medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture
9. March is also the feast day of:
Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (d. later 3d cent.). Our principal sources for this group of military martyrs of ancient Sebaste/Sebasteia in Armenia Minor (now Sivas in the homonymous province of Turkey) are a Greek-language Passio that seems to have arisen in the earlier fourth century, though its standard form (BHG 1201) is a little later than that, and a set of fourth-century _laudationes_ deriving from different forms of the Passio and written by, among others, St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and an Ephraem who does not appear to be St. Ephraem Syrus and whose work is preserved in Greek among the many texts dubiously ascribed to his celebrated homonym. Though the Passio and many of its progeny set the martyrs' suffering in a provincial persecution under Licinius various reports of _inventio_ of their relics indicate rather a later third-century date.
According to these sources, the forty were soldiers who, having publicly professed their Christianity and having undergone official interrogation, were at Sebaste forced to stand together all night in freezing weather in the proximity of a bathhouse whose warmth might tempt them to recant. One did and promptly expired; his place was taken by an attendant. In the morning, when the forty were at the point of expiring, they were cast still breathing onto a fire and were burned to death. Their bodies were thrown into a local river. Later these were recovered (they are said to have gleamed miraculously) and were interred in a martyrial church at their place of suffering.
Although Basil says that the Forty suffered in the middle of the city, an early development, enshrined in BHG 1201 and later texts, had them spend the night on ice in the middle of the city's lake, then frozen over; during that time they received from heaven badges of their holiness that in the texts are called _stephanoi_. As a _stephanos_ is most commonly a garland, the martyrs are often depicted receiving martyrs' crowns.
A separately transmitted Testament (BHG 1203) purporting to come from the martyrs and affirming their unity and resoluteness is usually thought to be genuine but could be an artefact of their cult at an early stage. The cult spread widely: in addition to various early testimonies in the Greek and Armenian churches there are also two Latin translations of the Passio (the later one is dated to ca. 900) and two in Georgian. Medievally, there were at least two churches to these martyrs in Constantinople and several in Rome, of which the earliest is the originally late antique oratorio dei Santi Quaranta Martiri Sebasteni adjacent to Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum. An Italian-language account of that church is at the foot of this page:
View of the apse with its eighth-century fresco of these martyrs' suffering:
The suffering of the Forty as depicted (above the portraits) in an eighth- or perhaps earlier ninth-century fresco in the oratorio dei Quaranta Martiri in the Catacombe di Santa Lucia in Syracuse:
The Forty as depicted on a tenth-century ivory panel from Constantinople now in the Bode-Museum in Berlin:
A surviving fragment of the martyrs' suffering as depicted in the earlier thirteenth-century (1230s) frescoes of the church of the Ascension of Our Lord in the Mileševa monastery near Prijepolje (Zlatibor dist.) in southern Serbia:
An illustrated, English-language page on the earlier thirteenth-century (1230s) church of the Forty Martyrs at Veliko Tarnovo in Bulgaria:
The martyrs' suffering as depicted on a late fifteenth- or early sixteenth-century Novgorod School icon tablet now in the State Tretyakov Museum in Moscow:
To join the list, send the message: join medieval-religion YOUR NAME
to: [log in to unmask]
To send a message to the list, address it to:
[log in to unmask]
To leave the list, send the message: leave medieval-religion
to: [log in to unmask]
In order to report problems or to contact the list's owners, write to:
[log in to unmask]
For further information, visit our web site: