Gallery The Icon of Forty Martyrs of Sebaste

14. march 2018

Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (latin Sebastia, Sebastea, Sebasteia, greek Σεβάστεια, Σεβαστή, Armenian Սեբաստիա) in so-called Lesser Armenia (what is now Sivas, Turkey),  were martyrized in 320 BC. in the city of Sebaste during the reign of Emperor Licinius. They were soldiers of the Roman legion Legio XII Fulminata, which may be translated as the Twelveth Lightning Legion, known for its bravery.

The name Sebastia dates back to the 27 BC When Emperor Augustus gave the city to the Roman king Herod the Great. He built and administered the city in a very successful manner and in the honor of his patron, he called the city Sebaste, which in Greek means Augustus.

The oldest report of the existence and martyrdom of Forty Martyrs of Sebaste was given by Bishop Basil the Great (Basil of Caesarea) (370-379) in the homily on the celebratory day of their martyrdom. The feast of the forty martyrs is, therefore, older than Basil himself, who celebrated their sacrifice only fifty to sixty years after their death. In addition to the homily of Basil the Great, the homilies of Gregor Nyssky, Ephraim of Syria, were preserved, together with Syrian, Greek and Latin biographical legends. They all confirm the validity of the legend.

In 313 the Emperor St. Constantine the Great signed the law, The Milan Edict, which ended the persecution of Christians and guaranteed religious freedom to all the citizens of the Empire. However, his co-ruler, Emperor Licinius (308-324), continued with the persecutions in the provinces he was the ruler of.

The main plot of the story took place in 320, during the cold winter, when the Emperor ordered to sacrifice to the idols. Forty Christian soldiers, Legio XII Fulminata, then spoke among the others and refused to fulfill the emperors' command. The commander tried to persuade them, promising them wealth or glory, but they remained firm in their faith in Christ. For their stubborn faith they were imprisoned, interrogated, cruelly tortured, and then Emperor had their garments removed and left them to stand in a frosty winter on a frozen lake near the city. And to make this torture even harder, there was a hot steam bath on the shore of the lake, which was supposed to tempt them to deny their faith.

But the soldiers encouraged each other, and with a desire for Heaven they suffered with an unbreakable mind and heart, exalting God and praying: "Lord, forty soldiers are here in the battle for faith, ready to die for You, give grace to all the forty, the number which You consecrated with your holy fast, so that we conquer the crowns of glory." And the Lord truly heard their prayer and manifested his miraculous power.

The guard, standing at the window of the spa house, suddenly saw an unusual blue light irradiating all the space where the martyrs stood, and it seemed to him as if the angels had flown from the heavens and were holding the crowns above the heads of the martyrs. Standing in astonishment at this scene, he noticed that they were only thirty-nine angels, while the martyrs were forty. And as he thought about this inconsistency, suddenly one of the forty, a young man overwhelmed by the pain, dashed down to the window and begged the guard standing there to let him in. He bowed before the altar of false gods and put himself in the warm water. His heart, however, did not endure this change and burst. Thus, in the desire to save his earthly life, he sacrificed eternally and lost the earthly one as well.

The pagan guard saw this, and suddenly enlightened by the spirit of God, he believed. He quickly squeezed off his clothes, put down his armor, and with the confession of faith on his lips he stepped to the ice between the martyrs. At that very moment, the fortieth angel flew from heaven with the fortieth crown of glory.

The frozen, crimped bodies of forty martyrs, still showing signs of life, were thrown into a great fire, burned and the ashes were cast into the river. Christians, however, collected the precious remains, and the relics were distributed throughout many cities; in this way, veneration of the Forty Martyrs became widespread, and numerous churches were erected in their honour.

In Sebaste and in Caesarea we can find temples dedicated to the Forty Martyrs. In Jerusalem, in the temple of the Holy Sepulcher, there is a chapel of Forty Martyrs. The Xiropotam Monastery on Mount Athos and the Church of the Forty Holy Martyrs of the 13th Century in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria, are all consecrated to them. In the Syrian city of Aleppo, the Armenian Cathedral is dedicated to the Forty Martyrs. In the temple of St., Sofia in Ochrid in the present-day Macedonian Republic and in Ukraine's Kiev are their paintings dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries. In Rome, the oratory of the eighth century is dedicated to the Forty Martyrs and at the Santa Maria Antiqua Temple, we can find frescoes that depict their story.

The Menaion of the Eastern Orthodox Church lists the names of the Forty Martyrs as follows:

Hesychius, Meliton, Heraclius, Smaragdus, Domnus, Eunoicus, Valens, Vivianus, Claudius, Priscus, Theodulus, Euthychius, John, Xantheas, Helianus, Sisinius, Cyrion, Angius, Aetius, Flavius, Acacius, Ecditius, Lysimachus, Alexander, Elias, Candidus, Theophilus, Dometian, Gaius, Gorgonius, Eutyches, Athanasius, Cyril, Sacerdon, Nicholas, Valaerius, Philoctimon, Severian, Chudion, and Aglaius. 

The story of brave Christians inspired many artists to create various beautiful icons.

Our icon comes from Russia from the end of the 18th century from the workshop Palech. It is a smaller icon, very impressively drawn and well preserved, with a partially cracked surface, especially on areas covered with gold, which is quite a lot. The frame (border) of the icon is ocherous with a sharp blue and red line. In the upper part, the icon bears the inscription "Obraz svjatych velikomučenikov četyrechdesjati iz Sebastii" – The image of Saint Forty Martyrs of Sebasta. On the right we can spot St. Basil the Great, portrayed as an elderly man with shorter gray curled hair and a long gray chin and a golden aureole (nimbus), holding the Holy Scripture, bound in gold. His garment consists of a golden bishops´ coat (sakos) with a dark red pattern. Under the sakos, we find a long dark-blue tunic (chiton) with gilt, and a white stole (omofor). Below St Basil there is the figure of St. the martyr Fomaida of Alexandria (of Egypt) who is portrayed as a young woman with a golden aureole around her head, holding a thin red cross in her left hand, a sign of martyrdom and with her right hand she is pointing to the Forty Martyrs.

Her head and shoulders are covered with the white veil (scarf). She is dressed in a green tunic and a ruby cloak, both with gilding. On the left bottom border, there is Saint Martyr Tatiana, with a golden aureole around her head and a white scarf that covers her head and shoulders. She is dressed in a dark blue tunic and a red-purple cloak. The fingers of the right hand show the letters IC XC, the initials of Jesus Christ in Greek, and the left hand points to the Forty Martyrs. Above, we find the Saint Martyr Boniface, portrayed as a Roman soldier in golden armor and a short green tunic with gilding and a red cloak over his shoulders. He has dark red pants and high dark green boots. His short chestnut hair and beardless face point to his youth. He is depicted with a golden aureole around his head, holding a cross in his right hand and a lance in his left.

The viewer is most likely to be attracted to an unusual view of a group of forty men of different ages and desires who with their hands in a prayer stand exposed on a frozen lake. Even though the sharp frost causes them an almost unbearable suffering, their faces express determination, and their sights are centered on the soldier standing in the middle. On the left, we see a building where a steam bath was prepared for those who would be willing to give up their faith in Christ and sacrifice to pagan idols. Through the open door enters a man who has not endured suffering and betrayed his faith. For this act, he paid with his life. Above the heads of the martyrs, a viewer may observe forty royal crowns, crowns of martyrdom. Christ Pantocrator blesses the whole scene from the Heaven.