Mass of Saint Basil by Unknown Byzantine artist

Unknown Byzantine artist

Mass of Saint Basil, 11th century, Fresco, Church of St Sophia, Ohrid, Macedonia, akg-images

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The Officiating Bishop

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Basil of Caesarea was a fourth-century bishop who composed a liturgy that bears his name and is still used in the Orthodox Church. He was regarded as a model bishop by other contemporary theologians including his brother Gregory (who was bishop of Nyssa), and Gregory of Nazianzus. They praised his moral virtues and ecclesiastical leadership which manifested themselves, among other things, through his insistence that the recommendations of 1 Timothy 3:2–3 be upheld when taking on new ministers. Basil called for ‘a very careful investigation’ of their conduct so as ‘to learn if they were not railers, or drunkards, or quick to quarrel’ (Letter 54).

This fresco which shows Basil performing his liturgy is located in the sanctuary of the church of St Sophia at Ohrid. Its exact location is on the north wall just off the apse where the Communion of the Apostles is depicted on the same level.

The officiating scene continues the story from the previous fresco in which Basil receives divine inspiration from Christ who has appeared to him in a dream. Dressed in episcopal attire, Basil is shown bowing before an altar with the bread, chalice, and gospels on it. In his hands is a scroll inscribed with the opening words of a prayer from the liturgy he wrote: ‘Lord, our God, You created us [and brought us into this life]’. This prayer is read just after the ceremony of the Great Entrance during which the officiating priest enters the sanctuary through the iconostasis.

This is the first and only time such a scene has been depicted in Byzantine art. It coincided with the final rift between the Western and Eastern Church of 1054, which had been brewing over their respective use of unleavened and leavened bread in the Eucharist. In fact, the person who commissioned the frescoes, Archbishop Leo, was a key figure in the dispute. This scene, emphasising the mystery of the Eucharist and harking back to the origins of Byzantine liturgy, made it clear that the eucharistic practices of the Eastern Church were instituted by the ascended Christ himself through the agency of Basil.

The one ‘vindicated in the Spirit [and] taken up in glory’ (v.16) is shown working through his ministers to ensure that the Church remains genuinely ‘the church of the living God’ (v.15).



Deferrari, Roy J. (ed.). 1926. Saint Basil: The Letters, vol. 1, Loeb Classical Library, 190 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), pp. 342–47 [343]

Lidov, Alexei. 1998. ‘Byzantine Church Decoration and the Great Schism of 1054’, Byzantion, 68.2: 381–405

Rapp, Claudia. 2013. Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition (Los Angeles: University of California Press)

Sterk, Andrea. 1998. ‘On Basil, Moses, and the Model Bishop: The Cappadocian Legacy of Leadership’, Church History, 67.2: 227–53

Todić, Branislav. 2012. ‘Arhiepiskop Lav—tvorac ikonografskog programa fresaka u Svetoj Sofiji Ohridskoj’, in Vizantijski svet na Balkanu, ed. by Bojana Krsmanović, Ljubomir Maksimović, and Radivoj Radić (Belgrade: Vizantološki institut), pp. 119–37



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