Gregory the Illuminator

Gregory the Illuminator[1] (Classical Armenian: Գրիգոր Լուսաւորիչ, reformed: Գրիգոր Լուսավորիչ, Grigor Lusavorich;[lower-alpha 1] c.257  c.331) is the patron saint and first official head of the Armenian Apostolic Church. He was a religious leader who is credited with converting Armenia from paganism to Christianity in 301. Armenia thus became the first nation to submit to Christianity as its official religion.

Gregory the Illuminator
A mosaic at Pammakaristos Church, Istanbul
Catholicos of All Armenians
(Patriarch of Armenia)
Bornc. 257
Kingdom of Armenia
Diedc. 331 (aged 7374)
Kingdom of Armenia
Venerated inArmenian Apostolic Church
Oriental Orthodox Churches
Catholic Church
Armenian Catholic Church
Eastern Orthodox Church
Anglican Communion
FeastFebruary 20 (Nardò, Italy)
March 23 (Anglican Church)
Saturday before the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Armenian Apostolic Church)
September 30 (Eastern Orthodoxy; Catholic Church, Ordinary Form),
October 1 (Catholic Church, Extraordinary Form)


Gregory was the son[2] of the Armenian Parthian nobles[3] Anak the Parthian and Okohe. His father, Anak, was a Prince said to be related to the Arsacid Kings of Armenia[4] or was from the House of Suren, one of the seven branches of the ruling Arsacid dynasty[5][6][7] of Sakastan.[8] Anak was charged with assassinating Khosrov II, one of the kings of the Arsacid dynasty and was put to death. Gregory narrowly escaped execution with the help of Sopia and Yevtagh, his caretakers. He was taken to Caesarea in Cappadocia where Sopia and Yevtagh hoped to raise him. Gregory was given to the Christian Holy Father Phirmilianos (Euthalius) to be educated and was brought up as a devout Christian.

Upon coming of age, Gregory married a woman called Miriam, a devout Christian who was the daughter of a Christian Armenian prince in Cappadocia. From their union, Miriam bore Gregory two children, their sons Vrtanes and Aristaces. Through Vrtanes, Gregory and Miriam would have further descendants and when Gregory died, Aristaces succeeded him. At some point, Miriam and Gregory separated in order that Gregory might take up a monastic life. Gregory left Cappadocia and went to Armenia in the hope of atoning for his father's crime by evangelizing his homeland.[8]

At that time Tiridates III, son of the late King Khosrov II, reigned. Influenced partly by the fact that Gregory was the son of his father's enemy, he ordered Gregory imprisoned for twelve (some sources indicate fourteen) years in a pit on the Ararat Plain under the present day church of Khor Virap located near the historical city Artashat in Armenia. Gregory was eventually called forth from his pit in c. 297 to restore to sanity Tiridates III, who had lost all reason after he was betrayed by Roman emperor Diocletian. Diocletian invaded and vast amounts of territory from western provinces of Greater Armenia became protectorates of Rome.

Declaration of Christianity in Armenia

In 301 Gregory baptized Tiridates III along with members of the royal court and upper class as Christians. Tiridates III issued a decree by which he granted Gregory full rights to begin carrying out the conversion of the entire nation to the Christian faith. The same year Armenia became the first country to adopt Christianity as its state religion.[9] The newly built cathedral, the Mother Church in Etchmiadzin became and remains the spiritual and cultural center of Armenian Christianity and center of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Most Armenians were baptized in the Aratsani (upper Euphrates) and Yeraskh (Arax) rivers. Two princes from Ujjain, India had founded a large kingdom in Armenia in 165 BC and they established 22 cities covering most of modern Armenia including two Hindu temples dedicated to Gisane and Demetr. According to the account of Zenob Glak,[10] one of the first disciples of Gregory the Illuminator, the temples were destroyed and the priests killed along with 1038 defenders of the raid that was ordered by Gregory.

Many of the pre-Christian (traditional Indo-European) festivals and celebrations such as Tyarndarach (Trndez, associated with fire worship) and Vardavar or Vadarvar associated with water worship, that dated back thousands of years, were preserved and continued in the form of Christian celebrations and chants. In 302, Gregory received consecration as Patriarch of Armenia from Leontius of Caesarea,[11] his childhood friend.

Retirement and death

In 318, Gregory appointed his second son Aristaces as the next Catholicos[11] in line of Armenia's Holy Apostolic Church to stabilize and continue strengthening Christianity not only in Armenia, but also in the Caucasus. Gregory also placed and instructed his grandson Gregory (one of the sons of Vrtanes) in charge of the holy missions to the peoples and tribes of all of the Caucasus and Caucasian Albania; the younger man was martyred by a fanatical mob while preaching in Albania.

In his later years, Gregory withdrew to a small sanctuary near Mount Sebuh (Mt. Sepuh) in the Daranali province (Manyats Ayr, Upper Armenia) with a small convent of monks, where he remained until his death.

Relics and Veneration

After his death his corpse was removed to the village of Thodanum (T'ordan, modern Doğanköy, near Erzincan). His relics were scattered near and far in the reign of the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno. In the 8th century, the iconoclast decrees in Greece caused a number of religious orders to flee the Byzantine Empire and seek refuge elsewhere. San Gregorio Armeno in Naples was built in that century over the remains of a Roman temple dedicated to Ceres, by a group of nuns escaping from the Byzantine Empire with the relics of Gregory,[11] including his skull, a femur bone, his staff, the leather straps used in his torture and the manacles that held the saint.[12] The femur and manacles were returned by Pope John Paul II to Catholicos Karekin II and are now enshrined at Saint Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral in Yerevan.[13] The Gregoriou Monastery on Mount Athos also claims to have the skull.[14] The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin and the Holy See of Cilicia in Antelias, Lebanon each claim to have the right arm of the saint, in an arm-shaped reliquary, which is used for the blessing the Holy Myron every seven years.

On 20 February, 1743, Nardò, Italy was hit by a devastating earthquake that destroyed almost the entire city. The only structure to survive in tact after the quake was the city’s statue of St. Gregory the Illuminator. According to the city’s registers, only 350 out of the city’s 10,000 inhabitants died in the earthquake, leading the inhabitants to believe that St. Gregory saved the city. Every year, they mark the anniversary of the earthquake by holding three days of celebrations in his honor. Relics of the saint are kept at Nardò Cathedral.

A number of prayers, and about thirty of the canonical hymns of the Armenian Church, are ascribed to Gregory the Illuminator. Homilies of his appeared for the first time in a work called Haschacnapadum at Constantinople in 1737; a century afterwards a Greek translation was published at Venice by the Mekhiterists; and they have since been edited in German by J M Schmid (Ratisbon, 1872). The original authorities for Gregory's life are Agathangelos, whose History of Tiridates was published by the Mekhitarists in 1835; Moses of Chorene, Historiae Armenicae; and Symeon the Metaphrast.

A Life of Gregory by the Vartabed Matthew was published in the Armenian language at Venice in 1749 and was translated into English by Father Malan (1868).

In the calendar of the Armenian Church, the discovery of the relics of St. Gregory is an important feast and is commemorated on the Saturday before the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost.[15] Gregory is commemorated on September 30 by the Orthodox Church, which styles him "Holy Hieromartyr Gregory, Bishop of Greater Armenia, Equal of the Apostles and Enlightener of Armenia." He is listed on September 30 in the Roman Martyrology of the Ordinary Form of the Catholic Church; his feast day is listed as October 1 in the Extraordinary Form. He is honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on March 23.

See also



  1. Greek: Γρηγόριος Φωστήρ, Gregorios Phoster or Γρηγόριος Φωτιστής, Gregorios Photistes; Latin: Gregorius Armeniae Illuminator


  1. or Saint Gregory the Enlightener
  2. Hovannisian, The Armenian People From Ancient to Modern Times, Volume I: The Dynastic Periods: From Antiquity to the Fourteenth Century, p. 72
  3. Agat’angeghos, History of the Armenians, p. xxvii
  4. Kurkjian, A History of Armenia, p. 270.
  5. Lang, David Marshall (1980). Armenia, cradle of civilization. Allen & Unwin. p. 155. ISBN 9780049560093.
  6. Russell, James R. (2004). Armenian and Iranian Studies. Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University. p. 358. ISBN 9780935411195.
  7. Terian, Patriotism And Piety In Armenian Christianity: The Early Panegyrics On Saint Gregory, p. 106
  8. Kurkjian, A History of Armenia, p. 97.
  9. It was the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion. The Journal of Ecclesiastical History – Page 268 by Cambridge University Press, Gale Group, C.W. Dugmore
  10. Patmutiun Tarono, i.e., the “History of Taron",
  11. Fortescue, Adrian. "Gregory the Illuminator." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 13 Aug. 2014
  12. Caracciolo, Enrichetta (1865). "Mysteries of the Neapolitan cloister".
  16. Tigranes the Great illustration in 1898 book «Illustrated Armenia and Armenians»


  • Agat’angeghos, History of the Armenians, SUNY Press, 1976
  • R. G. Hovannisian, ed. The Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times, Volume I: The Dynastic Periods: From Antiquity to the Fourteenth Century, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004
  • V. M. Kurkjian, A History of Armenia, Indo-European Publishing, 2008
  • A. Terian, Patriotism and Piety in Armenian Christianity: The Early Panegyrics on Saint Gregory, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2005
Preceded by
New creation
Catholicos of the Holy See of St. Echmiadzin and All Armenians
Succeeded by
St. Aristaces I
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