Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Brothers by affection: Saints Polyeuct and Nearchus

Saints Polyeuct and Nearchus
By Brother Robert Lentz, OFM. © 1995, trinitystores.com

Saints Polyeuct and Nearchus were Roman soldiers in 3rd-century Armenia and “brothers by affection.” They are a prime example of same-sex lovers in the early church. Polyeuct’s feast day is Feb. 13.

The earliest account of Polyeuct’s martyrdom, a 4th-century Armenian biography, says that they were “brothers, not by birth, but by affection” and enjoyed “the closest possible relationship, being both comrades and fellow soldiers.”

St. Polyeuctus (Wikimedia Commons)
Nearchus was Christian, but Polyeuct was not. The men had a strong desire to spend eternity together, so Polyeuct converted from paganism to Christianity, the faith of his beloved Nearchus. With a convert’s zeal he attacked a pagan procession.  He was beheaded for his crime in the year 259 in the western Armenian city of Militene. Shortly before he was executed, he spoke his last words to Nearchus: “Remember our secret vow.” Thus Polyeuct is known as a protector of vows and avenger of broken promises, in addition to his role as a probable “gay saint.”

Yale history professor John Boswell names Polyeuct and Nearchus as one of the three primary pairs of same-sex lovers in the early church. (The others are Perpetua and Felicity and Sergius and Bacchus.) The love story of Polyeuct and Nearchus is told with extensive historical detail in two books, “Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe” by Boswell and “Passionate Holiness” by Dennis O’Neill. He is founder of the Living Circle, the interfaith LGBT spirituality center that commissioned the above icon of the loving same-sex pair.

The icon is by Brother Robert Lentz, a Franciscan friar and world-class iconographer known for his innovative icons. It is one of 10 Lentz icons that sparked a major controversy in 2005. Critics accused Lentz of glorifying sin and creating propaganda for a progressive sociopolitical agenda, and he temporarily gave away the copyright for the controversial images to his distributor, Trinity Stores.

Polyeuctus and Nearchus by Jim Ru
Artist Jim Ru was also inspired to paint Polyeuct and Nearchus. His version was displayed in his show “Transcendent Faith: Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered Saints” in Bisbee Arizona in the 1990s.

O’Neill reports that French writer Robert Dartois recently took the story of Polyeuct and Nearchus from “Passionate Holiness” and turned it into a libretto, which was then set by the Swiss composer Thierry Chatelain as the oratorio “Polyeucte et Nearchus.”

There are many variations in the spellings of their names, such as Polyeuctus, Polyeuctes, Polyeuktos and Nearchos and Nearch. Polyeuct’s feast day is Feb.13 in the Catholic calendar, but falls on Jan. 9 in the Eastern Orthodox tradition and Jan. 7 in ancient Armenian calendars. The feast day for Nearchus is April 22.

Related links:

Saints Polyeuct and Nearchos, 3rd Century Lovers and Martyrs (Queer Saints and Martyrs -- And Others)

Homosexuality and Tradition: Polyeuct and Nearchus (Pharsea's World)

Hermanos de afecto: Santos Polieucto y Nearco (Santos Queer)

This post is part of the GLBT Saints series at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints and holy people of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

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Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts


Icons of Polyeuct and Nearchus and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at Trinity Stores


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