Saturday, February 7, 2009

Sisoes and Alexander

An interesting Greek Orthodox hermit legend, related to the macabre genres, arose in the late-15th or perhaps even the 16th century. Sisoes the Great was one of the Desert Fathers, a follower of St. Anthony. (The frescoes below come from Greek monasteries: Agia Triada, Varlaam, and Hosios Loukas.) Athanasios N. Papathanasiou described the newly-created "ancient" legend and its significance this way:

I should like to comment on an icon of a 5th-century saint which is to be found in a number of churches around Greece. It depicts the Egyptian Abbas Sisoes (died ca. 429) standing before the open tomb of Alexander the Great, mourning as he stares at the skeleton of the king in its depths. An inscription on the painted surface explains the scene:
Sisoes, the great ascetic, before the tomb of Alexander, King of the Greeks, who was once covered in glory. Astonished, he mourns for the vicissitudes of time and the transience of glory, and tearfully declaims thus:

The mere sight of you, tomb, dismays me
and causes my heart to shed tears,
as I contemplate the debt we, all men, owe.
How can I possibly stand it?
Oh, death! Who can evade you?
The icon, profoundly humane and philosophical as it is, is also of interest for the historical circumstances that gave rise to its creation. It is noteworthy that it first appeared after the sack of Constantinople by the Muslim Turks (1453). It may be argued that the icon actually records the collective trauma caused by the collapse of the once mighty Roman empire and, most importantly, represents a viewpoint different from the one that was dominant before the fall of the Eastern capital.

From as early as the reign of Constantine the Great, the Byzantines had looked to Alexander as a symbol of exemplary world leadership and a predecessor of Byzantine universality. The figure of the Macedonian had gone through a process of Christianization and had acquired almost saintly dimensions. Numerous legends about his exploits relate how wisely he prepared himself for his death and how gloriously his burial was carried out. Nevertheless, popular consciousness was gradually (and especially after the fall of Constantinople) preoccupied with the idea that Alexander remained alive in a mystical way. Either literally dead or mystically alive, he consistently occupied an extraordinary place, as characteristically confessed by Augustus in Roman times. The historian Dion Cassius (155-235 AD) reports that after Augustus had visited the body of Alexander, he was asked if he also wanted to visit the tombs of the Ptolemies, the sovereigns of Hellenistic Egypt. He refused, saying: "I came to see a king and not dead men".

All these fit within the frame of a certain ideology. The Roman concept (that had, to a great extent, already permeated the Christian world) held that the empire covering the length and breadth of the known world was the highest and final stage in the history of humankind. The Byzantine people perceived Christian globalization as an eternal reality. It was believed that the empire was actually imperishable but, should it chance to be destroyed, history would come to an end, and with it the entire world. Thus Alexander, now an integral part of the imperial ideology, was seen as the living symbol of the perpetuation of the empire in spite of all its vicissitudes. He certainly was not seen as a common human decaying in his tomb.

Although this image of Alexander bathed in everlasting glory became a moving image of crucial importance to a nation's self-confidence and survival, it nevertheless threatened to eclipse the church's teaching that all creatures (even the most noble and most glorious) are merely transient, and that only the future kingdom of God is eternal. In the theological perspective of "inaugurated eschatology", the kingdom will be fulfilled at the end of history, so it cannot be identified with any particular stage of history. In stark contrast with the imperial ideology mentioned above, the unthinkable happened and Constantinople fell; nevertheless, history did not come to an end. Thus, when the "humble icon painters at work during the period of Turkish rule" painted the icon in question depicting Alexander neither as a paragon of the glorious dead nor as a living demigod, but as a decomposed body in the tomb, they were reasserting the major theological conviction long held in abeyance. In so far as Sisoes, the ascetic, dares to declare what Augustus could not conceive and captures the truth of all creation, he is infinitely more ecumenical than the conquering Macedonian, whose campaigns had taken him to the very edges of the known world and beyond.
(Athanasios N. Papathanasioum, "Anchored in the future: globalization and church consciousness: an Orthodox perspective", in The Ecumenical Review.)

This legend of Sisoes viewing of Alexander's tomb, including the explanatory ubi sunt text, was apparently well known in both frescoes and icons. The story appears to have no connection with any earlier anecdote concerning Sisoes. It arose during the same period in which such macabre subjects were very commonly depicted in Western churches, a fashion that had begun a century earlier and would continue for centuries.

Another aspect of the legend concerns Alexander's tomb itself. Andrew Michael Chugg writes books on the "Lost Tomb" of Alexandar.

It was the most renowned and respected shrine in the Roman Empire, the object of veneration by Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Octavian, Caligula, Hadrian, Severus, Caracalla and a host of other luminaries. It stood for centuries within a sacred precinct the size of a large town at the heart of the greatest Greek city in the world. Yet at the end of the 4th century AD, when the Christian emperor Theodosius outlawed paganism, it disappeared without trace, creating the greatest archaeological enigma of the ancient world. What became of the tomb of Alexander the Great? Does any part of it still survive? This site is dedicated to Alexander and the mysteries of his lost corpse and vanished mausoleum.
Ammianus Marcellinus relates an incident which took place in about AD361. The Patriarch (Christian Archbishop) Georgius is said to have posed a rhetorical question to the Alexandrian mob concerning a tall and splendid temple of the Genius of Alexandria: "How long shall this tomb stand?" he enquired. By "Genius" Ammianus meant the tutelary deity of the city and this could well mean Alexander. Certainly, Alexander is the only figure to whom this expression might apply whose tomb also lay within the city. A few years later in AD365, Alexandria was struck by a phenomenal earthquake followed by a gigantic tsunami, which is reported to have wrought havoc in coastal regions and port cities throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Alexandria is reported to have been particularly hard hit with ships being lifted onto the roofs of surviving buildings. This is the most probable occasion of the destruction of the Soma Mausoleum.

A quarter of a century later, in a newly recognised reference, Libanius of Antioch mentioned in an oration addressed to the emperor Theodosius that Alexander's corpse was on display in Alexandria. This would fit with the tomb chamber having eventually been excavated from beneath the rubble of the ruins. It also provides an occasion upon which the corpse might have been removed and separated from the sarcophagus, which would explain why the latter was found in a vacant state by Napoleon's expedition. A year or so later, Theodosius issued a series of decrees outlawing the worship of pagan gods, among whom Alexander was to the fore. In Alexandria, the Christians rioted and destroyed the Serapeum, the leading pagan temple. This is the point where the continued worship of the founder's corpse would have become unconscionable to the Alexandrian authorities. This is the time that Alexander's remains finally disappear from history. At the very end of the 4th century or early in the 5th, John Chrysostom was able to assert in a sermon that Alexander's tomb was then "unknown to his own people", that is to say, to the pagans of Alexandria. A few decades later Theodoret listed Alexander among famous men whose tombs were unknown.
(Andrew Michael Chugg, The Quest for the Tomb of Alexander the Great.)

Two points worth noting in regard to the tomb itself: At the time of Sisoes it appears that Alexander's tomb was a great shrine in Alexandria. The almost certainly apocryphal legend is therefore not unimaginable. More strikingly, this Lost Tomb mystique—the great shrine of the great Alexander in Alexandria gone missing—gives a monumental emphasis to the ubi sunt message of Sisoes' legend.

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