Sunday, July 24, 2011

Saints Boris and George: United in love and death

Saints Boris and George the Hungarian
By Brother Robert Lentz, OFM. © 2000
Collection of the Living Circle, Chicago, IL

The love between Saint Boris and George the Hungarian ended in tragedy in 1015 in medieval Russia. Their feast day is July 24 -- the same day that same-sex marriage became legal in New York this year.

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.

Brothers Boris and Gleb are popular 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.

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.

Surely Boris and George are smiling down now on all the newlyweds in New York, where same-sex marriage became legal on their feast day.
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.

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


Kittredge Cherry said...

Boris and George must be smiling down on all the newlyweds in New York, where same-sex marriage became legal today on their feast day.

Sage said...

Yes, I think you're on point with that one Kitt <3

Sage said...

P.S. "Hat tip" to Jesus in Love blog GLBT Saints series recently added to my recent post on Kuan Yin by Toby Johnson. Thanks Kitt <3

Trudie said...

May those NY newlyweds have a much happier outcome than Boris and George, though! I'm not a huge fan of tragic romances!

Kittredge Cherry said...

Hats off to you too, Sage! For those who don’t know, Sage recently changed his Moyo Aflame blog to focus on LGBT spirituality. I especially appreciate the black perspective that he offers… a rare treasure.

Trudie, I’ve been reflecting on the tragic nature of the GLBT saints series, especially since you brought it up recently. I’ve been working on this series for almost two years, and the unhappy ends to so many of the saintly lives are beginning to wear on me. I started this series with Mychael Judge who died in the World Trade Center tragedy on Sept. 11. Since “martyrs” are a traditional category of saints, it’s inevitable that some good people who died too young will be highlighted. But why can’t more of the couples at least have happy love lives?

For queers in the church, it’s still like the “bad old days” when it was so rare to see any LGBT person on TV or in a book that we tolerated and even celebrated any queer character at all, even though they were never allowed to live happily ever after.

I AM going to try to consciously look for some LGBT saints who lived long, happy lives. Meanwhile, I’m already working hard to add more women, trans, Muslim and Jewish “saints” in the coming months.

Sage said...

Thank you for your kind words Kitt! I hadn't realized the tragic aspect of GLBT Saints series. Wow. I don't usually miss things like that. I guess I've been an unofficial catholic (especially) hagiographer for so many years now all the tragedy has simply become par for the course for me.

It will be very interesting indeed to see what you come up with as you try to focus more on the "happy endings." Many Blessings Dear Kitt!

Kittredge Cherry said...

Sage, I am reminded of a comment you made on your own blog today, “In my belief system everyone is confronted with some difficult challenges in this life.” The lives of the saints may just express the challenges -- and the joys -- more extremely than most.