Also called soldier saints, these are a group of saints who were generally soldiers in life, martyrs to Christ in death, and then latterly revealed as our heavenly protectors. But is their appearance in icons – equipped and ready for war – appropriate for Christian veneration?
Yes, is the short answer. The longer answer is to do with how the icon depicts these warrior saints’ relationship with us, and with Christ.
Who are the Warrior Saints?
The name “Soldier Saints” is misleading, as this is merely a description of their appearance in icons, and not the reason for their sainthood. As mentioned above, the Soldier Saints are almost without exception martyrs, mainly from the early centuries of the Christian Church when the Roman Empire was still pagan. Their prototype was Holy Martyr Longinus, the centurion who witnessed the Crucifixion and confessed before everyone, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Mt. 27:54). Church history relates that after the crucifixion, having come to believe in the Saviour, Longinus received Baptism from the apostles,left military service, returned home to Cappadocia, and was ultimately beheaded for preaching the Gospel.
The majority of the Soldier Saints come from the 3rd and 4th centuries, under the persecution of the pagan Emperor Diocletian. Details differ, of course, but their lives often follow the same path: Roman soldiers or officials who convert to Christ, these Saints at some point find their Faith at odds with the pagan religious practices of the Roman military (sacrificing to idols) or with the orders they receive (to persecute Christians). Choosing Christ, they undergo horrific tortures before ultimately being executed. Some of the best known examples of the Military Martyrs are George the Wonder worker, Demetrius of Thessaloníki, Theodore “the Recruit”, Andrew “the General”, Artemius of Antioch, and Saint Mercurius “of the Two Swords”. They are often given the title of “Great-Martyr” (Gr. μεγαλομάρτυρ, megalomartyr), although this name is also shared by other martyrs who were not soldiers.
Their steadfastness caused thousands to convert: those who saw their tortures, those who heard about them, and even some of those ordered to carry out their execution. The stories of their lives flourished in the 4th century and post-mortem miracles have ensured their popularity continues even until today.
The Iconography of Warrior Saints
Being Martyrs, these Saints are often shown holding crosses (see “The meaning of objects held by Saints in Icons”) and wearing armour beneath a cloak of red, also representing martyrdom. Here the armour helps to identify the Saint whilst also confessing that the Church has never considered being a soldier as incompatible with being a Christian. The Church and history together confess war to be a tragic but inevitable occurrence of the fallen world: as (un)natural as disease and famine. Following the example of Christ, the Church has never wished or demanded that the secular sword defend her, yet equally she has never opposed a Christian having a military career, to defend values here on earth, and provide himself with the opportunity to sacrifice his life for others: “No greater love has man than this: that he lay down his life for his brother”(John 15:13).
Yet the Soldier Saints are sometimes shown holding no cross at all, but instead a spear or a sword. Sometimes, as with Ss George and Demetrius, they are shown on horseback, ready for battle. Here, these Martyrs are presented to us, the faithful, as heavenly protectors: soldiers fighting on our behalf. We can believe these Soldier Saints to be our protectors because they have shown a bravery beyond any earthly soldier in withstanding extreme tortures and death rather than forsake Christ. We can believe them too because of the miracles performed throughout history, whereby these Saints have delivered the faithful from physical harm and attack (e.g. Saint George and the Dragon in Iconography). But even then these miracles are just “icons”, or images, given to us so that we may understand that trusting completely in God means that nothing, absolutely nothing, can defeat us. This is why Ss Theodore and George are shown spearing a dragon and the Emperor Diocletian respectively in the 9th century icon shown here. St George never killed the Emperor Diocletian, on the contrary George was beheaded on the Emperor’s orders, yet George’s victory over Diocletian was spiritual. The Diocletian persecutions did not stop Christianity, and within a few years of George’s martyrdom the Christian faith was legalized, whilst Diocletian abdicated his throne and may well have committed suicide.
And so the Warrior Saints are shown to us ready for battle to inspire in us this spiritual courage. Despite the horrors of the World Wars, Vietnam, and latterly the wars in the Middle East, the bravery and courage displayed in war is still glorified in the secular world. Icons of the Warrior Saints take this imagery of bravery and transfigures it to reveal true courage and ultimate victory. This is the case with St Niketas the Goth, whose name means “Victorious”, when he is depicted in icons in full armour, beating the devil with a chain. St Dimity of Rostov, in a sermon given on St Niketas’ nameday (Sep 15), draws the parallels and distinctions between Warrior Saints and earthly soldiers well:
“Yesterday [Sept 14] we celebrated the Elevation of the Holy Cross, which is the unconquerable emblem of victory; today, we venerate Saint Niketas, whose name means ‘one who conquers’. After the token of victory, the precious and life-creating Cross of the Lord, had been exalted over the whole world, the namesake of victory, Saint Niketas, marched beneath the sacred emblem. This good soldier of Jesus Christ took his stand beneath the Cross as if it were a banner, that he might war against the enemies of the holy Cross, glorifying Him Who was crucified upon it. One soldier fights for the sake of an earthly king, another to protect himself to win empty glory, yet another to acquire fleeting riches; but Saint Niketas fought only for his only Lord, Jesus Christ, Who is the King of all creation, our glory and never-failing treasure.”
The same could be said of all the “Warrior Saints”
Icons of the Warrior Saints “in Heaven”
The above describes how the Soldier Martyrs appear in icons presented to the faithful for veneration. Their appearance should inspire us to fall upon them for protection and courage, that we may also boldly confess Jesus Christ as Saviour.
However, if these same saints appear in the tiers of the iconostasis, particularly the “Deesis Tier” (see: The Icons of the Iconostasis), then they are often (I even dare to say “should”) be shown in a simple tunic or himation and if armoured then at least unarmed.
This is because the Iconostasis shows the Saints as they are in Heaven. The Saints on the deesis tier are orientated towards Christ, in supplication, and it is obvious that in Heaven there is no place for enmity, and therefore no place for military arms.
There are examples of the Soldier Martyrs wearing military dress, and there are examples of them wearing simple tunics (with perhaps a red cloak of martyrdom). No doubt there are theories trying to chart the differences in terms of culture or history. However, it appears that the general rule is very simple: when the Warrior Saints are orientated towards Christ, they are unarmed; when they are orientated towards the faithful, they are presented as armed and ready to wage spiritual war on our behalf, able to offer us protection.
A Collection of Lives for the Military Martyrs (an incomplete, but still substantial collection)
Martyrs of Great Love, by St Nikolai of Ohrid, offering a beautiful description and explanation of how the Great Martyrs endured what they did.
The age of “Warrior Saints” has not ended! Since the Diocletian persecutions there have been numerous other soldiers throughout history who were later glorified as Saints. A modern example of a Martyr is Saint Evgeny Rodionov the New Martyr of Chechnya(+1996). Like the first Soldier Saints, he was not glorified for being a soldier, but for refusing to renounce his faith when in captivity. Like the first Soldier Saints, he is depicted in icons wearing military attire and holding a cross.