Sunday, July 24, 2016

Boris and George: Russian saints united in love and death

Boris, a popular medieval saint in Russia and Ukraine, loved his servant George the Hungarian so much that he gave him a magnificent gold necklace. The feast day of Saint Boris is July 24 -- the same day that same-sex marriage became legal in New York in 2011.

The love between Boris, one of the oldest and most popular saints in Russia, and George the Hungarian ended in tragedy in medieval Russia in 1015, when both saints were murdered.

Boris and his younger brother Gleb are well known saints in Russia. They are often pictured together and many churches are named after them. Meanwhile the beloved George the Hungarian was never canonized and has mostly been ignored -- until recently.

Boris was a prince and gifted military commander who was popular with the Russian people. He was married, but he had enormous love for his servant George the Hungarian.

Slavic professor Simon Karlinsky has highlighted their gay love story in his analysis of the medieval classic, “The Legend of Boris and Gleb” compiled from 1040 to 1118. Karlinsky writes:
Boris had a magnificent gold necklace made for George because he “was loved by Boris beyond reckoning.” When the four assailants stabbed Boris with their swords, George flung himself on the body of his prince, exclaiming: “I will not be left behind, my precious lord! Ere the beauty of thy body begins to wilt, let it be granted that my life may end.” The assailants tore Boris out of George’s embrace, stabbed George and flung him out of the tent, bleeding and dying. After Boris died, first having forgiven his assassins, his retinue was massacred… Not only was the author of this story clearly sympathetic to the mutual love of Boris and George but he also seemed to realize that “the gratuitous murder of George resulted from his open admission of the nature of this love.”

Karlinsky’s text above is quoted from “Passionate Holiness: Marginalized Christian Devotions for Distinctive People” and “Gay Roots: Twenty Years of Gay Sunshine.”

The man behind the murders was Boris’ half-brother Sviatopolk, who wanted to consolidate his power. He also had their brother Gleb killed at the same time.

In 1071 Boris and his brother Gleb became the first saints canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. They were named “Passion Bearers” because, while they were not killed for their faith, they faced death in a Christlike manner, forgiving their murderers. Their father, St. Vladimir of Kiev, was the first Christian prince in Russia and their mother Anne was also Christian. Boris and Gleb are buried at the Church of St. Basil near Kiev in Ukraine.

The icon above was painted in 2000 by Brother Robert Lentz, a Franciscan friar and world-class iconographer known for his innovative icons. It is one of 10 Lentz icons that sparked a major controversy in 2005. Critics accused Lentz of glorifying sin and creating propaganda for a progressive sociopolitical agenda, and he temporarily gave away the copyright for the controversial images to his distributor, Trinity Stores.

Here George is restored to his rightful place beside Boris, properly honoring this extraordinary couple and the way they loved each other.

LGBT people in both Russia and the Ukraine still face legalized discrimination. May remembering Boris and George help bring equality for people of every sexual orientation and gender identity.

Related links:
Spiritual art supports Russia’s LGBT rights struggle (Jesus in Love)

Russia’s Anti-Gay Crackdown (New York Times)

To read this post in Spanish / en español, go to Santos Queer:
Borís y Jorge: unidos en el amor y en la muerte
This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Top image credit: Saints Boris and George the Hungarian By Brother Robert Lentz, OFM.

Icons of Boris and George and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at

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