On Saturday the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates one of the three feasts related to St. Gregory the Enlightener, who converted King Drtad and hence Armenia to Christianity and who was the first Catholicos of all Armenians. This particular feast commemorates the “Discovery of the Relics of St. Gregory our Enlightener.” We all surely know the famous story of the conversion of Armenia to Christianity through the witness of St. Gregory, and therefore can probably place the two other main feasts of St. Gregory: commemorating when he was committed to the “Deep Pit,” the Խոր Վիրապ/Khor Virap and when he was released from the Pit. However, this week’s commemoration is harder for us to place, for a few reasons. The first is that this portion of the story of St. Gregory is less often told. Also, as we discussed last year, our modern sensibilities have a very difficult time with relics and what to do with them. Since we touched on that topic last year, this year we will focus on the story of the discovery of St. Gregory’s relics and the subsequent traditions surrounding his relics, including the magnificent right arm reliquary shown above. In the process, we will touch on some of the other remarkable relics of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Most of the tales and details surrounding St. Gregory the Illuminator come from an early history attributed to Agathangelos. Embedded in the larger history is a long catechism, a teaching, preached by St. Gregory—this is the first publication in St. Nersess Seminary’s Avant Series, where it was translated as The Teaching of St. Gregory. All the details about the Deep Pit, as well as the most comprehensive account of St. Gayane, St. Hripsime, and their companions are found there. However, the story of St. Gregory’s relics comes not from Agathangelos, but from Movses Khorenatsi’s History of the Armenians. Khorenatsi tells us that ““Saint Gregory’s relics were hidden for many years by divine providence” so that they wouldn’t “become the object of a cult to the half-converted barbarian nations.” Later, once these people are more firmly established in their faith, “Saint Gregory’s relics were revealed to a certain ascetic called Garnik, who took them and buried them in the village of Tordan.” Last year, we reflected on the fact that Khorenatsi recognized the danger in the veneration of icons, namely that people might treat them like a kind of magic object, instead of an icon that ultimately points back to the power and glory of God Himself. As a result, the relics of St. Gregory, perhaps the most towering human, Armenian, character in the history of the Armenian Church, and therefore the most likely to become a kind of cult figure, were hidden. The monk Garnik discovered St. Gregory’s relics much later, and it is this discovery that the Armenian Apostolic Church commemorates this Saturday.
|Patmutʿiwn Hayotsʿ =History of Armenia /Hovhannēs Draskhanakertetsʿi
|A facsimile reproduction of the 1912 Tiflis edition of the History of Catholicos Hovhannes Drashkanakertsi, who relates that Catholicos Nersess the Builder brought the relics of St. Gregory and placed them under the Cathedral of Zvartnots.|
|Armenian Relics of Cilicia
|This partial catalog of relics and other items from the Museum of the Catholicosate in Antelias, Lebanon is edited by Anna Balian. Many Armenian relics date from the period of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia.|
|Treasures of faith Sacred relics and artifacts from the Armenian Orthodox Churches of Istanbul
|Beautiful photographs accompany informative essays in this book cataloging some of the treasures from the Armenian churches in Istanbul. Constantinople, once the seat of the Byzantine Empire, was for a time home to relics of St. Gregory the Illuminator!|
Khorenatsi tells us about the discovery of St. Gregory’s relics, but those relics themselves then have had a long and storied history. Dickran Kouymjian, Berberian Chair of Armenian Studies, Emeritus and founder of the Armenian Studies Program at Fresno State (California State University, Fresno) has written the most comprehensive account of the subsequent history of St. Gregory’s relics. Kouymjian cites the 10th century Catholicos and historian, Hovhannes Drashkhanaketsi, who relates the Catholicos Nersess III, known as “the Builder,” brought the relics of St. Gregory from Tordan and placed them under the column of the Cathedral of Zvartnots around 650 AD. The cathedral dedicated to St. Nersess was a famously ambitious structure, and its ruins can still be found in Armenia today, between Yerevan and Etchmiadzin. According to Kouymjian, “At the end of the seventh century, there seems to be the first Byzantine invention of St. Gregory’s relics, while during the eight-ninth century persecution of iconoclasts, the skull and other remains of Gregory were taken to Naples. However, the skull must have been taken to Rome afterward, because it was there whence it was brought to Naples in 1628 to be placed in the new monastery of San Gregorio Armeno.” Many important relics of St. Gregory, including his skull, are held in Catholic churches and by the Vatican, as the Roman Catholic Church also venerates St. Gregory the Illuminator as “St. Gregory the Armenian,” whose feast day is September 30. The Church of San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, housing the skull of St. Gregory, is the most famous Catholic church dedicated to St. Gregory.
By the eighth century, then, two “sets” of relics of St. Gregory the Illuminator were known: one had gone west, first to the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople, then on to Naples and Rome in the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church; the other came closer to Etchmiadzin and became associated with the Catholicos of All Armenians. Presumably, it is the relics or portion of the relics that Catholicos Nersess the Builder brought near Etchmiadzin that provided the basis for the major reliquaries (a reliquary is a container to hold the relics of saints, usually ornately decorated). Kouymjian notes that it is not clear when some of the relics of St. Gregory became incorporated into arm reliquaries, but it could have been as early as the ninth century. A hand reliquary is explicitly mentioned in letters of St. Nersess Shnorhali, who was Catholicos from 1163-1173, where it was with the Catholicos at Hromkla, the seat of the Catholicosate at the time. Relics of St. Gregory the Illuminator, especially from the hand and arm, became associated with the authority of the Catholicos during this time period, such that a (misguided and incorrect) tradition emerged that asserted that the “possession of Gregory’s relics is a justification for catholicosal authority” (Kouymjian). Kouymjian is clear that while certain hierarchs made this claim, this has never been the assertion of the Armenian Apostolic Church as a whole. Nonetheless, the arm reliquaries of St. Gregory the Illuminator have taken on a special significance.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the appearance of two separate right arm reliquaries dates from around the time that the Catholicosate was returned to Etchmiadzin in 1441 and Catholicos Gregory IX Mousabegian remained in Sis in Cilicia, leading to the existence of two Catholicosates. This situation remains to this day and beginning around the time of the return of the Catholicosate to Etchmiadzin, two separate right hand relics have been in the possession of the Catholicos of All Armenians in Etchmiadzin and the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia. As Kouymjian notes, there is no reason that both of these right arm reliquaries can’t be true reliquaries of the right arm of St. Gregory, writing that, “The bones of saints were often partitioned or dispersed to various churches or high officials. Though no Armenian arm reliquaries have been disassembled todetermine exactly what is inside, it is safe to say that rather than the bones of an arm or a hand, each of them probably enshrines a fragment or small piece of a bone, like that clearly visible in the Nardo dexter. It should be remembered that the fifth century history of Agathangelos clearly states that Gregory himself divided relics of saints he brought to Armenia.” Each of the reliquaries of the right arm have different hand gestures. The one held in Etchmiadzin, pictured above, has the traditional Armenian hand gesture of blessing. It is this reliquary that is used every seven years to bless muron, the holy anointing oil used liturgically in the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Dr. Kouymjian has identified several other relics of the right hand of St. Gregory the Illuminator, including one held by the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople and one by the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem. In addition to these relics of St. Gregory the Illuminator, there are other important relics of the Armenian Apostolic Church worldwide. Some of these are relics of saints venerated only in the Armenian Church and many are of universally venerated saints. Kouymjian writes that he has recorded over thirty reliquaries, just of hands and arms, including three dexters of John the Baptist, the Apostle Thaddeus, the Apostle Thomas, St. James of Nisibis, St. Stephen the protomartyr, two of St. Nicholas, St. Barsauma the Syrian, St. Sylvester, Aristakes the son and successor of St. Gregory, St. Sahak, and others. He suggests that while all ancient churches have hand and arm reliquaries, among Armenians these kinds of relics and reliquaries are the majority. Relics—not just these most famous ones of St. Gregory the Illuminator— have featured prominently in the history and devotion of the Armenian Apostolic Church. In fact, pieces of the True Cross of Christ, perhaps the most famous of all kinds of relics, can also be found among the treasures of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Our own Eastern Diocese has a relic of the True Cross, which Bishop Daniel has brought out for veneration on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. There are many other relics in the tradition of the Armenian Apostolic Church about which we could speak, and they all direct us to the glory of God. It is this ultimate goal of all relics that Khorenatsi recognized when he described the discovery of the relics of St. Gregory the Illuminator, which we celebrate this Saturday!
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