04 April 2018

Three women martyrs who
challenge misogyny and
abuse in today’s society

Three women saints in a fresco in the Church of Panagia Dexia in Thessaloniki (from left): Saint Irene, Saint Catherine and Saint Barbara (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

As I was preparing for this week’s visit to Thessaloniki and Mount Athos, I came across a photograph I had taken some years ago in the Church of Panagia Dexia, beside the Arch of Galerius in Thessaloniki, showing three women saints in a fresco – Saint Irene, Saint Catherine and Saint Barbara.

In icons and frescoes in Greek churches, saints are often found together in traditional groups, such as the Apostles Peter and Paul, as an icon of Church Unity, Saint Paul and Sant Barnabas, the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus), and the Three Holy Hierarchs (Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom).

But the unusual grouping of these three women saints in the Church of Panagia Dexia caught my imagination in the days after the very public responses to last week’s high-profile trial in Belfast and the misogynistic postings and comments on social media.

The men in the lives of these three women in Thessaloniki seem not only to have hated women, but to have hated themselves and to have devalued themselves rather than the three women.

Saint Irene is one of three saints and sisters – Irene, Agape and Chioni – who were born in Thessaloniki and who were martyred there for their faith in the year 304 AD. Their names mean Peace, Love and Purity, and their feast day was yesterday, 3 April.

The story of their martyrdom is the subject of Dulcitius, a 10th-century Latin drama by Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, the first-known female playwright.

Irene, Agape and Chione were brought before Dulcitius, governor of Macedonia, on the charge of refusing to eat food that had been offered in sacrifice to the gods. When Agape and Chionia again refused to eat this food, they were burned alive.

Dulcitius then found that Irene was keeping Christian books prohibited by the law. She declared that when the decrees against Christians had been published, she and several others fled to the mountains. She refused to name the people who had fled with her and said all she alone knew where the books were being kept. Dulcitius then ordered Irene to be stripped and exposed in a brothel. But no one mistreated her in the brothel. The governor then gave Irene a second chance, but when she refused this Dulcitius then sentenced her to death, and the books found with her were burned as well.

Saint Catherine or Saint Catharine of Alexandria (ἡ Ἁγία Αἰκατερίνη ἡ Μεγαλομάρτυς, Saint Catherine the Great Martyr) was a daughter of Constus, Governor of Alexandria in the reign of the Emperor Maximian (286-305). Rufinus says her first name was Dorothea (Δωροθέα), but at her Baptism she was given the name Aikaterina (Αικατερίνα), from Greek αιέν καθαρινά, ‘ever pure.’

A vision of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child had convinced her to become a Christian at the age of 14. When the persecutions began in the reign of Maxentius, she rebuked the emperor for his cruelty. The emperor summoned 50 of the best-known philosophers and orators to debate with her, but Catherine won the debate. Several of her opponents, impressed by her eloquence, declared themselves Christians and were at once put to death.

Catherine was then scourged and thrown in prison. She was scourged so cruelly and for so long, that those who watched wept with pity, and Catherine stood with her eyes raised to heaven, without showing any sign of suffering or fear. She was jailed without food, but she was fed daily by a dove from Heaven and was visited by Christ, who promised her the crown of everlasting glory.

Over 200 people came to see her in prison, including Maxentius’s wife, Valeria Maximilla. All converted to Christianity and all were martyred later.

Having failed in these ways, Maxentius then tried to win over Catherine by proposing marriage. She refused, declaring that her spouse was Christ.

The furious emperor condemned Catherine to death on a spiked breaking wheel, but, at her touch, it shattered. Maxentius ordered her to be beheaded. Catherine herself ordered the execution to commence. A milk-like substance rather than blood flowed from her neck. Angels transported her body to Mount Saint Catherine, next to Mount Sinai, where Saint Catherine’s Monastery was founded by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century, and which I visited in 2004.

Her popularity grew with the reported rediscovery of her body at Mount Sinai around the year 800. Her principal symbol is the spiked wheel, which has become known as the Catherine wheel. Saint Catherine was one of the most important saints in the late Middle Ages, and arguably considered the most important of the women martyrs, alongside other women such as Saint Irene and Saint Barbara.

Her feast day is celebrated on 25 November in most churches, although the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates her on 24 November. Saint Catharine’s College, Cambridge, was founded on Saint Catharine’s Day, 25 November 1473, by Robert Woodlark, the then-provost of King’s College Cambridge, for a small community of scholars who would study exclusively theology and philosophy.

Saint Barbara (Αγία Βαρβάρα), whose Feast Day is 4 December, is known in the Orthodox Church as the Great Martyr Barbara. Accounts place her in the third century in the Greek city of Nicomedia in Anatolia, or in Heliopolis of Phoenicia, present-day Baalbek in Lebanon.

Her biographers say Saint Barbara was the daughter of Dioscorus, a rich man who guarded her from the outside world by keeping her locked in a tower. She secretly become a Christian and rejected a forced marriage arranged by her father.

Before going on a journey, her father ordered the building of a private bath-house for her private use while he was away. Barbara inserted three windows as a symbol of the Holy Trinity, instead of the two planned by her father. On his return, when she told him she had become a Christian, he drew his sword to kill her. But her prayers created an opening in the wall of the tower and she was taken by miracle to a mountain gorge.

Dioscorus followed his daughter in pursuit and dragged Barbara back to stand trial before the prefect of the province, Martinianus, who had her cruelly tortured.

But Barbara held true to her faith. At night, the dark prison was bathed in light, new miracles were reported each morning, and her wounds were healed. When she was condemned to death by beheading, her father carried out the death-sentence. But he was struck by lightning on the way home and his body was consumed by flame. It is said she was martyred on 4 December in the reign of emperor Maximianus and Prefect Marcien (286-305).

Saint Barbara was buried by a Christian, Valentinus. Her relics are kept in Saint Vladimir’s Cathedral in Kiev.

Alongside Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Saint Barbara is known as one of the ‘Fourteen Holy Helpers.’ The lightning that killed her father has caused her to be invoked against lightning and fire. She is also the patron of artillery and mining.

To outsiders, the Orthodox Church can sometimes seen as behind the times in its attitude to women, exemplified in debates about the ordination of women or the exclusion of women from Mount Athos. But the exclusion of women from Mount Athos is more about protecting and honouring the celibacy of the men in the monastic communities, and I am confident that because the debate about the ordination of women is theological rather than misogynistic that it is capable of moving forward in time.

On the other hand, the events in Ireland in the past week make me fear that misogyny has become built in to the culture of Irish rugby. There was a time when players and fans alike behaved in what was seen as a ‘gentlemanly’ manner. But all this has been lost, has disappeared, in the recent years, and has been shown up as a charade in the past week. Apart from the revelations in the Belfast trial and the online comments about it, women’s rugby has been demeaned at the same time, and members of the Irish women’s team even found it impossible to get tickets to the championship clincher at Twickenham.

Before Irish rugby can hope to recover respect, people involved in the world of Irish rugby need to start respecting themselves, and taking the responsibility that goes with that. And that must involve rooting out misogyny today, just as it meant rooting out racism and class discrimination and prejudice in the past.

These three women in this fresco in the Church of Panagia Dexia in Thessaloniki – Saint Irene, Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Barbara – have emerged as strong figures in their own right. They continued to adhere to their principles and their insistence on the truth when they were betrayed and sexually mistreated by the men in their own family circles. They were brutalised and faced court cases in which their truthfulness and their self-worth were publicly doubted. Their public humiliation finally lead to their deaths, yet it was men in their lives who were the real perpetrators of injustice, while the women retained their integrity and their own values, no matter what men said about them or projected onto them.

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