The calendar of the Armenian Church singles out four members of St. Gregory’s family—two sons and two grandsons—and assigns them a special day of commemoration. This year it falls on July 24.
The day of commemoration (according to the present calendar in force since 1774-75) falls on the Saturday before the Third Sunday of Transfiguration. Excluded from this group of saints are the rest of the members of the Gregorid family, namely Sts. Nersés the Great, Sahag the Parthian, Vartan and his daughter Shushanig. The latter are commemorated on different days during the year.
While still a layman in Caesarea (Kayseri), Gregory and his wife Mariam were blessed with two sons, Vrtanés and Arisdagés. When Gregory and Mariam parted, Arisdagés was still very young and in need of motherly care. Mariam took him with her to the convent she joined. Influenced by his early upbringing in the convent, Arisdagés entered the service of God at an early age and became a hermit in the mountains. He became renowned for his austere way of life, attracting young disciples who sought his company for pious instruction. He was particularly versed in Greek letters and philosophy.
Years passed, and when King Drtad (by now a Christian convert) learned that St. Gregory had sired two sons in his younger days, he sent certain nobles to Caesarea to bring the sons to Armenia. (St. Gregory himself had withdrawn to the wilderness to lead a solitary life.) At the time, Arisdagés was living in a hermitage; he initially refused to leave his austere way of life and go to the court of the king. Ultimately, he yielded to the plea of Christians not to refuse the pastoral work that lay before him.
Upon the arrival of Arisdagés and Vrtanés, King Drtad took them with him to look for St. Gregory. Finding the saint in the wilderness, he begged Gregory to ordain his son Arisdagés a bishop and take him as his assistant. After his ordination, Arisdagés diligently pursued his pastoral work, preaching and wiping out the vestiges of pagan customs and traditions.
Arisdagés represented the Armenian Church at the Holy Council of Nicaea, which met in A.D. 325 at the order of the Roman Emperor Constantine. His name appears on the list alongside those of the 318 bishops who participated in that council. He returned to Armenia, bringing with him the canons of the renowned council. These canons are still venerated in the Armenian Church and form the foundation of discipline and order in our tradition.
After St. Gregory’s complete withdrawal from pastoral life and his demise, St. Arisdagés succeeded him as the chief bishop of Greater Armenia. As a pastor he surpassed the accomplishments of his father, as attested by the historian of the conversion of Armenia.
Arisdagés himself died as a martyr, and that is one of the reasons why he is considered a saint of the Armenian Church. The circumstances of his assassination are not very clear. All we know is that, at some point in his career as chief bishop of Armenia, he had reprimanded a high dignitary named Archilaeus, who had been appointed governor of the province of Dzopk in western Armenia. We are not told what Archilaeus had done to deserve Arisdagés’ reprimand, but he kept a grudge. When the bishop was on a pastoral visit in those parts, Archilaeus met him on the road and slew him. In order to avoid arrest and prosecution for his crime, he fled to the Taurus Mountains in Cilicia. Arisdagés’ disciples took his body to the village of Til near Erzinjan and buried him there. His grave was later shown within the confines of the Chukhdag Hayrabedats Vank (“The Monastery of the Twin Patriarchs”), which was still extant until 1915.
St. Arisdagés is said to have presided as the chief bishop of Armenia for seven years. The date of his martyrdom is calculated to have taken place at about A.D. 328.
The elder son of St. Gregory the Illuminator chose to lead a secular life and got married while still in Caesarea. At a later time he was ordained a priest, either in Caesarea or Armenia. He and his wife’s desire to have children, and their prayers to God towards this end, were answered only in an advanced age. They were blessed with twins, Krikoris and Husig, who were reared in the Armenian court and given a solid education. He presumably lost his wife during the pontificate of his brother Arisdagés, and after the latter’s death Vrtanés himself was raised to the episcopal throne of Greater Armenia. Vrtanés probably received episcopal ordination from his brother’s hand, since there is no reference in the historians to any ceremony of ordination, either in Caesarea or elsewhere.
St. Vrtanés’ activities as chief bishop of Greater Armenia were closely linked with those of the Christian kings of Armenia: first Drtad, and later his son Khosrov Godag (330-337) and grandson Diran (337-344). Vrtanés stood by the side of the kings during various Persian invasions into Armenia as well as during internal rebellions. As an active pastor he continued the work of his father and brother.
Despite the declaration of Christianity as the national religion of Armenia and the royal support that the church thereby received, certain people of high position were not pleased with the new religion. Their displeasure led to serious repercussions. King Drtad, who had been responsible for the kingdom’s conversion, died at a ripe old age—but not of natural causes. Certain Armenian princes in the service of the court hastened his demise by giving him a poisoned cup to drink. From another version of the story about King Drtad’s death, we learn that the anti-Christian princes collaborated with the King of Kings of Iran, and were instigated by the latter to put him to death. While on a hunt, they shot Drtad with an arrow, and as the wounded king was recuperating from his wound, they gave him a poisoned cup to drink.
Vrtanés himself almost fell victim to a scheme of a different nature. At the annual commemoration in Ashdishad of St. John the Baptist and Bishop Athenogenes, as instituted by St. Gregory, the chief bishop was celebrating the Divine Liturgy, when two thousand mountaineers from Sasun converged on the place, with the intent of assassinating Vrtanés. The assassins were unconverted idol worshippers, instigated by certain magnates and particularly by the queen of Armenia, whom Vrtanés had formerly rebuked for committing adultery. We are told that the hand of God made the conspirators motionless until Vrtanés released them. Overwhelmed by what had happened, the mountaineers heeded the admonitions of the bishop, and after completing the period of penance set by him they were baptized. Subsequently the bishop withdrew to his paternal estate in Til, near Erzinjan.
St. Vrtanés is said to have ordained a special day of commemoration for the Armenian forces under General Vaché Mamigonian, who perished in a battle against the Persians in 338. He consoled the king, his magnates and soldiers for the devastating effect of the war. According to this ordinance, the commemoration was to be repeated annually. He also instituted a special canon for all those who should die for Christian Armenia, that they be commemorated “before God’s holy altar at that point in the liturgy when the names of the saints are enumerated, and after them.” This commemoration was later replaced with that of St. Vartan Mamigonian and his 1,036 companions, which has been celebrated every year up to the present day.
St. Vrtanés’ name is closely connected with a contemporary non-Armenian churchman of renown, namely St. Macarius, bishop of Jerusalem (313-334). Macarius was one of the fathers of the Council of Nicaea (325), responsible (with a few others) for drafting the Nicene Creed, which we recite in church during the Divine Liturgy. It was during his tenure of office that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built in Jerusalem. St. Vrtanés had the distinction of receiving a letter from Macarius. The letter, originally written in Greek, is preserved only in Armenian and bears the title: “To the Christ-loving and pious Chief Bishop Vrtanés and all the bishops and priests of Armenia.” According to this document, Vrtanés had sent certain priests to Jerusalem with specific questions about church traditions. In his answer, Macarius dwells on various traditions and practices that must be observed in the rite of baptism.
St. Vrtanés died in the third year of King Diran—that is, in A.D. 340. He was buried near his father in Tortan, and his grave was shown inside the village church.
The missionary work initiated by St. Gregory in the regions of northern Armenia, Georgia and Caucasian Albania was not neglected by his successors. To this end, St. Vrtanés’ son Krikoris was raised to the episcopal rank and appointed bishop of Georgia and Albania at a relatively young age. The young bishop extended his missionary activities over a vast expanse of territory reaching the shores of the Caspian Sea. He established churches and evangelized among the peoples and tribes under his care. Among the different northern semi-barbaric nomadic tribes to whom he preached the gospel were the Mazkuts, who were ruled by a line of Arshaguni kings related to the royal dynasty of Armenia. At first, the Mazkuts accepted Krikoris’ instructions favorably and were inclined to convert to Christianity.
But when they learned that Christian teachings forbade some practices of their nomadic way of life—such as looting, pillaging, killing, coveting others possession—they became disgusted and greatly angered. They saw in Krikoris’ teachings a plot on the part of the Armenian king to stop their plundering raids into Armenia. Krikoris was tied to the tail of a wild horse and driven over a plain. The bishop died as a result. His body was claimed by his followers and taken to Amaras, which is located in present-day Karabagh. He was buried in the church built by St. Gregory. At the end of the fifth century, a crypt was built to house his grave. That structure is now located under the main altar of the church of the Monastery of Amaras and is a place of pilgrimage.
The martyrdom of Krikoris took place shortly before the Mazkut invasion of Armenia and the seizure of its capital city, Vagharshabad. That event took place in a.d.335. Krikoris’ relics were discovered in the latter part of the fifth century and were buried in a newly built crypt, which is still extant, as stated above.
St. Husig, the second son of St. Vrtanés, followed his father’s example by embracing secular life. Nourished by King Diran, he was forced into marrying the king’s daughter, much against his will. He and his wife had twin sons, Bab and Athenogenes. His inclination towards a celibate life, however, alienated his wife and invited on him the hostility of the royal court. Their pressure was terminated by his wife’s death, after which Husig devoted himself to raising his children. In a dream, the Lord appeared to him and told him that from his children there “will be born other children, and they will be illuminators of knowledge and fonts of spiritual wisdom for the realm of Armenia.”
After his father’s demise, Husig was in line for the succession of the episcopal throne of Greater Armenia. King Diran immediately dispatched a delegation of thirteen high-ranking princes and dignitaries to accompany Husig to Caesarea. There, Husig was elevated to the episcopal rank. On his return to Armenia he was met by the king and taken to the city of Ardashad, where he was officially enthroned. Like his father and grandfather, he became a wonderful pastor of his flock.
Husig’s woes began when he, as the upholder of the moral precepts of the church, began to castigate the king and his magnates for their unchristian behavior: they had engaged in immoral acts and had shed innocent blood for political ends. Husig excommunicated them, forbidding their entry into the church. Predictably, this invited on him the royal court’s animosity. On one occasion—a day of annual celebration when Husig, on a pastoral visit to the western province of Great Dzopk, was present at the palatine church in the royal fortress of Pnapegh—King Diran arrived with his retinue and tried to enter the church. Learning about their arrival, Husig stepped out and cried aloud: “You are unworthy! Why have you come? Do not go inside!” Angered by this, the kings attendants dragged him inside the sanctuary and beat him with rods, shattering his bones. The servants of the church of Pnapegh carried the battered bishop, who was still alive, to his ancestral estate in Tortan. Unable to recover from his injuries, Husig died there and was buried near the graves of his father and grandfather. His tomb was shown inside the church of Tortan. The martyrdom of St. Husig is dated to A.D. 344.
St. Daniel the Syrian
The Feast of the Sons and Grandsons of St. Gregory the Illuminator includes the name of St. Daniel the Syrian, though he is not an actual member of the Gregorid house.
Daniel had been one of St. Gregory’s pupils and associates. St. Gregory himself had put him in charge of the province of Daron (the modern Mush area), where he held the office of “supreme justice” and looked after the church in Ashdishad, where the relics of St. John the Baptist and Bishop Athenogenes rested. His titles—“overseer, law-giver, supervisor and guardian of all the churches of Greater Armenia”—and his ecclesiastical rank as chorepiscopus (a bishop tending to the flock in the countryside, as opposed to a bishop of a city or a district), indicate that he was a missionary who traveled from place to place. He is said to have preached in Persia and other foreign parts and to have converted many people to the Christian faith. He was also in charge of the graves and the possessions of the Gregorid family, and was attentive to keeping the memories of the saints of that family as well as that of King Drtad alive among the faithful.
Since St. Husig’s two sons led secular lives and had no inclination to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors, King Diran sent his magnates to summon Bishop Daniel, now an elderly ascetic tending to church affairs in the village of Til, to assume the spiritual leadership of the Armenian people. He met the king in southwestern Armenia and rebuked him and his magnates for their crimes. Enraged at Daniel’s outspokenness, the king ordered his servants to strangle him, despite the contrary advice of his nobles. His body was taken to the valley of Hatsyats Trakhd and buried in the cell where he had lived as a solitary. St. Daniel was martyred in a.d.344; the Monastery of Gopa Sourp Taniel stood at that site until 1915.
These five saints have been venerated as a group at least since the end of the twelfth century. For it was at that time that Archbishop Nersés of Lampron wrote a hymn dedicated to them (“The Canon of the Sons and Grandsons of St. Gregory the Illuminator”). In the hymn he mentions the saints by name, and devotes five stanzas to briefly describing the merits of each one. This hymn is still chanted on the day of commemoration of these saints.
St. Nersés the Great
St. Nersés, the grandson of St. Husig, is not commemorated with the Sons and Grandsons of St. Gregory. As a major saint of the Armenian Church he has a special day dedicated to his memory, namely the Saturday before the Third Sunday after Pentecost. That date, however, was arranged by the ordinance of Catholicos Simeon in the revised calendar he published in 1774-75. Originally, that feast fell on the Monday following the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost.
With the martyrdom of St. Husig and St. Daniel, only Husig’s two sons, Bab and Athenogenes, remained in line for the succession to the throne of St. Gregory. But they were laymen and had no desire to become priests. With the universal consent of the Armenian bishops, they were forced against their will to be ordained deacons. As professional soldiers, they showed no inclination to spirituality, and their worldly conduct convinced everyone that neither was suitable for the position of chief bishop. Consequently, the episcopal throne of Greater Armenia was delegated to bishops from another family.
St. Nersés, the son of Athenogenes and Pampish (presumably the daughter of King Diran), was a courtier and the chamberlain of King Arshag II. He was married to a princess named Santukhd and the couple had a son, who later became the renowned Catholicos Sahag the Parthian. St. Sahag in turn became the grandfather of St. Vartan Mamigonian. Despite his secular background, St. Nersés was a pious Christian. As a young soldier he had spent some time in Caesarea and had been “taught by spiritual teachers.” His connection with St. Gregory the Illuminator invited on him the attention of all the magnates of Armenia, who held council with King Arshag and advised him to persuade Nersés to become the spiritual leader of Armenia. Nersés, who was standing among the magnates in the royal assembly hall, fully adorned in ceremonial robe, refused to accept the proposal, not deeming himself worthy of such a high dignity. The assembly laughed at his feigned arguments and the king literally stripped him of his royal ornaments. He was immediately ordained a deacon and sent to Caesarea to receive episcopal ordination.
After being ordained a bishop by Archbishop Eusebius of Caesarea, Nersés returned to Armenia. His enthronement is said to have taken place in 353. Upon his return, Nersés immediately undertook the pastoral duties of chief bishop, renovating old churches, founding new ones and tending to the spiritual needs of his flock. Christianity was still a new religion in Armenia and many were still feeble in their faith. The newly ordained bishop worked towards making the Armenians practicing Christians. To that end he held a church council of bishops in Ashdishad, introducing a number of reforms. Secular regulations were set for the believers, and attention was paid to make the beliefs of the church uniform. Instructions were formulated so that throughout the land almshouses and shelters would be built for the poor, hospitals for the sick and leprosaria for lepers. The faithful were urged to make the necessary provisions for the maintenance of these institutions.
St. Nersés also became known for his other charitable works and his concern for moral purity as well as family life. He forbade excessive mourning over the dead, upheld the sanctity of marriage, and gave relief to widows, orphans, captives and the poor. He sheltered in his own residence the blind and the crippled, and always shared his meals with them. He also tended to the needs of the church as an institution by regulating the liturgical services and the rites, establishing monasteries and schools, and educating young people who were later ordained priests. In short, he may be described as the founder of Christian charity in Armenia and as the churchman who laid down for posterity the role of the Armenian Church as the guardian of the Armenian people, not only in spiritual but also in social and educational respects.
St. Nersés also participated in the political life of his country. From 353 until 359 he was among King Arshag’s chief advisors. It has been shown that in A.D. 358 St. Nersés headed a diplomatic delegation to Byzantium that brought Armenia under the Roman sphere of influence and secured a period of peace and prosperity for the country. This act, however, cost St. Nersés his throne. It is now quite certain that the saint’s exile was actually due to King Arshag’s adherence to the religious policy current in imperial Rome. We know from the Western historical sources that all the orthodox bishops in the Roman Empire were banished in 359, and Nersés was obviously one of those bishops. King Arshag, as a Roman ally, could not have kept on the throne an orthodox chief bishop, when the Roman emperor himself was an adherent to the Arian heresy and had taken measures to exile the orthodox bishops within his realm. The Armenian historians of the fifth century speak about St. Nersés’ withdrawal from office as a result of his objection to King Arshag’s moral depravations and about his exile at the order of the Roman Emperor Valens.
St. Nersés’ exile lasted for about nine years. He reluctantly returned to the throne of his ancestors during the reign of King Bab, Arshag’s son, and remained in office for four years. His return can also be explained by circumstances outside of Armenia. His years in exile seem to concur with the duration of the banishment of the orthodox bishops in the Roman Empire, and his return and reinstatement in office coincided with that of the same bishops.
St. Nersés’ relations with King Bab were cordial at first, but gradually deteriorated. The Armenian historians charge Bab with moral depravity and point to St. Nersés’ criticism of the king’s lifestyle as the cause of his downfall. Yet the alliance between the Armenian king and the Roman Emperor Valens, an adherent to the Arian heresy, suggests a religious basis for the friction between Bab and St. Nersés. The non-compliance of the orthodox Nersés to the Arianizing tendencies of Bab would not have been tolerated for long. And so St. Nersés was poisoned at the king’s order. He died in 373 and was buried in Til, near the tomb of his great uncle St. Arisdagés. A cathedral, built over the site of the graves, was destroyed in the seventh century. As the region changed hands over the centuries, the exact site of St. Nersés’ grave was forgotten. His relics were discovered at the end of the thirteenth century and distributed between the church in Erzinjan and the nearby village of Kee where the Monastery of Dirashén stood. Another monastery in or near Til, Chukhdag Hayrabedats, also claimed to have relics of St. Nersés. These relics were discovered in the second half of the thirteenth century, prompting a renowned poet of the time, Hovhannés Bluz Vartabed of Erzinjan, to write the hymn called “The Canon of the Patriarch St. Nersés the Great.”
Bishop St. Khat
St. Nersés is always commemorated with his associate Bishop Khat. Like Nersés, Khat, a native of the village of Marak near Karin (modern Erzurum) was a married man and had two daughters. He had been St. Nersés’ pupil and deacon. Ultimately he rose to the rank of bishop and was placed in charge of two districts, Pakrevant and Arsharunik. Through the marriage of his daughters he was associated with the noble Abahuni clan. During St. Nersés’ tenure of office he was designated as supervisor of the poor and the charitable institutions founded by his mentor. The latter, in his absence, entrusted him with the care of church affairs, officially naming him his vicar. Khat faithfully carried out his ministry.
Like Nersés, Khat was also an adamant supporter of orthodoxy against the royal court, which adhered to the heretical teachings of Arius. For this reason, he was in conflict with the king, who tried to bribe him—to no avail, since Khat distributed the gifts bestowed on him among the poor. King Arshag had him driven from the royal camp and ordered his men to stone the bishop. The ordeal of a painful death was spared to him thanks to his Abahuni clansmen, related to him through marriage. One of his sons-in-law, Asurk, succeeded to his episcopal rank and office, presumably after his own wife’s demise.
Khat is not a martyr, but his sufferings at the hands of King Arshag make him a confessor.
By the Very Rev. Fr. Krikor Maksoudian, adapted from his volume, “The Holy Feasts of St. Gregory the Illuminator” (St. Vartan Press, 2002).
Above: Peering through the mists of time, St. Gregory the Illuminator blesses onlookers in this exquisite fresco inside Saghmosavank (the 13th-century “Monastery of the Psalms”), in Armenia’s Aragatsotn province. (Photo: F. Sellies.)