The Title “Saint”

Title detail on the Mary Magdalene Icon.


Today, it is taken for granted that the title, “saint,” must prefix any saint’s name. Failure to do so seems highly disrespectful. This is our culture, and must be respected. But it must also be examined. We cannot simply change the practice here and now because it was different in another time and place. But we should also not fail to examine the development of this tradition, and probe whether it is congruent with the reality we so wish to express in our culture. This discussion is equally relevant to translation of liturgical texts, and to naming of icons. Let us begin by examining several examples in icons and liturgical texts, and then contrast that to how we tend to express it today. Finally, it will be necessary to examine the worldview underlying each.

The Tradition of Naming an Icon

There are strong traditions in the area of naming icons. First of all, icons of Christ are always named, “ΙΣ ΧΣ”, abbreviating, “Jesus Christ”, and commonly continue “ΟωΝ”, or, “the BEING”. Icons of the Theotokos are always named, “Μρ θς,” that is, “The Mother of God.” These inscriptions are always in Greek, and are always abbreviated. Why are they abbreviated? This is not uncommon in the Greek language, and fits the Hebrew tradition of never spelling out the sacred name in full. However, it is traditional for all other icons to be named in the vernacular language. Note that it isn’t, “St. Mary,” or “The Virgin Mary,” but, “the Mother of God,” equivalent to, “the Theotokos”.

The early Church did not have a concept of saints in the modern sense of the word. Saint simply means holy one, and this description applied to all Christians, who have been set apart as the holy people of God through the holy Chrism. The genesis of the modern concept was the martyrs. The earliest Christians venerated the martyrs, even being called “bone worshippers” for their veneration of relics. They would not have referred to “St. Polycarp,” or “St. Stephen” though, since all Christians were still understood to be holy.

Once persecution died down, and the addition of fresh martyrs dwindled, monasticism arose. This became known as “white martyrdom,” for they died to the world, and so bore witness to Christ in place of the earlier martyrs who had born witness in red (martyr meaning simply witness). Very quickly, disciples came to venerate their departed abbas (spiritual fathers). Thus a second class of what we today call saints, came to be recognized. But, they still were not called, “St. Anthony,” for example, but more simply, “Abba Anthony,” as the spiritual children continued to cry to their fathers after their repose.

Next, the great theological controversies arose in the cities. The bishops who defended the faith, thus bearing witness to Christ, were of course fathers to their congregations, just as the abbots were fathers to their disciples. And so, these defenders of the faith continued to be venerated by their children after their repose. The most famous of them continue to be venerated until today. Finally, a very few married persons bore witness to Christ in their lives in such a way that they too came to be remembered with the martyrs, or witnesses.

This hierarchy of the witnesses who we remember and venerate is beautifully summed up in the Liturgy of St. Gregory, “The sinners who have repented, count them with Your faithful; Your faithful, count with Your martyrs.”

Thus, in early icons, we tend not to see terms equivalent to “saint” on icons. Most icons, simply named the saints as they were known. “Anthony the Great,” “Stephen the Protodeacon,” “John the Baptist,” “Macarius the Spirit Bearer,” “Macarius of Alexandria,” “John the Short,” “Athanasius the Apostolic,” “Moses the Strong”. There was no need to specify, “holy,” which was quite clear in their glorified depiction in the icon, especially by the halo (which depicts their personification of the heavenly glory in which they participate).

At a later date, it become common to prefix “the holy” in front of the name. In Coptic, this is ethouab. In greek, it is agios. In Latin, it is, sanctus. Thus, by medieval times, it became common to see “the holy Stephen the Protodeacon,”. This tradition came to the English language via Latin, and the Latin sanctus became “saint.” Today we would generally see an icon named, “St. Stephen the Protodeacon,” for example.

The linguistic shift did not end with entering English though. The meaning of the word “saint” today has diverged from its original meaning of “holy,” due to a number of historical developments: the legalization of the process, and the division of the Church between heaven and earth.

The use of the Title “Saint” in the West

The english word saint, and its usage, came to us from latin and the Roman Catholic Church, where a more formal process for making a saint has developed. While a candidate still must be an example in their life, the emphasis has shifted from proclaiming that someone is a witness as in the early church. In some ways, the focus is more on scientifically verifying that they are in fact in heaven (by demonstrating that they have worked miracles). Thus, the meaning of “saint” has in some ways shifted from a holy one whose life bore witness to Christ, to someone who is in heaven. The recognition moving from celebrating their heroic witness to a heavenly presence.

But, this identification of a saint as someone “who is in heaven,” doesn’t embody the fullness that Orthodoxy recognizes in the continuing life a saint has in God’s Kingdom. In fact, this has resulted in the Church being seen as divided between the Church Militant (those of us still on earth struggling), and the Church Triumphant (the saints who have already won and are now celebrating in heaven). Because of this, in many Protestant traditions, it is common to hear sentiments of a sea separating us from our loved ones, with hymns anticipating reunion, on that far shore, after our deaths.

This understanding is in stark contrast with the older, and still Orthodox, understanding of the Church. It is foundational within that understanding that the Church is One (of course, the Orthodox Church ironically manifests this truth far worse due to our sinful ethnophylitism- the heresy of dividing the Church into separate ethnic Churches). When we attend the Liturgy, it is not a Liturgy, but the Liturgy. There is only one Liturgy, and it is heavenly, not earthly. The Liturgy is the very economy of Salvation: it is Christ’s sacrifice, not ours. We offer the fruit of our labour: bread and wine, to become His offering, His very Body and Blood. We are participating in His Sacrifice, not offering a new Sacrifice. When the local Christians assemble as Church, we manifest the catholic Church, all believers in all of time and space. As such, all of the saints are there with us, worshipping and liturgizing along with us, in the one eternal Liturgy. The Apostles are not distant founders of the Church that we remember when we look upon their icons. They are the living foundation of the Church, today and always, their presence (which our weak spiritual vision too easily misses) is really manifested to us in the wood and pigment of the icons.

In Orthodoxy, the saints are not ones “who have gone to heaven.” Rather, they were holy ones before departing from the flesh. They lived in heaven in as much as the Kingdom shone through their lives. Though they departed from the flesh, they are not distant, but remain active members of the Body of Christ, the Church. They actively intercede for us, and by the grace of God and in His power, they intervene in our lives, speaking to us, and coming to our aid.

But, oftentimes we feel the need to place ‘saint” as a respectful title given to those far off in heaven. It is much like our need to prefix, “His Holiness,” “His Eminence,” “His Grace,” along with “the Most Reverend,” and “the Right Reverend,” before the names of our bishops. But, the early Church gave them the far more significant title of “Father” when addressing them. In doing so, we risk warping the relationship with our bishops away from the beautiful Christian tie between a loving father and his children, to that of politicians and distant constituents. Christ abolished such division, making us one in Him.


What does this mean for the studio today, as it considers how to best name icons? “Saint,” is still the most natural thing to put on icons. It’s understood in modern times, and is still the modern standard. While other titles from foreign lands, such as Abba might be very meaningful, they would looks strange to the people here, thus raising unnecessary barriers. But, at the same time, using it carries all the baggage of a distanted respect with the saints that is utterly foundational in our culture and history, and utterly foreign to the Orthodoxy reality and experience.

We have two choices: We can reclaim the word “saint,” and fight for it’s meaning to return to “holy” and speak about what it really means until people’s foundational worldview shifts. This seems to me to be a losing proposition, as the vast majority of people will still see “saint” as what it’s come to mean. Or alternately, we can be disruptive. We can return to the ancient church’s practice of lovingly calling the saints by name and attaching title of respect to the saints in our prayers. This also seems to me to be a losing proposition, as most people will just think, “that’s weird” or, they’re really Protestant to call them by their first name!”

So, how do we want to lose? As a studio, we prefer disruption over conformity, since that leads to change, restoration, interesting discussions, rather than status quo. But, it’s a hard balance, risking pushing people away before that discussion can happen. Ultimately, for the person commissioning an icon from the studio, there are three options to consider,

  1. St. Athanasius the Apostolic, St. Mark the Evangelist, St. Anthony the Great, St. Stephen the Protodeacon and Protomartyr, David the King and Prophet, Michael the Archangel …
  2. Patriarch Athanasius the Apostolic, Apostle Mark the Evangelist, Father Anthony the Great, Protodeacon Stephen the Protomartyr, King David the Prophet, Archangel Michael …
  3. Athanasius the Apostolic, Mark the Evangelist, Anthony the Great, Stephen the Protodeacon and Protomartyr, David the King and Prophet, Michael the Archangel …

The first has the weaknesses mentioned above, and also the inconsistency with the New Testament and the early church with its use of the term “saint”. The second is an example of a more specific title, signifying the type of relationship between the witness and those remembering them. However, in English, it is unwieldy for some.

The third option is the simplest. It avoids the baggage of the term, “saint,” while conveying that respect and true meaning through the halo. It avoids inconsistencies between the Old Testament, New Testament, and Angelic categories. For the studio, it fits best for the here and now, at a time when excessive titles are rapidly passing away, replaced by first name addressing becoming the norm. However, it does have the significant weakness of being easily  confused with disrespect, or even with the Protestant denial of the saints. However, if it can aid those venerating the saints in their proper relationship with those men and women who are alive in Christ, then it seems the best way to proceed. While all three options are appropriate, for the all the reasons explained above, it is the prefered method of naming a icon of a saint for the studio. Our hope is that this approach will best connect the saints as loving fathers and mothers to the Orthodox who pray before their icons, and introduce them to the public who see their witness.

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