St. Vladimir

St. Vladimir, Grand Prince of Kyiv (ca. 958–15 July 1015), was the sixth Ryurikovich ruler of Kyivan Rus. He was the youngest son of Prince Svyatoslav and his servant-turned-wife Malusha.

In 969, Svyatoslav moved his capital to Pereyaslavets (modern-day Nufǎru, Romania). To his oldest son, Yaropolk, he gave Velikiy Novgorod (Great Novgorod), and to Vladimir he gave Kyiv.

Svyatoslav was slain by Pechenegs in 972, and in 976, a fratricidal war erupted between Yaropolk and his younger brother Oleg, Prince of the Drevlyans (an East Slavic tribe). After Yaropolk killed Oleg in battle, Vladimir fled to their relative Haakon Sigurdsson, Norway’s ruler.

Haakon sent many warriors to fight against Yaropolk. When Vladimir returned from Norway the next year, he marched against Yaropolk.

On his way to Kyiv, Vladimir sent ambassadors to Prince Rogvolod of Polatsk (an ancient East Slavic city) to sue for the hand of his daughter, Princess Rogneda (962–1002), who was engaged to Yaropolk.

When Rogneda refused, Vladimir attacked Polatsk, raped Rogneda in front of her parents, and murdered her parents and two of her brothers.

Vladimir secured both Polatsk and Smolensk, and took Kyiv in 978. Upon his conquest of the city, he invited Yaropolk to negotiations at which he was murdered.

Vladimir was proclaimed Grand Prince of all Kyivan Rus.

Vladimir expanded Kyivan Rus far beyond its former borders. He gained Red Ruthenia (Chervona Rus), and the territories of the Yatvingians, Radimiches, and Volga Bulgars.

He had 800 concubines, and at least nine daughters and twelve sons from his seven legitimate wives.

Though Vladimir’s grandma Olga had converted to Christianity and begun Christianizing Kyivan Rus, Vladimir was an unrepentant pagan. He erected many statues and shrines to pagan deities, elevated thunder god Perun to supreme deity, instituted human sacrifices, destroyed many churches, and murdered many clergy.

When a Christian Varangian named Fyodor refused to give his son Ioann for sacrifice, a mob descended upon his house. Fyodor and Ioann, both seasoned soldiers, met the mob with weapons in hand.

The mob, realizing they’d be overpowered in a fair fight, smashed up the entire property, rushed at Fyodor and Ioann, and murdered them. They became Russia’s first recognized Christian martyrs.

Vladimir thought long and hard about this. In 987, he sent envoys to study the major religions and report back on their findings. The envoys also returned with representatives of these faiths.

Vladimir rejected Islam because he couldn’t give up pork or drinking, and didn’t want to be circumcised. He rejected Judaism because he felt the destruction of Jerusalem was “evidence” we’d been “abandoned” by God.

Vladimir found no beauty in Catholicism, but was very impressed by the beauty of Orthodox Christianity.

Vladimir agreed to become Orthodox in exchange for the hand of Anna Porphyrogenita, sister of Emperor Basil II of Byzantium. (Porphyrogenita, “born in the purple,” was an honorific for someone born to a Byzantine emperor after he’d taken the throne.)

Kyivan Rus and Byzantium were enemies, but after the wedding, Vladimir agreed to send 6,000 troops to protect Byzantium from a rebels’ siege. The revolt was put down.

Upon his return to Kyiv, Vladimir compelled his subjects into a mass baptism in the Dnepr River, and burnt all the pagan statues he’d erected.

After the mass conversion, Vladimir formed a great council from his boyars, gave his subject principalities to his twelve legitimate sons, founded the city of Belgorod (Bilhorod Kyivskyy), and embarked on a short-lived campaign against the White Croats.

Though his conversion was politically motivated, Vladimir nevertheless became very charitable towards the less fortunate. He gave them food and drink, and journeyed to those who couldn’t reach him.

He married one final time, to Otto the Great’s daughter (possibly Rechlinda Otona).

In 1014, he began gathering troops against his son Yaroslav the Wise. They’d long had a strained relationship, and when Yaroslav refused to pay tribute to his brother Boris, heir apparent, it was the last straw.

Vladimir’s illness and death prevented a war. His dismembered body parts were distributed to his many sacred foundations and venerated as relics.

Several cities, schools, and churches in Russia and Ukraine are named for Vladimir. He also appears in many folk legends and ballads. His feast day is 15 July.

An ikon of St. Vladimir is one of the things my character Ivan Konev throws into a valise before he escapes into his root cellar to hide from vigilante Bolsheviks who’ve broken into his house in April 1917.

That ikon becomes very dear to Ivan and his future wife Lyuba. They believe Vladimir protected them during the Civil War. When their oldest son Fedya goes to fight in WWII, they lend him the ikon.

Archangel Michael

Copyright Joe Mabel (on Flickr as Joe Mabel from Seattle)

Archangel Michael is an important figure in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. In Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Lutheranism, he doubles as a saint. He’s the reason the name Michael (in all its many linguistic variations) has been so historically popular.

Michael appears thrice in the Book of Daniel, where he’s identified as the Jewish people’s protector, and a figure who’ll arise during the projected end of the world. He’s also mentioned in the Book of Jude, and is traditionally identified with an unnamed archangel in 1 Thessalonians.

In Revelations, Michael defeats Satan during a war.

Michael is one of two archangels named in the Koran, the other being Jibrail (Gabriel). Some Muslims believe Michael was one of the three angels who visited Avraham.

Copyright Novica Nakov; originally posted to Flickr as Icon #13

Michael has a very long history in Jewish tradition as our advocate and protector. He has a long-running enmity with the accusing Archangel Samael. In the ancient world, there were several prayers to Michael, in spite of the rabbinic prohibition against appealing to angels as intercessors.

In the Midrash (rabbinic commentary and stories filling in the blanks in the Torah), Michael is depicted as rescuing the Patriarchs and Matriarchs during perilous times in their lives. Another Jewish tradition says he destroyed the Assyrian King Sennacherib’s army.

Bradford Cathedral, West Yorkshire, England, Copyright Storye book

Early Christian tradition cast Michael as a healer. His earliest and most famous sanctuary in the ancient Near East, the Michaelion of Chalcedon in present-day Turkey, was associated with healing waters.

Other common Christian imagery depicts Michael as slaying a dragon, a serpent, or Satan. He was eventually named as the highest of all angels, and held up as a model of spiritual warfare against the temptation of evil.

In Catholic tradition, another of Michael’s roles is angel of death, carrying the souls of the deceased to the other world and descending at the hour of death to give the dying one last chance to redeem oneself.

Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Michael and Jesus are one and the same.

Drawn by Muhammad ibn Muhammad Shakir Ruzmah-‘i Nathani for scientist and proto-sci-fi writer Zakariya al-Qazwini; Source Walters Art Museum

In Islam, Michael (or Mikail) is responsible for the forces of Nature (esp. thunder and rain), and gives nourishment to souls and bodies. He’s often depicted as the archangel of mercy, and thus very friendly towards humans. In the Ahmadiyya denomination, Michael is among the Mala’ikah, spiritual beings who obey Allah’s commands.

Copyright JR2Espo

Michael has remained extraordinarily popular in these three faiths. In Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, and Anglicanism, he’s celebrated on Michaelmas, 29 September. In Eastern Orthodoxy, his feast day is 8/21 November (depending on whether the church uses the Julian or Gregorian calendar).

In the Truro, Cornwall diocese of the Church of England, Michael’s feast day is 8 May.

Countless churches have been dedicated to him over the centuries. He’s also the patron saint of Brussels, Kyiv, Dumfries (Scotland), Germany, Cornwall, cops, fire fighters, the military and warriors, paramedics, chivalry, German-speaking regions formerly part of the Holy Roman Empire, the sick and suffering, mariners, and mountains.

The Russian city of Arkhangelsk is named for Michael.

Scapular of St. Michael the Archangel, formally approved 1878; Copyright Michael Tav

Before she leaves for a year abroad in a Parisian lycée in August 1939, my character Darya Koneva is given an ikon of Archangel Michael by her parents. That ikon becomes particularly dear to her after she and her best friend Oliivia Kalvik, who’s studying abroad with her, are trapped in occupied Europe and become Nazi prisoners.

Darya keeps that ikon safe all during her ordeal as a slave, and constantly prays to Michael to protect her and her friends. Her big brother Fedya later gives her a miniature of the statue outside Vienna’s Michaelerkirche, and her newlywed husband Andrey hangs a Byzantine style painting of him over their bed.

Darya will name her future only son Mikhail, after her special protector.

Vienna’s Michaelerkirche, Copyright Gryffindor

A decadent, devout Passion Play

Released 19 April 1927, The King of Kings is one of Cecil B. DeMille’s great Biblical epics. While he was a devout Christian, he also loved his decadence, and brought the two together in some very interesting ways. How many other directors would impart moral lessons alongside orgies, pet leopards, and parties where everything is made of candy?

The immense cast includes H.B. Warner as Jesus, Dorothy Cumming as Mary, the awesome character actor Ernest Torrence as Peter, Jacqueline Logan as Mary Magdalene, Joseph Schildkraut as Judas, child actor Micky Moore as Mark, Victor Varconi as Pontius Pilate, and an uncredited Ayn Rand.

When it comes to such a well-known story, an original angle is key. It helps the story to stand out from all the other versions. DeMille did this quite well, not only in his trademark decadent touches, but also in how he handled the religious material.

Mary Magdalene is at a very hedonistic party which includes a pet monkey and leopard. When one of her boytoys sits in Judas’s chair, she pushes him out. This guy points out that Judas hasn’t come around for a few days, and Mary Magdalene thinks Judas must be with another woman.

Upon being told he’s hanging out with a band of beggars led by a carpenter, she hops on her zebra-drawn chariot (because why not?) and goes to find him.

We then shift to a large crowd outside of Jesus’s house, as people wait in line to get healed. One of the crowd is a little blind girl, who gives one of the film’s most touching performances. The future Gospel writer Mark runs across her, and takes her to a window. Our first sight of Jesus is through her eyes.

Shortly after this healing, Mary Magdalene arrives to confront Judas, whose ulterior motive in befriending Jesus is the possibility of being promoted to a high official. Before she can have it out with Judas, however, Jesus casts the Seven Deadly Sins out of her in a multiple-exposure sequence.

It’s fair to assume just about everyone is familiar with the Biblical account of Jesus’s ministry and life, so the rest of this review will focus on my own thoughts, and the things which make this film unique.

Some people feel H.B. Warner, in his early fifties, was far too old to play a convincing Jesus, though others feel his fatherly appearance is perfect for the role. It all depends on your perspective. As a student of world religions, I love how every culture depicts holy figures in their own image, in a way they can relate to. It’s the same person and message, only a little bit different than the one we’re used to seeing.

I absolutely love Ernest Torrence as Peter! He usually played heavies (villains), so this is quite a delightful departure from his usual forte. His Peter is such a sweet, big lug, just perfect for the role.

Torrence is on the far right in the group embrace

I also love the scenes of Jesus with children. Besides the blind girl, another sweet, lovely scene is with a child who tells Jesus Mark says he can heal broken legs, then presents a doll whose leg has fallen off. Jesus obligingly mends the doll.

That is such a believable child thing to do, or for anyone who has a soft spot for stuffed animals and dolls. Many adults send their precious old friends to doll and teddybear hospitals.

Almost all of the intertitles are from the Bible, with the book, chapter, and verse noted. They’re also rendered in Elizabethan English, which can be kind of distracting to the modern audience. These people spoke Aramaic, not any form of English! I tend to translate Elizabethan English in my head.

Nitpicker I am, I cringed to notice a typo in one intertitle, “sieze” instead of “seize.”

The above still comes from a scene where a woman is accused of adultery and Jesus famously challenges the crowd, “Let he who is among you without sin cast the first stone.” He proceeds to write various sins (in Hebrew) in sand that spilled out of a broken jug.

The mob scatters as their sins are revealed, until the last guy thanks God he’s not like other men. Then his sin is revealed as adultery, and he too leaves.

In a scene in the 155-minute grand première version (versus the 112-minute general release), Jesus steps into the carpentry shop of a couple whose son he just cast the Devil out of. Some of his disciples, including Peter, are fishing during this time. The piece of wood Jesus is working on is covered on top by a cloth, and it’s later revealed to be a cross.

Joseph Schildkraut is excellent as Judas. His body language conveys how conflicted and torn-up he is about his betrayal.

A dove flies onto the empty Last Supper table, which was apparently unplanned.

The Resurrection scene is in two-strip Technicolor, though not that vibrant.

Both versions are good, though the longer original adds so much extra depth. It makes it seem like the general release is missing lots of chapters! I highly recommend this film, to people of all faiths.

Basilica di Santa Croce

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Copyright Sailko

La Basilica di Santa Croce (The Basilica of the Holy Cross) is one of the landmarks of Florence (Firenze), and the world’s largest Franciscan church. It contains 16 chapels (many resplendent with frescoes by the famous Giotto and his pupils), and many tombs and cenotaphs of famous Florentines, such as Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo, Enrico Fermi, Guglielmo Marconi, and my love Dante.

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Copyright Bkwillwm

Construction began 12 May 1294, to replace an older church, and was financed by some of the wealthiest Florentine families. Arnolfo di Cambio may have been the starting architect. Construction was completed in 1385. Pope Eugene IV consecrated it in 1442. Prior to the completion and consecration, this piece of land was a marsh outside the city walls.

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Copyright RicciSpeziari~commonswiki

Over the years, the basilica was modified many times. The bell tower was rebuilt in 1842 after a lightning strike; the interior was rebuilt in 1560 upon the removal of the choir screen; a neo-Gothic façade was built from 1857–63; and several decades of repairs followed the disastrous 1966 Arno River flood. There’s a Magen David on the façade because architect Niccolò Matas was Jewish. Unfortunately, due to religious prejudices of the time, Matas was buried under the porch and not with his peers inside.

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Copyright Radomil

Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce is mostly located in the refectory. In the cloister is a statue of Florence Nightingale, who was born in and named after Florence. The Franciscan friars’ former dorm today houses the Scuola del Cuoio (Leather School), and visitors get to watch while artisans make all sorts of leather goods. These goods are sold in an adjacent shop.

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Michelangelo’s tomb, Copyright Wknight94

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Detail of Michelangelo’s tomb, Copyright Giovanni Dall’Orto

The back of the basilica houses old orchards and gardens. Its trees include Himalayan and Atlas cedars, and hackberry trees. It’s a giant super-complex, with many smaller structures within, not just an ordinary church.

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Medici Chapel, Copyright gaspa, Source Flickr

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Sacristy of Rinuccini Chapel, Copyright Sailko

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Sacristy wall, Copyright Sailko

On the left side of the basilica piazza is a statue of my love Dante, erected in 1865 to mark the 600th anniversary of his birth. King Vittorio Emanuele II was there when it was inaugurated. Originally, it was in the centre of the piazza, but it was moved in 1968 to allow for the city’s historic costumed soccer games. The statue also contains the Florentine coat of arms and Marzocco lions, which symbolise the people’s power.

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Copyright Giulio1996Cordignano

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Copyright Lorenzo Testa

My character Caterina attempts to hide behind Dante’s empty tomb in November 1943. Since the Italians refused to hand over their Jewish community or discriminate against them, the Germans stepped in and did it for them after Italy joined the Allies in September 1943. Caterina had several offers of help, but she wanted to hide where she always felt safe and peaceful.

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Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

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Pulpit, Copyright Geobia

Caterina was caught, and tried climbing further up the tomb, her arms locked around Dante’s neck in a death grip. A priest came to see what all the commotion was and begged the Nazis to respect the rule of sanctuary, but it wasn’t to be. Caterina had to be pried off of the tomb by three Nazis.

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Copyright Sailko

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Dante’s empty tomb, Copyright Sailko

The day Caterina and her friends leave Florence for Paris in December 1945, they visit the Basilica, with Dante’s empty tomb their final stop. The figure on the left represents Italy, and the figure on the right represents Poetry. The inscriptions on the sides were added in 1965, on the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth.

Caterina feels a special relationship to Dante because she was born on his 600th death anniversary (called a nachala instead of a Jahrzeit in the Sephardic world), the very end of 13 September 1921.

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Back view, Copyright Sailko

Dante’s tomb was built in 1829, though Ravenna has consistently refused to give back his bones over all these centuries. The inscription, Onorate l’altissimo poeta (Honor the most exalted poet), is hauntingly missing the next line, L’ombra sua torna, ch’era dipartite (His spirit, which had left us, returns). I believe Dante’s spirit rests with this tomb, even though his bones are in Ravenna.

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Dante watching over the basilica, Copyright Bruno Barral

WeWriWa—Twelve-dish Christmas supper

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. To mark the recent Russian Orthodox Christmas, this snippet comes from my fourth Russian novel, in a scene featuring the traditional twelve-dish supper of Christmas Eve (6 January). This is the beginning of 1949.

NYU freshmen and Irish twins Igor and Ilya are living with their great-aunt Valeriya and her second husband, Grigoriy Golitsyn (a prince by birth). Their guests are Valeriya and Mr. Golitsyn’s oldest child together, Vasya; his wife Dusya; and their children, 6-year-old Stella and 2-year-old Nora. Also present is Valeriya and Mr. Golitsyn’s daughter Vasilisa, who’s seriously dating another prince by birth.

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After the Troparion, Mr. Golitsyn takes out a blue and white bowl of honey and makes the sign of the cross on each person’s forehead in turn, starting with Valeriya and ending with Nora.

“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, may you all have sweetness and many good things in life and in the new year,” he pronounces after Nora has been anointed.

Valeriya lights a large yellow candle in the center of the table, contained in a red and white porcelain dish, symbolizing the star of Bethlehem.  Then Stella stands up on her chair and reads the Nativity story from the Gospel of Matthew.  The youngest child is traditionally supposed to read it, but Nora doesn’t know how to read anything yet.  Finally, Mr. Golitsyn asks for God’s blessings on the wine, bread, and food, breaks the round, twisted kalach bread, and distributes it to the other eight people.

The first proper meal of the supper is kutya, cooked barley kasha sweetened with chopped walnuts, honey, dried cranberries, and poppy seeds.  Also around the table are caviar, mushroom soup, fish soup with dumplings, cabbage soup, pickled mushrooms, pirozhki, stuffed carp, baked trout, draniki, pickled cabbage, boiled potatoes with dill from Vasya and Dusya, raspberry tea, wine, blueberry vareniki, walnut pudding, and assorted dried fruits.

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Draniki are potato pancakes; pirozhki are baked or fried buns stuffed with things like mushrooms and beef; and vareniki are kind of like blintzes or crêpes, dough pockets stuffed with either savory or sweet foods. The Troparion is a one-stanza hymn, with many different forms.