St. Hripsime (Հռիփսիմէ), in her struggle with King Drtad (Տրդատ, also spelled Trdat) before his conversion to Christianity, was “strengthened by the Holy Spirit” and “struggled like a beast.” Drtad was known for his martial prowess and strength: the historian known as Agathangelos tells us that he was “endowed with great strength and vigor; he had solid bones and an enormous body, he was incredibly brave and warlike.” Yet through the power of the Holy Spirit, young Hripsime was able to fend off the lustful advances of the king. The same Aganthangelos writes that they fought for seven hours until Hripsime “vanquished the king who was renowned for his incredible strength.” All this was done “through the will and power of Christ.”
This week, on Monday and Tuesday, the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates two of the earliest saints of the Armenian Church, two women who stand at the source of Armenian Christianity and the heart of the conversion story. St. Gayane (Գայանե), the abbess who was the head of a group of nuns that included St. Hripsime, brought her flock from Rome to Armenia, fleeing the Emperor Diocletian. In Armenia, however, the beautiful Hripsime caught the eye of King Drtad, just as she had the Emperor Diocletian. When the king attempted to force himself on her, she defended herself with strength granted to her by the Holy Spirit, “through the will and power of Christ.” A week after Pentecost, the story of the young nun Hripsime who bested a renowned warrior is a profound reminder of the power and strength that the Holy Spirit provides.
St. Gayane the abbess and St. Hripsime, along with their companions, whom we celebrate this week, also remind us of the central role of strong, determined, faithful women at the root of Armenian Christianity. While the conversion narrative usually centers on King Drtad and St. Gregory the Illuminator, St. Gayane and St. Hripsime drive the “plot” of the conversion of Armenia. After Hripsime bests and embarrasses King Drtad, the king tries to force Gayane to convince her protegee to give herself over to the king. Instead, Gayane encourages Hripsime in the keeping of her vows and reminds her of the eternal reward Christ promised to all those who believe in Him. When the king realizes the conviction of both women, he has them and all their companion nuns killed. St. Hripsime, St. Gayane, and their companions become some of the earliest martyrs of the Armenian Church and some of the earliest saints (it is worth noting here that the very first “native” saint and martyr of the Armenian Church was also a woman, St. Santukht). It is this violent action on the part of the king that leads to his illness, the lycanthropy that causes him to take the form of a were-boar. As we know, at his sister Khosrovidukht’s urging, King Drtad finally appeals to St. Gregory to heal him, leading to the king’s conversion Christianity and his declaration that Armenia will be a Christian kingdom. Without the valiant martyrdom of St. Gayane and St. Hripsime, or the faithful encouragement of Khosrovidukht—all women—the conversion of Armenia would never have happened.
|History of the Armenians||The classic history whose main event is the conversion of the Armenians to Christianity. Most of our knowledge about St. Gayane, St. Hripsime, St. Gregory the Illuminator, and King Drtad come from this important history. Translated by Robert W. Thomson with facing classical Armenian.|
|East Roman foreign policy : formation and conduct from Diocletian to Anastasius||Covering the period including the reign of Emperor Diocletian, this book by R.C. Blockley details the relations of the late Roman Empire with foreign powers, including Armenia. It was Emperor Diocletian who forced Sts. Gayane and Hripsime to flee Rome and come to Armenia.|
|Hṛip‘simē : Kam P‘rkut‘iwn hayastani. Patmakan banasteghtsut‘iwn||“Historical poetry” from the nineteenth century, this is a poetic and dramatic retelling of the story of St. Hripsime and the “salvation of Armenia.”|
Playing such a crucial role in the conversion of Armenia, standing right at the source of Christianity in Armenia, St. Gayane, St. Hripsime, and their companions have inspired Armenians for centuries. Indeed, they are an important source and inspiration for women involved in the Armenian Apostolic Church. As an abbess, St. Gayane is the precursor to all women monastics and ordained women in the Armenian Apostolic Church. In the twenty-first century we often feel the paucity of women engaged in active ministry in the Armenian Church. However, there is a long tradition of Armenian nuns and female monastics. Likewise, while there are only a few ordained women deacons, deaconesses, around the world today, in certain times and places—Istanbul, Tiflis, and Isfahan in particular—Armenian women were ordained to the order of the diaconate. Most often, this took place in the context of a monastery or a monastic order. Ultimately, all Armenian deaconesses, women monastics, and women serving the Armenian Church have as a source of inspiration and a model St. Gayane and St. Hripsime.
These two women, their companions, and the story of their intense faith in Jesus Christ and the strength afforded them through the Holy Spirit have inspired both men and women to commemorate them. After their martyrdom there was an early tradition that placed their burial sites in the city of Vagharshapat, most commonly known as Etchmiadzin after the mother Cathedral. These shrines were eventually built up, and today the two churches of St. Gayane and St. Hripsime both stand in the city of Vagharshapat as some of the oldest standing Armenian churches in the world. Notably, Catholicos Komitas I, known both for his building projects and his hymns, was behind the project to build the church dedicated to St. Hripsime. Dedicated in 618, Catholicos Komitas I also composed a celebrated hymn, Andzink Nviryalk, or “Devoted Persons,” to commemorate the dedication of the church. The hymn is sung as the Orhnutyun Sharagan the morning of the commemoration of St. Hripsime.
In the history of Armenian architecture, St. Hripsime is, as Dr. Christina Maranci puts it in her recent book The Art of Armenia, “one of the most admired monuments of early medieval Armenia.” It is an example of an “inscribed tetraconch,” a type of Christian church architecture unique to Armenia and Georgia. This type of church is very close to what most people have in mind when they think of a traditional Armenian church. In fact, the St. Vartan Cathedral in New York, the Cathedral of the Eastern Diocese, is modeled on the church of St. Hripsime!
While St. Hripsime might have been the inspiration for grand architecture and for beautiful sharagans, there are also two women, both living in the 8th century, who wrote sacred hymns of the Armenian Church. One, Khosrovidukht of Goghtn dedicated the beautiful hymn, Զարմանալի է ինձ, “It is Astonishing to Me,” to her brother, Prince Vahan of Goghtn, who was martyred in 731 A.D. Some scholars think the hymn was written by a different 8th century woman writer, Sahakdukht of Siunik. Sahakdukht was the sister of the renowned Armenian polymath Stepanos Siunetsi. Stepanos Orbelian, the 13th century historian of the region of Siunik is the first to mention her. Orbelian tells us that Stepanos Siunetsi had a sister, educated at Dvin, who became an ascetic. Though he mentions several musical compositions by her, only one, dedicated to St. Mary, survives. These are the only two women from the early centuries of Armenian Christianity known to have composed sacred hymns!
These important early women saints and composers of the Armenian Church have been the source of architectural traditions, the inspiration for songs and poetry, and even hymns themselves. Situated at the very heart of the story of the conversion of Armenia, St. Gayane and St. Hripsime mark the important role of women in the Armenian Apostolic Church. Khosrovidukht and Sahakdukht remind us that women have been creative, driving forces of Armenian Christianity throughout the history of the Church. Whether through their martyrdom or their profound words of devotion, they demonstrate faith in Jesus Christ and are powerful role models for all of us.
|In Search of the precious pearl. 5th encounter of monks from East and West (EMO V) at Dzaghgatzor Monastery (Valley of the Flowers) Armenia||A collection of essays on the role of monastic life in the East and West, including several essays related to monasticism in Armenia. It includes an essay about female monasteries in Armenia. Sts. Gayane and Hripsime have served as models for female monastic orders and deaconesses throughout Armenian history.|
|Vagharshapat : Edjmiatzin, Hrip’simè, Gayanè, Shoghakat’||This volume of the incredible series on Armenian architecture covers the ancient churches in the town of Etchmiadzin, including the churches dedicated to St. Gayane and to St. Hripsime.|
|The Heritage of Armenian Literature||An important collection of Armenian literature in English translation. Part IV of Volume II includes translations of Armenian hymns known as sharakans. It includes the hymn composed by Catholicos Komitas I on the occasion of the dedication of the Church of St. Hripsime, Andzink Nviryalk, “Devoted persons,” as well as translations of the hymns written by Khosrovidukht and Sahakdukht.|
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