FEAST – HRIPSIMIAN AND KAYANIAN SAINTS
AN EXCEPTIONAL FEAST
The role of the female sex has been a most significant one in establishing and spreading the Christian faith among the Armenian people, and in preserving its religious principles and customs. Both single women and those with families have shared in this very valuable role.
The number of women saints in the history of Armenian Christianity is not a large number. In his book “Sourpk ev Donk” (Saints and Feasts), Archbishop Torkom Koushagian lists 104 names of saints, both singly and in groups, and only six of them are women, including the collective names of the Hripsimian and Kayanian saints. Although their relative number is exceedingly small, their influence on the people has certainly been essential and profound. That this is a fact is based on both social and historical reality.
In truth, Armenian women and maidens, having been drawn to Christianity even in the first century, have served as evangelists, foreswearing their extremely high and enviable social standing. They, as members of the palace court, of noble birth as queens, princesses, mistresses of dynamic families, have chosen to live under the plain, humble, and noble principles of the Christian faith, in preference to the ostentatious and opulent life that could have been theirs.
True examples of them are the following.
The maiden Santoukht, daughter of the Armenian King Sanadrouk, became a disciple of the Apostle Thaddeus, embraced Christianity, and was martyred. Khosrovitoukht, sister of King Dertad Ill, late in the third century had revealed to her in several dreams that only St. Gregory, banished to death in Khor Virab, could cure her brother – King Dertad – from his psychotic loss of rationality.
Queen Ashkhen, Dertad’s wife, a devout Chrisitan of like mind with Dertad’s sister, worked most prudently with strong hope and faith to bring Christianity into the palace.
Later, there were the “delicately reared ladies” of the leadership and noble classes of fifth century Armenia, about which our historical accounts offer strong evidence. They occupy a distinctive place in the writings of our historians because they are looked upon as pioneers in our hallowed family life and in our new faith.
Another exemplary figure from the same early period is Vartan Mamigonian’s daughter Varteni, who was consecrated in the Armenian Church as St. Shoushan.
Here, then, are a few names of women saints of the Armenian Church, who in their readiness to sacrifice their lives, became paradigms for the new faith and the new model of family life. They became women witnesses who paved the way for a new beginning in the history of our people.
The Hripsimian and Kayanian saints have a unique position among the few named Armenian women saints of the Armenian Church. The collective, barbaric, and inhumane slaughtering they bore at the hands of royal might, their radiant chastity, and the usurpation of their normal human rights had an immediate and revolutionary effect on the masses of people. It was a consequence so powerful that it even penetrated the royal circles, and then openly among all the people and the nation.
The shedding of the pure and sinless blood of the innocents not only led to profound remorsefulness, but it also became the virtuous voice of protest and led the social upheaval. Heathen thought gave way to the social concept of the new Christian faith and to new alignments.
In this sense, the commemorative feast of the Hripsimian and Kayanian saints is not only an occasion for comprehending their martyrdom as a purely religious concept, but is also by its nature a historical event of importance to the social and cultural life of all the people. Even within the first few weeks of their martyrdom, the great Enlightener, St. Gregory, laid the foundation for building chapels in memory of the Hripsimians and Kayanians. These chapels would gradually, over a period of time, become worthily enhanced, eventually coming down to us in the form of churches built in the most beautiful facade of Armenian Church architecture.
THE GLOWING MEMORY OF THESE WOMEN SAINTS
In a very high level of approbation of the God-pleasing lives led by the Hripsimians and the Kayanians, the blessed Catholicos Gomidas in the seventh century retold their story and reinforced and re-enshrined their memory. The hymn “Antsink Nviryalk” (dedicated beings) written by Catholicos Gomidas, is an ever-luminous encomium about their meaningful lives.
The latest testimony to the traditions connected with the Hripsimians and the Kayanians, and the eminence accorded them by the Armenian Church, is to be found in the action taken by His Holiness Vasken I, Catholicos of all Armenians. While Armenia was still part of the Soviet Union, the Catholicos, in a Pontifical Encyclical (Gontag) dated April 22, 1962, made it known to the people of Armenia and to all the world that the majestic structure of the Church of St. Hripsime had been restored through a gift of Armenian benefactors from Italy, Mr. Yervant Hiusisian and Mr. Onnig Marsupian.
We quote excerpts below from the hallowed encyclical of the Catholicos. It offers a condensation of the history through about 17 centuries of activity dedicated to the memory of those saints.
“Rejoice and be glad, loyal sons and daughters, for one of our most ancient and magnificent hallowed sites, the masterpiece of Armenian Church architecture, St. Hripsime, has now been completely and beautifully restored. One of our early Armenian historiographers, Agathangelos, informs us that at the beginning of the fourth century St. Gregory the Enlightener and Dertad Ill, King of Armenia, built memorial chapels near the capital city of Vagharshabad, and there deposited relics of the Hripsimian and Kayanian maidens.’ And he built three memorials, one northeast of the city, in testimony to Hripsime and her 33 companions.”‘
These structures were “crude, made of wood, nailed together,” and sealed “with a Christian stamp.” And thus the years passed, 300 of them.
And then, in the year of the Lord 618, the great builder Catholicos Gomidas had this hallowed Church constructed on the site of the memorial for the martyred maiden. It was built of noble masonry, with central dome and cruciform floor plan. The master masons,deeply inspired by Catholicos Gomidas, built St. Hripsime in a “marvelous, beautiful, beguiling, and brilliant design” as attested to with the true understanding of the architectural art by the tenth century Catholicos Hovhannes Draskhanakerttsi.
Catholicos Gomidas dedicated his hymn “Antsink Nviryalk” in memory of the completion of the Church of St. Hripsime. That hymn is one of the pearls of the songs of our spiritual poetry. In it, the martyred maidens are glorified for their “being sacrificed for the world of Armenians” in having banished “the darkness of errant idolatry.”
The Church of St. Hripsime has remained preserved from the seventh century until the present, having been restored numerous times. Especially worthy of note are the restorations accomplished in the 17th century by Catholicoi Philippos and Yeghiazar Aintabtsi, and in the following century by Catholicos Simeon Yerevantsi. The porch and belfry were added in 1790 by Catholicos Ghougas.
“Today we are exceedingly joyful that through the mercy of God it be came our lot to restore the integrity of both the interior and exterior of St. Hripsime, whereby this monumental Church has regained its pristine condition, pure, undefiled, a harmonious blend of style and structure. The work of restoring St. Hripsime was undertaken with the maximum of zeal, and under the direct and continuous supervision of the architectural committee of the Holy See, which is composed of highly qualified architectural professionals of Armenia, who enjoy our fullest esteem and respect.”
RELICS OF THE WITNESSES
Once again, in 1979, His Holiness Vasken I, Catholicos of all Armenians, reported for the exultation of all Armenians and the peoples of sister churches that as a result of archeological excavations, firmly sealed graves had been found of the witnesses which have remained since the days when St. Gregory the Enlightener emerged from Khor Virab.
Below are some salient excepts from the report dated April 16, 1979, sent from the Holy See of Etchmiadzin to His Holiness Khoren I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, at Antelias, Lebanon.
“It is with deep emotion that we wish to inform you that the ancient tomb discovered during new excavations being made during the past year under the walls of the St. Hripsime monastery has disclosed graves of interred bodies without heads. It is highly probable that those remains that were found are remains of some of the martyred Hripsimian maidens, as would be indicated by our historians who have written that after their martyrdom their remains were interred in a tomb.
Archeologists of Armenia, in convincing and reassuring us of the validity of their find that is indeed the hallowed relics we take them to be, offer the following evidence.
a) The remains found in the four parts of the tomb in the St. Hripsime monastery are remains of martyrs of the third of fourth centuries. The obvious indication that the bodies had been beheaded or that they had been severely beaten is evidence that the deceased had not had a natural death.
b) The bodies of the deceased have been buried in an east-west alignment, with hands folded on their breasts, evidence that the interred were Christians.
c) The opened tomb appears different from heathen tombs. The difference lies in the fact that there are no ornaments or other objects laid alongside the bodies, a practice that was customary for heathens at the burial ceremony.
d) Alongside the opened tomb were remains of vessels, which corresponds to declarations made by Agathangelos.”
NOTE: The report makes note of the fact that the work of excavation was conducted under the direct supervision of archeologist Raffi Torosian, who is responsible for the preservation of ancient sites of the City of Etchmiadzin. The overall supervision was under archeologist Prof. Papken Arakelian.
CONCERNING RELICS OF THE HRIPSIMIANS
The location of the graves of these women martyrs and of their relics is certain and known.
Special attention has been directed to the caskets and the remains of St. Hripsime and St. Kayane.
Catholicos Gomidas (615-628) determined to build a glorious church dedicated to St. Hripsime. When the old chapel was destroyed, Hripsime’s casket became revealed beneath the wall. It was determined that it bore the seal of St. Gregory the Enlightener, and then of Catholicos St. Sahag Barthev. Catholicos Gomidas had the casket placed in a space beneath the altar of the newly constructing church. During the same century, Catholicos Ezr (630-641) decided to rebuild the chapel dedicated to St. Kayane. It was probably built in the likeness of St. Hripsime. There too, he had the relic remains placed beneath the wall of the altar. Then, for about 1,000 years, these gravesites were allowed to remain in peace, undisturbed. However, that peace was broken at the beginning of the 17th century when Roman Catholic clergymen arrived in Armenia definitely with the intent to purloin relics of St. Hripsime and remove them to Europe. This is a historical fact; it was recorded by the then contemporary historian Arakel Tavrizhetsi. The episode took place during the days of Catholicos Tavit Vagharshabadetsi and co-Adjutor Melkisedek (1590-1629).
Putting aside the details of that attempted plunder, we must state that the items stolen were only a part of the relics of the Hripsimians, and that they must still remain throughout the lands of historic Armenia. It must be possible to search and find those relics with the willing cooperation of the Iranian government . The robbers were imprisoned, and although they were later freed, they were unable to remove any relics outside of the borders of Armenia. They were killed by persons unknown. It is thought that on that occasion the Shah Abbas kept one of the Hripsime relics, either out of curiosity or out of reverence. This belief is based on the fact that a Roman Catholic cleric received it and took it to the city of Goa in India, and had it placed beneath the wall of a newly constructing church.
AUTHENTICATING THE RELICS
During the days of Catholicos Philippos and co-Adjutor Hagop Tchughayetsi, when the St. Kayane church was to undergo renovation, the grave of St. Kayane and two other complete graves were discovered under the walls (October 19, 1652).
At about the same time the church of St. Hripsime was also being renovated. However, it was not possible to confirm the existence of the complete remains of St. Hripsime. The casket contained only a loose collection of bones, confirming the fact of the Catholic clerics’ hurriedly undertaken abortive attempt, about forty years earlier, to carry off the relic.
However, the most recent findings, about which we learned through the letter of April 16, 1979, sent by the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, give the current understanding about the relic remains of the Hripsimian maidens.
Since the attempted theft mentioned above, of the relics of St. Hripsime it is believed that her relic remains have been willingly or unwillingly distributed among a number of hallowed sites.
The most recent apportionments have been described by Very Rev. Fr. Muran Aznikian, a member of the Cilician Brotherhood. In his book “The Life and Martyrdom of the St. Hripsimian Maidens,” he writes as follows.
“One of the fathers of the Cilician Catholicate, the Very Rev. Gomidas Ohanian, on a visit to Etchmiadzin in 1982 brought back a Hripsimian relic to Antelias. The Primate of the Armenians of Lebanon, Archbishop Aram Keshishian, had gone to Etchmiadzin in July 1986 as representative of the Cilician See to take part in the discussion being held between the two Sees. He had spoken to Catholicos Vasken I about having a St. Hripsime relic for the Prelacy of Lebanon. Six months later, Catholicos Vasken, through Archbishop Nerses, sent the Primate a Hripsimian relic. The relic will be placed appropriately in the Sourp Asdvadzadzin Church.”
TRADITIONS IN HISTORY CONCERNING THE HRIPSIMIANS AND THE KAYANIANS
The period late in the third century and early in the fourth are known in the general history of nations to have been filled with oppressive, immoral, and horrible persecutions by governments against Christianity and Christians.
The history of the churches during that period, in parallel with the history of nations, tells of large numbers of men and women saints who were, as a result of the prevailing conditions, martyred for the sake of the newly spreading faith. That occurred in all nations, without exception. It was during the barbarism of that same harsh period that the Hripsimians and Kayanians became martyrs. The life they lived and the wonderful acts they performed have become legendary, of course, with a certain amount of distortion and sometimes with contradictory accounts and incomprehensible tales. The recording of those events, though written assiduously and with zeal, became subject to the ravage caused by the passage of time and the failure of memory, playing havoc with accuracy.
It was primarily Agathangelos of the fifth century writers who set down the “testimony” of the maidens.
Our “Father of Historians,” Moses of Khoren, also has written on this subject. He did not fail to mention that he had Agatangelos’ history available to him, or that he had seen it.
In fact, the principle work done by Agathangelos has been to reveal the life and times of the Hripsimians and the Kayanians, as well as the life of St. Gregory the Enlightener and the conversion of Armenia to Christianity.
Possibly, because of the religious importance of these events and of these persons, Agathangelos has been the most translated author. Translations were made in very early times into Greek, Arabic, Georgian, Ethiopian, Slavic, Assyrian and other languages. European orientalists have translated Agathangelos’ writings into European languages, subjecting them to endless study, interpretation, and comparative analysis.
We have presented these facts in order to make it clear that Agathangelos, regarded as the principal source on the life of the maidens, has in his pages devoted to them and their movements such accounts, the accuracy of which many secular and lay philologists have accepted with reservations. Notwithstanding that, there is absolutely no question concerning that very vital aspect of their lives in which they represent examples of Christian love, and the moral teaching they personify has made them more and more a paradigm for Armenian women.
THE HRIPSIMIANS AND THE KAYANIANS THEIR PERSONS AND LIVES
According to Agathangelos, the Hripsimians and the Kayanians were Roman maidens, scions of families of noble ancestry who lived modest and simple Christian lives in the St. Paul Convent of Rome.
The Mother Superior of the Convent was St. Kayane.
The Roman Caesar of the times, Diocletian, wished to marry. After much investigating, his advisors informed him that within the empire Hripsime was the most beautiful of women, and worthy to become the Caesar’s Queen.
St. Kayane conferred with Hripsime and the other members of their order, and sensing that they would be subjected to great difficulties if they did not accede to the will of the emperor, decided collectively to quit Rome. More than 70 of them set out towards the east. They went to Egypt, then Palestine, where they visited hallowed shrines. Continuing on their journey they reached Armenia where they established residence in Hokeats Vank, which was a convent in Armenia, a branch of the St. Paul Convent of Rome. In the meantime, Emperor Diocletian, having learned of their escape to Armenia, sent a messenger to his friend, the Armenian King Dertad Ill, telling him of the situation, that the refugees had maligned both him and his gods. He recommended that they be punished and that Hripsime be returned to Rome; or, if he, Dertad, preferred, he marry her.
A new crisis was thereby created for the maidens.
On learning that they were being sought they left Hokeats Vank and went in search of a new hiding place. They chose a wine cellar in Vagharshabad. But they were unable to elude Dertad’s searchers. They were finally discovered and surrounded. Dertad’s servants gave Hripsime regal gar ments and adornments, and first requested, and then forced her to go to the palace.
The beautiful and noble maiden was put into a very difficult position. For hours, people of the court tried to persuade her to accept Dertad’s proposal of marriage. In an effort to break down her stubborn refusal, St. Kayane, the Mother Superior, was brought to the palace. However, instead of her helping Dertad’s quest, she encouraged Hripsime to remain firm in her determination to hold to her vows and reject the proposal.
In his description of this encounter, Agathangelos has written in detail about Dertad, Hripsime, and Kayane, setting forth the dialogue, the proposal, the rejection, along with quotations from the Bible, prayers that were said, the declaration of Christian readiness to become martyred, attempts to use force, all in the style of a novel, with minute detail.
Hripsime and Kayane are portrayed as pure, with Christian piety, peerless in their qualities, worthy of eternal life in their defense of principle and faithfulness to their faith, with incomparable heroism of their day.
The outcome is well known.
Hripsime unequivocally refused to submit to Dertad’s desires. Furthermore, she succeeded in escaping from the royal chamber and hiding in the wine cellar for respite.
The consequence was as it was destined to be.
A brutal killing took place. Hripsime was first killed, and then her 32 companions who had stood in moral support of her. The Mother Superior, Kayane, had a special punishment reserved for her, for her having had the audacity to encourage Hripsime to rebuff Dertad. The maiden was stoned, with the hail of rocks against her face and mouth causing her teeth to fall out. Then she was tied to stakes and subjected to indescribable tortures, finally being killed along with two companions. There was no pity shown for one of the maidens, Mariana, who had remained in the wine cellar because of illness. The total number of maidens martyred was 37. (See comments on this number in Notes.)
Historians and biographers are in agreement on one fact, that Hripsime and Gayane were real and that they became martyrs and victims of a horrendous crime for upholding their consecrated faith and vows. As for the details of the 70 who had escaped from Rome, there is doubt and uncertainty among historians. For some, it is unlikely that so many maidens could have undertaken the escape and taken such a long journey, especially during the times of such a powerful a ruler of Rome as Diocletian.
Also, how could it be that the maidens were not under continual guard when arrangements were being made to take Hripsime to the palace? And how could travel on such a long journey by 70 maidens remain a secret?
Some historians and philologists are of the opinion that for Hripsime to refuse becoming the enviable queen of the world’s most powerful king, the Emperor of Rome, and to be able to enjoy every benefit, is nothing more than giving her credit for supreme firmness of faith and sanctity. As such, it would be natural for her to reject Dertad’s proposal. With that point of view, historians and theologians agree in their convictions that the Hripsimians and Kayanians were votaries of Hokeats Vank. This opinion is shared by the illustrious theologian and historian Archbishop Malachia Ormanian (Azkabadoum, Vol 1, Book 1, p 81).
After the ghastly slaughter of the Christian maidens, Dertad lost his sanity. His sister, Khosrovitoukht, secretly a Christian, dreamed that only the banished, imprisoned Gregory could cure her brother, the king.
St. Gregory the Enlightener was brought out of his prison cell, Khor Virab, and with the power of prayer cured Dertad. And without delay he gathered up the remains of the butchered bodies of the maidens and had chapels built in their memory.
According to tradition, in order to mitigate his committed sins, Dertad went to Mt. Ararat and brought down heavy rocks, carrying them on his back, to form the foundation of the chapel in the name of St. Kayane. The blood spilled by innocents became the spur for a revolution; the Armenian people experienced a new beginning.
THE ARMENIAN CHURCH IN MEMORY OF THE HRIPSIMIANS AND THE KAYANIANS
The Armenian Church observes the memory of the Hripsimians and the Kayanians each year, eight days after Pentecost, on Monday and Tuesday. Four days later, the following Saturday, is the feast day of St. Gregory the Enlightener’s emergence from the Pit.
Although the Armenian Church commemorates these collective names, the Hripsimians and the Kayanians on two successive days, their life stories, their tribulations, and finally their realized destiny, in actuality form one concept, because teachers, pupils, priests, girls, women, all carry on their struggle to grow and progress by depending on the principles represented by the maidens collectively, as one inseparable, spiritual community. The Armenian people have never forgotten the barbarism committed against them, nor their purity and innocence. One the contrary, they have tried to keep their memory alive by building churches in their names, as well as schools, cultural societies, charitable organizations. They have done so in order to preserve the noble principles consecrated by their innocent blood.
It is tradition to celebrate Divine Liturgy in the chapel of the St. Hripsimiansn in Jerusalem on the Monday of the Feast of the Hripsimians.
With the 19th century cultural awakening of the Armenians, we find a large number of girls’ schools founded and named after the St. Hripsimians.
Everywhere, these special girls’ schools had as their main purpose to give girls an education with high moral and artistic attributes, to prepare them to become teachers and mothers competent in home economics. As a result of unfavorable political conditions, unfortunately in nearly all those schools, that enthusiastic and well-intentioned program sooner or later became aborted, by inhumane or cruel forces.
There have also been schools named after St. Kayane, in Yerevan, Tbilisi and elsewhere. Krikor Ardzruni, Levon Shant, and other important figures have taught at the St. Kayane school in Tbilisi.
THE ORDER OF THE ST. KAYANIAN NUNS
Just as the Armenian people for centuries have had monasteries and monastic orders, so too they have had convents and orders of nuns, albeit far fewer in number. Beginning with the Hokeats Vank (mentioned by histo rian Moses of Khoren) in the earliest centuries of Christianity in Armenia, and until now, we have had, though with interruptions, nuns serving in convents.
GLOSSARY – NOTES
HOKEATS VANK: Monastery located southwest of Lake Van, near the Kangvar Armory. Moses of Khoren recorded a tradition according to which, when the Apostle Bartholomew was in Armenia he had the temple which was dedicated to Anahit destroyed, and had a church built dedicated to the Holy Mother of God. The Apostle at the same time founded a convent next to the church, and gave the nuns a portrait of the Mother of God that he had brought with him to Armenia. The portrait was kept in the Holy Mother of God church in a secret place.
In the fourth century, the Hokeats Vank became an Episcopal center. In the 17th century it was regarded as an important center for producing illuminated manuscripts.
The monastery was renovated during the period 1730-1765. It was destroyed in 1895 during the Hamidian massacres. It was restored in 1904, but in 1915, it was abandoned to its uncertain fate. AN IMPORTANT COINCIDENCE: it is known that in the year 653, Armenian hermits, through a miracle, discovered a cross in the Varak Mountains, presumably left there by St. Hripsime. That historical event reinforces the supposition that St. Hripsime, until she and her companions were apprehended as followers of a forbidden faith and then escaped, did in fact live at Hokeats Vank.
CONCERNING THE NUMBER OF THE HRIPSIMIANS AND THE KAYANIANS, AND THEIR MARTYRDOM: Archbishp Malachia Ormanian, in referring to Akathankeghos, mentions the martyrdom of 33+3+1 maidens, which took place on October 5 and 6 in the year 301, based on the present calendar. (Azkabadoum, Vol 1. Book 1, pg. 82).
Patriarch Torkom, in his book “Sourpk ev Donk” (Saints and Feasts) does not mention any numbers.
Rev. Dr. Yeznig Bedrosian, in his book “The History of the Armenian Church” (1990), confirms the same numbers as Ormanian, but gives the year as 300 instead of 301.
In the book “Ancient Georgian Expositions of Agathangelos,” edited by P. M. Mouradian (Yerevan, 1982), the following is affirmed, “There were holy men and women who had come with her, 70 persons. At that time when some of them had arrived and were looking for her body, in order to bury it, soldiers of the king’s troops came upon them with swords and slew them, 32 in number… and one was killed right in the wine cellar, which had been their place of refuge…” (pg 67).
“Then he ordered that audacious Kayane’s tongue be cut out from its very base, and then that she be killed because she was so insolent, and with sacrilegious words had toppled the one goddess who was most beautiful among mankind…
And those who had come with her from Greece and those who came together to Armenia were 70 in number. While those who were martyred with the sacred queens, Gayane and Hripsime, and the other witnesses, altogether came to 38 persons.” (p 71). The new Arabic translation of Akathankeghos, edited by A. N. Der Ghevontian (Yerevan, 1968), confirms the following, “On the 29th of the month of Tout (September 27), the maidens Hripsime and Kayane and their companions, and others, making 78 in all (72 in other manuscripts) were killed… The number was six men and 72 women, of whom 39 were maidens. They had difficulty in making a livelihood, but one of them knew how to make glass, and in that way they lived.”