The Icon of the Three Holy Hierarchs shows a meeting together – a synaxis – of three of the greatest theologians in the Church’s history: Ss Basil the Great, John Chyrstostom, and Gregory the Theologian. Such “meeting” or “synaxis” icons are common, depicting Saints who share a common story, nationality, or even those who knew each other in life. The icon of the Holy Hierarchs, however, also depicts an actual miraculous appearance of these three Saints.
During the eleventh century, centuries after the death of all these celebrated bishops, disputes raged in Constantinople over which of the three were greatest. Some preferred St Basil, others honored St Gregory the Theologian, while a third group exalted St John Chrysostom.
Dissension among Christians increased. Some called themselves Basilians, others referred to themselves as Gregorians, and others as Johnites.
By the will of God, the three hierarchs appeared to St John the Bishop of Euchaita in the year 1084, and said that they were equal before God. “There are no divisions among us, and no opposition to one another.”
They ordered that the disputes should stop, and that their common commemoration should be celebrated on a single day. Bishop John chose January 30 for their joint Feast, thus ending the controversy and restoring peace.
The Icon itself shows the three hierarchs in unity. All vested as bishops, they can be identified by their facial features which are well-known and depicted faithfully in all icons of the Saints. Saint Basil has dark hair with a long, pointed beard; Saint John is recognizable by his high forehead and tuft of hair in the centre of his head; Saint Gregory is bearded with white hair.
Let us who love their words gather together
and honor with hymns the three great torch-bearers of the triune Godhead:
Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom.
These men have enlightened the world with the rays of their divine doctrines.
They are sweetly-flowing rivers of wisdom
filling all creation with springs of heavenly knowledge.
Ceaselessly they intercede for us before the Holy Trinity!