Type of Persecution

Nature of Conflict


Primary Sources

Ekphrasis (“Commentary”) on the Holy Martyr Euphemia

Historical Context

The martyrdom of Euphemia is traditionally believed to have occurred during the first year of The Great Persecution, a famous period of persecution from 303 to 313 primarily attributed to the Roman emperor Diocletian. Four imperial edicts were issued in 303 that actively sought out and opposed Christian structures and practice, targeting Christian leaders, holy texts, and other property. They ordered the destruction of churches and holy books and prohibited Christian services. The first edict is relevant to the Ekphrasis account of Euphemia’s martyrdom, because it also removed Christians’ legal rights. This effect can be seen in Euphemia’s “trial” prior to her death, which has no set format and includes haphazard decisions and cruel treatment.


The following derives from a late fourth century sermon by Asterius, bishop of Amasea.

Asterius describes how he came upon a painting detailing a scene from Euphemia’s death. This holy woman, he says, was chaste and pious, seeking out her own death during a time of zealous persecution. He says this is the Euphemia locals annually recognize with a festival and retelling of her death. She was steadfast in her struggle, as can be seen in the masterpiece near her tomb.

Asterius then describes what he sees in the painting. There is a judge hostilely looking at Euphemia, surround by armed guards. She is dressed in long, gray robes, “refined in appearance.” He explains how her figure embodies both modesty and strength—she bows, but stands firmly planted. One of her eyes shows anger, and the other shows motherly pity. Further along in the painting, “scantily clad” executioners are shown holding Euphemia down while one uses a hammer and borer to knock out her teeth. The painter shows drops of blood. Then Euphemia is depicted praying in prison, and a heavenly sign shows over her head. Asterius ends with a description of Euphemia standing in flames, rejoicing in her own martyrdom.


Very little is known about the life and death of Euphemia, and what is recorded is often contradictory. The Fasti Vindobonenses, a fourth through sixth century liturgical document, simply lists Euphemia’s martyrdom date—October 16th—among the events of Diocletian’s reign. Beyond the date, however, almost everything about Euphemia’s martyrdom remains uncertain, even the manner of her death. Much later tradition, recorded in The Golden Legend, describes a more gruesome demise by the sword after her subjection to the wheel, psychological torture, and lions. Despite the varying accounts, Euphemia became one of the most well-known eastern martyrs, and the basilica in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) that claimed to house her relics was a popular pilgrimage destination.

The Ekphrasis on the Holy Martyr Euphemia does offer valuable insight into the liturgical lives and martyrdom ideals of late antique Christians. The annual festival and priests’ speech recounting her martyrdom, both of which Asterius describes, demonstrate how martyrs in his time were commemorated. The Ekphrasis also illustrates how martyrs were visually remembered, for Asterius’ version of Euphemia’s martyrdom is actually an expansion on a painting the bishop claims to have seen in a local temple. Additionally, Asterius’ sermon reveals what early Christians believed to be valuable about martyrs, especially female martyrs: strength in the face of adversity, pain, chastity, and the dual virtues of feminine modesty and masculine bravery.

Euphemia is especially important within Christian history because of her relics’ role at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The Synaxarion (Liturgical Lectionary) of Constantinople records a miracle story involving Euphemia’s tomb. Bishops gathered at this council to decide on the much-disputed nature of Jesus Christ after the Resurrection—a single, synthesized nature both human and divine; or a dual nature, fully human and fully divine. According to the Synaxarion, the bishops placed two confessions of faith, one for each side of the debate, inside Euphemia’s tomb onto her chest. After three days, the bishops re-opened the tomb to find the dual nature view in her hands and the single nature view under her feet, signifying her acceptance of the dual nature. Euphemia’s miraculous intervention at the Council of Chalcedon changed the direction of Christian theology from that point forward.


Castelli, Elizabeth A. “Asterius of Amasea: Ekphrasis on the Holy Martyr Euphemia.” In Religions of Late Antiquity in Practice, edited by Richard Valantasis, 464-468. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Cobb, L. Stephanie. Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

Croix, G. E. M. De Ste. “Aspects of the ‘Great’ Persecution.” The Harvard Theological Review 47, no. 2 (April 1954), 75-113.

De Voragine, Jacobus. The Golden Legend. Translated by William Granger Ryan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Mango, Cyril. “The Relics of St. Euphemia and the Synaxarion of Constantinople.” In Studi in onore di mgr Paul Canart, edited by S. Luca and L. Perria; Bolletino della Badia Greca di Grottaferrata 53 (1999), 79-87.

Image Credit

By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons




“Euphemia,” Mapping the Martyrs, accessed September 21, 2020,