Theodore of Smolensk

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The holy right-believing Prince Theodore of Smolensk and Yaroslavl, also known as Theodore the Black, due to his swarthy appearance, was a prince of Rus during the time of the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century. Prince Theodore was destined by God to be famous in the Land of Rus through his military exploits. He is commemorated on September 19. The uncovering of his relics along with those of his sons David and Constantine is commemorated on March 5.


The date of birth of Prince Theodore is unknown. He was born into the family of the Prince of Smolensk, Rostislav Mstislavich, and was named in baptism after the Great Martyr Theodore the Stratelates. His year of birth was prior to 1239 as he had been taken away from Smolensk into hiding while the Warrior-Martyr Merkuni saved the city from being captured by Khan Batu of the Golden Horde. During 1240, his father, Prince Rostislav, who was a great-grandson of Prince Rostislav of Smolensk and Kiev, died.

In the division of his father's estate, the infant Theodore was left with the small holding of Mozhaisk after his older brothers divided the land amongst themselves. In Mozhaisk, Theodore grew up studying the Holy Scripture, participating in church services, and learning the military art.

In 1260, Prince Theodore married Maria Vasil'evna, daughter of Prince Vasily of Yaroslavl and became prince of Yaroslavl. From their marriage, a son, Mikhail, was born, but soon Theodore's wife died. As Theodore was spending much of his time at military efforts and campaigns in alliances with the khans of the Golden Horde Mikhail was raised by his mother-in-law, princess Xenia.

As the khans recognized the spirit and military strength of the Orthodox Rus they began to draw the Russian princes into alliances, and the khans then turned to them for military assistance. The Church made use of these closer relations to bring Christian enlightenment to the foreigners. In 1261, through the efforts of St. Alexander Nevsky and Metropolitan Kirill III of Moscow an Orthodox diocese was established at Sarai, the capital of the Golden Horde. In the year 1276, a council at Constantinople presided over by Patriarch John Bekkos replied to questions of the bishop of Sarai, Theognost, about the order for baptizing Tatars, as well as the reception into Orthodoxy of the Monophysite and Nestorian Christians among them. During these years, Prince Theodore served with the Horde. Having distinguished himself by military exploits on the Ossetian campaign, he gained favorable attention from khan Mengu-Temir, who regarded the Orthodox Church with respect, and who, as khan, issued the first "yarlyk" ("decree" or "grant") about church tax-exemption for Metropolitan Kirill.

After serving three years with the Horde, Prince Theodore returned to Yaroslavl, that was ruled by princess Xenia with her grandson Mikhail, to be rejected by the populace. Theodore then returned to the Horde about the year 1266, where he was welcomed, especially by the wife of the khan Mengu-Temir, who being fond of the prince wished for him to have the hand of her daughter. Such a marriage was tremendously significant for Rus' as the khans had long held that the Russian princes were consider to be vassals or subjects. The khan's decision to allow the marriage of his daughter to a Russian prince was to acknowledge Prince Theodore as an equal and to acknowledge the primacy of Orthodoxy since, before the marriage rite of crowning, the Tatar princess would be required to accept holy baptism. The khan agreed this because union with Russia was very important for him. Thus, khan Mengu-Temir ordered his daughter be given to prince Theodore after her baptism. So, after her baptism as Anna, Prince Theodore married the daughter of the khan. The khan also ordered that the Orthodox faith was not be desecrated. While he remained in Sarai, Theodore's wife Anna bore him two sons, David and Constantine.

During these years Theodore gained tremendous influence at the Horde. He brought glory to the Russian Land and Church. Orthodox Christianity gained strength among the Tatars, and the Horde began to adopt Russian customs, morals, and piety. Russian merchants, architects, and skilled craftsmen carried Russian culture among the Horde to the shores of the Don, the Volga, the Ural mountains, and even to Mongolia itself. This began the missionary movement of the Orthodox Church towards the East that would enlighten the tribes with the light of the Gospel truth all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Orthodox Russian princes and their retinues participated as allies in the Mongol campaigns, and thus learned of and became familiar with the expanses of Asia, Siberia, and the Far East. In the year 1330, more than thirty years after the death of Prince Theodore, Chinese chronicles mention Russians in Peking.

Theodore lived in Sarai until 1290, at which time he received news from the city of Yaroslavl that his first son, Prince Michael, had died. Given rich gifts and a large retinue, the khan sent Theodore back to Rus where again he became the prince at Yaroslavl and began to concern himself with strengthening and building his city and principality, and especially the monastery of the Transfiguration of the Lord. The princes of Russia soon sought friendship and alliances with him. His ties with the son of Alexander Nevsky, Andrew Alexandrovich, became especially strong as Theodore supported him in all undertakings. After Prince Andrew became Great Prince of Vladimir, Theodore joined with him on military campaigns.

In 1296, Theodore, with Bishops Simeon of Vladimir and Ishmael of Sarai, negotiated a peace agreement among Grand Princes Andrew, Michael of Tver, and Daniel of Moscow, ending a bloody fratricidal war and established peace in the Russian lands. The following year he also asserted unsuccessfully his claim as the rightful Prince of Smolensk that had been usurped by his nephews.

However, soon after the campaign the warrior-prince became ill. On September 18, 1299, the Theodore gave orders that he be carried to the Savior-Transfiguration monastery. There, he received monastic tonsure. Near the end of the ritual, Theodore asked that the service be interrupted. With the blessing of the igumen, and to grant the wish of the dying prince, they carried him into the monastery courtyard. In the courtyard where a throng of the people of Yaroslavl had already gathered the prince repented before the people for having sinned against anyone or holding ill-feelings against anyone. He then blessed all those who had sinned against him or borne him enmity, and begged their pardon and accepted responsibility for all his deeds before God and man. Only after his repentance did the humble warrior achieve his desire to finish his unusual and much-troubled life's path by accepting the angelic schema.

All night the igumen and the brethren of the monastery prayed over the saintly prince. At the second hour of the night they began to ring the bell for Matins. Theodore laid silently upon his monk's cot and received the Holy Mysteries of Christ. When the monks began the third "Glory" of the Psalter, he made the Sign of the Cross and gave up his soul to the Lord.

His son St. David, who died in 1321, ruled at Yaroslavl after him, while his second son, Constantine, had evidently died earlier.


The veneration of Prince Theodore by the Church in the Yaroslavl region began soon after his death. During the years 1322 to 1327, Bishop Prochorus of Rostov commissioned the famous Theodorov Gospel, adorned with miniatures, in memory of St. Theodore. Previously, Bp. Prochorus had been igumen of the Savior-Transfiguration monastery at Yaroslavl. He knew Prince Theodore personally and had witnessed his tonsure and public repentance before the people. Historians think that the miniatures sewn into this manuscript had come from an earlier Gospel owned by St. Theodore himself, and which he had brought with him to Yaroslavl as a blessing from his native Smolensk.

On March 5, 1463, the relics of Prince Theodore and his sons, David and Constantine, were uncovered at Yaroslavl. The chronicler, an eyewitness to the event, recorded, "At the city of Yaroslavl in the monastery of the Holy Savior they unearthed three Great Princes: Prince Theodore Rostislavich and his sons David and Constantine and brought them above the ground. The Great Prince Theodore was a man of great stature, and they placed his sons David and Constantine beside him. Their stature was less than his. They had lain in a single grave." The physical appearance of the holy prince so impressed those present at the uncovering of the relics that an account of this was entered into the Prologue (lives of saints) in St. Theodore's Life, and also into the text of the Manual for Iconographers.

Shortly after the uncovering of the relics, the Life of the holy Prince Theodore the Black was written by the hieromonk Anthony of the Yaroslav Savior monastery with the blessing of Metropolitan Philip of Moscow. Another version of the Life was written by Andrew Yuriev at the St. Cyril of White Lake monastery, while a third and more detailed Life of St. Theodore was included in the "Book of Ranks of Imperial Genealogy," compiled under Tsar Ivan the Terrible and Metropolitan Macarius of Moscow.

Over the centuries spiritual songs have been composed about Prince Theodore glorifying his piety and discernment, beneficence and kind-heartedness, and his concern for building and adorning churches.


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