Saint Basil the Great (329/330 – 379) was the bishop of Caesarea, a prominent theologian and church figure.

Numerous historical accounts of Saint Basil’s life are found in both his own works and those of his contemporaries – Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, a junior brother of St. Basil, etc., in the writings of church historians of the 4th – 5th centuries and in the hagiographic sources.

St. Basil the Great is believed by contemporary scientists to have been born ca. 329 – 330 in the city of Neocaesarea (in today’s city of Niksar, Turkey), but other scholars assume that he was born in Caesaria in Cappadocia (now known as Kayseri, Turkey). His parents were wealthy landlords and were noted for their piety. His maternal grandfather died a martyr’s death, while his paternal grandmother Macrina the Elder had received spiritual instructions from St. Gregory the Wonderworker, the bishop of Neocaesarea.

The parents of Basil the Great, Emmelia and Basil the Elder had nine or ten children. The boy received the traditional upbringing. His father, who wanted his children to receive good secular education, sent his son to a primary school when he reached the age of seven. In 346, Basil continued his studies at school in Caesarea in Cappadocia where he is believed to have met Gregory the Theologian, who would become his lifetime friend. To receive a higher education, the young man went to Constantinople in 348. But, dissatisfied with the level of education in the new capital, he moved to Athens where he trained with different teachers. Possessing a brilliant mind, Basil the Great fundamentally studied arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, medicine, law, philosophy, grammar, metrics and ethics.

Circa 356 Basil returned to his parents to Caesarea in Cappadockia where he practiced as a court lawyer and taught rhetoric to children. About 357, at the age of 27, Basil the Great took baptism and later made a trip to Syria and Egypt where he is believed to have visited some monasteries. Upon his return he briefly went into the solitude in his family estate on the Iris river. He was later joined by Gregory the Theologian.

Having begun his Christian ministry as a gospeller, he was ordained presbyter in 362 or 364 and consecrated bishop of the Caesarea see in 370. At this post, he actively combated Arian and other heresies that were spread on the Christian Orient.

Basil the Great holds a very important role in history as the author and editor of liturgical texts. He is also the author of a liturgy bearing his name, treatises, letters, conversations and several writings dedicated to the organization of monastic life.

Basil the Great is also known for having helped the poor, sick people and travelers; he contributed his own funds to the construction of a hospital and a hostel.

Basil the Great is commonly believed to have died on January 1st, 379 from a chronic disease he had suffered all his life. He was buried along with other bishops of Caesaerea.

In Byzantine and Russian art Basil the Great is depicted as a middle-aged man with a thin dark face, high forehead, black hair and black beard with gray hairs, dressed in clerical vestments – a phelonion and an omophorion – with a Gospel or a scroll in his hand. The earliest of surviving iconographic images of the saint is dated back to the 7th century (held in the St. Catherine Monastery on Sinai). In medieval Russian art, the earliest image of St. Basil is found on the mosaics of St. Sophia of Kiev (1037–1045). The saint’s icon was included in the composition of the Deesis tier, such as a full-length icon of St. Basil from the Annunciation Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin. The saint’s image is also encountered on the doors of the Holy Gates. The earliest monument of this kind are the Holy Gates dated to the second half of the 13th century from the Assumption Church in the village of Krivoe on the Northern Dvina (Kholmogorsky district, the Arkhangelsk region), now held in State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

The feast day of St. Basil the Great is Janury 14th (January 1 the old style), February 12th (January 30th, the old style).

Zhanna G. Belik,

Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.

Olga E. Savchenko,

research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.


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