After the fall of Constantinople in 1452, there appeared among the newly subjugated Greeks an image of a 4th century ascetic Saint, lamenting over the tomb of an even more ancient, pagan, Emperor: Alexander the Great. This Icon, the Astonishment of Sisoes, is a contemplation on death, but not only the death of a man, but of an earthly empire.
The icon started to appear in Greek monasteries and quickly spread to other monasteries throughout the former Byzantine, now Ottoman Turk, Empire. The ascetic Saint kneeling in the Icon is Sisoes the Great, depicted much larger over the dead bones in Alexander the Great’s open tomb. The inscription found on these icons explains the scene:
Sisoes, the great ascetic, before the tomb of Alexander, King of the Greeks, who was once covered in glory. Astonished, he mourns for the vicissitudes of time and the transience of glory, and tearfully declaims thus:
“The mere sight of you, tomb, dismays me and causes my heart to shed tears, as I contemplate the debt we, all men, owe. How can I possibly stand it? Oh, death! Who can evade you?”
It is, therefore, a Greek memento mori (Latin: “Remember your mortality”), made more powerful by showing one of the greatest rulers in history – who conquered half the known-world – as a pile of bones. As an unknown quote declares of Alexander: “A tomb now suffices him for whom the whole world was not sufficient.”
There is more to the icon, however, than an ancient pagan emperor laying as dust before a great Christian Saint. It is by no means a triumphal icon, in the sense that Alexander the Great was greatly admired among the citizens of the Christian Byzantine Empire. The pre-Christian Roman Emperors all considered their rule to be derived through Alexander the Great, and this belief did not change when the Empire, through the conversion of Constantine, became a Christianized. From Constantine I to the last emperor Constantine the XI, Alexander the Great was considered amongst rulers as an exemplar of earthly governance. Therefore, to show Sisoes the Great above the tomb of Alexander was to remind Christians not just of the great brought low, but of the passing of an entire Empire – their nation.
Why is it that Sisoes, of all the Desert Fathers, is shown astonished before the tomb of Alexander the Great? The location of Alexander the Great’s body is a mystery even today. After his death in 323 B.C., the emperor was buried with great honour in the city that bore his name: Alexandria. The tomb was a place of pilgrimage for pagan Emperors, and Alexander himself was worshiped as a demi-god. This was all brought to an end when Theodosius made Christianity the official state religion of the Empire. Without imperial patronage, pagan shrines and temples fell into disuse or else were destroyed remarkably quickly. So too was the case with Alexander’s body. Although Christians held Alexander in great esteem for his earthly achievements, this esteem would never stretch to worship, or even support for the worship, of the emperor as a deity. And so his remains disappeared, though the exact details remain a mystery even today. This would all have happened in the latter quarter of the 4th century.
It is around the same time that the great ascetic, Sisoes the Great, flourished. Living in the Egyptian wilderness, it is not unlikely that St Sisoes witnessed any desecration of Alexander’s Tomb. Even if the icon does not represent a literal event, Sisoes would have heard of such events and perhaps commented upon them. These words would have been preserved throughout the centuries to be inscribed on the icons we see from the 15th century.
And so, in the icon there is also a hope. Lamenting over the passing of an earthly empire founded by Alexander the Great, the Christians under the Turkish Yoke would now look to the monastics for support – personified by Sisoes the Great. The pagan religions all but disappeared once the earthly pagan kingdom vanished, yet this was not to be the case with the Christian Faith. Through the spiritual warfare waged by those in the monastic life, the Christian faith survived under the Muslim Ottoman Empire for centuries until the time when it too fell.
Alexander is called Great because of his earthly glory. Sisoes is called Great because of his spiritual glory, gained by the grace of God and in living the spiritual life. And so the Astonishment of Sisoes shows the superiority of the spiritual over the carnal; yet it confronts us with our inevitable bodily death, and demands us to prepare for it. This is why today the icon can sometimes be found on the Western wall of churches, so that we will carry the remembrance of death with us as we leave.
You proved to be a citizen of the desert, an angel in the flesh, and a wonderworker, O Sisoes, our God-bearing Father.
By fasting, vigil, and prayer you obtained heavenly gifts, and healed the sick and the souls of them that had recourse to you with faith.
Glory to Him that gave you strength.
Glory to Him that crowned you.
Glory to Him that works healing for all through you.