December 11 is the feast day for stylites, or saints who lived on top of a column.They were driven to defy the laws of nature and their sinful selves. They represent committed if not eccentric spirits yearning for some other reality as they surrendered to the unknown. They chose to live without comfort, placing all their earthly desires in heaven, divine life, and even immortality. Pillar Saints embraced a life of prayer as outlandish stylites, their prayer is evidence of their perseverance. Extraordinary as a pillar saint may be, they are examples of humans who have tried to renew themselves. Their plea to God was a desire for perfection as they persistently sought his presence in this life and the next.
Although I am the basest of mankind,
From scalp to sole, one covered and crusted in sin.
Unfit for earth, unfit for heaven, scarce meet
For troops of devils, mad with blasphemy,
I will not cease to grasp the hope I hold
Of Sainthood, and to clamor, mourn, and sob,
Have mercy, Lord, and take away my sin
Our Lady of the Pillar
All the pillar saints seem to be male. There are no records or images of women committing to this kind of sainthood. However, there are plenty of apparitions of Mary on a pillar. The most famous is Nuestra Señora del Pilar, or Our Lady of the Pillar, dating back to 15th century Spain. The legend states that the virgin appear to the Apostle James, October 12, 40 AD. As with all recorded legend you have to ask what is legend and what is truth, how are we to know truth set in the year 40AD
Stilites were Wise Men
If you want to be healthy, study health … if you want to be wealthy, study wealth … if you want to be happy, study happiness.
Silent words are heard through the eyes.
It is a little surreal to know that you are in your own little reality, and a few inches from you is instant death.
The words of council and healing which god put into the mouths of pillar saints brought crowds of heathens to baptism and of sinners to penance. Cheerfulness, humility, and obedience set their seal upon the austerities of hermit stylites as they sat in the center of town. They embraced a life of prayer as outlandish stylites and endured every comment from passers-by. Imagine finding a wise man today, atop a pillar in prayer, who listens to everyone’s questions and gives wise answers.
Pillar saints, hermit saints, or stylite icons are many. They are often unnamed but the most popular are St Simon the younger and St Simon the elder. Saint Alypius is another, Daniel the Stylite lived on his pillar for 33 years. St Simon the younger began his sitting in a town near Aleppo in 420. He stood or sat in his pulpit at the top of a column, curing the people below him with his blessing. This icon shows one man possessed by a devil, a lame man with a crutch, a woman with a baby in swaddling clothes, and a priest. In the background, buildings of the city of Antioch.
Hermit Saints are also Pillar Saints.
Depicted in Iconography their column was roughly 2 meters (6 feet) high, later extended to about 15 meters (50 feet), and they say the platform to have been about 1 square meter (about 11 square feet). In several icons you will see small stings with buckets on either side of the column. The saint got his food and lowered his waste by these ropes.
St Simone remained atop his column for 37 years. When a passer-by bid St. Simon comes down from his pillar and return to the common life. In a moment the Saint made ready to descend; but it satisfied the Egyptian religious with this proof of humility. “Stay,” he said, “and take courage; your way of life is from God.” When he died, his body was found by a disciple and was apparently stooped in prayer.
At last, in the year 460, those who watched below noticed that he had been motionless three whole days. They ascended, and found the old man’s body still bent in the attitude of prayer, but his soul was with God. Not only driven by lives of solitude, but eating but once a week, fasting for 40 days, these guys sat on their pillars exposed to heat and cold, day and night adoring the majesty of God.
The practice of sitting on a column died out in the first millennium. The practice of this austerer lifestyle was never sanctioned by the church. Those who sat atop these pillars were not usually priest or recognized theologians. St. Augustine says: “This is the business of our life: by effort and by toil, by prayer and supplication, to advance in the grace of God, till we come to that height of perfection in which with clean hearts we may behold God.” Listening to that comment makes me wonder why it died out as a practice and can humanity gain anything by denying the flesh so severely? I might want to try this in my yard for a month.
In designing an icon, I would caution you to do the research and examine the elements that are accurate. Seek out the important elements that are consistent with the message and integrity of the icon.
In another post ill review the common element where we find a hand of God included or a heavenly observer. This aspect of the icon but it is an element worth considering and appears in many icons.