Saint Euphrosyne, Bright starre of beauty, radiant Sunne of grace

“To ye most Glorious, Illustrious, Celestiall Princesse, and Immortall Spouse of Christ, ye mirror of Ladyes, and honour of sacred Virgins, ever Bd Saint Euphrosina. Daigne glorious Saint, ye honour of thy race/

Bright starre of beauty, radiant Sunne of grace”

-Sister Catharin Magdalene” (Eveling(e), professed at Aire 1620, died 1668, PCD MS 28, Poor Clares, Darlington manuscripts

The “ever Blessed” Saint Euphrosina /Euphrosyne / Efrosinia / Evfrosiniia of Polotsk is the patron saint of Belarus. Her feast day is May 23.

Euphrosyne is a saint near and dear to my heart, since, like my avatar Christine de Pisan, she is a medieval scribe.  Her grandfather, Vseslav the Sorcerer, was said to be a werewolf.

Euphrosyne started several monasteries.  She wrote music. She was an art patron.  She contributed to the rebuilding of the Sofia Cathedral. She contributed to the Polotsk chronicles, which improved relations between the Polotsk political center and Kiev. And she traveled to Jerusalem on pilgrimage.

Her story starts out in the usual way, a young girl escaping marriage who, at the age of twelve, finds her way to a nunnery. But Euphrosyne was more fortunate than some other saints, who ended up with martyrdom, as she was born to a royal family.


Vseslav the Sorcerer

According to the government of Belarus, Euphrosyne was born to the family of Prince Svyatoslav-Georgy, second son of Vseslav the Sorcerer (c. 1039 – 1101), who Wikipedia tells us was depicted as a werewolf in Russian sources. Other sources say she was Vseslav’s daughter, or that her date of birth was 1120, although most sources say she was born between 1101 and 1104. Her birth name was Predslava – she took the name Euphrosyne on entering religious life.

Euphrosyne’s grandfather, Vseslav the Sorcerer (Usiaslau) is famous for establishing Saint Sophia Cathedral in Polotsk, at the confluence of the Polota and Dvina rivers, which was completed during his long reign. Vseslav’s son (St. Euphrosyne’s father), Prince Svyatoslav Vseslavich (baptized: George) of Vitebsk (c 1065 – c 1130) was said to have married Sofiya Vladimirovna, who may have been the daughter of Vladimir II Vsevolodovich Monomakh of Kiev (Vladamir Monomakh) the co-prince of Svyatopolk Izyaslavich of Kiev, although it has been questioned why a woman from such a prestigious family would marry someone from Polotsk, which some consider to be a backwater.  So, after all that digging, we find that Saint Euphrosyne’s mother was Sofiya Vladimirovna. Why do they never bother to list the mother?

St. Euphrosyne was also the great-granddaughter of Bryachislav, Prince of Polotsk, the great-great-granddaughter of Izyaslav, Prince of Polotsk, and the great-great-great-granddaughter of Saint Vladimir the Great, Equal-to-the-Apostles and Rogneda of Polotsk. And for those who consider Polotsk to be a backwater and not worthy of prestigious marriages, the Rogvolod  dynasty had close ties with great European dynasties. “For instance, Vseslav the Sorcerer’s daughter married the Byzantine emperor Alexios Komnenos, and Vseslav’s great-granddaughter Sophia married King Valdemar І of Denmark in 1157. Their descendants occupied the thrones of Denmark, Sweden and France.”

Several sources say St. Euphrosyne ran away from her family to become a nun, and that she was helped by her aunt who was an abbess. So who was the aunt?  Probably the widow of Prince Roman/ Romanus.  One source calls her “Abbess Romana“.  One of Vseslav the Sorcerer’s six sons was Roman (c. 1114/1116), Prince of (probably) Drutsk, who died in either Ryazan or Murom. His widow became a nun and lived in Saint Sophia Cathedral in Polotsk, where she ran a charity.  One source says the aunt was the widow of Prince Romanus. Another says Euphrosyne was the sister-in-law of the widow of Roman Vseslavich of Drutsk (c 1054 – c 1115), which would again make her the sister of this Prince Roman, instead of the niece, and the daughter of the werewolf sorcerer, instead of the granddaughter, which most sources will tell you puts her birth date off by quite a bit. According to a history of local monasticism at the saint’s monastery, there was once for some time a convent in Polotsk, or near it, which was of the princess Romanov (княгиня романова), the widow of Prince Roman Vseslavich (Вдова князя Романа Всеславича) who died in 1116.


The young St. Euphrosyne is said to have established a business as a scribe near Sophia Cathedral, and distributed the proceeds from copying books as alms.

Around 1128, at the age of about 20,  Euphrosyne was commissioned by Bishop Elias of Polotska to found the Savior-Transfiguration monastery in a place called Seltso/Seltse, on lands belonging to the church.  She brought only her books, and was joined by her sister, her cousin and two nieces.

Euphrosyne’s sister was Gradislava (Eudokia in the monastic life).  Another notable woman who brought her wealth to the monastery was Zvenislava, a princess of Borisov, whose religious name was Eupraxia.

According to a historical document on the monastery’s website (right: charter)….

… Having accepted the command from the Angel and having received the bishop’s blessing, the Monk Euphrosinia, together with one nun, leaves the Church of St. Sophia to settle permanently at the Bishop Village, where the monastery she created now adores her.

The outskirts of Seltso were very lonely and deserted.There was a small, dilapidated wooden church in honor of the Holy Savior, near which the saint  built, wishing to spend the days of her life in silence and prayer.

… Seeing the multiplication by the day of the sisters in her abode, the saint . conceived to build a stone church on the site of a small wooden church. The grace of God, which was traveling to her, accomplished this good deed: a beautiful temple was erected at thirty weeks and consecrated in the name of the All-Merciful Savior.  – From the Life of St. Euphrosyne.

The convent became a cathedral in 1161, and the chapel has become iconic. See an aerial view short video here.

Euphrosyne started a friary as well, dedicated to the Theotokos/Mother of God. This friary became associated with a famous Hodigitria of Polotsk (Our Lady of Korsun) or “Korsunskaya” icon of the Theotokos she acquired from Byzantium that was said to have been painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist or more probably was a hand-painted 12th century copy of the original. The icon was associated with a Tuesday procession and weekly miracle in Constantinople, a ritual which may have been replicated in Polotsk.

Cross of Saint Euphrosyne

Euphrosyne commissioned a silver and enameled reliquary altar-cross from master jeweler Lazar Bogsha bearing her name: the Cross of Saint Euphrosyne.  It is about 20” high, and is a unique masterpiece of ancient Belarusian art. The Cross was a treasure of the medieval world that was loaned back and forth until it finally came back to Polatsk in 1841. It contained fragments of the Cross of Christ with drops of His blood, the stone from the tomb of the Mother of God, a part of the Holy Sepulcher, relics of St. Stephen and St. Panteleimon, and the blood of St. Demetrios.  It was thoroughly photographed for the record in 1896, but disappeared during WWII. It was considered a symbol of Belarus, and has now been replaced with a replica, duplicated from the photographs.

The Korsun icon of Polotsk

Euphrosyne’s name is connected with the emergence of a Madonna icon known as a Hodigitria, the “Korsunskaya” or “Korsun icon of Polotsk”, which was brought from Byzantium.

The icon was a gift from the byzantine emperor Manuel Comnemis and Patriarch Luka Hrysovergu. The image was from Ephesus, which was believed to be the location of one of the three icons believed to have been originally painted by St. Luke the Evangelist, who was regarded as the prototypical icon painter.  There are other miracle-working copies of this icon.  The icon spent a year in the city of Korsun, which is why it is sometimes called Korsunskaya.  Some more info about the icon here, in Russian, works with google translate.

In 1239, the icon, or perhaps another miracle-working copy, was borrowed by the daughter of Prince of Polotsk Bryachislav, Paraskeva, wife of Prince Alexander Nevsky, and taken to Bogoroditsky Cathedral the town Toropets.  It was credited for the city’s escape from a Polish invasion in the year 1611. The All Saints Church in Toropets has a list of Korsun icons: St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg, the Nezhinsky Monastery, the town of Usman of the Tambov Diocese, the Pavlo-Obnorsky Monastery of the Vologda Diocese, the Suzdal Savior-Euthymean Monastery, the Nizhny Novgorod Blagoveshchensk, and Priory Monastery.

In 1917, the Bolsheviks seized the image and took it to Leningrad, later it was taken to the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.

Here is something more about the icon, a 3-minute video, sorry not in English, but the vocal harmonies are very nice.

And here is Kontakion 13, the 14th sub-part of the kontakion seems to be the proper Orthodox ritual for this image. The entire group of hymns is called the athistos cycle, the most popular Byzantine hymn in praise of the Mother of God.

Pilgrimage, death, and tombs

Saint Euphrosina made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1173 and never returned. She entrusted her monastery in Polotsk to Mother Eudocia, and traveled with relatives, with her nephew David and sister Eupraxia.  She was welcomed by King Amaury I (King of Jerusalem from 1163-1174) and the Frankish patriarch, who knew who she was.  She also stopped in Constantinple where she had petitioned to acquire the icon for her friory.   She died in the so-called Russian convent near the church of the Holy Virgin.  She sent to the laura / lavra of St. Sabas to see if she could be buried in their monastery but was told that women were not permitted to be buried there.  Instead the convent of the Holy Virgin of Theodosius was recommended, as several holy women of note had been buried there, including the mothers of several saints.  A burial place was prepared in the narthex of the monastery and 24 days later she died and her body was brought there.

According to an 1185 eyewitness account, the monastery had a circular roof and several caves underneath. Saint Theodosius the Cenobiarch had assisted, and later succeeded Saint Anthony of the Kievan Caves (right: Euphrosina’s relics in Kiev monastery cave) in founding the Kiev Pechersk Lavra-Caves Monastery.  Her relics were subsequently brought to Kiev after Saladin conquered the Holy Land in 1187, but have since been returned to her home monastery.  In 1909, Tsar Nicholas II approved the move of the relics, and during Bright Week (the week after Orthodox Easter) of 1910, her relics were carried from Kiev to Polotsk, while crowds lined the roads. Among those gathered along the route were Saint Elizabeth the Grand Duchess, Grand Duke Konstantine Constantinovich, and Olga Constantinovna of Russian, wife of King George I of Greece.

The relics did not remain there undisturbed, however, they were returned again for the second time, from Rostov, in 1921 and for the third time from Vitebsk to Polotsk in 1943. History from the monastery website here (in Russian).

Images (l to r): procession in 2010, relics in Polotsk 1950s, tomb in Polotsk.

Note: this has taken a loooong time to compile, I thought she would be an easy saint, or perhaps an inspirational saint, but her life is intertwined with much eastern European and Middle Eastern politics and history, so any inspiration to be derived will probably come from the associated rituals and icons.  And I am still looking for the Vita, which several sources have quoted and which I now realize must be in Russian, and also the hymns she composed. Several of her personal seals have been found (it’s somewhere on the monastery website, in Russian), so surely there is a body of personal correspondence or some kind of documention that survived the military upheavals, probably in a museum or library somewhere, but as yet they have eluded me.

So…here are a few icons…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s