The world offers to Thee, O Lord, as the Father of creation,
The God-bearing Martyrs as the first-fruits of nature.
By their prayers through the Mother of God,
Keep Thy Church in deep peace,
O Most Merciful One.
(Kontakion to the Martyrs)
During His time on earth, Jesus Christ predicted the future existence of Christian Martyrs. The disciple honored as the first to die rather than deny the Christian faith is the deacon Stephen, just a year after Christ’s Ascension (Acts 6, 7). Such strength and bravery in the face of violence has since then been a true “witness” (Gr. martyria) of the Christian Faith. As such, Holy Martyrs – those specifically who give their life up for the Faith – were among the first Christians to be honored in both hymns and iconography.
In the 2nd century, the Church Father Tertullian wrote that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” and for the first few centuries it was primarily those who had been murdered for their Faith who were commemorated (with very obvious exceptions, such as the Theotokos and the Apostle John – both of whom reposed in old-age). As such, there was little need to depict these Saints with anything that marked them out as martyrs in particular. A fourth-century icon of the Martyr Agnes found in the catacombs of Rome shows the saint in the orans stance, praying to God. However, as Christianity spread and became legalised in various parts of the world, increasing numbers of Saints became renowned for their wisdom, asceticism, charity, and righteousness, without necessarily ending their lives in martyrdom. Therefore, over time, Martyrs began to be depicted in Icons with specific details that marked them out as “the first-fruits of nature”.
Most modern icons still show martyrs in the prayerful orans stance, but now with one hand holding a Cross. This is a simple acknowledgement of Jesus’ words: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25). As those who have laid down their lives for Christ’s sake, the Holy Martyrs are honored by carrying a cross in their hand. Another common attribute of martyrs in iconography is a red robe, which signifies the spilled blood, the “seed of the Church”. The robe may be worn over white clothing, showing Sainthood, green or blue clothing signifying created nature, or clothing contemporary with the Saint’s martyrdom. In the icon at the top of this page, the three daughters of St Sophia also wear white veils, which indicate their virginity, whilst Sophia, obviously, does not. The depiction of female virgin-martyrs with white veils is common, especially when the retainment of their virginity features in the story of their martyrdom, as in the case of St. Agnes herself.
What is rare in Orthodox Icons is for Saints to be depicted holding the instruments of their torture. This a feature of Western art, particularly post-Renaissance art, when fleshy, realistic depictions of Christ and the Saints start to dominate. However, in Orthodox Iconography, images of Christ and His Saints are intended to be “windows into Heaven”; therefore, the Martyrs are no longer suffering. The three daughters of St. Sophia were beaten, one-by-one from the eldest to the youngest, and tortured to death. St. Agnes was stabbed in the throat, and St. Plato was beheaded. Yet none of these Saints are shown in Holy Portraits bearing the marks of their tortures, because now they are transferred from earthly life to Heaven, where “there is no pain, no sorrow, no sighing, but life ever-lasting” (Kontakion of the Faithful Departed).
Now they are looking on at our earthly struggles, praying that they will share their victorious resting-place with us.