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FEAST - Many Saints for the Day (March 9): The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste


John Dillon <[log in to unmask]>


medieval-religion - Scholarly discussions of medieval religious culture <[log in to unmask]>


Wed, 9 Mar 2016 22:40:29 +0000





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medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture

Our principal sources for the Forty 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 the Syrian but 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 (ca. 320-324; possibly fictional), 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 St. 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, giving the names of each, 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.

According to its originally eleventh-century _Hypotyposis_ (handbook of arrangements), at the Theotokos Evergetis monastery in Constantinople on only this feast and that of the First and Second Findings of the Head of St. John the Forerunner (24. February) would the monks break their fast during Great Lent.

Some period-pertinent depictions of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste:

a) The suffering of the Forty as depicted in the remains of the eighth-century apse fresco of the originally late antique oratorio dei Santi Quaranta Martiri Sebasteni adjacent to the chiesa di Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum:


b) 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:


Before restoration:


c) The suffering of the Forty as portrayed on a tenth-century ivory panel from Constantinople in the Bode-Museum in Berlin:


d) The suffering of the Forty as portrayed on the central panel of an early eleventh-century wood and ivory triptych in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg:


e) A set of expandable views of eleventh-century mosaic portraits of the individual Forty Martyrs of Sebaste in the cathedral of St. Sophia in Kyiv / Kiev starts on this page and ends on the one that follows it:


f) The suffering of the Forty as depicted in the eleventh-century frescoes of the cathedral of St. Sophia (now Sv. Sofija) in Ohrid (two images, one on either side of a window):



g) The suffering of the Forty as depicted in the mid-eleventh-century "imperial" menologion in the State Historical Museum in Moscow (cod. Syn. gr. 183, p. 179):


h) The suffering of the Forty as depicted on a later eleventh-century portable icon in the Icon Gallery - Ohrid in Ohrid:


i) The suffering of the Forty as depicted in an early twelfth-century fresco (1105-1106) in the church of the Panagia Phorbiotissa at Asinou (Nicosia prefecture) in the Republic of Cyprus:


Detail view:


j) The suffering of the Forty as depicted in a perhaps early twelfth-century icon formerly in the church of St. George at Iphi and now in the Svaneti Historical and Ethnographical Museum, Mestia, Georgia:


Detail views (brief video):


k) The suffering of the Forty as depicted in a twelfth-century fresco in the church of Agios Nikolaos tis Stegis at Kakopetria (Nicosia prefecture) in the Republic of Cyprus:


l) The suffering of the Forty as depicted in the early thirteenth-century frescoes (betw. 1205 and 1216) of the Surp Astvatsatsin church at the Akhtala Monastery in Akhtala (Lori province), Armenia:


m) Portraits of twenty of the Forty as depicted in one half of a double illumination in an earlier thirteenth-century Gospel lectionary (ca. 1220) in Syriac from the vicinity of Mosul in today's Iraq (Città del Vaticano, BAV, cod. Vat. syr. 559, fols. 93v-94r):


n) A surviving fragment of the suffering of the Forty as depicted in the earlier thirteenth-century frescoes (1230s) of the church of the Ascension of Our Lord in the Mileševa monastery near Prijepolje (Zlatibor dist.) in Serbia:


o) The suffering of the Forty as depicted in a thirteenth-century mosaic portable icon in the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Museum, Washington, DC (view greatly expandable):


Another view:


p) The suffering of the Forty as depicted in a damaged later thirteenth-century fresco (ca. 1263-1270 or 1270-1272) in the north choir of the monastery church of the Holy Trinity at Sopoćani (Raška dist.) in Serbia:


q) The suffering of the Forty as depicted in a late thirteenth- or early fourteenth-century portable icon in the Holy Monastery of the God-trodden Mount Sinai, St. Catherine (South Sinai governorate), Egypt:


r) The suffering of the Forty as depicted (panel at upper left) in an earlier fourteenth-century pictorial menologion from Thessaloniki (betw. 1322 and 1340; Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Gr. th. f. 1, fol. 31r):


s) The suffering of the Forty as depicted in a late fourteenth-century copy of the _Speculum historiale_ of Vincent of Beauvais in its French-language version by Jean de Vignay (1396; Paris, BnF, ms. Français 313, fol. 286r):


t) The suffering of the Forty as depicted in what remains of a fifteenth-century mural painting, now mostly in outline only, in the former church of Sts. Peter and Paul (1360s) in Famagusta in Turkish-dominated Northern Cyprus, as seen in a brief, English-language video from the World Monuments Fund on its restoration (images of the painting after restoration start at 17:51):


u) The suffering of the Forty as depicted on a fifteenth-century Novgorod School icon tablet in the Timken Museum of Art, San Diego, CA:


v) The suffering of the Forty as depicted in a later fifteenth-century copy of the _Speculum historiale_ of Vincent of Beauvais in its French-language version by Jean de Vignay (1463; Paris, BnF, ms. Français 51, fol. 114):


w) The suffering of the Forty as depicted on a late fifteenth- or early sixteenth-century Novgorod School icon tablet in the State Tretyakov Museum in Moscow:


x) The individual Forty Martyrs of Sebaste as depicted in the mid-sixteenth-century frescoes (1545 and 1546) by Theofanis Strelitzas-Bathas (a.k.a. Theophanes the Cretan) in the katholikon of the Stavronikita monastery on Mt. Athos and as shown here in expandable views (left-hand column, preceded by an image of the Suffering of the Forty):


y) The suffering of the Forty as depicted in the mid-sixteenth-century frescoes (1546/47) by George / Tzortzis the Cretan in the Dionysiou monastery on Mt. Athos (detail view):



John Dillon


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