The work on the triptych 'St. Basil the Great,
St. Makrina the Younger, and St. Gregory of Nyssa'
These are three siblings of a remarkable aristocratic family that lived in Cappadocia (modern Turkey) in the 4th c which produced seven saints in three generations. St. Makrina was the older sister and spiritual mother of the two ‘great Fathers of the Church’, St. Basil and St. Gregory. Although she left no written works it is well established that she was a deep thinker, philosopher, and theologian in her own right. In her early teens, after the death of her fiancée, she proclaimed herself a widow for the rest of her life and engaged in ascetic life. Gradually she created a kind of monastery on her mother’s estate, persuaded her mother (the future saint Emmelia) to embrace monastic life, and encouraged her younger brothers to devote their lives to the service to the Church. St. Makrina was not only a great ascetic but also a wonderworker. St. Basil, archbishop of Caesarea, was an exceptional theologian, teacher and ascetic. Apart from numerous manuscripts he wrote a Liturgy which is now known as ‘The Liturgy of St. Basil the Great’ and is still celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The youngest of the three, St. Gregory, a bishop of Nyssa, also left many manuscripts; unlike his brother he wasn’t much interested in practical issues of life in the Christian Church of his day, and the idea of the soul as a bride of Christ is central of his mystical writings.
These three icons were commissioned by the same person and make a set. I spent days studying the letters and writing of St. Basil and St. Gregory, and contemplating the life of St. Makrina.
I wanted to express that St. Makrina was truly a spiritual mother of other two, and that she had a very strong, powerful, and yet humble, personality. I painted her, standing a few step back from her brothers and yet not less significant, wearing a so-called ‘cloak of a philosopher’ instead of a conventional female garment; the grey worn cloak hides (very much in accordance with the saint’s humility) a snow-white tunic which signifies St. Makrina’s enlightened nature so as white light surrounding her. A cross and a ring on a chain around her neck are real items with relics which she has been wearing always.
St. Basil was very much like his sister in his appearance and character. He was a fervent ascetic and made a point of wearing poor old clothes although he was a bishop. This is how I painted him: a strong-minded and iron-willed ascetic wearing clothes with similar colours to St. Makrina’s.
My sense of St. Gregory was completely different from the other two saints. I got an impression that he was a quite gentle person and a true mystic. To me he is a theologian of all-consuming love for God; while reading his works I had an association with a rising sun and pink, red, bluish hues of pure joy, so I painted him, youthful looking despite his gray hair, wearing clothes of these colours.