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St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. John Chrysostom stand facing the viewer with a looming, authoritative presence. All three are dressed in the classical vestments of an Orthodox bishop. They each hold a Gospel in their left hand, which is covered by a cloth - an ancient sign of reverence when holding a sacred object. Saints Basil and Gregory both bless the viewer with their right hands, whereas John points to his Gospel. Above the saints is a miniature representation of the typology known as the mandylion: the face of Jesus miraculously imprinted on the veil - just before he was crucified - that was sent to the King of Edessa; it is sometimes referred to as the first 'icon'.
The iconography can be understood as an artistic celebration of 'episcopal wisdom', as the Troparion for this feast (known as the Synaxis of the Ecumenical Teachers and Hierarchs) expresses:
Let us who love their words gather together / and honour with hymns the three great torch-bearers of the triune Godhead: / Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom. / These men have enlightened the world with the rays of their divine doctrines. / They are sweetly-flowing rivers of wisdom / filling all creation with springs of heavenly knowledge. / Ceaselessly they intercede for us before the Holy Trinity!
The image is therefore a meeting (synaxis) of three of the most important theologians in the Orthodox Church, known as the 'Holy Hierarchs', and visualised in an emblematic manner. Together their writings are a major contribution to the early formation of Orthodox doctrine and patristic theology, while St Basil and St John Chrysostom developed the liturgy of the Church still in use today.
The Orthodox tradition of painting these three saints together derives from what is known as an 'appearance' - the manifestation of a saint to a person or group of people - which happened in Constantinople in the late 11th century. In this period, which is known as the Comnene era (1081-1261) taking its name from the dynasty that ruled in Constantinople from 10256 –1204, there were arguments over who was the greatest theologian of the Church: some 'called themselves Basilians, others referred to themselves as Gregorians, and others as Johnites.' During this controversy the three hierarchs appeared to St John the Bishop of Euchaita 'in the year 1084 and said that they were equal before God. “There are no divisions among us, and no opposition to one another.”' Consequently, St John the Bishop of Euchaita, at the behest of the hierarchs during the 'appearance', chose the 30th January to celebrate the feast of the three hierarchs and their unity. The repetition of the stances, gestures and clothing of the saints in the icon can be seen as reflecting this unity visually. The static, emblematic nature of the iconography is fitting for the Comnene era, as much of the art that was produced in this period is known for these characteristics.
The current version, painted long after the Comnene period, follows the tradition so characteristic of Orthodoxy.