St. Hripsime and Her Companions
According to legend, Hripsime and her 35 female companions formed a group of devout Christian nuns who lived as hermits in a Roman monastery around 300 A.D. Hripsime was believed to be a descendant of the royal family of Rome. She was extremely beautiful and had attracted the attention of the Roman emperor Diocletian, who vowed to marry her.
To avoid his forceful advances and to maintain her chastity, Hripsime, her fellow nuns, and their leader Gayane, fled Rome. After traveling to Alexandria, they finally arrived in the vicinity of Vagharshapat in Armenia, where, it is said, they found an old building of an abandoned wine press and settled there.
The Roman emperor continued his pursuit of Hripsime and the nuns. He asked the pagan Armenian King Drtad’s help in returning them to Rome. However, when King Drtad’s soldiers discovered where the nuns were hiding and King Drtad saw the beautiful Hripsime, he, too, fell in love with her and commanded her to marry him. When Hripsime was brought before the king, she refused to deny her Christian faith and to accept the marriage proposal of the king. She chose the love of Christ over the title of queen, with all the pagan trappings.
The king then pressured Gayane, the leader of the sisterhood, to convince Hrispime to marry him. However, instead of advising Hripsime to submit to the demands of the king, she told her to resist and stand firm in her faith. Hripsime and Gayane escaped from the palace and returned to the winery. Because of her refusal, the king’s forces inflicted fiendish tortures upon Hripsime, Gayane, and the other sisters. According to the various accounts, the soldiers cut out their tongues, pierced their eyes, chopped up their bodies, and burned them.
The martyrdom of these women took place in the last year of St. Gregory the Illuminator’s imprisonment in the deep pit by King Drtad. Upon his delivery from the pit in the early 4th century, St. Gregory built chapels over the relics of the nuns. Later, during the time of St. Sahag Bartev, these chapels were rebuilt and, during the pontificate of Catholicos Gomidas (7th century), two beautiful cathedrals were erected; one of these, the Cathedral of St. Hripsime, remains a monument of Armenian architecture. St. Hripsime, along with her companions in martyrdom, are venerated as the first martyrs in Armenian history.
In 1979 His Holiness Vasken I, the Catholicos of All Armenians, reported joyously to His Holiness Khoren I, the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, at Antelias, that as a result of recent archaeological excavations firmly sealed graves were found and thought to be those of the witnesses, Hripsime and her companions.
His Holiness Vasken I wrote: “It is with deep emotion that we wish to inform you that the ancient tomb discovered during the past year under the walls of the St. Hripsime monastery has disclosed graves of interred bodies without heads. It is highly probable that those remains are those of some of the maidens.” Because of the indication of how the bodies had been severed, the direction in which they were buried, and the absence of pagan-like burial practices, the archaeologists were able to confirm the authenticity of Hripsime and her followers’ relics at the site.
Above: The image of St. Hripsime painted on her tomb, flanked by the St. Hripsime Cathedral (left) and the St. Gayane Monastery (right), both built in the 7th century in Armenia.