John Chrysostom was born in Antioch. His father Second was an official in Antioch, his mother Anthusa, Greek, widowed at the age of 20. She dedicated her life to raising her son and gave him first religious lessons. John received a good secular education and, according to some accounts, took lessons from the pagan philosopher and rhetoric Libanius and the Christian theologian Diodore of Tarsus. In 386 the saint was ordained as a priest and from the very first days of his ministry became famous for his eloquence for which he was given the Greek epithet Chrysostmos (golden-mouthed). In 398 John Chrysostom was appointed Archbishop of Constantinople and led the Church until 404 until he was defrocked by the Council of Chalcedon and sent to exile. He died in the city of Comana; in 438 his relics were transferred to Constantinople. Later the Crusaders transferred his body to Rome. The saint’s skull was kept at the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos, from where it was taken to Moscow in the 17th century and kept at the Moscow Kremlin, in the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God. John’s interpretations of the Bible were translated into the Slavonic language and became very popular in Rus as well as his images.
A Russian painter’s guide describes the John Chrysostom image as follows: «…брада аки Космы Безсребренника, мало надсед, редка, власы на главе русы, мало курчеваты, чело высоко, морщевато, риза святительская, саккос киноварь, в крузех кресты златые, испод празелень, рукою благословляет, а в другой книга». (“His beard is like St. Cosmas Unmercenary’s, grayish, hair on the head is rare and blonde, not too curly, high and wrinkled forehead, dressed in the clerical clothes, cinnabar sakkos, golden crosses inside circles… blessing with one hand and holding a book in the other.” The earliest portraits of John Chrysostom are kept in the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome (frescoes dating back to the mid-7th and mid-8th centuries) and in the Chapel of Khirbet el Mard (7th century). In Kiev’s St. Sophia Cathedral (the 1040s), the full-length figure of John Chrysostom is located in the altar along with other Constantinople hierarchs. In the second half of the 11th century John Chrysostom’s image was assigned its own place in the scene of “Service of the Holy Fathers (“Worshipping the Victim”). Since the early 12th century, the saint’s depictions are encountered amongst selected saints on icon margins, for example, on an icon of The Crucifixion with selected saints (ca. 1100, St. Catherine Monastery on Sinai), where the saint’s half-figure inside a medallion on the right field is paired to the image of St. Basil the Great.
During the development of a high iconostasis in Rus, John Chrysostom icons were included in the Deesis row, for example, in the iconostasis of the Annunciation Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin (the late 14th century, the State Moscow Kremlin Museum). Especially often the John Chrysostom icons were included in the Deesis row in the 15th – 16th centuries. On them John Chrysostomos is commonly portrayed wearing a sakkos embroided with crosses (for example, on the icon from the Assumption Cathedral in the St. Cyril of Belozersk Monastery, the mid-16th century, the Kirillo-Belozersk Museum). The saint’s figure varies in length (half or full). Facial portraits of John Chrysostom in iconography have been known since the late Byzantine period, such as a 1325 mosaic icon (Dumbarton-Oaks, Washington DC) that was presented by the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos to the Russian Ambassador Arkady Nelidov in 1894.
The saint is commemorated on February 8 (January27, the old style, the translation of the relics), September 14 (September 27, the old style, St.John’s death), November 26 (November 13, the old style), in the Synaxis of the Three Saints – February 12 (January 30, the old style).
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.
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