Icon with St Sisoes and the Skeleton of Alexander the Great by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

Icon with St Sisoes and the Skeleton of Alexander the Great, 16th century, Tempera on panel lined with canvas, 26.7 x 19.5 cm, The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, akg-images / Album

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I Cannot Believe My Eyes

Saint Sisoes (367–429 CE) was an Orthodox hermit who lived in Egypt, where the tomb of Alexander the Great (356–23 BCE), one of the most admired personalities of all times, was also located.

After the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the ephemeral nature of life became a focus of Orthodox thought. The subject of this icon captures this notion: a large, kneeling figure dominates the mountainous landscape set against a gold background. A halo outlined in red identifies the figure as a saint, while an inscription in capital Greek letters—written also in red—reads ‘Saint Sisoes’. His arms are raised, his palms facing outwards, underlining his astonishment at the skeleton in the grave before him, identified in Greek script as ‘Alexander the Great’.

The edge of the grave is also inscribed in Greek: ‘I see you and I am afraid—who can escape you?’. As a saint, Sisoes was not himself afraid of death, yet the icon expresses his sadness at its inevitability. Death is the destiny of all humans, regardless of their achievements in this life.

This powerful scene might also be considered in relation to the worm that never dies, as described in Mark—always working its way until nothing remains. In this case, the worm may be understood as synonymous with death, which (as this icon’s inscription reminds us) is inescapable. Thus iconography comes together with the text of the Gospel to highlight to the faithful the futility of this life.

John Chrysostom wrote of this passage:

‘Their fire shall not be quenched, and their worm shall not die’. Yes, I know a chill comes over you on hearing these things. But what am I to do?

But there would be no gain, Chrysostom insists, in avoiding the challenge of Jesus’s words—for:

[t]his is no trivial subject of inquiry that we propose, but rather it concerns things most urgent. (Homilies on Corinthians, IX.1)

 

References

Bormpoudakēs, Manolēs (ed.). 1993. Eikones tēs Krētikēs technēs: apo ton Chandaka hos tēn Moscha kai tēn Hagia Petroupolē (Hērakleion: Vikelaia Dēmotikē Vivliothēkē), pp. 345–47

Hetherington, Paul (trans.). 1981. The ‘Painter’s Manual’ of Dionysius of Fourna, rev. edn (London: Sagitarius Press), p. 60

John Chrysostom. Homily IX. 1889. Trans. revd by T. W. Chambers. Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series 1, vol. 12, ed. by Philip Schaff (New York: Christian Literature Publishing)


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