Who Are the Unknown Saints?

When I was an art student in college, I was particularly fascinated by medieval art and iconography. And I spent a lot of time poring over books of medieval art. The art of this time, in my opinion, expresses spiritual reality more purely than what would come later, beginning in the Renaissance, which, with its classicism and humanism, began to exalt the merely human over the divine. That’s a controversial opinion in the Western world, which tends to prefer the works of Michelangelo and DaVinci to those of the unknown artisans of the centuries before them.

Right there is already highlighted a cultural difference between these eras. For the most part, the artisans of the Middle Ages are, as I say, unknown. In contrast, when art historians comment on David or the Mona Lisa, they often have a lot more to say about Michelangelo and DaVinci than they do about David or the Mona Lisa. The anonymity of most medieval artists makes that kind of analysis of their work impossible.

To this day, iconography is traditionally left unsigned, though that tradition is unfortunately beginning to wane. Humility before the subject we portray is an act of veneration. How can I paint an icon of the Theotokos — and then sign my name to it? As if to call attention to myself rather than to my subject who is, in this case, “more honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim”?

An anonymous iconographer does not exalt himself, but Christ. He acknowledges Christ before others and seeks to love Christ more than himself (cf. Matt 10:32, 37). I think we can learn something about holiness from the anonymous iconographers. Like them, we can call attention not to our own good work, but rather, by our good work, call attention to Christ. If we acknowledge him before all others, he will acknowledge us before his Father, he assures us (Matt 10:32).

The medieval iconographers were intentionally anonymous, but another kind of anonymity also soon captivated me as I pored over those medieval art books. Medieval art is, as you know, very old. As a result, a lot of it is damaged. And a lot of it has moved around and its provenance is lost. For these reasons, and simply due to centuries of forgetting, sometimes not only the artist, but also the subject is unknown. One often finds in books of medieval art a beautiful picture filled with images of saints. They’re clearly saints, being haloed figures in a medieval Christian artwork, but it is no longer clear who they are specifically, if it ever was. Very often, in the description of the image, it will read something like, “Christ enthroned and four unknown saints.” Or, even just, “unknown saint.”

I love these figures. Often on the periphery of a scene filled with greater and better-known figures, they are saints too, but they are unknown saints. Personally, they have come to represent to me all the saints we do not know by name – the saints who lived and worked and died for Christ in obscurity, which, I believe, is most saints.

An archangel and three unknown saints from the Euphrasian Basilica (Byzantine, circa sixth century) by Shesmax / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

I love to commemorate all the saints in a general way, as we do on the final Sunday of the Pentecostarion, the Sunday of All Saints, because it gives us the opportunity to remember in some way even the unremembered holy ones. Every day of the year, the Church lifts up saints we do know by name. These holy men and women are inspiring examples of life in Christ worthy of our imitation. Yet, at the same time, most Catholic and Orthodox Christians hold in their hearts a saint they knew personally — often a member of their own family — who is perhaps not likely to be raised to the altars of the Church for public veneration. Most saints, it seems to me, are unsung, except perhaps on All Saints Sunday, on which we “celebrate a solemn feast of all those who from the ages have found grace before God,” (from the stichera at Vespers for All Saints Sunday).

Like the unknown saints, most of us are not prominent or famous or likely to be. Most of us will not be glorified in the Churches with our own feast days or any such thing. Does this mean that we are not to be saints? God forbid that we fail to understand that we are created for holiness and union with God – or that this is attainable to us by his grace. I daresay that fame and prominence actually diminish our prospects of sanctity. Our relative obscurity is an opportunity to grow in humility. Of course, obscurity alone will not make us holy, but it is a helpful gift and no impediment.

We are known to God, and that is all that matters. No saints are unknown to God. He knows them all. It is of no significance whether or not we are remembered by the world. To be remembered by God is to be remembered eternally and to live forever in him. Therefore, we pray for all those who have died in Christ, that the Lord God remember them forever. For them we sing, “eternal memory.” This is nothing less than a prayer that God make them saints. Perhaps we don’t know what a saint is. A saint is holy person, made holy by grace, and eternally alive in Christ

How can we become holy and live forever? Jesus tells us that, if we acknowledge him before others, he will acknowledge us before his Father. Evangelization, then, is mandatory for our salvation. It can take many forms, but it must take some form in our lives if we are to be acknowledged before the Father.

But what if we have denied him? All of us who are sinners have denied him in some way. He says that if we have denied him before others, he will deny us before his Father (Matt 10:33). Those are sharp words we need to hear. But if you have denied Christ, do not despair. “He forgave Peter his denial when he wept bitterly,” (from the Greek prayer of absolution). The Lord is kind and merciful and eager to forgive those who repent.

Beginning after All Saints Sunday, this repentance of Peter is our model of repentance, as we begin the Apostles Fast in preparation for the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul on June 29th. This is one of four seasons of repentance in the Byzantine Catholic Churches and it is not to be neglected by us. We all sorely need repentance in our lives, if we are to become saints. Repentance is a way of life and not a momentary act.

Let us increase in our lives the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. To do no fasting at all during this season is unacceptable. Neither is it acceptable to fast perfectly while continuing in our sins.

St. Ambrose of Optina instructs us, “People have to answer greatly for not keeping… the fasts…. They repent and consider themselves sinners in every other respect, but they do not think to repent about not keeping the fasts.”

Meanwhile, St. Basil the Great observes,

“Beware of limiting the good of fasting to mere abstinence from meats. Real fasting is alienation from evil. ‘Loose the bands of wickedness.’ Forgive your neighbor the mischief he has done you. Forgive him his trespasses against you…. You do not devour flesh, but you devour your brother. You abstain from wine, but you indulge in outrages.”

Take heart. We all have much work to do, and this is an opportunity for us to do it together as a Church helping one another to grow in holiness and become saints, known to God alone perhaps, but saints nonetheless.

Image by Asimina Nteliou from Pixabay


Fr. John R.P. Russell is a husband, a father of four, and a priest for the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Eparchy of Parma. He is the administrator of St. Stephen Byzantine Catholic Church in Allen Park, Michigan. He is also a lifelong painter, particularly influenced by abstract expressionism and iconography. He has an M.Div. from the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Ss. Cyril and Methodius and a B.A. in art with a minor in religion from Wabash College. He has been blogging since 2007: Blog of the Dormition

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