, Alexander Nevsky on the 16th century tablet icons from the St. Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod (The Novgorod State Regional Museum). The iconographic depictions of Alexander Nevsky as a prince are represented in the monumental painting and book miniatures of the 16th – 17th century. Such is the 1565 century mural painting in the Archangel Cathedral in Moscow’s Kremlin portraying the saint wearing a richly embroidered fur coat and a prince’s hat, holding a cross in the right hand. On the 18th – 19th icons Alexander Nevsky, under the Holiest Synod’s Decree of June 15th, 1724, was basically portrayed wearing an armor suit and a royal robe, decorated with ermine, or is sometimes shown sitting on a horse.
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.