Saint Gereon, by a 15th-century German artist

See Khalsafor the concept of "warrior-saint" in Sikhism.

The military saints (also called soldier saints) of the Early Christian Church, enjoyed a vogue parallel to the virgin martyrs. The persecution of Christians under Diocletian or other Emperors usually furnished the background for soldier-saint hagiography which has a common theme: a soldier of the Empire has become a Christian and is found out. He undergoes tortures—which may miraculously not affect him—but refuses to offer incense to the Emperor (see imperial cult) nor deny his faith (apostasy) and is martyred. Such a saint was an "athlete of Christ" (athleta Christi).

In Late Antiquity other Christian writers of hagiography, like Sulpicius Severus in his account of the anti-heroic, anti-military life of Martin of Tours, created a literary model that reflected the new spiritual, political, and social ideals of a post-Roman society. In a recent study of Anglo-Saxon soldier saints (Damon 2003), J.E. Damon has demonstrated the persistence of Sulpicius's literary model in the transformation of the pious, peaceful saints and willing martyrs of late antique hagiography to the Christian heroes of the early Middle Ages, who appealed to the newly-converted societies led by professional warriors and who exemplified accommodation with and eventually active participation in "holy" wars that were considered just. A similar development in the cult of Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki has been observed; although always described as a soldier, depictions of him were in civilian dress for centuries until around the turn of the millennium, after which he is nearly always shown fully armed.[1]

The angelic prototype of the Christian soldier-saint is the Archangel Michael, who was Christianized in the 5th century with a shrine at Monte Gargano. The cult of soldier-saints followed the transformation of Michael into a Christian figure.

Michael of salonica

Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki, 12th century Greek mosaic from Kiev

The Eastern Orthodox military saints are on the whole more prominent in the respective devotions of their churches than the Western ones, especially as the military crisis of the Byzantine Empire deepened. They are usually shown fully equipped for fighting, unlike many Western military saints. The most important are Saint George, Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki (these two very often paired, riding on horseback or on foot in icons), Saint Theodore the General, and Saint Theodore the Recruit. It is noticeable that a historical basis for all of these is essentially lacking. Boris and Gleb, historical princely figures, were added to the Orthodox list during the conversion of the East Slavic countries.

Of these St George was imported to the West during the period of the Crusades; becoming perhaps the most important military saint depicted "on active service" in the Catholic world - St. Sebastian was nearly always depicted as a martyr. Like his Byzantine comrades, George is usually depicted fully armed.

Soldier-saints tended to appear in troubled times: a second wave of soldier-saints with sounder historical character appeared in the High Middle Ages, not least of whom is Joan of Arc.

A later type of soldier-saint is Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who gave up military service to form a religious order.

List of military saints

Borisgleb riding

Boris and Gleb, the first East Slavic military saints. An early 14th-century icon from Moscow, essentially copying the usual Byzantine depiction of Saint George and Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki

See also


  1. see his article

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