X050. Saint Basil the Holy Fool
Russian, circa 1700
31.6 x 27.5 cm
This icon is of immense importance as it depicts a very popular and highly praised Russian saint - Basil the Holy Fool, whose personality is surrounded by legends based, however, on historical evidence. This icon is not only a beautiful and delicate piece, which is executed in a golden colour scheme, but also a depiction of a highly important saint in Russian culture and history.
Quite a few interesting legends are known about St Basil. He was born in a distinctive period of Russian history, in the middle of the 15th century, when people were expecting the end of the world and considered, for example, the eclipse of sun as an omen of the forthcoming last day. During that time there lived an old couple in Elohovo, by Moscow, who prayed desperately to have a child: In 1464 a child was born due to the divine help.
The boy was sent to Moscow to work as a shoemaker. Once there came a man who desired to have a proper pair of boots so he could wear them for several years. As soon as he left Basil foresaw that the man would die the next day, what indeed happened. From that moment he realised his fate, left the workshop and became a beggar.
He would be seen most often near the Kremlin’s Spasskie gates where there was an always crowded market. The architecture shown in the icon resembles to a large extent that of the Moscow Kremlin with churches and a reddish wall. The cathedral reminds of Uspenski Sobor. The Saint would perform various miracles and punish those who lied or mocked him. Basil is also known for his connection with Ivan the Great, who respected him and listened to him.
However, Basel was to a large extent antimonarchist and even allowed himself to criticise the first Russian tzar. When Ivan the Terrible was in a church during the sermon, Basel noticed that he was not present there because he was not praying but thinking about a palace being built for him at that time.
Basel the Holy Fool is highly connected in Russian mind with the city of Moscow. In 1521 it was he who is believed to save Moscow from Mukhamed-Girey through constant praying. The Crimean khan did not even dare to attack the gates of the city. Thus, Saint Basel saved the city from invasion and there is no surprise that after victory over Kazan' Ivan IV named the nowadays most well-known Russian cathedral in honour of St Basil.
It is also explicable why the saint is shown naked. It highlights his destitution and begging nature as he would always appear naked even during the cold and snowy winter. He was even originally called Basel the Naked.