Sunday, May 6, 2012

Saint Irene the Martyr

There are some more saints with the name Irene in the calendar. One of them was the Emperess of Constantinople, the widow of Leon the 6th, who helped with the organization of the seventhe ecumenical council in Nicaea, where there was established the canonicity of the veneration of the icons, saints, relics and remains from the saint people.
Another saint Irene was a virgin saint who died as a martyr in a town somewhere at the eastern borders of the Roman Empire, maybe even in Persia, in the , beginning of the.... century.
There is no report about this saint martyr until the byzantine Menologion of Basil II (10th century), which consisted into the abbreviated lives of the saints from the whole year, but this story we will follow here.


Saint Irene was the daughter of a local leader called Licinius (not to be confused with the persecutor emperor Licinius who ruled 308 to 324 together with emperor Constantine). Because of her beauty, her father locked her in a tower, together with some servants. She was converted to the Christian faith by St. Timothy, the disciple of St. Paul, and this fact situates her probably at the end of the 1st century-the beginning of the 2nd. Irene came into a conflict with her father after she destroyed the stone gods of her father, who became very angry and wanted to kill her. He ordered to his servants to bind her in order to be trampled by the wild horses, but instead one horse bit him and he died. After Irene’s prayer, he resurrected and repented. The menologies states that both Licinius and his wife converted, together with a very big group of saints (about 3000). After that, the new governor called Ampelianus tried to convince her to renounce to the Christian faith and finally decapitated her. There is no more information about her life or her martyrdom in this Synaxarium.
Another Vita, found in some western manuscripts gives us more information. The Codex Ottoboniano 22 is the most extended one. Here we find out that she lived in a town called Magedo, probably in Persia where her father was governor, and her name before her conversion was Penelope. In this story Ampellianus was the name of her tutor and teacher, who was teaching her for about 6 years, when she had a vision. In the tower where they were enclosed it came a dove bringing an olive branch and putting it on the table, after that an eagle, bringing a crown made of flowers, and finally a raven, who put a snake on the table. Ampellianus interpreted these signs as follows: the dove represents the ascetic purity, and the olive branch is the seal of baptism. The eagle symbolizes the victory, and raven who brought the snake meant trouble and suffering.
After this came St. Timothy and baptized her, and the story follows the paths already known. After the conversion, her father and her mother converted and baptized themselves, but also renounced of their social status and lived in that tower. Instead of Licinius came as governor a man called Sedechia, who obliged Irene to bring sacrifices to the local gods, and after her refusal, she was thrown in a den (cueva) with snakes, from which she survived. The synaxarium follows the precedent one and reminds about a second mass conversion, after this miracle (this time about 8 thousand persons). Irene survived to Sedechia, who was replaced by Sappor, his son, also a persecutor. She suffered during his rule, but she didn’t stop preaching the Gospel in some other towns, namely Magedon, her home, Callinicon, Constantina and Mesembria, as the medieval eastern manuscripts also add to the story. In every of these towns she suffered tortures, but she miraculously survived, converting again and again many people to the Christian faith, apparently because of the miracles occured with her. In Callinicon she suffered because of a governor called Numenau. Shortly after she was brought again in a trial in front of Sappor (this time, apparently he was already emperor), who oderered her killing in Mesembria. In a Romanian Synaxarium there is written that she was killed by Sappor and shortly she resurrected. This strange miracle convinced even the emperor to accept the Christanity. Strangely, shortly after that she lied down into a coffin and before dying again, she asked her tutor Ampellianus to close her inside. After four days he opened the coffin, but her body was no longer inside. Traditionally the story of her life was noted by Ampellianus.

Some problems about the strange biography

The hagiographic motive of the disappearance of the body occurs often together with the saints who made many miracles. I will note here that also the body of St. Virgin Mary wasn’t anymore in the coffin, when St. Thomas came from India and wanted to see her for a one last time. The same situation occurs to St. Symeon from Emessa, the fool for Christ (7th century), and to St. Andrew from Constantinople, also fool for Christ (10/11th century). This strange disappearance of the body may be a sign of the saintness, so that God took them also with their body in Paradise, though that is only a personal conclusion.

A very strange change occurs in the slavic live of the saint. Megedo is changed into “Macedonia”: so the saint lived not in the far East, but in the Balcanic peninsula. In that condition, Licinus is the same with the emperor Licinius from the 3rd century. Moreover, Mesembria already mentioned earlier as a town where she preached is the modern Bulgarian town of Nessebar, at the shore of the Black Sea. The problem of her conversion by St. Timothy (1/2 century BC) stands against her father’s reign at the end of the 3rd century. Also the king Sappor (Shappur) of Persia reigned between 240 and 272, placing the saint much later than the mission of St. Timothy, the disciple of St. Paul the Apostle.
These historical incompatibilities stand for a moderate interpretation of St. Irene’s life. I would believe the first short variant of the life as the most credible, in which there’s no mention about any vision and also nothing about the later persecutors of St. Irene.
The temptation of saying that the entire story is a legend, maybe a personification of the Peace (Greek: Irene) is very big, but I won’t go that far to think that all is an invention. 

Saint Irene from Lecce

In the western tradition there is one more story totally unrelated with the precedent. According to that, Irene, also the daughter of Licinius, was celebrated in Lecce (Italy) on 5th of may. Her cult has a special popularity in this town.
Altar in St. Irene Church in Lecce

Celebration of St. Irene

Already since 5th century there were two churches dedicated to St. Irene in Constantinople, one in Pera, rebuilt by Emperor Marcian approximately in 450, and the second in Sykae, restored by Justinian in the 6th century, after the Nike rebellion. This one was surely built not in the honor of St. Irene, but in of the Irene (Peace), in the same manner as the Cathedral of St. Sophia was built not for a saint with his name, but for the Wisdom (Sophia) of God. The Church of St. Irene from Sykae exists until today.
In the first mentioned byzantine synaxarium the celebration of St. Irene is made on 4th May, although the later manuscripts moved her feast on the 5th. In the West St. Irene is celebrated on 5th May.
St. Irene was the patron saint of Lecce until 1656, when she was replaced by St. Oronzo (Orontius of Lecce, martyr from the 1st century), through the attribution of healing the plague in this region of the southern Italy.
St. Irene Church in Istanbul

Troparion (hymn) of the Saint

“Christ our God has called thee Irene, for thou grantest peace to those who hasten to thy church with hymns. Thou dost intercede for all before the Light-creating Trinity. Together we celebrate thy memory as we magnify God who has glorified thee!”

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