St. Gregory of Armenia (ca. 239 – 325/326) was the illuminator of Armenia who baptized the Armenian King Tiridates III the Great (287 – 330), the first ruler who proclaimed Christianity as the state religion of Armenia.
The hagiography of St. Gregory is found in the 4th century History of St. Gregory and the Conversion of Armenia whose authorship is ascribed to Agathangelos, a secretary of Tiridates III.
The account reports that a noble man from Armenia, named Anak was sent to the king of Armenia Khosrov II to assassinate him. Anak and his brother killed the king and attempted to escape but were caught by the Armenian courtiers and cast from a bridge into the river. Anak’s family was also slaughtered but two infant sons were saved by their nurses, one of whom was Gregory. He was taken to Greece and raised in the Christian faith. When Gregory found out about his father’s crime he decided to atone his father’s guilt and offered himself to Tiridates as a servant.
During the first year of his reign Tiridates visited the temple of the pagan goddess Anahid to offer sacrifices. Gregory, who had loyally served the king, refused to venerate the statue and openly professed Christianity. The enraged king ordered to subject Gregory to cruel torture and throw him into a pit in Khor-Virap. Furious at Gregory’s steadfastness, Tiridates ordered to persecute and kill Christians and confiscate their property.
The persecutions of Christians lasted thirteen years until the Armenian king met a girl named Rhipsime. Rhipsime, together with other Christian companions from the hermitage of virgins in the vicinity of Rome, found asylum in Armenia fleeing the persecutions of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. King Tiridates was enthralled by Rhipsime’s beauty and wanted to marry her. But the girl, strengthened by abbess Gayane, won the struggle against the king who attempted to seduce her. The enraged king ordered to have Rhipsime, Gayane and other fellow Christians tortured and executed.
After the death of the beautiful girl Tiridates was very frustrated and eventually went mad. Like a wild animal he was running amok the fields eating grass. The king’s sister Khosrovitookht had a heavenly vision which told her that only the prisoner in the pit, Gregory, could heal her brother. Through the saint’s prayer the king was miraculously cured. The Armenian king, along with his courtiers, converted to the Christian faith and proclaimed Christianity as the state religion.
St. Gregory was appointed the first Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church. In his later years he made his son in charge of the see and withdrew to desert caves where he remained until the end of his life.
In Byzantine and Russian art St. Gregory of Armenia is depicted as a middle-aged or an old man with gray hair and V-shaped beard, dressed in monastic clothes, holding a scroll or the Gospel. One of the earliest depictions of the saint (ca. 878) is found in mosaic of the Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople. In Russian medieval art the depictions of the saint are encountered in the 1198 wall-paintings of the Church of the Savior on Nereditsa in the vicinity of Novgorod. St. Gregory is depicted both individually such as in the 17th century icon of The Life of St. Gregory of Armenia (The State Russian Museum) or in a group of selected saints.
St. Gregory of Armenia is commemorated on October 13 (September 30, O.S.).
Zhanna G. Belik,
Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.
Olga E. Savchenko,
research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.
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