February 4 – Patron of Armenia

February 1, 2016

Gregory the Illuminator

Born 257?; died 337?, surnamed the Illuminator (Lusavorich).

Baptism of Tiridates III of Armenia by Saint Gregory the Illuminator.

Baptism of Tiridates III of Armenia by Saint Gregory the Illuminator.

Gregory the Illuminator is the apostle, national saint, and patron of Armenia. He was not the first who introduced Christianity into that country. The Armenians maintain that the faith was preached there by the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddaeus. Thaddaeus especially (the hero of the story of King Abgar of Edessa and the portrait of Christ) has been taken over by the Armenians, with the whole story. Abgar in their version becomes a King of Armenia; thus their land is the first of all to turn Christian. It is certain that there were Christians, even bishops, in Armenia before St. Gregory. The south Edessa and Nisibis especially, which accounts for the Armenian adoption of the Edessene story. A certain Dionysius of Alexandria (248-265) wrote them a letter “about penitence” (Euseb., “Hist. Eccl.”, VI, xlvi). This earliest Church was then destroyed by the Persians. Ardashir I, the founder of the Sassanid dynasty (226), restored, even extended, the old power of Persia. Armenia, always the exposed frontier state between Rome and Persia, was overrun by Ardashir’s army (Khosrov I of Armenia had taken the side of the old Arsacid dynasty); and the principle of uniformity in the Mazdean religion, that the Sassanids made a chief feature of their policy, was also applied to the subject kingdom. A Parthian named Anak murdered Khosrov by Ardashir’s orders, who then tried to exterminate the whole Armenian royal family. But a son of Khosrov, Trdat (Tiridates), escaped was trained in the Roman army, and eventually came back to drive out the persians and restore the Armenian kingdom.

The Baptism of the Armenian People by St. Gregory the Illuminator. Painted by Ivan Aivazovsky.

The Baptism of the Armenian People by St. Gregory the Illuminator. Painted by Ivan Aivazovsky.

In this restoration St. Gregory played an important part. He had been brought up as a Christian at Caesarea in Cappadocia. He seems to have belonged to an illustrious Armenian family. He was married and had two sons (called Aristakes and Bardanes in the Greek text of Moses of Kkhorni; see below). Gregory, after being himself persecuted by King Trdat, who at first defended the old Armenian religion, eventually converted him, and with him spread the Christian faith throughout the country. Trdat became so much a Christian that he made Christianity the national faith; the nobility seem to have followed his example easily, then the people followed — or were induced to follow — too. This happened while Diocletian was emperor (284-305), so that Armenia has a right to her claim of being the first Christian State. The temples were made into churches and the people baptized in thousands. So completely were the remains of the old heathendom effaced that we know practically nothing about the original Armenian religion (as distinct from Mazdeism), except the names of some gods whose temples were destroyed or converted (the chief temple at Ashtishat was dedicated to Vahagn, Anahit and Astlik; Vanatur was worshipped in the North round Mount Ararat, etc.). Meanwhile Gregory had gone back to Caessarea to be ordained. Leontius of Caesarea made him bishop of the Armenians; from this time till the Monophysite schism the Church of Armenia depended on Casearea, and the Armenian primates (called Catholicoi, only much later patriarchs) went there to be ordained. Gregory set up other bishops throughout the land and fixed his residence at Ashtishat (in the province of Taron), where the temple had been made into the church of Christ, “mother of all Armenian churches”. He preached in the national language and used it for the liturgy. This, too, helped to give the Armenian Church the markedly national character that it still has, more, perhaps, than any other in Christendom. Towards the end of his life he retired and was succeeded as Catholicos by his son Aristakes. Aristakes was present at the First General Council, in 325. Gregory died and was buried at Thortan. A monastery was built near his grave. His relics were afterwards taken to Constantinople, but apparently brough back again to Armenia. Part of these relics are said to have been taken to Naples during the Iconoclast troubles.

Statue of St. Gregory the Illuminator in Vatican City on the facade of Saint Peter's Basilica.

Statue of St. Gregory the Illuminator in Vatican City on the facade of Saint Peter’s Basilica.

This is what can be said with some certainty about the Apostle of Armenia; but a famous life of him by Aganthangelos (see below) embellishes the narrative with wonderful stories that need not be taken very seriously. According to this life, he was the son of the Parthian Anak who had murdered King Khosrov I. Anak in trying to escape was drowned in the Araxes with all his family except two sons, of whom one went to Persia, the other (the subject of this article) was taken by his Christian nurse to Caesarea and there baptized Gregory, in accordance with what she had been told in vision. Soon after his marriage, Gregory parted from his wife (who became a nun) and came back to Armenia. Here he refused to take part in a great sacrifice to the national gods ordered by King Trdat, and declared himself a Christian. He was then tortured in various horrible ways, all the more when the king discovered that he was the son of his father’s murderer. After being subjected to a variety of tortures (they scourged him, and put his head in a bag of ashes, poured molten lead over him, etc.) he was thrown into a pit full of dead bodies, poisonous filth, and serpents. He spent fifteen years in this pit, being fed by bread that a pious widow brought him daily. Meanwhile Trdat goes from bad to worse. A holy virgin named Rhipsime, who resists the king’s advances and is martyred, here plays a great part in the story. Evenetually, as a punishment for his wickedness, the king is turned into a boar and possessed by a devil. A vision now reveals to the monarch’s sisters that nothing can save him but the prayers of Gregory. At first no one will attend to this revelation, since they all think Gregory dead long ago. Eventually they seek and find him in the pit. He comes out, exorcizes the evil spirit and restores the king, and then begins preaching. Here a long discourse is put into the saint’s mouth — so long that it takes up more than half his life. It is simply a compendium of what the Armenian Church believed at the time that it was written (fifth century). It begins with an account of Bible history and goes on to dogmatic theology. Arianism, Nestorianism and all the other heresies up to Monophysite times are refuted. The discourse bears the stamp of the latter half of the fifth century so plainly that, even without the fact that earlier writers who quote Agathangelos (Moses of Khorni, etc.) do not know it, no one could doubt that it is the composition of an Armenian theologian of that time, inserted into the life that was already full enough of wonders. Nevertheles this “Confession of Gregory the Illuminator” was accepted as authentic and used as a kind of official creed by the Armenian Church during all the centuries that followed. Even now it is only the more liberal theologians among them who dispute its genuiness.

Saint Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral in Yerevan is the largest Armenian Church in the world and contains the remains of St Gregory.

Saint Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral in Yerevan is the largest Armenian Church in the world and contains the remains of St Gregory.

The life goes on to tell us of Gregory’s fast of seventy days that followed his rescue from the pit, of the conversion, and of their journeys throughout the land with the army to put down paganism. The false gods fight against the army like men or devils, but are always defeated by Trdat’s arms and Gregory’s prayers and are eventually driven into the Caucasus. The story of the saint’s ordination and of the establishment of the hierarchy is told with the same adornment. He baptized four million persons in seven days. He ordained and sent out twelve apostolic bishops, and sons of heathen priests. Eventually he ruled a church of four hundred bishops and priests too numerous to count. He and Trdat hear of Constantine’s conversion; they set out with an army of 70,000 men to congratulate him. Constantine, who had just been baptized at Rome by Pope Silvester, forms an alliance with Trdat; the pope warmly welcomes Gregory (there are a number of forged letters between Silvester and Gregory, see below) — and so on. It would not be difficult to find the models for all these stories. Gregory in the pit acts like Daniel in the lion’s den. Trdat as a boar is Nabuchodonosor; the battles of the king’s army against the heather and their gods have obvious precedents in the Old Testament. Gregory is now Elias, now Isaias, now John the Baptist, till his sending out his twelve apostles suggests a still greater model. The writer of the life calls himself Agathangelos, chamberlain or secretary of King Trdat. It was composed from various sources after the year 456 (see Gutschmid, below) in Armenian, though sources may have been partly Greek or Syriac (cf. Lagarde). The life was soon translated into Greek used by Symeon Metaphrastes, and further rendered into Latin in the tenth century. During the Middle Ages this life was the invariable source for the saint’s history. The Armenians (Monophysites and Uniates) keep the feast of their apostle on 30 September, when his relics were deposed at Thortan. They have many other feasts to commemorate his birth (August 5), sufferings (February 4), going into the pit ( February 28), coming out of the pit (October 19), etc. (Niles “Kalendarium Manuale”, 2nd ed., Innsbruck 1897, II, 577). The Byzantine Church keeps his feast (Gregorios ho phoster) on 30 September, as do also the Syrians (Nilles, I, 290-292). Pope Gregory XVI, in September, 1837, admitted his namesake to the Reman Calendar; and appointed 1 October as his feast (among the festa pro aliquibus locis).


AGATHANGELOS’S Life of St. Gregory was published in Armenian by the MECHITARISTS at Venice, in 1835 (reprinted at Tiflis, in 1882); translated into french and Italian (Venice, 1843). the Greek text was edited by STILTING in the Acta SS., Sept. VIII, 320 sqq; and again by LAGARDE, Agathangelos in Alhandl. der Gottinger Gesellschaft (1889). See also GUTSCHMID, Agathangelos in Zeitschrift der Deutschen, Morgenland. Geselischaft (1877), I. MOSES OF KHORNI (MOYSES CHORENVENNIS) in his History of Aremnia (III books, VII or VIII cent., ed by the MERCHITARISTS, Venice, 1843; in French by LE VAILLANT DE FLORIVAL, Parish, 1847; italian by TOMMASEO, Venice 1850) uses Agathangelos. See GUTSCHMID, Moses von Chorene in his Kleine Schriften, III, 332 sqq.; and CARRIERE, Nouvelles sources de Moise de Kkhoren (Vienna, 1893). FAUSTUS OF BYZANTIUM (fifth century) tells the story of the conversion of Armenia (Aremnian tr., Venice, 1832); French by LANGLOIS, Collection des historiens anciens et modernes de l’Armenic (2 vols., Paris, 1867, 1869). I; German by LAUER (Cologne, 1879). GELZER, Die Anfange der armenischen Kirche in Sitzungsberichte der Gottinger Gesellschaft 91895), 109 sqq. THUMAIAN, Agathangelos et la doctrine de l’Eglise armenienne au V siècle (Lausanne, 1879). The so-called letters between Pope Silvester I and St. Gregory are printed in AZARIAN, Ecclesiae armeniae traditio de romani pontificis primatau (Rome, 1870).

ADRIAN FORTESCUE (Catholic Encyclopedia)



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