The 40 Martyrs of Sebaste

Last autumn I was strolling down a street in the old part of Tbilisi, Georgia when I chanced upon a monastery dedicated to the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste. “That’s a lot of martyrs in one place, ” I remarked and thought no more about it.

A week later I am in the Caucasus mountains in the village of Mestia which has a world-class museum of ethnography, housing treasures that have been stored by the clans for over a thousand years. Imagine my delight when I come across this icon. Yes, it’s those 40 martyrs.

While Emperor Constantine was legislating religious toleration in the western part of the Roman world, his colleague in the east, Licinius, was persecuting Christians. In 320, when it was discovered that members of the Twelfth Legion stationed in Asia Minor were Christians who refused to renounce their faith, they were ordered to strip and freeze to death on a nearby ice-covered lake. One of their number weakened and headed for a heated bath house but a guard watching over them was converted and joined the martyrs. 

This incident inspired numerous portrayals in icon form, some of them, like the one immediately below, showing the apostate heading for the bath house (where he immediately died of shock) and the guard disrobing.

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