Icon of the Synaxis of the Holy Healers


Christ is placed at the top of the icon in what is called in iconography an Arc of Heaven.

The cruciform halo is characteristic of the Logos and the letters ὁ ὢν (“ho ōn”), denote “the Existing One” and render explicit the divinity of Jesus.

The shape of the Arc of Heaven consists in the intersection of two circles, or in this case multiple circles with the colouring goes from light into darkness.  Two main points stem from this: (1) The darkness is a direct reference to apophatic theology – a central theme of Eastern Christian theology – where God is confessed, as in the anaphora of St John Chrysostom, as “ineffable, incomprehensible, invisible, inconceivable” (by using negation). “God dwells in the darkness”, says Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.  “The holy darkness is the unapproachable light in which God dwells (1 Tim 6: 16). It is the very excess of light that makes it invisible. The overflow of its luminous and over-essential effusions steals it away from view.” (2) The intersecting circles refer to the infinite dimension. This synaxis reveals a reality which transcends time and place – which only makes sense when understood under an eschatological light, since these saints lived at various times and places.

From this “unapproachable light”, we note rays, here indicating the divine light emanating from God.

Frequently, “the arc of heaven” may contain a hand for it is not possible to see God and live (Exodus 33). The Father cannot be depicted, but his Logos that becomes incarnate can be.  In this icon, Christ is at the centre of the arc. He appears blessing the Synaxis with both hands, a custom of Byzantine bishops: it refers to Christ’s oversight – to his role as episkopos.

The Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke is commemorated in the East on October 18th. While he is not always represented in the icons of the Holy Unmercenaries (no doubt because his role as an evangelist comes before his role as a physician), there are many reasons to include him … and among the first of these reasons is that, as Christian physicians, we need to be rooted in Holy Scripture.

St Luke was a native of Syrian Antioch, a companion of the holy Apostle Paul (Phil.1:24, 2 Tim. 4:10-11), and a physician enlightened in the Greek medical arts.

He is represented here holding his Gospel in the left hand, and a pen in the right.

The Great Martyr and Healer Panteleimon is commemorated on July 27th. He receives special affection in the Orthodox world, and whenever the Holy Unmercenaries are represented, he is given a place of honour. In the Christian East, he is invoked in the Mystery of Anointing of the Sick, at the Blessing of Water, and in the Prayers for the Sick.

St Panteleimon was born in the city of Nicomedia (in modern-day Turkey), son of the illustrious pagan Eustorgius, and of Saint Euboula, a holy Christian woman who died when the future martyr was just a young child. He was martyred by decapitation under emperor Maximian, during the Great Persecution.

His baptism name, Panteleimon, means “all-merciful” – whereas the name he received before baptism and by which he is often known in the West, Panteleon, means “a lion in everything”.

He is represented here holding a compartmented medicine box (i.e. a 4th-century dosette box!) with a spoon – some of the more usual iconographic attributes of a physician. He is also wearing a martyr’s crown.

St Gianna Molla is commemorated on April 28th.

She was born in a devout Roman Catholic family in the north of Italy. She studied medicine in Milan and opened an office in Mesero close to her hometown of Bergamo, where she specialized in pediatrics in 1950. While pregnant with her fourth child, and despite knowing that continuing the refusal could result in her own death, she refused an abortion and decided to save the life of her final child rather than think of herself. Molla also dedicated herself to charitable work amongst older people and was involved in Catholic Action; she also aided the Saint Vincent de Paul group in their outreach to the poor and less fortunate.

She is represented here with a white coat in a suscipe position, that is, her hands crossed on her chest.  The suscipe refers to a verse in Psalm 118 which Benedictine nuns – this includes the iconographer of this very icon, Sister Agnes – sing at their monastic profession:  “Receive me, Lord, according to your word, and I shall live; do not confound me in my expectation.”  It is a very beautiful gesture because this is a gesture which expresses sacrifice, and St. Gianna offered her life. The suscipe is also, incidentally, the position adopted in our byzantine tradition when one approaches the chalice to receive the Holy Mysteries – the Body and Blood of Our Lord in the Eucharist.

St Giuseppe Moscati is commemorated on November 16th.

He was an Italian doctor, scientific researcher, and university professor noted both for his pioneering work in biochemistry and for his piety.

As in the case of other Unmercenaries, it was claimed even before his death that Dr. Moscati was a miracle-worker; some said that he could accurately diagnose and prescribe for any patient merely by hearing a list of his symptoms, and that he was responsible for impossible cures. Reports of his good works continued well after his death, with further reports that he interceded in impossible cases. His canonization miracle involved the case of a young ironworker dying of leukemia. The young man’s mother dreamed of a doctor wearing a white coat, whom she identified as Giuseppe Moscati when shown a photograph. Not long after this, her son went into remission and returned to work.

St Giuseppe is represented here in a white coat, and holding a compartmented medicine box (though a slightly different model than St Panteleimon’s) and a spatula. Note that the handle of the spoon is shaped like a cross. This is meant to underline the importance of spiritual healing along physical healing, and that all cure come from God.

St Sampson is commemorated on June 27th.

Saint Sampson the Hospitable was the son of rich and illustrious Roman parents. In his youth he received an excellent education, he studied the medical arts, and doctored the sick without charge. After the death of his parents Saint Sampson generously distributed alms and set his slaves free, preparing himself to go into the wilderness.

With this intent in mind he soon journeyed from Rome to the East. But the Lord directed him onto a different path, that of service to neighbor, and so Saint Sampson came to Constantinople. Settling into a small house, the saint began to take in homeless wanderers, the poor and the sick, and he attended to them. The Lord blessed the efforts of Saint Sampson and endowed him with the power of wonderworking. He healed the sick not only through being a skilled physician, but also as a bearer of the grace of God. News of Saint Sampson spread abroad. The patriarch heard of his great virtue and ordained him to the holy priesthood.

He is shown here giving a blessing, dressed in his priestly liturgical vestments, with part of his phelonion and right wrist epimanikion visible.

Troparion for his feast — Tone 8

Through your patience, your unceasing prayer, your love for the poor and the help you gave to them, / you became worthy of your reward, O holy Sampson. / Intercede with Christ God that He may save our souls.

St Anthony Nam Quinh, martyr and physician, is commemorated on November 24th.

St Anthony was born in a Christian family in Mi Huong, in the province of Quang Binh. He was the fifth child on his family, and thus received the nickname Nam, which simply means five.

His medical knowledge came to be widely recognized. Within a few years, he was in a position to help even the poorest peasants. He gave without counting, happy to please, happier still to relieve suffering, and would go so far as to act as guarantor to those who could not borrow or even pay their debts.

When his wife and children would attempt to curb his excessive generosity, he would answer: if you do not allow me to give what we have in our home, I will start working as a servant, so as to give my earnings to the poor. Never, he added, have I seen the children of those who help the poor begging. Are these poor not the body of Christ? I do not want to save riches for you. God has given you existence, and His Divine Providence will watch over you.

On July 10th 1840, he was placed on the floor in a location where three priests (Father Cao, Father Khoa and Father Diem) were executed the year before, and with arms outstretched like His Lord and Saviour on Calvary, he was strangled.

St Anthony is represented here in traditional Vietnamese áo dài garment and holding the cross of martyrdom.

Martyr Tryphon of Lampsacus Near Apamea in Syria is commemorated on February 1st.

The Martyr Tryphon was born in Phrygia, one of the districts of Asia Minor, in the village of Lampsacus. From his early years the Lord granted him the power to cast out demons and to heal various maladies. He once saved the inhabitants of his native city from starvation. Saint Tryphon, by the power of his prayer, turned back a plague of locusts that were devouring the grain and devastating the fields. Saint Tryphon gained particular fame by casting out an evil spirit from the daughter of the Roman emperor Gordian. Helping everyone in distress, he asked only one thing from them: faith in Jesus Christ, by Whose grace he healed them.

During the Great Persecution, Tryphon was denounced, having boldly preached faith in Christ, and led many to Baptism. The saint was arrested and subjected to interrogation, during which he fearlessly confessed his faith and was subjected to harsh tortures. He was condemned to beheading with a sword. The holy martyr prayed before his execution, thanking God for strength. He also asked the Lord to bless those who should call upon his name for help. Just as the soldiers raised the sword over the head of the holy martyr, he surrendered his soul into the hands of God. This event occurred in the city of Nicea in the year 250. The relics of Saint Tryphon would later be transferred to Constantinople, and then to Rome.

He is represented as a beardless young man, with a bird on his shoulder.

Holy Wonderworkers and Unmercenaries Cosmas and Damian of Mesopotamia are commemorated on November 1st in the Byzantine calendar, and on September 25th on the Roman calendar in Canada.

Trained and skilled as physicians, they received from the Holy Spirit the gift of healing people’s illnesses of body and soul by the power of prayer. They even treated animals. With fervent love for both God and neighbor, they never took payment for their services. They strictly observed the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, “Freely have you received, freely give.” (Mt. 10:8). The fame of Saints Cosmas and Damian spread throughout all the surrounding region, and people called them unmercenary physicians.

Here St Cosmas is represented holding yet another style of medication box.

Over the centuries, some Western painters opted, with no irreverence, to include either a urinal or an ointment jar as their attributes, showcasing a full understanding of the physical dimension of the Christian Faith.

St René Goupil’s feastday is observed on September 26th in Canada.

Goupil is from the village of St-Martin-du-Bois in the Pays de la Loire.  He worked as a surgeon in Orléans before entering the novitiate of the Society of Jesus in Paris on March 16th, 1639. He had to leave the novitiate due to deafness, but he volunteered to serve as a lay missionary working to assist the Jesuit Fathers.

In 1640 he arrived in New France, and from 1640 to 1642 he served at the Saint-Joseph de Sillery Mission, near Quebec, where he was charged with caring for the sick and wounded at the hospital. His work primarily involved wound dressings and bloodlettings.

In 1642, Goupil travelled to the Huron missions with about forty other persons, including several Huron chiefs and Jesuit Father Isaac Jogues. They were captured by the Mohawk, and tortured. After teaching the native children the sign of the cross, Goupil was killed on September 29th, 1642 by several blows to the head with a tomahawk.

Here, he is represented in the religious habit of Jesuits in the 17th century (similar to those you may have come across in the movie Silence) as he had become a lay brother of this order shortly before his death. He is represented with a cross of martyrdom.

Wonderworker and Unmercenary Cyrus is commemorated on January 31st.

Saint Cyrus was a noted physician in the city of Alexandria, where he had been born and raised. He was a Christian and he treated the sick without charge, not only curing their bodily afflictions, but also healing their spiritual infirmities. He would say, “Whoever wishes to avoid being ill should refrain from sin, for sin is often the cause of bodily illness.” Preaching the Gospel, the holy physician helped bring many to Christ. During the persecution by Diocletian (284-305), Saint Cyrus withdrew into Arabia, where he became a monk. He continued to heal people by his prayer, having received from God the gift to heal every sickness.

He is represented here with a monastic hood.

St Martin de Porres’ feastday is November 3rd.  Juan Martin de Porres Velázquez was born in the city of Lima, Viceroyalty of Peru, on December 9, 1579. He was the illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman and a freed slave from Panama, of African or possibly part Native American descent.

He grew up in poverty and then placed with a barber/surgeon to learn the medical arts. He spent hours of the night in prayer, a practice which increased as he grew older. Under Peruvian law, non-whites were barred from becoming full members of religious orders. Martin asked the Dominicans of Holy Rosary Priory in Lima to take him as a donado. After eight years, turning a blind eye to the law, his prior permitted Martin to take his vows as a member of the Third Order, and in 1603, he was allowed to profess religious vows as a Dominican lay brother.

One day he found on the street a poor Indian, bleeding to death from a dagger wound. He took him to his own room to care for him. The prior, when he heard of this, reprimanded him for disobedience. He was extremely edified, however, by his reply: “Forgive my error, and please instruct me, for I did not know that the precept of obedience took precedence over that of charity.” The prior gave him liberty thereafter to follow his inspirations in the exercise of mercy.

Here in the back row is a saint represented in a monastic habit with a distinct complexion.

Akathist for the Synaxis of the Holy Healers

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