Saint of the Week: St Alexander Nevsky

IMG_3254I have chosen St Alexander Nevsky (1220-1263) for this week because I was looking for an Eastern saint this time around, I’ve visited the exterior of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Paris (pictured left) that’s name after him, and his feast is tomorrow (23 November).

Moving from a queen last week (St Margaret of Scotland) to a king is an interesting transition, because saintly queens tend to be remembered for their piety and acts of mercy. While saintly kings may be remembered for this also, they also have a tendency to be remembered either for Christianising their kingdom or for keeping its borders safe from either heathens or the wrong kind of Christian. Alexander Nevsky, Prince of Novgorod, protected the borders of the Rus from both the wrong kind of Christian and heathens.

Alexander succeeded his father in 1236 at the age of 16. The Tatars had been engaged in some quite successful invasions of Rus territory, and — fortunately for Prince Alexander — they decided to turn southwards. His next engagement would be with Catholic Europe in 1240, when he did battle with the Swedes. The Swedish were, at this period of the Middle Ages, at the forefront of power in north-central and northeastern Europe. Their star was in the ascendancy.

And at the River Neva — hence Nevsky — Alexander defeated the Swedish army, protecting Rus for its Orthodox, Slavic rulers. Interestingly enough, of course, the people to whom the term rus originally applied were, in fact, Swedish Vikings resident in Eastern Europe at such places as Novgorod and Kiev. The Slavic ruling lines of the Central Middle Ages traced the lineage back to the Swedish Vikings who were ultimately assimilated into the local Slavic culture.*

Poster of 1938 film

Anyway, in 1242 Alexander Nevsky went head to head against the Tuetonic Knights, the other western force impinging on the Slavic Rus’ control of ‘Russia’** The Tuetonic Knights had been a major contributor to the successful spread of western, Catholic Christianity in parts of northeastern Europe — hence why Russia’s Baltic neighbours are not Eastern Orthodox. Some of their work had been the conversion on non-Christian populations to the Catholic faith. But now they were taking on the Rus, an ostensibly Christian people — just the wrong kind (from their point of view).

Not to worry — Russian Orthodoxy and Slavic ascendancy were saved when Alexander defeated the Teutonic Knights at Lake Peipous.

Interestingly enough, although Catholic Christians are definitely the enemy, after these famous battles (or during them? my source is The Oxford Dictionary of Saints), Nevsky was involved in working with the Tatars. Either they had converted without me knowing it, or its better to ally yourself with non-Christian nomads than to be conquered by Latin Catholics. At least from the Rus point of view.

Alexander is said to have taken monastic vows shortly before he died. He died on 14 November 1263 at Gorodec, and proceeded to wait 119 years to be canonised when it was politically convenient following Dmitri Donskoy’s defeat of the Tatars.

I, personally, am a bit skeptical about the sanctity of saints who read more like nationalistic warriors than anything else, but I’m some sort of dirty, western Protestant, so I could be biased. I’ll redress my somewhat cynical reading of Nevsky in future with a Russian saint I can get behind — I promise.

*An early example of their assimilation to local cultures is the adaptation by the Volga Vikings of certain Turkic practices in the 10th-century travelogue of Ibn Fadlan (inspiration for Eaters of the Dead and its film adaptation The 13th Warrior).

**Sincerely unsure of how these terms should be applied at this time.

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4 thoughts on “Saint of the Week: St Alexander Nevsky

  1. Indeed. The saintliness of “Christian monarchs” is problematic for me too. I have always been troubled by the assimilation of the gospel into the national agenda. That thread of conversation leads one into interesting moral territory — moral theology the compatibility of the Kingdom of God with the kingdoms of this world, etc.

    Thanks for what seems to be a challenge embedded in the reflection.

    • The assimilation of the Gospel into national agendas is a sad fact visible throughout Christendom old and new — would that more kings and governments safely negotiated the works of the world and the works of Christianity!

  2. Should have chosen St Cecilia; I daresay she wouldn’t have engendered these fraught musings… But I love how you share your research and knowledge with such an easy conversational style. I always learn so much!

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