Gregory the Illuminator

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GREGORY THE ILLUMINATOR was the chief bishop of Armenia from circa 314 to 325, one of the major saints of the Armenian church, and author of the conversion of the Armenian people to Christianity. Information about him derives mainly from two fifth-century sources, Agathangelos's History of the Armenians and the Greek Life of Gregory.

According to Agathangelos's legendary account, Gregory was the son of the Parthian prince Anak who killed his kinsman King Khosrov of Armenia. The Armenians retaliated by killing Anak's family, Gregory being the sole survivor. He was taken to Caesarea Mazaca (modern Kayseri, Turkey), where he was raised a Christian. There he married a Christian woman with whom he had two sons. He entered the service of King Tiridates III of Armenia (298330), accompanying him to Greater Armenia in 298 when the Romans restored the king to the throne of his ancestors. Gregory's refusal to offer sacrifice to the idol of the goddess Anahita provoked the king to torture him and condemn him to imprisonment in the Khor Virap ("deep pit") of Artashat. There Gregory miraculously survived for thirteen years until he was released to cure the king of a severe ailment. Succeeding in his mission, Gregory converted the king, the royal family, and the army, and set out to proselytize the Armenian nation. He destroyed six major shrines of the prevailing deities of ancient Armenia, erected crosses throughout the country, and built baldachins over the graves of the forty Christian virgins martyred by Tiridates III.

About 314 Gregory received episcopal ordination in Caesarea. Returning to Armenia, he destroyed the pagan shrine at Ashtishat and founded the first church in Armenia. Tradition reports that he baptized the entire Armenian nation in the waters of the Arsenias River, built several churches, founded monasteries, and ordained bishops. Finally, after handing over his episcopal duties to his younger son, Aristakes, he retired to a solitary life. The office of the chief bishop of Armenia became intermittently hereditary in his family until 439. The cult of Gregory and the veneration of his relics became popular in the second half of the fifth and especially in the sixth and seventh centuries.

The Armenian tradition ascribes to Gregory the authorship of canons, a book of homilies (the Yachakhapatum ), and the liturgical books that are used in the Armenian church. Modern scholarship, however, has shown that none of these works could have been composed before the fifth century.


Agathangelos. History of the Armenians. Translated with commentary by Robert W. Thomson. Albany, N.Y., 1976.

Ananian, Paulo. "La data e le circostanze della consecrazione di S. Gregorio Illuminatore." Le Muséon 74 (1961): 4373, 319360.

Garitte, Gérard. Documents pour l'étude du livre d'Agathange. Studi e Testi, vol. 127. Vatican City, 1946. Includes the Life of Gregory.

Thomson, Robert W., et al., trans. The Teaching of Saint Gregory: An Early Armenian Catechism. Cambridge, Mass., 1970.

Krikor H. Maksoudian (1987)