Download our free printable activity package on Orthodox Saints and how to tell them apart in icons. It contains:
– Visual chart of Saint categories
– Matching activity
– Guess Who? game
– Cut and glue craft
In the Orthodox Church, the only true “saint” or holy one (Hagios) is the Trinitarian God Himself. The glorification or veneration of Saints (not worship, which belongs only to God) is a recognition that God’s holiness is manifested in the Church through these Grace-filled men and women. In Orthodoxy, sainthood is a gift (charisma) given to man by God, through the Holy Spirit. This is not a theory, but an experience: Through the Grace of God, many Saints perform miracles while alive; Saints’ relics often remain undefiled, are wonder-working or myrrh-streaming – and vast numbers of believers witness this.
According to the Orthodox faith, the goal of man is to imitate God and live the life of sanctification (theosis/deification = to become “God” by Grace, not by nature). St. Maximos the Confessor writes that the Saints are men and women who have reached theosis; they have avoided sin, and tried to live according to created nature, thus achieving total unity with God through the Holy Spirit (On Theology, 7.73). They fought the “good fight for the faith” (1 Tim. 6:12 and 2 Tim. 4:7), and applied the scriptural virtues of “justice, piety, fidelity, love, fortitude, and gentleness” (1 Tim. 6:11) in their lives.
So, the Orthodox Church honors the Saints as “friends of God”. In their worldly life, and through daily repentance, constant spiritual struggle against their weaknesses, genuine piety and absolute obedience to His Divine Commandments, the Saints pleased God Who sanctified them both in body and soul. After their passing into eternal life, they have been accepted in God’s bosom and have been granted the special gift to pray and intercede for those remaining in this world. Thus, the Saints are the ultimate role models of an Orthodox Christian.
The Intercession of the Saints
Orthodox Christians pray for the Saints’ intercessions to God. We ask for those in heaven to pray for us. According to the book of Revelation, “[An] angel came and stood at the altar [in heaven] with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the Saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the Saints from the hand of the angel before God” (Rev. 8:3-4). St. John Chrysostom says that we should seek the fervent prayers of the Saints, because they have special “boldness” (parresia), before God. (Gen. 44:2 and Encomium to Julian, Iuventinus and Maximinus, 3). This appears in stark contrast to most Protestant teachings, which reject all Saintly intercession (including the – most important according to Orthodoxy – intercession of the Theotokos).
All Christians ask fellow believers to pray for them. In the same spirit, Orthodox Christians also ask the Saints to pray for them. Orthodoxy teaches that the Saints can act as intermediaries between the believers and God. They were human, exactly like us, so they completely understand our trials, tribulations and difficulties; at the same time, they are sanctified, thus being closer to God than we are, so He can listen to them better than He can listen to us.
St. Paisios the Athonite used to say: “Let’s say someone has a very powerful neighbor – a Prime Minister, for example. He wants to ask this powerful person for a favor, but he doesn’t feel comfortable to do so. In this case, he can go and talk to the Prime Minister’s mother, with whom he feels more at ease, and ask her for help, that is, to intercede to her son on his behalf. This is the spirit in which we ask the Theotokos – and subsequently all Saints – to intercede for us to God.”
Summarizing, we all, both those in heaven and those still upon this earth, pray to the same “sole Mediator between God and man”, Jesus Christ. The Orthodox tradition teaches that Saints, being just a few steps closer to Him than we are, are more easily heard by Him than us, and this is why we ask for their intercession.
Canonization of Saints
Does the Orthodox Church “make” a Saint? No. Only God can do that. The Church merely recognizes that such a person has cooperated with God’s Grace to the extent that his or her holiness is beyond doubt.
Are Orthodox Saints “elected”? Again, no. In order to avoid misunderstandings, the Ecumenical Patriarchate only issues special encyclical letters in which the Holy Synod, after taking into consideration thousands of official and signed letters of faithful people, who have experienced the holiness and miracles of a particular man or woman firsthand, accepts the popular feelings about a Saint.
Long before any official steps are taken, a person considered saintly is venerated by the people where he or she lived and died. Then a request is made, usually through the diocesan bishop, for the Church to recognize that person as a Saint. A committee is assigned to research the life and the certified miracles of the person and to submit a report to the Holy Eparchial Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Then the Holy Synod decides to number that person among the Saints. The other Orthodox Churches are notified so that they can include the new Saint in their calendars.
Since the early Christian period, many descriptions of the lives, martyrdoms and miracles of the Saints have been preserved. These are called synaxaria (from the Greek word Synaxis, a gathering in the Church for liturgical purposes, where the lives of the Saints were read).
Categories of Saints
In the Orthodox tradition, the Saints can be generally classified in the following categories:
The Apostles, who were the first ones to preach the Incarnation of the Word of God and of salvation through Christ.
The Prophets, who prophesied the coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
The Martyrs and Confessors, who sacrificed their lives and fearlessly confessed Jesus Christ as God and Savior.
The Fathers and Hierarchs of the Church, who excelled in explaining and defending the faith, by word and deed.
The Monastics, who lived in seclusion, dedicating themselves to spiritual exercise (askesis), and reaching, as far as possible, perfection in Christ.
The Just or Righteous, who lived in the world, leading exemplary lives in Christ as clergy or laity.
How do we recognize the categories of Saints in icons?
(all icons used are from the Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons – for icon details see end of page)
In Orthodox iconography, there are standard characteristics that help us recognize the category each Saint belongs to. These usually have to do with the clothes a Saint wears, the items s/he holds and the gestures s/he makes with his/her hands. Even though there are variations in how a Saint might be depicted in each individual icon, these general traits remain unchanged overall.
- They wear: Apostles are often wearing a yellow ribbon on their shoulder, which signifies the great mission they accomplished.
- They hold: A scroll or a book. The Apostles who preached but didn’t write texts hold a rolled scroll. The Apostles who wrote texts hold a book. These are the four Evangelists, who hold the Gospel, and St. Paul the Apostle, who holds the Epistles.
Saint Andrew the First-Called Apostle
St. Andrew is holding a rolled scroll. In front of his left shoulder, underneath his outer garment, we can see the yellow ribbon.
Saint Paul the Apostle
St. Paul the Apostle is holding a book.
- They wear: Like the Apostles, Prophets often wear a yellow ribbon on their shoulder. They are usually dressed according to their social status while they were living on earth. For example, Ss David and Solomon are dressed like kings.
- They hold: Open scrolls, on which an excerpt from their prophecies is written. As with other Saints, they may also be holding the instrument of their salvation.
King Solomon is wearing a crown and regal outfit. He is holding an open scroll where we can read a phrase from his prophecies, and with his other hand he is pointing at a model of the Temple.
Prophet Joel is holding an open scroll on which his prophecy is written.
- They wear: A red cloak, head cover or other kind of red clothing, which signifies their blood that was shed for the love of Christ. Otherwise, they are dressed according to the social position they had when they were alive.
- They hold: A cross, their crown of martyrdom. They may also hold the instruments of their martyrdom. If they are warrior martyrs, they usually hold their weapons.
- Their hands: Their free hand is often depicted raised, with the inside of the palm facing forward, like a policeman motioning a car to stop. This signifies denouncing evil and worldly glory in favor of the Heavenly Kingdom.
St. Marina is wearing a red head covering, holding a cross in one hand and raising the other hand, palm outwards.
St. George is a Warrior Martyr Saint. He is wearing his military uniform with a red cape and holding his weapons.
- They wear: Clergy vestments, parts of which are often decorated with a pattern of crosses.
- They hold: A Gospel book, because they followed and preached the Word of God through the Gospels. Sometimes the hand holding the Gospel is covered with a part of the Saint’s vestments, out of reverence to the book’s holiness.
- Their hands: Their right hand is often depicted in a gesture of blessing, with the tip of the fourth finger touching the tip of the thumb, thus forming the monogram of the name of Christ, ICXC.
Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker
St. Nicholas is wearing his vestments. He is holding the Gospel in one hand, and he is raising the other hand in a gesture of blessing. The hand holding the Gospel is covered in reverence.
- They wear: Their dark monastic habit, which is usually hooded.
- They hold: Monastics may hold a prayer rope or a cross, which symbolizes the cross they bear in their spiritual struggle. They may also hold a scroll, open or closed, because they preached through the way they lived. If they wrote spiritual texts, the scroll is open and on it appears an excerpt from their writings.
Saint Euthymios (part of a larger icon)
The Saint is shown in his monastic habit, holding a prayer rope and a closed scroll.
Saint Maximus the Confessor
St. Maximus the Confessor is wearing his monastic habit and is holding an open scroll, on which we can read a phrase from his writings.
In addition to the previous characteristics, many Saints are also shown together with the instrument of their salvation or something that signifies who or what they are protectors of.
Saints Alipy the Stylite and Stylianos (part of a larger icon)
St. Alipy was a stylite, an ascetic who lived on a pillar, preaching, fasting and praying. Thus, he is depicted upon his pillar, which was the instrument of his salvation. St. Stylianos is the protector of children, this is why he is holding a baby.
- GOArch Υ2ΑΜ Be the Bee video series: Called to Be Saints.
For more, visit y2am.org.
- GOArch Introduction to Orthodoxy video series: Saints, with theologians from Hellenic College/Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.
- GOArch article: The Saints of the Orthodox Church.
- OCA article: The Glorification of the Saints in the Orthodox Church by Fr. Joseph Frawley, a member of the OCA Canonization Commission.
- Why Ask the Saints? Article by Abbot Tryphon of ROCOR on The Morning Offering.
- Excerpt from Introduction to The Synaxarion: The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra, Mount Athos.
- The meaning of objects held by Saints in Icons on A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons.
- Why is No One Ever Depicted Smiling on Icons? by Irina Yazykova, art historian.
Special thanks to the Department of Youth & Young Adult Ministries of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (Y2AM) for allowing us to embed their video into our webpage.