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September 16, 2015

A Description of the Martyrdom of St. Euphemia Based on a Fourth Century Icon

Fragment of a 13th or 14th cent. icon of St. Euphemia found during an excavation of her Martyrion in 1942 and now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

In the late fourth century Asterios, Bishop of Amasea, wrote an ekphrasis (a verbally artistic description of a work of art) in which he describes in a lively manner a large painting of the martyrdom of St. Euphemia in a church near her tomb (probably in Chalcedon). This description was read into the official record of the Seventh Ecumenical Synod in Nicaea during its sixth session in 787 to confirm the early use and veneration of icons prior to Iconoclasm.

The entire text of the Ekphrasis on the Holy Martyr Euphemia by Asterios of Amasea can be read here. Below is his introduction to the description of the painting, as quoted at the Seventh Ecumenical Synod, in which he explains who St. Euphemia is and how even in the fourth century this painting was used by clergy as a means to teach the faithful, alongside a sermon, about the martyrdom of St. Euphemia (translated text edited by me  (J.S.) based on the original Greek text).

There was a certain woman, a sacred virgin who had completely dedicated her chastity to God, who was called Euphemia. A tyrant was very zealously persecuting the pious, and she chose for herself a fatal venture. The citizens and the community members completed the religious ceremony on her behalf, honoring the virgin who was equally courageous and sacred; having built her tomb near the sanctuary and buried her coffin, performing honors for her, and on her annual feast there is a public and common festival. So the hierophants of the mysteries of God, who ever honor her memory with a discourse, teach the comprehending people thoroughly in what manner she diligently completed her struggle of steadfastness. So the pious painter through the full power of his art placed the story on a linen canvas near the sacred tomb. The masterpiece is like this.

The judge sits high on his throne looking cruelly and with hostility at the virgin. For art, when it wants, grows angry even on inanimate material. There are the spear-bearing guards of the ruler and many soldiers, and the scribes who record the minutes of the trial bearing writing tablets and styluses. One of the scribes, hanging his hand on the wax table, looks impetuously at the condemned prisoner with his face turned fully toward her as if exhorting her to speak louder in order that he not err in listening and recording the proceedings. The virgin stood in a dark tunic and cloak, the sign of philosophy, as it seemed to the painter, and refined in appearance. It seems to me that her soul was adorned with virtues.