Byzantine liturgy and iconography
Jubilee 2000 Search


Maria Donadeo

Even a brief glance at the Byzantine liturgical Calendar suffices to note that it commemorates numerous martyrs, almost all of the early centuries and of whom there is often little precise information, but it would seem nevertheless an example worth proposing. The common tropario, that is the main prayer repeated during the Divine Liturgy and at every Hour, if in the singular, includes the name of the martyr, whereas in the plural it goes like this: «Your martyrs O Lord,in their passion, received from you, our God, incorruptible crowns. Participating in your power they have conquered their persecutors and broken the powerless audacity of the demons.Through their prayers, O Christ God, save our souls».

This tropario is recited for example on the feast of Saint Lawrence on August 10th, the same date as in the Roman-Catholic Church, and also for Saint Agatha, the virgin-martyr of Catania, and for Saint Catherine of Alexandria on November 25th (or the 24th as in the Russian Church).

For a woman martyr the common tropario is as follows: «Your lamb O Jesus invokes you loudly: you, my spouse, I desire: longing for you I fight; with you I am crucified and I am immolated in your baptism. I suffer with you to be able to reign with you; for you I die in order to live in you. Accept therefore O Lord, as a pure offering one who sacrifices herself for you. Through her intercession, O Merciful One, save our souls».

There are common tropari for bishops ( or priests) - martyrs and also for martyr monks whereas for other heroes of witness to the shedding of blood for Christ, there proper liturgical texts, always abundant in Byzantine hymnology. This is the case of the first martyr Saint Stephen, whose feast-is kept on December 27th, of the "megalomartyrs" Demetrius (October 26th) and George (April 23rd) and many others. At times there is more than one commemoration a year, to mark either the transfer of the relics or the restoration of the church (for example for the "great martyr, victorious and thaumaturge, Saint George" - the dates are April 23rd and November 3rd).

Furthermore, there is widespread devotion to several groups of martyrs: great honour is paid to the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste on March 9th; and others include, Saints Nazario, Gervasio, Protasio and Celso on October 14th, the twenty thousand martyrs of Nicomedia (December 28th); the 45 martyrs of Nicopolis (July 10th); Eustace and his family (September 20th); Adrian and Natalie - husband and wife (August 26th) and we could continue.

The martyrs on the Feast of All Saints and in the 8 tone cycle

On the feast of All Saints, which the Orthodox and Catholics of the Byzantine Rite celebrate on the Sunday after Pentecost - almost as if to underline that the first author of holiness is the Holy Spirit - more than once specific mention is made of the martyrs. On that day, which concludes the season of Easter, these are the two main prayers: «Your Church is adorned, as if with purple and byssus, with the blood of the martyrs of the whole world and through them she invokes Christ God: Have pity on your people, grant peace to our cities and to our souls abundant mercy». «What first-fruits of nature the universe offers you, O Lord and Creator, the teofori of Martyrs. Through their prayers, O Merciful One, and through the intercession of your divine Mother, watch over your Church and keep her in peace». These prayers are well known, since the first is said every weekday and the second especially on Saturdays, dedicated in the weekly cycle to the saints and the dead.

It is in fact a constant in the tradition of the Church of Constantinople to propose the glorious example of the martyrs and ask their intercession; this is seen in the liturgical books still in use today in a continuous cycle for the different offices according to the eight tones of Byzantine music, in which the "martirika" are mentioned almost every day both at Vespers and in Matins, and even moreso on Saturday, beginning with Friday evening Vespers.

If collected together they would be more than a hundred and in these compositions, existing since the 9th century as the basis of the Office, we find a theology of Christian martyrdom. We give some examples: «Let us implore the martyrs of Christ to pray for our salvation and let us all go to meet them in the faith, to find grace and healing, near to these guardians of the true doctrine who reject demons» (martirikon of tone 1). «Lord, the memory of your martyrs recalls Paradise and Eden: in this the whole of creation rejoices and through their intercession grant, O Lord, peace and the grace of salvation»(tone 6). «The holy martyrs, with the splendour of their virtues have transformed the earth in new heavens, imitating the suffering and death of Christ along the path that wins eternal life, through the action of grace they have cleansed us of our mortal passions and their unanimous courage in battle merits the praise of our song throughout the world» (tone 4).

Christians of the East and the West united in the veneration of martyrs

From the very early times, Christians of the East, like those of the West, realised the importance of witness given in suffering violent death for love of Christ by their brothers and sisters apparently silenced by their persecutors, but in actual fact victorious, mysteriously sustained by the Holy Spirit and therefore examples along our earthly journey illuminated by eschatological hope. They sought to collect the bodies or remains to give them a worthy burial and to commemorate them in that place, especially on the day of birth, no longer calculated by the earthly birth, but by their entry into heaven through martyrdom. As soon as the peace of Constantine permitted, houses of worship and even basilicas were built over the venerated tombs, which became places of pilgrimage. The diffusion of detailed information on the last days of the martyrs, and also the distribution of small relics, spread their veneration even to distant lands. This is an indication of the fundamental unity of the Church of Christ in the first millennium, despite the diversity of some liturgical and social traditions. And let us hope that the martyrs, old and new, will help Christians to re-establish unity among themselves.

Martyrs nearer to us

While diminishing in intensity in certain periods, the powerful witness of martyrs has never been lacking in the Church. Limiting ourselves to the Byzantine East, we mention the so-called "neo-martyrs" numerous in Greece and other countries under Turkish-Muslim dominion until the conquest of national independence in the last century. In our own century there have been tens of thousands of victims for fidelity to Christ, at the hands of the atheist Soviet power in Russia and other areas under Communist influence. Until 1990 the commemoration of martyrs was prohibited, but in recent years the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow canonized a few: the Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev and Galizia, treacherously arrested in the Monastery of the Grottoes where he was shot on January 25th 1918 and Metropolitan Veniamin of St Petersburg, then the capital, killed in 1922 after a farcical trial, together with a priest and two lay men. Two women martyrs in 1922 also have their ecclesial commemoration on July 5th, since their canonization: Princess Elizavate who became a nun and another religious Varvara. They were thrown into the well of an abandoned mine, into which bombs were thrown, the women were unharmed but died of starvation after days of intense prayer and holy singing which was heard throughout the land.

Not many others have been lifted to the honour of the altars in the Russian Orthodox Church, but a Commission is examining future canonizations, and what is more January 25th, or the following Sunday, has been established a commemoration day of all new martyrs and confessors of the faith.

The iconography of the martyrs

One of the most solemn moments in the rite of canonization in the Byzantine East is the unveiling of the icon of the new Saint, whose image may be venerated. The same is true also for martyrs of whom there are numerous icons in churches or collections. They are usually portrayed as already transfigured in a Tabor-like brightness, not in the dramatic moment of their human passion and death, but associated with the victory of Christ. Very often they hold in their hands a crown (recalled also in the common tropario given at the beginning of this article) as we see in the host of martyrs portrayed in mosaics in Ravenna at St Apollinare. The palm too, a symbol of victory, is associated with their figures above all in the Middle Ages. In recent centuries we find more often the martyrs holding a crucifix with both hands on their breast. The name of the saint, which must be written on the icon, facilitates identification. However there are also icons in which the instrument of the martyr's passion is seen, or some particular episode of their life: Saint Catherine of Alexandria is sometimes seen near a wheel upon which she was to be martyred but which then exploded, wounding the persecutors, whereas Saint George can be seen riding a white horse, killing the dragon, sower of death. In an Ermeneutica of Painting by Dionisio da Furnà, a manual written in the 18th century, but which deals with the traditions of monk painters of Athos of the 8th century, no less than 25 pages are used to indicate «how the martyrs of each month are represented». Only for the first month are there detailed indications for each saint or group of saints; for the other months the date and the name of the martyr are followed by basic information. And there a very few days without a martyr...

Hymnology and Iconography, inseparably united in the liturgical tradition of Constantinople, help to keep alive the memory of the martyrs of every era. They are, as Pope John Paul II said during the Angelus on September 25th 1996 "light for the Church and for humanity" and "sap of unity for the Church, mystical Body of Christ".