Saint Athanasius the Great (290s – 373 AD) was Archbishop of Alexandria, a renowned theologian and church figure.

Many accounts of his life can be found in his own works, those of his contemporaries, church historians of the 4th – 5th centuries and documentary collection. However, reports of his life before he was ordained an archbishop are scarce and controversial. Athanasius the Great is believed to have been born in ca. 295, presumably in Alexandria. He obviously had a good backround as he was well familiar with Antique philosophy and literature. According to one surviving account, Athanasius and his mother were baptized by Archbishop Alexander of Alexandria. Athanasius was strongly influenced by St. Anthony the Great, whose Life he subsequently compiled. During six years St. Athanasius was a reader in the church and was later ordained a deacon. Archbishop of Alexandria appointed him his secretary. Saint Alexander and Athanasius the Great took part in the First Council in Nicaea which denounced Arianism.

On June 8, 328, St. Athanasius became Archbishop of Alexandria. He spent his life fighting against various heresies that were widespread at that time on Christian Orient. St. Athanasius had not left any systematic teaching, but his polemic works contributed greatly to developing the Orthodox Christian theology, which won him the title “Great” and one of the Fathers of the Orthodoxy.

St. Athanasius’ uncompromised stance on Arianism led to many attempts to remove him from the Archbishop see. The emperors who governed the Eastern parts of the Roman Empire received reports alleging him state, criminal and other offences. Athanasius the Great spent over seventeen years in exiles.

St. Athanasius the Great died in May 373. He hadn’t lived just a few years to the Second Ecumenical Council which formulated the Symbol of Faith, also known as the Nicaea-Constantinople Symbol of Faith.

In Byzantine and Russian art Athanasius the Great is portrayed as an old man with gray hair, receding hairlines and a middle-size gray beard. He is shown wearing clerical attire – a phelonion and omophorion – holding a book of Gospel or a scroll. The earliest image of the saint is found on the apsis of the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua dating back to the second half of the 8th century. The earliest known image of St. Athanasius the Great in Russian medieval art is found in the wall-paintings of the St. Cyril Church in Kiev dating back to the second half of the 12th century.

St. Athanasius the Great is commemorated on January 31 (January 18, O.S.), May 15 (May 2, O.S.).

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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