February 25, 2014

Saint Tarasios and the Importance of Depicting the Martyrs in Churches

Saint Theophanes, in his Chronographia, leaves us the following account:

"In this year, 806, on the 25th of February,... Tarasios, the most holy Patriarch of Constantinople, died a glorious death. His remains were conveyed to the straits of the Black Sea on Wednesday of the first week of the Great Fast and buried in the monastery he had built (on the European side of the Bosporus)."

He was interred in the Church of All Martyrs, named after all those who had shed their blood for Christ. The monastery soon became known by the name of its founder, Saint Tarasios.

Saint Tarasios was wont to praise the martyrs who had "resisted as far as blood, struggling against sin" (Heb. 12:4), sparing not their bodies for the sake of God. He always implored their salutary intervention and assistance. He had a book which he set up before the eyes of all in the churches, depicting the struggles of the martyrs. His purpose in doing so was twofold: he wished to inspire zeal and emulation in the beholders and establish fighters for the faith. He believed that when the eye encounters a good subject, it is capable of producing a like state of mind. He promoted an iconographic program, depicting a series of martyrdoms in paint. He believed that such representations - that is, of the martyrs disdaining fire, whips, stocks, swords, instruments of torture, iron claws, chains, hideous punishments, and nakedness while standing on wintry ice in frosty air - would move to tears and compunction the beholders of such scenes.

Who would not give God praise in gratitude for the sight of such fortitude and heroism? These feats for the sake of piety were not accomplished only by men. Women martyrs were also shown enduring racks, wheels of torture, and other engines of punishment. Children were also portrayed suffering all kinds of outrageous chastisements for the sake of Christ. Specific reference was made to the Protomartyrs Stephen and Thekla, so that Tarasios' congregation would struggle against every beastly and insane heresy. Other icons were also made showing the first Martyr of all, our Lord and God, during the crucifixion, that the Christians might meditate upon His ineffable condescension and forbearance.

All the traditions of iconography were strictly observed. Thus, Saint Tarasios opened the gates of his flock's intellect to God. One could not gaze upon these icons of exemplars of piety and not be moved to extol God and His servants. Therefore, the remembrance of these favorites abides in our hearts forever.

From The Great Synaxaristes of the Orthodox Church, February (Holy Apostles Convent, Buena Vista, CO) pp. 938, 939, 943.