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July 30, 2016

The Prophet Elijah as the Patron of the Macedonian Dynasty

Emperor Basil I

By John Sanidopoulos

Though many Roman emperors had as patron saints those with either a royal or military background, Emperor Basil I (r. 867–886), the founder of the Macedonian Dynasty (867-1056), had as his prime patron the Prophet Elijah. This is because, according to many sources, the Prophet Elijah appeared to his widowed and impoverished mother in a dream when he was a boy, appearing as a tall old man with white beard from whose mouth a flame was burning, saying: "God will hand over the scepter of the Roman Empire to your beloved son Basil; you should persuade him to go to Constantinople." Upon reaching the city, Basil settled down to spend the night by the gates of the Monastery of Saint Diomedes. During the night, this Saint appeared to the Abbot in a dream and commanded him to invite the stranger in and give him everything he required, since he would one day be emperor.

After ascending the throne, Basil remembered his benefactors, founding and rebuilding churches in their honor, including the palatine Nea Ekklesia in Constantinople in May 880, which contained the sheepskin cloak of the Prophet Elijah as a revered relic. This church was dedicated to the Prophet Elijah, the Archangel Gabriel, Christ, the Theotokos and Saint Nicholas. He also reintroduced the feast of the Prophet Elijah to Constantinople, since before his reign the Prophet Elijah was not as venerated by Christians as he was after.

We even see this in the manuscript, the first of the imperial portraits, where Basil is depicted flanked by Elijah (viewer's left) and Gabriel (right). Elijah passes Constantine's labarum to Basil, while the Archangel Gabriel crowns him with his right hand and holds an orb in his left. The portrait is framed by a verse, the opening words of which are effaced; the remainder reads: "Elijah promises victory over [Basil's] enemies. But Gabriel, having predicted joy, crowns you, Basil, governor of the cosmos."

The son of Basil I and his successor, Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912), continued the family tradition of devotion to Elijah. This is especially evident in his Homily 34 which he delivered on the feast of the Prophet Elijah. There Leo speaks of his deliverance from prison on 21 July 886, which was commemorated at an annual banquet. We do not know from this homily why Leo was sent to prison, but he took full responsibility for something, acknowledging himself as a great sinner who deserved death rather than imprisonment. What we do know is that his actions made his father look at him with aversion, thus forcing his father to imprison his son. What we do gather from other sources however is this: Responding to slander - that Leo carried a knife in his boot and planned to kill his father at an opportune time - the gullible father, Basil, locked his son and daughter-in-law Theophano in prison. Thus, two innocent souls languished in prison for three years. Then on the feast of the Prophet Elijah, the emperor summoned all his noblemen to his court for a banquet to honor his patron. Suddenly the emperor's parrot unexpectedly spoke these words, "Alas, alas, my lord Leo!" and repeated these words a number of times. This brought great anxiety to all of the imperial noblemen, and they all begged the emperor to release his son and daughter-in-law. What is significant in all this is that Leo was delivered from prison on the feast of the Prophet Elijah, the patron of his father, and Leo describes the prophet as an intermediary between heavenly and earthly kings.

Basil’s grandson, Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos (r. 945–959), would continue to honor the Prophet Elijah as the patron of his family, thus codifying the Prophet’s feast as a six-day celebration featuring imperial largesse, races in the hippodrome, and the relic of the Prophet’s cloak. But with the end of his reign, it seems that the feast of the Prophet Elijah faded more and more into insignificance, at least on the imperial level.