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September 30, 2011

The Relics of Saint Gregory the Illuminator of Armenia

On July 9th, the Armenian Church (Monophysites and Uniates) commemorates one of the three feast days dedicated to St. Gregory the Illuminator: the discovery of his relics. His principle feast by all Christians is celebrated on September 30th.

St. Gregory is considered to be the “Apostle of Armenia.” After years of evangelizing, St. Gregory sought solitude and an ascetic life. He chose a cave on Mount Sebouh as his dwelling place. It was here that Gregory died alone around 328 AD, some say after seven years of solitude. Shepherds found his body and without realizing who he was buried him under a pile of stones. Later a hermit, Garnik of Basen, who had been a disciple of St. Gregory, saw a vision and went to Mount Sebouh where he found the site of Gregory’s burial. He took the remains to the village of Thortan for burial, where King Drtad was buried. The discovery by Garnik is placed in the reign of Emperor Zeno (474-491), though this is contested by some scholars.

Moses of Khoren writes of the discovery:

"[Saint Gregory's relics] were hidden for many years by divine providence you might say, like Moses of old [cf. Deut. 34:6], lest they become the object of a cult to the halfconverted barbarian nations. But when the faith had become firmly established in these regions, after a long time Saint Gregory's relics were revealed to a certain ascetic called Garnik, who took them and buried them in the village of T'ordan."

A monastery was built near St. Gregory's grave. His relics were afterwards taken to Constantinople, but apparently brought back again to Armenia. Part of these relics are said to have been taken to Naples during the Iconoclast persecution.

The greatest relic of the Armenian Church is the Right Hand of St. Gregory the Illuminator. The relic is housed in a gold artwork depicting the sufferings of the saint. Relics from the right hand of St. Gregory are at the Holy Mother See of Etchmiadzin and the Holy See of Cilicia. It is brought out once every seven years by the Catholicos for the Blessing of the Holy Chrism (Muronorhnek), the anointing oil that Armenian Churches around the world use for the rites of baptism and other consecrations. The Armenian Church remembers the discovery of the relics of St. Gregory on July 9th (the videos below are from this feast).

For more on the right hand of St. Gregory and his relics, read here.

Saint Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral in Yerevan is the symbol of the 1700th anniversary of the proclamation of Christianity as a State Religion in Armenia and house for relics of Saint Gregory the Illuminator (Surp Grigor). The Holy Remains of St. Gregory were brought from Naples, Italy. Shortly after the consecration of the Cathedral Pope John Paul II paid a visit to the Cathedral. The Skull of St. Gregory remains in Naples.

For more on this Cathedral, read here.

For a bibliography on the relics of St. Gregory the Illuminator, see footnote here.