The following essay is a condensed and slightly revised version of a paper written in December 2013 for Dr. Jaroslav Skira’s Eastern Christian Icons course at Regis College, University of Toronto.
SS. Sergius and Bacchus. Constantinople. 6th or 7th century.
A trend has developed over the past two or three decades in the field of gay Christian apologetics—taking its cue from the late Dr. John Boswell of Yale University [see Boswell’s seminal Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century and Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe]—which posits the early 4th-century soldier martyrs, Sergius and Bacchus, as the archetypal gay Christian couple. This idea spread as far afield as an American law review, of all places, where one author, writing in defense of the legalization of same-sex marriage immediately after Boswell’s second book appeared, states unequivocally that “Sergius and Bacchus…were male lovers” [William N. Eskridge, Jr., “A History of Same-Sex Marriage,” Virginia Law Review 79 (1993): 1420]. An article published many years later in another journal, purporting to “reclaim the heritage” of SS. Sergius and Bacchus [Ronald E. Long, “Reclaiming the Heritage of Saints Serge and Bacchus: Towards a Quixotic Gay-Affirmative, Pro-Animal, Vegetarian Christianity,” Theology & Sexuality 17.1 (2011): 101-131], devotes all of one page of a 31-page treatise to the sainted “homosexual lovers” and their “homoerotic bonding” [Ibid., 103-104], and moves with astonishing ease from an account of their martyrdom to a discussion of AIDS, barebacking, S&M, exchange of bodily fluids, animal rights, vegetarianism, and a Trinity that makes love with Itself.
The basis for this tenuous line of rhetoric rests as much upon a contrived interpretation of the martyrs’ icon as upon that of the hagiographical record. The following pages offer a critical response to what betrays a simplistic, wishful, and possibly wilful reading of the life of SS. Sergius and Bacchus on the part of Boswell and company. To this end, I consider the icon of the two martyrs not only in the details of the composition itself, but just as importantly, within the wider context of the early development of their cult, their hagiography, the liturgical texts penned in their honour, and the fundamentally ascetical ethos of Orthodox Christianity in general and of Orthodox iconography in particular. At the same time, I do not wish to foreclose the possibility of a more nuanced contemplation of the bond of intimacy uniting Sergius and Bacchus—whatever its precise nature, however expressed between themselves, and in whatever ways conceived in the minds of the faithful from one era to another—than might satisfy most partisans of both the “pro-gay” and “anti-gay” camps in contemporary Christian sexual polemics.
Boswell premises his interpretation of the above icon (reproduced on the cover of his book) on his argument that Sergius and Bacchus, “the quintessential ‘paired’ military saints” [John Boswell, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 153], were understood in the consciousness of the Church to be a “couple” [Ibid., 160]. He writes that “coupled saints like Peter and Paul may have been overinterpreted as romantic pairs [overinterpreted by whom, one wonders!], while Serge [all direct quotations from Boswell use the form Serge instead of Sergius] and Bacchus were probably correctly so understood” [Ibid., 219]. Thus he explains the arrangement of the figures in the icon, and particularly that of Christ, as follows:
Seventh-century icon of Saints Serge and Bacchus, wearing gold torques traditionally associated with them and joined by Christ depicted in the traditional Roman position of pronuba/-us (“matron of honor” or “best man,” often a deity) overseeing the wedding of a husband and wife. [Ibid., caption under Figure 5, unpaginated.]
Either ignoring or unaware of the iconographic convention that placing a cross in the hand of a figure draws the primary attention of the viewer to the saint’s death by martyrdom, and that the divine presence in a scene is commonly conveyed in a manner similar to that of Christ in this icon—not to mention the more elemental question of why Christ would serve as a mere “best man,” rather than as the “officiant”—Boswell stands apart from actual iconologists in choosing to see here a symbolic depiction of a gay wedding ceremony. Yet his book has resurrected our icon from the ashes of obscurity and firmly enshrined it through endless iteration in the popular gay imaginary of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, until finally reinterpreted pictorially in the pseudo-iconography of Robert Lentz.
Originally from Constantinople [Kurt Weitzmann, The Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai, the Icons, Vol. 1, From the Sixth to the Tenth Century (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976), 30], and until the 19th century housed at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, our icon currently resides in the Porphyry Uspensky Collection at the Bohdan and Barbara Khanenko Museum of the Arts (Музей мистецтв імені Богдана та Варвари Ханенків), formerly known as the Kyiv Museum of Western and Eastern Art (Київський музей західного та східного мистецтва), in Kyiv, Ukraine. Uspensky (1804-1885), the Russian archimandrite and later bishop who founded the first permanent Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem in 1842, can perhaps be forgiven the sticky fingers with which he roamed about Palestine, Syria, and Egypt, for the incalculable significance of his early contributions to the study of Christian antiquity endures to the present day [“The Codex Sinaiticus and the Manuscripts of Mt Sinai in the Collections of the National Library of Russia,” The National Library of Russia. http://www.nlr.ru/eng/exib/CodexSinaiticus/porf.html accessed October 5, 2013].
[I have speculated elsewhere that the icon may have been commissioned for Justinian’s Church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus, also known as the Little Hagia Sophia.]
A pre-iconoclasm wood panel dating from the 6th or 7th century, painted in encaustic over a thin layer of gesso [Weitzmann, The Monastery of Saint Catherine, 28], the icon measures 28.4 cm by 42.5 cm (approximately 11” by 17”), and 5 to 6 cm (approximately 2”) thick. Sergius and Bacchus each hold a typical martyr’s cross in their right hand, and wear a jeweled torc (μανιάκιον; pl. μανιάκια) around their neck. A bearded face of Christ appears in a small circular medallion between, and above, the heads of Sergius and Bacchus. All three figures have a nimbus about the head. Christ’s medallion does double duty as his nimbus [“Index of Christian Art,” Princeton University. http://ica1.princeton.edu accessed October 5, 2013]. Additionally, each of the two saints
…is dressed in a brown chiton with a dense striation of rather thick gold lines, by means of which the artist wanted to suggest a solid gold garment. It is adorned with a carmine clavus and a border of the same color around the sleeve, which, however, is visible only in the case of Sergius. Both wear a white chlamys, that of Sergius having pink and that of Bacchus grey blue folds; over the right shoulder it is fastened with a golden clasp made of three balls. The upper edges of a tablion are visible above the hands, that of Sergius being carmine and that of Bacchus a grey that suggests a blueish purple…. Each maniakion is decorated with three great cabochon stones, two rectangular and the central one oblong; they are blueish in color and painted to look transparent…. [T]he crosses of martyrdom [are] painted brown with golden highlights but surely meant to be massive gold. The youthful faces are whitish with some subtle pink on the cheeks and olive green used for shadows, giving them the overall effect of pallor. Their wide- open, almond-shaped eyes…gaze at the beholder without emotion. [Weitzmann, The Monastery of Saint Catherine, 28-29.]
The background colour fades gradually, from bottom to top, from darker to lighter and finally to very pale blue, “suggesting, in the tradition of classical painting, the atmosphere of the sky” [Ibid., 29]. This seems to commend an early provenance for the normative inclusion of the sky in all icons.
On a number of counts the icon has not reached us entirely in its original state. Among other things, a horizontal breakage occurred, at some unknown point in time, which runs through the eyes of Sergius and below those of Bacchus. The icon is held together by two pieces of wood screwed to the back, and the damaged colours along the crack have been repaired in modern times with oil paint. The names СΕΡΓΙΟ[С] and ΒΑΧΟС, etched in black ink at an undetermined later date with no apparent attempt at artistry, appear in the upper corners [Ibid., 28; partly cut off in our photo]. To my eyes, the characters look more Slavic than Greek; in fact, Bacchus’ name seems to begin with a modern Ukrainian or Russian Б rather than a Greek Β, all the more curious because his name is Вакх, and not Бакх, in the various Slavic languages. Another interesting detail is the apparent misspelling, unremarked by Weitzmann, of Βάκχος by the inscriber, for in Greek as well as in Slavonic a κ precedes the χ, whence the c-ch in the Latin form of the name.
A peculiarity in the composition of the icon seems potentially suggestive within the overall thematic context of this essay. Without speculating on its possible implication for our understanding of the relationship between Sergius and Bacchus, Weitzmann remarks that
…the two saints are not composed on strict geometrical axes, but that they turn slightly towards each other, Sergius rather more than Bacchus. Moreover, in spite of an intentional similarity between the two, there are subtle psychological differences: Sergius has a slightly more emaciated and thus more ascetic face than Bacchus, whose face is somewhat fleshier. There are differences in the eyelids and the design of the mouths which can be interpreted along the same line and reveal the artist’s capacity for characterization within the self-imposed limits of an hieratic style. [Weitzmann., 29.]
Equally provocative for our theme, Weitzmann notes that Sergius and Bacchus “are always depicted as a pair,” and that the “pale color [of their flesh]…is not merely an abstract convention but an indication of the tender age of adolescence” [Ibid.] The slight turn towards each other, the “intentional similarity between the two,” their virtually invariable depiction as a pair (despite the fact that they were neither martyred nor buried together), “the tender age of adolescence,” from these we can infer unquestionably that our iconographer drew upon an earlier tradition for his inspiration, for in October 514 Severus of Antioch stated in an Encomium delivered in their joint honour,
…[I]n our discourse we must not separate those whom the crown of martyrdom has joined together. They were alike in build, in physiognomy, in grandeur. They were young in body and even younger in spirit. They were in agreement in the same spirit of piety. [Christopher Walter, The Warrior Saints in Byzantine Art and Tradition (Burlington VT: Ashgate Publishing Company), 149.]
The single most salient component of the icon which identifies the figures indisputably as Sergius and Bacchus, even without the inscription of their names, is the afore-mentioned μανιάκιον worn by each of them. The maniakion, or torc, remains almost without exception a fixed feature of icons of Sergius and Bacchus throughout the following centuries [Walter, The Warrior Saints, 28, 29]. Scholars agree that the torc made its way gradually into Greco-Roman and later Byzantine culture from the outside, namely, from the respective worlds of the Persians and the Gauls. (Note, for instance, the torc on the famous sculpture of The Dying Gaul.) Consequently its use and meaning varied, according to time and place, either “as a privilege of office, a sign of rank, a reward for valour or a personal ornament, before it came into official use in Byzantine society…. Even so, its significance is not always clear” [Christopher Walter, “The Maniakion or Torc in Byzantine Tradition,” Revue des Études Byzantines 59 (2001): 181]. In the case of Sergius and Bacchus, the torc seems to have been a sign of imperial favour, identifying “the two martyrs as high court officials. Sergius held the office of πριμικήριος τῶν Κεντηλίων σχολῆς and Bacchus that of σεκουνδουκήριος” [Weitzmann, The Monastery of Saint Catherine, 29] (primicerius and secundocerius, respectively, of the schola gentilium [David Woods, “The Emperor Julian and the Passion of Sergius and Bacchus,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 5.3 (1997): 337]). The account of their martyrdom depicts their “degradation” in “being stripped of their military insignia and their μανιάκιον was removed” [Walter, “The Maniakion or Torc,” 184]. With few exceptions, Byzantine iconographers portrayed the torcs of Sergius and Bacchus with three jewels hanging from them [Ibid., 185], harking to an earlier description of torcs by one Pseudo-Codinus [Ibid., 183, 185].
Not a one of my sources remarks on the significance of Christ’s presence in the icon in any kind of “Boswellian” sense.
[The original version of this essay goes on to examine the content and historical difficulties of the original martyrology or Passio (they are thought to have died between 305 and 311), the origins of the cult, and some of the liturgical texts, for SS. Sergius and Bacchus. For a condensed version see my MA thesis (2015), “A Bed Undefiled: Foundations for an Orthodox Theology and Spirituality of Same-Sex Love” (pp. 56-61), which can be downloaded free of charge as a PDF at TSpace. The following paragraphs are taken from the thesis.]
The liturgical texts for [SS. Sergius and Bacchus’] annual commemoration [“Μνήμη τῶν Ἁγίων Μαρτύρων Σεργίου καὶ Βάκχου (Commemoration of the Holy Martyrs Sergius and Bacchus).” Μηναίον τοῦ Οκτωβρίου (Menaion for October). Venice, 1845. Pp. 37-40. (PDF received May 4, 2015 by email from Maria Pantelia, Project Director at Thesaurus Linguae Graecae®: A Digital Library of Greek Literature, http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/.) The Menaia (sing. Menaion) are the twelve volumes (one for each month of the year) that contain the full text of the “propers” of the fixed feasts for every day of the year.] show evidence of composition in the late 8th or early 9th century [Ibid., 38. I have a strong hunch that the notation Ποίημα Θεοφάνους, at the head of the acrostic Ode 1 of the Matins canon, refers to St. Theophanes the Hymnographer (775-845), known for his acrostic hymns.]. St. Symeon Metaphrastes revised the 5th-century Passio for liturgical reading in the 10th century [Symeon Metaphrastes, “Martyrium SS. Sergii et Bacchi,” in Patrologia Graeca, Vol. 115, Symeonis Logothetæ, cognomento Metaphrastæ, Opera Omnia, Tome 2. J-P Migne, ed. (Paris: Imprimerie Catholique, 1864): 1005-32]; in fact, a very small pericope appears in the Menaion during Matins [“Μνήμη,” 40].
Ὁ σύναθλος δέ Σέργιος ἀπολειφθεὶς λύπῃ τε διὰ τὸν χωρισμὸν καὶ ἡδονῇ πάλιν διὰ τὰ προσδοκώμενα ἐμερίζετο. Ἀλλ’οὺ περιεῖδεν αὐτὸν τῷ χωρισμῷ κάμνοντα ὁ γλυκὺς ἑταῖρος καὶ ἐραστής: ἀλλὰ φαιδρᾷ τῇ ὄψει ὁ θεῖος Βάκχος καὶ συνήθει τῷ τῆς στρατείας σχήματι νυκτὸς ἐπιφανεὶς καὶ διαλεχθεὶς τῷ φίλῷ καὶ θάρσους ἐμπλήσας, τὸ σκυθρωπὸν τε τῆς ἀθυμίας διέλυσε, καὶ ἀσφαλέστερον ἅμα καὶ γενναιότερον πρὸς τὰς μελλούσας τιμωρίας διέθηκεν. [Metaphrastes, 1024.]
But the fellow athlete Sergius, having been left behind, was divided between pain on account of the separation and again pleasure on account of the things looked forward to. But his sweet companion and lover [emphasis mine] did not leave him alone [overlook him] being wearied by the separation. But rather, the divine Bacchus appeared to him by night with shining face and in the usual fashion of dress of the army and spoke with his friend and filled him with valour [boldness], and dissolved the gloom of his despondency, and disposed him to be steadier and nobler with respect to the punishments to come. [This translation, deliberately literal at my request, was generously provided by Nada Conic of Toronto.]
Thus strengthened by the sight and voice of Bacchus, Sergius submits to gruesome torture and finally to beheading some days after Bacchus’ death [Boswell, Same-Sex Unions, 388].
That Metaphrastes wrote a liturgical book for public reading at divine services makes his portrayal of Bacchus as ὁ γλυκὺς ἑταῖρος καὶ ἐραστής of Sergius all the more remarkable. While etairos not often bears an erotic connotation, erastes unambiguously signifies an erotic lover: it has a long history opposite eromenos (ἐρώμενος) to designate respectively the older and younger male lover in the institution of same-sex relationships in Plato’s time [K.J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), 16]. Metaphrastes’ conflation of etairos and erastes, and their juxtaposition with philos (φίλος, friend), to describe Sergius and Bacchus’ love for each other, anticipates that love which, for Father Pavel Florensky writing in 1914, “combines the aspects of philia, erōs, and agapē” [Father Pavel Florensky, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters, trans. Boris Jakim (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 289]; that friendship which, as “the preeminent repository of erōs,” opens itself to spiritualization in the sacramental life of the Church [bid. 295]. Metaphrastes’ narrative weaves into the very texture of the Church’s liturgical life the eternal memory of these two young Christian men, saints, co-lovers of Christ and co-martyrs for Christ, deeply in love with each other in Christ.
[From the original essay, not the thesis]
With my primary interest in the intersection of Orthodox theology and postmodern questions surrounding sexuality, gender, identity, and personhood, I am not unsympathetic to Boswell’s project of discerning the presence and possible range of meanings of paradigms of same-sex pairing in the early Church. In revisiting as a graduate student the two works through which he principally made a name for himself, I feel now, no less than before, that Boswell’s academic rigour fell by the wayside in his eagerness—no matter how arguably well-intentioned—to unearth a “justification” for homosexuality in the faith and praxis of an earlier Christian era. In short, he went too far. He foisted upon his unwary reader, to repeat from the opening paragraphs of this essay, a “simplistic, wishful, and possibly wilful reading of the life of SS. Sergius and Bacchus” in particular and of the record of Eastern Christianity in general.
This is not to deny, however, the presence of a powerful mystery—achingly beautiful, and fairly radiating alike from the pages of the Passio as from the luminous faces in our icon—in the way the Church has preserved and handed down the memory of Sergius and Bacchus, inseparable in heaven as on earth in their holy love for each. Here we come to a critical juncture in our understanding, namely, that the strict historical veracity of hagiography and its corollary iconography ultimately bears for the Church the same definitive relevance—no more, no less—than that of the Gospel. An icon transmits, not a superficial photographic likeness, but meaning; the Gospel, or a hagiography, not a journalist’s eyewitness report or a historian’s account, but something more profoundly existential. What the Church in her inner life would recall to our remembrance has less to do with “facts,” as the world understands facts, and much more to do with imparting a life transfigured in mystical union with Him who assumed by nature all that is properly human so that we might assume by grace all that is properly divine. Through her iconography, her sacred texts, her divine worship, her holy mysteries, the Church bids us to ponder in our hearts “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8).
Within the transformative dynamic of the ekklesia we thus receive as a gift of grace the mystery, τὸ μυστήριον—not that which remains undiscoverably hidden, but that which reveals itself by degrees to the pure in heart—of the two holy youths, Sergius and Bacchus, and of the love they bore uniquely for each other above all others. To obsess over how they might or might not have enacted their love betrays the voyeuristic spirit of the present age, unworthy of persons of prayer, of ascesis, of metanoia.
I went into this project supposing I had on my hands a “primitive” icon, one lacking the refinement of the icons of later centuries. I come away from it awestruck by the genius and the unquestionable sanctity of the iconographer.
See the extensive Sexuality and Gender section in our Archives, especially From the Fathers: The Kingdom of Heaven Is Like…Two Men in Bed Together?
Giacomo Sanfilippo is an Orthodox Christian, former priest, father of five, grandfather of two, founding editor of Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto. He holds a BA in Sexuality Studies from York University and an MA in Theology from Regis College/St. Michael’s College, is an alumnus of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto, and completed the course requirements for the MDiv earlier in life at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Follow him on Twitter @GiacoSanfilippo.