Feast Day of Saint Eleutherius of Nicomedia, Reverend Lovejoy counselor

Add comment October 2nd, 2020 Headsman

October 2 is the feast date of Saint Eleutherius of Nicomedia,* a martyr circa 303 who was accused of trying to burn down the palace of the Christian-persecuting emperor Diocletian.

One notices him in 2020 for a rather less pious achievement, however: he appears in the Simpsons episode In Marge We Trust** as a stained-glass icon come to life to banter with the town pastor during the latter’s crisis of faith.


gif via comb.io

While Saint Eleutherius is a real entry in the martyrology, not all the other witty apparitions in this episode can say the same. Alongside actual martyrs Saint Lucian and Saint Bartholomew, there’s a fictitious “Saint Donickus” who is simply a tribute to the episode’s writer, Donick Cary.

* Nicomedia was an old Greek-founded Anatolian city on the Sea of Marmara that had stood capital of the empire’s easternmost quadrant under Diocletian’s four-way division of power. It was here that Diocletian unleashed his great persecution of 303 by razing the church and issuing an anti-Christian Edict of Nicomedia. Within a few years of this persecution, Nicomedia would be supplanted as the capital by Byzantium/Constantinople, but it still exists to this day: it’s now the Turkish city of Izmit.

** This episode is also notable for the memorable B-plot, with Homer Simpson — the cartoon character, of course, not the real-life executed guy of that name — discovering that his face is a Japanese detergent icon known as Mr. Sparkle.

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1599: Celestino da Verona

Add comment September 16th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1599, a heretical Franciscan named Fra Celestino of Verona burned at the stake at Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori.

For posterity he is a secondary character in the passion play of Giordano Bruno, who followed him to the same stake just a few months later.

Celestino had been imprisoned with Bruno in the early 1590s — the Inquisition’s legal gears took years to spin — and wrote up for his jailers a denunciation of his Bruno’s deviant doctrines. This might have been precisely what was hoped or demanded: turn the man’s fear of the fagot into an engine for incriminating the heresiarch.

It’s purely speculative whether this viperous intervention really made any difference in Bruno’s case. The rat vanishes from the documentary trail, only resurfacing in early 1599 when the Inquisition takes a sudden and intense look at this loose end. No record remains of Celestino’s specific doctrines, only that interrogators operated under a pall of silence mandated by the Pope himself.

He was condemned as a relapsed heretic, although we can only guess at his heresies. A few days later, an ambassador’s letter made reference to the burned man “who insisted that Christ Our Lord did not redeem mankind.”

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Feast Day of Saint Bartholomew

Add comment August 24th, 2020 Headsman

August 24 is the feast day* of Saint Bartholomew the Apostle, an original companion of Christ who is silent as the grave when it comes to the Gospels** but holds a distinguished place in artistic history as Christianity’s best-known flayed martyr.

(And of course, a distinguished place in sectarian bloodshed history thanks to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre during the French Wars of Religion.)


A fierce Bartholomew brandishing his flayed skin in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.


Marco d’Agrate shows off his anatomical expertise in this sculpture at the Milan Cathedral, which he arrogantly signed “I was not made by Praxiteles but by Marco d’Agrate.” (cc) image by Latente Flickr.


This flinchingly realistic depiction of the skin being cut off the muscle comes from Caravaggio disciple Valentin de Boulogne. (cc) image by livioandronico2013.


This late 16th century fresco by (speculatively) Niccolo Circignani in Rome’s Basilica of Santi Nereo e Achilleo perhaps alludes to the Ottomans’ 1571 flaying execution of a Venetian commander.

* Per the Catholic tradition. For Orthodox Christians, the feast is observed on June 11; in the Coptic church, it occurs on the first day of Thout which currently corresponds to September 11 or 12.

** Bartholomew’s name does go on several apocryphal texts.

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1644: Andrew of Phu Yen, Christian protomartyr of Vietnam

Add comment July 26th, 2020 Headsman

Andrew of Phu Yen, the Catholic protomartyr of Vietnam, was executed on this date in 1644 at Ke Cham.

Baptized with his mother in 1641 by French missionary Alexandre de Rhodes, our man Andrew was only 19 years old at the time of his protomartyrdom.

Vietnam in this period was amid a long-running civil war that divided the country north and south; according to de Rhodes’s memoirs — Francophones can read it from chapter XXXII of his Voyages et missions du père Alexandre de Rhodes de la Compagnie de Jésus en la Chine et autres royaumes de l’Orient — a mandarin named Ong Nghe Bo showed up intent on suppressing Christian proselytization after (so he says) de Rhodes owned the local Buddhist monks in scholarly debate. This guy basically grabbed Andrew as the first available Christian convert to make an example of — right or wrong place at right or wrong time, depending on your perspective on eternal salvation. The French Jesuit would soon be expelled from the country but he was able to minister to his young charge in prison and accompany him to the execution grounds.

The soldiers surrounded him; they had put me out of their circle, but the captain allowed me to enter and stand beside him. He was thus on his knees on the ground, his eyes raised to the sky, his mouth still open, and pronouncing the name of Jesus. A soldier coming from behind pierced him with his spear which came out his front by the distance of at least two palms’ breadth; when the good André looked at me peacefully, as if saying goodbye; I told him to look at the sky, where he was going to enter. Our Lord Jesus Christ was waiting for him. He lifted up his eyes and did not turn them aside; the same soldier, having withdrawn his spear, transfixed him a second time, seeking the heart. This scarcely shook the poor innocent, which seemed to me quite admirable. Finally, another soldier seeing these blows had not knocked him down to the ground, attempted a death-stroke against his neck, but still not having killed him, he assailed him again at his throat. I heard very clearly that at the same time as the head was separated from the neck, the sacred name of Jesus which could no longer come out of his mouth, came out through his wound, and at the same time that the soul flew to the sky the body fell to the ground.

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1559: Spanish Protestants at Valladolid

Add comment May 21st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1559, an auto de fe in Valladolid marked the onset of an Inquisition purge of nascent Lutheranism in Spain.

Now you’d expect to find the Spanish Inquisition policing spiritual disloyalties of the realm’s backsliding Jewish and Muslim conversos

… but of course the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition had a broad remit to defend orthodoxy and considering that Spain is still a predominantly Catholic country they’d be entitled to point at the scoreboard.

In 1558, it caught wind of an actual Lutheran movements, heretofore rarely seen on the peninsula — and as Joseph Perez notes, it alarmingly penetrated clerical and aristocratic circles. “A blast of hysteria struck Castile. Suspects filled the prisons, where there was soon no room for newcomers. Nor were there enough inquisitors to conduct the trials. Others had to be brought in from Cuenca and Murcia … It proved necessary to provide special protection for the detainees, to prevent them being lynched by the infuriated populace.”

A series of autos collectively comprising scores of defendants unfolded over 1559-1560, beginning in Valladolid — where the Lutheran cadre seemingly numbered close to 100 literate and influential souls.

Underscoring how deeply this heretical sect reached into the Spanish state’s heart, the star attraction among the 14 Protestants burned that day was Augustino de Cazalla, a chaplain to Emperor Charles V. Others joining him included:

  • Two siblings of Augustino de Cazalla: Francisco de Buiero [Vivero], a priest, and Beatriz de Buiero
  • Alfonso Perez, another priest
  • Juan Garcia, a goldsmith
  • Antonio Herrezuelo,** a lawyer
  • Christoforo de Ocampo de Zamoza
  • Christoforo de Padilla de Zamoza
  • Caterina Roman
  • Doña Caterina de Ortega, daughter of the Treasurer
  • Francisco de Herrera
  • Isabella de Strada de Pedrosa
  • Juana Velasquez de Pedrosa
  • Gonzalo Vaiz

The Lutheran crackdown was only getting started. As our chronicler Joseph Perez observes, “On 24 September, over 100 individuals were sentenced in Seville; twenty-one received the death penalty. Among them was a son of the count of Bailen, first cousin to the duke of Arcos. Here too, one man was burnt alive for having remained true to his convictions to the end. On 8 October, Philip II presided over the second auto da fe of Valladolid in the course of which fourteen individuals were sentenced to death, among them Carlos de Seso, who was burnt alive for persisting in his errors. Then, on 22 December 1560, another auto da fe took place in Seville: seventeen of the accused were sent to the stake, three of them in effigy, one of whom was Doctor Constantino Ponce de la Fuente.”

* The whole family received the fury of the Inquisition: two other siblings caught non-capital sentences, an the already-deceased mother Doña Leonora de Buiero was exhumed for burning along with the living heretics. Not only that, the family house was razed and a marker disgracing the family was erected in its place.

** Herrezuelo’s wife, Leonor de Cisneros, recanted to avoid the stake but the resulting reproach from her martyr-husband stung her so deeply that she followed his fate in 1568. Herrezuelo was the militant of the crowd: all of the other 13 disavowed their errors to obtain the mercy of strangulation prior to incineration; Herrezuelo died gloriously obstinate, suffering burning alive to spite his persecutors.

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1527: Hans Hergot, immovable type

Add comment May 20th, 2020 Headsman

Nuremberg printer Hans Hergot was beheaded in Leipzig on this date in 1527.*

He’d previously published work of revolutionary Thomas Müntzer and he proved his simpatico with that fellow’s millenarian vision by publishing his own tract, Von der newen Wandlung Eynes Christlichen (The New Transformation of Christian Living). It was for this utopian sedition that Hergot lost his life, and no wonder.

The vision is of an egalitarian, agrarian society organized on a parochial basis in which goods are held in common for the use of all, habitation is after the Carthusian pattern, farming and crafts operate harmoniously, and every invidious ground and sign of social distinction has disappeared …

The enemies of Hergot’s revelation on whom he pronounces God’s imminent wrath are the ruling nobility and the Lutheran “scripture wizards” who theologically collude with them, the unjust acquitting the unjust …

It is precisely the eclecticism of Hergot’s prophetic voice that underlies its importance. For it suggests how a far-flung outburst of enthusiasm for divine or evangelical law, as opposed to corrupt and compromised human ordinances, was a connecting thread among myriad reforming orientations int he early sixteenth century — humanist, Lutheran, mystical, and apocalyptic — all of which intersected with the German Peasants’ War and the development of Anabaptism and other strands of Christian social radicalism.

From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought

There’s a “Hans Hergot Tower” in the Saxon town of Uelzen.

* Overshadowed, on the Reformation martyrology, by Anabaptist Michael Sattler, who burned at Rottenburg on the same date.

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Feast Day of James, the brother of Jesus

Add comment May 3rd, 2020 Headsman

Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.

Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten.

Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days.

Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth.

Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter.

Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you.

Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.

Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.

James 5:1-8

May 3 is the current Catholic feast date of the author of the Epistle of JamesJames, the brother of Jesus, also known as James the Just.

He’s a major leader in the New Testament accounts of the primitive church, closely associated with the traditionalist Jewish side of the movement, wont to give precedence to Mosaic law and ritual — a contrast compared to the Gentile-evangelizer St. Paul. James, however, also appears in Acts of the Apostles as a principal decider of the circa CE 50 Council of Jerusalem edict to the effect that non-Jewish converts to Christianity would not be required to circumcise or observe Jewish dietary strictures.

This James has been debatably conflated at times with the Apostle James, son of Alphaeus and/or James the Less* — as in this passage from the Golden Legend:

James the Apostle is said the Less, how well that was the elder of age than was St. James the More. He was called also the brother of our Lord, because I have resembled much well our Lord in body, in visage, and of manner. He was called James the Just for his right great holiness. He was also called James the son of Alpheus. He sang in Jerusalem the first mass that ever was there, and he was first bishop of Jerusalem.

These associations are all matters of scholarly debate, for the name “James” appears repeatedly in the New Testament, and the contexts do not always make it obvious when one encounters a recurring character. No matter how many other faces we might attribute to him, James the first century Jerusalem patriarch was clearly a figure of great authority among the earliest Christians and a co-leader of the Jerusalem Church. His consanguinity with the Messiah cannot have hurt his cause.

There are various accounts given of his martyrdom in 62 or 69** CE which boil down to falling foul of the Jewish authorities, just like his brother. Importantly, he’s referenced by the ancient historian Josephus in a passage from The Antiquities of the Jews that not only casts light upon his death but provides a contemporary non-Christian source verifying the development of this sect. The setup begins with the ascent of a young and aggressive high priest named Ananus, who

was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrim without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.

Given his importance, James finds his way into quite a few extra-canonical Christian texts as well; for example, there’s an apocryphal Gospel of James dating to the second century. Of particular interest to we connoisseurs of death are gnostic texts from papyri discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt titled the First and Second Apocalypse of James: the Second Apocalypse has an account of James’s martyrdom, very detailed in spite of the fragmentary text, after his preaching in Jerusalem troubled the Jews:

On that day all the people and the crowd were disturbed, and they showed that they had not been persuaded. And he arose and went forth speaking in this manner. And he entered (again) on that same day and spoke a few hours. And I was with the priests and revealed nothing of the relationship, since all of them were saying with one voice, ‘Come, let us stone the Just One.’ And they arose, saying, ‘Yes, let us kill this man, that he may be taken from our midst. For he will be of no use to us.’

And they were there and found him standing beside the columns of the temple beside the mighty corner stone. And they decided to throw him down from the height, and they cast him down. And they […] they […]. They seized him and struck him as they dragged him upon the ground. They stretched him out and placed a stone on his abdomen. They all placed their feet on him, saying ‘You have erred!’

Again they raised him up, since he was alive, and made him dig a hole. They made him stand in it. After having covered him up to his abdomen, they stoned him in this manner.

And he stretched out his hands and said this prayer – not that (one) which it is his custom to say:

My God and my father,
who saved me from this dead hope,
who made me alive through a mystery of what he wills,

Do not let these days of this world be prolonged for me,
but the day of your light […] remains
in […] salvation.

Deliver me from this place of sojourn!
Do not let your grace be left behind in me,
but may your grace become pure!

Save me from an evil death!
Bring me from a tomb alive, because your grace –
love — is alive in me to accomplish a work of fullness!

Save me from sinful flesh,
because I trusted in you with all my strength,
because you are the life of the life!

Save me from a humiliating enemy!
Do not give me into the hand of a judge who is severe with sin!
Forgive me all my debts of the days (of my life)!

Because I am alive in you, your grace is alive in me.
I have renounced everyone, but you I have confessed.
Save me from evil affliction!

But now is the time and the hour.
O Holy Spirit, send me salvation […] the light […]
the light […] in a power […].’

After he spoke, he fell silent … [text ends]

* Saint James the Great was definitely a different fellow.

** The proximity of this martyrdom to the Jewish-Roman War (66-73 CE) led some subsequent ancient writers — not Josephus himself — to cite it as a cause of the great Roman Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, which famously destroyed the Second Temple.

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Feast Day of Saint Octavian, martyred by the Arian Vandals

2 comments March 22nd, 2020 Headsman

March 22 is the feast day of Saint Octavian of Carthage — a martyr for orthodox Nicene Christianity to its rival tradition of Arianism.

Ninth century illustration of Constantine burning Arian writings

One of the most consequential of the ancient world’s many confusing christological ruptures, the Arian controversy arose in the fourth century when the bishoppriest Arius of Alexandria preached that Christ was a subordinate entity to God the father — distinct from what is now the mainline trinitarian Christian position that God the father and Christ the son are equal and consubstantial divinities. The Arian position enjoyed substantial support, and it was largely to resolve this controversy that the Emperor Constantine convened the Nicene Council to define the church’s official line.

Nicene Christianity ruled Arianism heretical which the emperor — concerned above all to enforce uniformity within his realm — backed up with book-burnings and anathemas. But the doctrine proved tough to extinguish, waxing and waning in the ensuing decades and often finding a sympathetic ear among Constantine’s own successors.

And crucially, while all this was shaking out, it was Arian missionaries who converted the Germanic tribes fringing the empire’s borders — Goths, Gepids, Burgundians, and (crucial for this post) Vandals — and made Gothic Christianity a carrier of of the Arian contagion long after it had been suppressed within the Latin and Greek worlds.

Come the fifth century, the Vandals had established a kingdom in Carthage on the North African coast, stretching to Sicily and Sardinia and harrying in the Mediterranean the failing Roman state. These polities, however rivalrous, were brother-nations within Christendom — except that the Vandals were still Arians, a gulf that could easily be worth a martyr’s crown.

That’s where our man Octavian comes in. As the (Nicene) archdeacon of Carthage, he was inherently exposed any time the civil authorities might feel like making an example. The Vandal king Hun(n)eric, inheriting the throne of the Vandal Kingdom in 477 from the legendary Genseric, had this feeling exactly; he’s notorious for unleashing an anti-Nicene persecution. Besides Octavian, that persecution also claimed Saints Victorian and Frumentius, who are commemorated on March 23 of the Roman martyrology.

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851: Saints Flora and Maria of Cordoba, militants

1 comment November 24th, 2019 Headsman

November 24, 851 was distinguished by the beheadings of Saints Flora and Maria of Cordoba.

These Christian denizens of Muslim Spain embraced their own martyrdoms by purposefully denouncing Islam before a Qadi. In Flora’s case, she qualified as an apostate by virtue of her Muslim father.

While in Cordoban prison being entreated by Islamic scholars to reconsider their path, they were admonished to militancy by another inmate, St. Eulogius, himself a future martyr in a like cause. Citing the example of courageous Biblical heroes like Esther, Elogius’s Exhortation to Martyrdom calls on the virgins not to shrink in the face of of their impending tribulations, even if they were to be threatened with rape.

Unfortunately we don’t have the voice of Flora and Maria, even at second-hand. Their actions certainly announce that they like Eulogius were not ecumenical where Islam was concerned. As Charles Tieszen notes in Christian Identity amid Islam in Medieval Spain Eulogius’s language in his confrontational epistle is determinedly martial, with much about arming oneself for battle with the enemy while calling Muhammad

“forerunner of the … possessed man, servant of Satan, full of lies and son of death and perpetual ruin.” Eulogius goes further, coupling his criticism of Islam and its Prophet with a condemnation of the wider Cordovan Christian community (nostra ecclesia), which in his opinion, approved of Islam by its silence. Accordingly, Flora and Maria must not recant upon their previous insults of Muhammad when they faced the qadi again. If they did, their recantations were to be equated with telling outright lies.

Likewise, any retreat by Flora and Maria was to be equated with Christians who remained silent when it came to passing judgment on Islam. In the end, Flora and Maria could do nothing but uphold their public decrials of Muhammad, for if they “… den[ied] having cursed their prophet, [they] will be cursed; and if [they] have not rejected what the Lord rejects, [they] will be guilty of double sin … And surely whomever we do not curse, on the contrary we bless, and whoever we do not reject, we admit in our fellowship as if we were befriending him.” Threats like these, as we have noted, were commonplace in martyrologies, especially texts that exhorted Christians to stay the course towards martyrdom. In the context of Muslim Cordova, it is difficult not to read the threats as a means for equating recanters with the enemy.

Eulogius lamented those Christians that so willingly accepted the presence of Muslims, their leadership, and their customs:

But we wretches, delighting in [Muslims’] crimes, rightfully condemn ourselves by the prophecies of the psalmist who says: “but they mingled with the gentiles and learned their works, they served their idols, and a scandal took place among them.” Oh, what agony, that we consider it a pleasure to be submitted to gentiles and we do not oppose carrying our yoke with the unfaithful. And thus, in our daily business, we participate in their sacrileges and desire their company more than, according to the example of Lot the patriarch, fleeing the territory of Sodom in order to save ourselves in the mountains.

The mid-9th century was an apogee of such militancy with a number of martyrs into the bargain … but the Christian community of Cordoba nevertheless remained submitted to the gentiles (pleasurably or otherwise) until 1236.

If a ready translation of the prelate’s text into English exists online I have not located it; flex your classical learning and peruse Documentum martyriale in Latin here or (adjacent a Danish translation) here.

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Entry Filed under: Al-Andalus,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Spain,Women

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1675: Boyarina Morozova, Old Believer

2 comments November 2nd, 2019 Headsman

Boyarina Feodosia Morozova starved to death in the early hours past midnight on the night of November 1-2, 1675.

This wealthy “Old Believer” noblewoman (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) is one of art history’s most famous religious dissidents thanks to Vasily Surikov‘s iconic painting of her being hauled away by the authorities, defiantly making the outlawed two-fingered sign of the cross.

This was big game hunted by Orthodoxy’s controversial reform movement: Boyarina Morozova’s brother-in-law was Boris Morozov, who during Tsar Alexei‘s minority had wielded the power behind the throne; her confessor was the protopope Avvakum Petrov, whose eventual martyrdom at the stake in 1682 rates an appearance on the Executed Today playing cards.

But her writ of privilege had long since run out, for she had been arrested and tortured back in 1671 together with her sister Evdokia Urusova and a fellow-travelling friend, Boyarina Maria Danilova. (This is the event captured by Surikov’s painting.) Perhaps her position saved her from outright execution — which all-grown-up Tsar Alexei reportedly contemplated — but not from being done to death by the state.

After all three women were arrested and so dramatically dragged away, they were locked up in the cellars of a small-town monastery where their guards were eventually ordered to permit them to waste away by deprivation.

Her movement did not carry its contest for religious primacy and was violently persecuted for many years thereafter, but Old Believers still exist to this day — thought to number about one to two million worldwide. As of the 20th century, Old Believers are longer anathema to mainline Orthodoxy, and a fearless martyr such as Boyarina Morozova cannot but inspire respect no matter how many fingers you use to make the blessing. She’s still well-known in Russia and is the subject of a 2006 choral opera.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Famous,God,History,Martyrs,Nobility,Power,Religious Figures,Russia,Starved,Torture,Women

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