Over the centuries, Christian martyrs have trodden bravely in the face of danger; their convictions so strong that they’ve been willing to put their lives on the line and pay the ultimate sacrifice for their religion. Originally, the term applied to any individual who suffered for Christianity, but in the end, the so-called baptism in blood was reserved for those killed for their faith. Such self-sacrifice is a source of inspiration for other Christians despite what non-believers might think. In the second century, church father Tertullian even stated, the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.
Martyrdom began with Jesus’ Apostles. According to Christian tradition, all but one of them died martyrs the exception being John the Evangelist, who perished of old age. Yet early Christians generally were often subject to brutal persecution from the widespread communities they sought to convert. And a refusal to denounce their faith could lead to brutal and prolonged death.
By the Middle Ages and beyond, Christians could find themselves tried for heresy or treason by a monarch who ruled by divine rule. And such verdicts would frequently lead to gruesome executions.
Martyrdoms repeatedly gave up highly sought-after and revered relics, and some, including body parts, were said to have mystic qualities. Authorities regularly took steps to ensure that nothing remained which in some cases added to the severity of the death. Here, we look at 10 unflinching Christian martyrs who died for their beliefs. But be warned: much of their suffering is not for the faint-hearted.
10. St. Stephen (d. 34-35 AD)
St. Stephen is considered the earliest Christian martyr and was one of the first deacons of the Christian Church. His feast day is celebrated one day after Christmas, in the Western Church. St. Stephen’s name originates from the Greek word for crown, and he is traditionally portrayed with the crown of martyrdom.
Depicted in Acts as one of the first deacons of the church at Jerusalem, Stephen’s prominence grew rapidly. Disputes with synagogue members led to claims that he had blasphemed against Moses and God. This angered senior Jewish priests, and St. Stephen was put in front of a Jewish tribunal, whose judgment was harsh.
Stephen was condemned, and an angry crowd set upon him, driving him to a spot outside the city where he was stoned to death by all accounts, without flinching. Another account of the incident carried into the writings of Saul, an instigator of the mob, who only months later would be converted and become Paul the Apostle.
9. St. Mark the Evangelist (d. 68 AD)
According to Roman historian Eusebius of Caesarea, St. Peter was saved by angels and miraculously escaped the wrath of Herod Agrippa I. On his travels, Peter crossed paths with Mark, who joined him as his travel companion and interpreter. Eventually, Mark wrote down the sermons of Peter and composed the Gospel According to Mark.
Later, in 49 AD, roughly 19 years after the Ascension of Jesus, Mark founded the Church of Alexandria and became the city’s first bishop. His efforts brought great resentment from the city’s pagan population, who worshiped traditional gods.
In 68 AD, a rope was thrown around St. Mark’s neck, and he was hauled through the streets of Alexandria by horses. After two days, it is said, his body was finally ripped to pieces. His head, however, survived and is kept in St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria, the very church he founded. He has also been honored as the founder of Christianity in Africa.
8. St. Lucia (d. 304 AD)
The origins of St. Lucia’s name are linked with the Latin word for light, and the once wealthy young martyr is now the patron saint of the blind. Traditionally, she is shown bearing her own eyes in a golden dish. And according to the legend, her story ends with her eyes being restored by God.
In the third century, Lucia rejected a pagan bridegroom and asked instead that the dowry be spent on charity. Her jilted groom condemned her as a Christian, and her sentence was that she be defiled in a brothel. Early Christian accounts hold that she was so filled by the Holy Spirit that guards were incapable of moving her. Later writings say that St. Lucia was tortured and her eyes were gouged. Dante’s Purgatorio
suggests that she removed her own eyes to retain her virginity. In any case, for her sacrifice, God replenished them, and the new pair of eyes was even more beautiful.
However, such divine intervention did not deter St. Lucia’s accusers, and she was burnt at the stake. What’s more, when that failed, she was stabbed in the neck.
7. St. Catherine of Alexandria (d. 305 AD)
According to the writings on her life, St. Catherine was a princess and a well-known scholar. She became an impassioned Christian in her teenage years, after the Virgin Mary appeared to her in a vision and offered her to Christ in mystical marriage. St. Catherine is said to have converted hundreds of people to Christianity herself.
Catherine visited the Roman Emperor Maxentius and implored him to see that his persecution of Christians was wrong. In response, Maxentius sent a crew of his best pagan philosophers to convince Catherine that it was in fact she who was wrong. What happened, though, was that she converted them all to Christianity. Maxentius then decided to torture Catherine; and when that failed, he proposed to her.
When Catherine responded that she was already married to Jesus, Maxentius condemned her to death by the breaking wheel. However, the wheel was miraculously broken, and Maxentius had to be satisfied with a far less gratuitous beheading instead. In tribute to St. Catherine of Alexandria, Catherine wheel fireworks are named for her.
6. St. Oliver Plunkett (d. 1681 AD)
In 1975, Oliver Plunkett became the first Irish saint to be canonized in nearly seven centuries Ð almost 300 years after he became the last Roman Catholic martyr to be killed in England. St. Oliver was Archbishop of Armagh, and his downfall was the Popish Plot, a fictional conspiracy that brought much anti-Catholic hysteria to Scotland and England from 1678 until 1681. Implicated in fictitious plans for a French invasion, St. Oliver had a price put on his head. However, he refused to abandon his flock and was imprisoned in Dublin Castle in 1679.
Despite a lack of evidence that he was connected to any invasion or that he had any involvement with an attempt on the King of England’s life, Plunkett was caught up in a web of politics, tried in Westminster, and denied counsel. In 1681, he was sentenced to death for high treason.
St. Oliver was then condemned to the typical savage execution for such a crime: he was hung, drawn and quartered at the notorious Tyburn of London, close to where Marble Arch now stands. To this day, St. Oliver PlunkettÕs preserved head can be seen in St. Peter’s Church in Drogheda, Ireland.
5. St. George (d. 303 AD)
Legendary dragon slayer St. George is the patron saint of England, Portugal, Malta, Gozo, and Georgia Ð where a lavish monument to him stands in the capital city of Tbilisi. St. George is also celebrated in many other countries around the world, and unusually for a Christian saint, he is also highly venerated in Islam. It is thought that St. George was born into a noble family in the third century and went on to become a soldier in the Roman army.
When an edict was issued that all Christian soldiers were to be arrested, George Ð at that time one of Emperor Diocletian’s finest tribunes appealed to the emperor directly. The emperor sought to convert George, who passionately proclaimed himself a Christian. So, the emperor was ultimately left with little choice but to condemn George to death.
Prepared for his fate, George donated his wealth to the poor. He was subsequently subjected to horrific torture, including laceration on a wheel of swords, from which he is recorded to have been resuscitated three times. St. George was then beheaded, on April 23, 303.
4. St. Ignatius (d. 108 AD)
As a student of St. John the Apostle, St. Ignatius became one of the five Apostolic Fathers, following his conversion to Christianity while still very young. St. Ignatius was also the third Bishop of Antioch. But in 107 AD, it was his refusal to denounce Christianity that led to him being arrested and forced to travel to Rome for execution by brutal Roman Emperor Trajan.
On the long journey, St. Ignatius wrote seven key letters, which became an important part of the growth of Christian theology. Unafraid of death, St. Ignatius was condemned to an execution that expounded the worst excesses of Roman culture: he was thrown into the Colosseum and mauled and eaten by lions. Aware of his fate, Ignatius bravely wrote, I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become Christ’s pure bread.
3. St. Joan of Arc (d. 1431 AD)
Joan of Arc has arguably made the largest contribution to popular culture of any Christian martyr. She is the subject of books, operas, sculptures and films, and she has also managed to appear in over fifteen video games. Perhaps itÕs her romanticized standing as a young, female peasant girl-turned-folk heroine that has captured the public’s imagination.
While the Hundred Years’ War was fought, Joan of Arc led French troops to a number of triumphs, which she claimed were inspired by divine guidance. Yet in 1431, the English captured and executed Joan, who was only 19 years of age.
It’s unsurprising that western culture, particularly in France, continues to evoke the woman nicknamed The Maid of Orleans. St. Joan’s successful leadership in combat elevated French and English skirmishes to the level of a religious war. And upon her capture, the attire she wore formed the focal point for a charge of heresy.
In 1431, Joan was found guilty and condemned to burn at the stake in Rouen, where her executioners took no chances. After she died from smoke inhalation, her remains were burnt two more times to ensure that little remained. The cinders were then thrown into the Seine.
2. St. Bartholomew the Apostle (d. 1st Century AD)
St. Bartholomew counted among the Twelve Apostles and is mentioned in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. He is also often associated with Nathaniel in the Gospel of John. According to Eusebius of Caesarea, after ChristÕs ascension, St. Bartholomew worked as a missionary in Asia and Africa, before his martyrdom in present-day Armenia, where a monastery was built in his honor.
St. Bartholomew was so successful in Armenia that he is believed to have converted King Polymius as well as his wife to Christianity. But this was also to be his downfall. The country’s priests appealed to Polymius’s brother, who was so angry that he allegedly condemned Bartholomew to a gruesome death: he was to be skinned alive and crucified upside down.
St. Bartholomew’s martyrdom has led to some vivid imagery, and he is frequently depicted with a large knife and bearing his own flayed skin. In Michelangelo’s Last Judgment
, for example, St. Bartholomew is portrayed carrying his own skin in his left hand.
1. St Agatha (d. 251 AD)
St. Agatha of Sicily is the patron saint of, among other things, breast cancer sufferers and protection from fire and earthquakes. Moreover, these are all patronages directly related to her prolonged martyrdom. After she devoted herself to Christianity, St. Agatha’s rejection of traditional gods and her refusal of Roman Prefect Quintianus led to her being persecuted for her faith.
Expecting her to easily acquiesce, Quintianus sent her to a brothel, but she refused to submit. She was subsequently tortured and had her breasts removed with iron shears. St. Agatha was refused medical treatment, but tradition maintains that an apparition of St. Peter healed her.
St. Agatha was resilient despite her suffering, and Quintianus condemned her to death by being rolled over live coals. It has been recorded that, mid-execution, an earthquake struck and a collapsing wall crushed the magistrate. St. Agatha survived but was returned to prison, where she later died. Years later, her veil is said to have averted the eruption of Mount Etna.
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