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Christopher Walter

St Demetrius

From The Warrior Saints in Byzantine Art and Tradition, published by Ashgate, England 2003.

3. Demetrius the "myroblytos"

The practice of pouring oil into a sarcophagus containing the relics of one or more saints, which was then taken away in flasks by pilgrims, was common in the first centuries after Constantine, notably in Syria.

However, the tradition also existed that the relics of certain saints exuded a fragrant liquid, which had apotropaic and therapeutic properties. Demetrius, from an uncertain date,(54) probably not earlier than the eleventh century, but certainly continuously up at least to the Turkish conquest of Thessaloniki, had this characteristic. To what extent the flow of his myron, which descended through pipes into basins in the refurbished hagiasma, was miraculous and to what extent the phenomenon was facilitated by human intervention cannot be determined. However, the testimonies to the flow of myron are numerous. According to a Jacobite Synaxary,

Every day a perfumed oil flows, which heals those who accept it with faith, particularly on the feast of St Demetrius. That day, in fact, it flows more copiously than others, even from the walls and columns of the church. The people in great numbers wipe it from the walls and put this oil in flasks. This miracle will endure until the end of time. Virtuous priests who have seen this have spoken of it and given witness to it.(55)

The miracle was not, in fact, destined to endure until the end of time. When the Turks blocked up the hagiasma and converted the church into a mosque, the flow of myron ceased.

Meanwhile, however, the myron of St Demetrius had acquired tremendous notoriety. It was substituted for the usual oil in ecclesiastical rites;(56) soldiers smeared themselves with his myron before going into battle;(57) it promoted a market among the wealthy for precious sumptuary works, notably encolpia, to contain it. A number of these have survived, often not only adorned with portraits of St Demetrius and other saints, but also with inscriptions;(58) Manuel Philes - and, no doubt, other poets - composed epigrams for these pious objects.(59) However, the extension of the cult of the saint's myron was also probably at the origin of the production of considerable numbers of smaller personal objects. Curiously, few icons, in the strict sense, of Demetrius have survived. There is, certainly, the unique gold icon of St Demetrius in the Guelph Treasure, which David Buckton would date between the late twelfth and the second half of the thirteenth century. The Saint, on horseback, wears armour and carries a lance. He is, consequently, represented as a typical warrior saint.(60) The saint was rarely represented alone on other surviving artefacts, only once on an ivory, that in the Cloisters Collection, where he is set in a deep frame, stylized in high relief. What is important for us is that he is in military dress, with a sheathed sword, a shield and a spear (of which the end is broken). His ears are prominent and he is beardless. In other respects he does not conform to a standard portrait type.(61) Steatites, on which Demetrius figures alone, are, however, more numerous.(62) They were, no doubt, relatively expensive. But even the relatively poor could probably afford to buy a moulded glass cameo. The British Museum owns four such cameos, all made from the same mould. On them a bust of Demetrius is represented in armour with a shield and spear.(63)

A final group of artefacts has been left till last for two reasons. One is that, with two exceptions, they are not decorated with a representation of Demetrius as a warrior saint. A second reason is that the more important of these two exceptions, the Vatopedi reliquary, will be best treated in the following section. A. Grabar's study of these reliquaries is basic.(64) For the Moscow reliquary, it is also the best which we have. This reliquary can be dated exactly by the portraits of Constantine X Doukas (1059-67) and his empress Eudokia Makrembolitissa. It was certainly, from the inscription, destined to contain the Saint's myrοn. The absence of his portrait renders plausible Grabar's opinion that the Lavra reliquary, upon which he is represented, originally formed part of it. Whether or not this (octagonal) reliquary was directly modelled on the Thessaloniki (hexagonal) ciborium or on another ciborium in Constantinople, as Theotoka argued, this latter would have only been an intermediary.(65) For the present study this is unimportant; the presence of Nestor and Lupus in military dress as janitors is much more relevant.

The importance of the cult of the myron of St Demetrius for promoting the production of artefacts decorated with his portrait has, hopefully, been demonstrated. The use of his myron for protection in battle is clear from inscriptions on reliquaries. This favoured his representation as a warrior. However, this was not the only factor in favour of his military status. There was another, at least as important, which will introduce the next section.


54. At least ever since Cornelius de Bye, AA SS, ed. cit. (n. 4), Commentarius praevius, p. 74 = PG 116, 1137, the earliest reference to Demetrius as a myroblytos has been taken for granted to be that in the account by John Kaminiates of the capture of Thessaloniki in 904, De excidio Thessalonicensi, 3, Bonn, supplement to Theophanes Continuatus, p. 490, line 17. A modern edition exists: loannis Caminiatae, De expugnatione Thessaloniki, ed. G. Böhlig, Berlin/New York, 1973, p. 5; German translation, Eadem, Die Einnahme Thessalonikes durch die Araber, Graz, 1975, p. 17. See also her n. 4, pp. 116-17. Böhlig did not doubt the authenticity of her author's text, unlike A. Kazhdan, 'Some Questions Addressed to Scholars Who Believe in the Authenticity of Kaminiates' Capture of Thessaloniki', BZ 71, 1978, pp. 301-14; see also Idem, 'Kaminiates John', ODB II, 1098-9. He considered that the text was probably a 15th-century pastiche. He did not cite the reference to Demetrius as a myroblytos, which would, however, to my mind, have strengthened his case. It is most unlikely that there should be this unique reference to the phenomenon of the myron in the text of an early 10th-century(?) author. Plenty of later testimonies exist: J.F. Boissonade, Anecdota graeca II, p. 150; John Cantacuzenus, Historia I, Bonn 1828,I 53, p. 270, lines 11-12, II, Bonn 1831, III 9, p. 66, lines 10-11; John Staurakios, Λόγος εἰς τὰ Θαύματα τοῦ Ἁγίου Δημητρίου (BUG, 522), ed. Joachim of Iviron, Μακεδονικά 1,1940, pp. 373-6, § 37 (mid-12th century); Demetrius Chrysolora, To ἐγκόμιον τοῦ Δημητρίου Χρυσολωρὰ εἰς τον ἅγιον Δημήτριον (BHG, 545) ed. B. Laourdas, Γρηγόριος ὁ Παλαμάς 40, 1957, pp. 343-51, with scholion τὸ μύρον, p. 353. And, of course, the epigrams of Manuel Philes (c. 1275-1345), vid. infra (n. 59).

55. O. Tafrali, Thessalonique au XlVe siècle, Paris, 1913, p. 138, n. 1, cited after Bibliotheca Orientalis I, 3, Paris, 1903, pp. 376-7.

56. It was complained that in Thessaloniki St Demetrius was more revered than Christ, Acta et diplomata graeca medii aevi, ed. F. Miklosich and J. Müller, I, Vienna, 1860, no. 77 (sine anno) p. 175. It was also complained in 1361 that chrism from the relics of Sts Demetrius and Barbarus was substituted for the holy baptismal chrism, ibid., no. 186, dated 1355, p. 441. On the 'political' importance of St Demetrius' myron, vid. R. Macrides, 'Subversion and Loyalty in the Cult of St. Demetrios', Byzantinoslavica 51, 1990, pp. 194-7.

57. Similarly inscriptions on reliquaries in the British Museum, Byzantium Treasures, no. 200, p. 185, and at Halberstadt, E. Hermes, Der Dom zu Halberstadt, seine Geschichte und seine Schütze, Halberstadt, 1896, p. 100. A. Frolow, 'Un nouveau reliquaire byzantin', Revue des grecques 66, 1953, p. 105, n. 3, considered that such phrases were not to be taken literally. However, according to Skylitzes, on one occasion when the Bulgarians were besieging Thessaloniki, the garrison prayed all night by the Saint's tomb (ciborium?). Then they anointed themselves with his myron, went into battle and defeated the enemy. A young horseman leading the Greek army was seen by Bulgarians who had been taken prisoner, Skylitzes, Synopsis historiarum, ed. I. Thurn, Berlin, 1973, pp. 412-14 = Cedrenus, Historiarum compendium II, Bonn, 1839, p. 532.

58. Hermes, op. cit. (n. 57), pp. 100-1; A. Grabar, 'Quelques reliquaires de saint Demetrius et le martyrium du saint à Salonique', DOP 5,1950, pp. 1-28; idem, 'Un nouveau reliquaire de saint Démétrius', DOP 8, 1954, pp. 305-13. This last encolpion is decorated with representations of saints Sergius and Bacchus in court dress besides the bust of Demetrius in armour holding a spear. According to one of the inscriptions, 'the faith of Sergius brings the venerable container of the blood and myron of Demetrius'.

59. Frolow, art. cit. (n. 57), pp. 100-10, and lists a series of epigrams composed for encolpia, other reliquaries and icons by Manuel Philes, often with an explicit reference to myron. A word exists for such containers: μυραλίη. Manuel Philes, Carmina, ed. E. Miller, Paris, 1855-57, reprinted Amsterdam, 1967. Two sets of epigrams are long and biographical. With one of these we shall be shortly concerned. The following verses nos 270, 271: 'The bosom of the despot is the city of Thessalonika, because on it lies Demetrius in a golden tomb ... The container is of gold and, moreover, exudes myron, because the illustrious martyr Demetrius is within', figured on an encolpion made for Demetrius Palaeologus, Despot of Thessalonika from about 1322 to 1340. For the Menologium which he commissioned, containing a developed biographical cycle for St Demetrius, via. inf. (n. 66).

60. D. Buckton, 'The Gold Icon of St Demetrios', Der Welfenschatz und sein Umkreis, ed. J. Ehlers and D. Kötzche, Mainz, 1998, pp. 277-85. Apart from the mosaic icon at Sassoferrato, vid, infra (nn. 102, 103), I know of no other Byzantine icon, on which he is represented alone. Sotiriou, Icônes, reproduces two, in which, dressed as a warrior, he accompanies other military saints: I, fig. 69, II, pp. 83-5, no doubt with Sts Theodore and George, dated about 1100, and I, fig. 211, II, pp. 189-90, with St George, both in military dress and armed with spears, dated to the mid-14th century. The central figure, wearing a maniakion in I, fig. 47, II, p. 64, is not, to my mind, Demetrius but Procopius. The earliest other icon known to me of St Demetrius alone is the magnificent figure on horseback, dating from about 1600, in the Antibouniotissas Museum, Corfou, P. Vocotopoulos, Εἰκόνες τῆς Κέρκυρας, Athens, 1990, no. 69, pp. 99-100, fig. 49.

61. He figures, with other warrior saints, on the three celebrated 10th-century triptychs (plate 44b), but not wearing military dress. P.N. Papageorgiou published an 'ivory' icon of the saint in military dress holding a spear, bow and arrow, at that time in the collection of Zisis Sarropoulos, 'Ἀρχαία εἰκὼν ἁγίου Δημητρίου τοῦ πολιούχου Θεσσαλονίκη' ἐπὶ ἐλεφαντοστέου', ΒΖ Ι, 1892, pp. 479-87. In fact, the object was not carved from 'elephant tusk' but from steatite as Elizabeth Zachariadou has also observed, 'Les nouvelles armes de St Dèmètrius', Εὐψυχία II, Paris, 1998, p. 689. She suggests that the fact that St Demetrius holds a bow and three arrows is a sign that the icon was made for a Turkish Moslem converted to Christianity. After changing hands more than once, it is now in the Louvre, via. infra (n. 62). That leaves us with one individual ivory of Demetrius (which may have, in fact, originally been one of a series), that in the Cloisters Collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York, Glory of Byzantium, no. 81, pp. 134-5.

62. Steatite had largely replaced ivory in the late Byzantine period. It was used for the portrait of Demetrius, in military dress with a spear, bow and arrows, on a luxurious icon formerly in the collection of the Marquis de Ganay, but in the Louvre since 1989. Ιts most recent publication is in Byzance, no. 324, pp. 435-6, with bibliography, including I. Kalavrezou-Maxeiner, Byzantine Icons in Steatite, Vienna, 1985, no. 127. This author lists several other steatites of Demetrius alone in military dress: no. 10 (location unknown), llth century; no. 11, Louvre, with shield and sword, 11th century; no. 12, Cherson, with shield and sword; no. 124, Kremlin, Moscow, a celebrated steatite of Demetrius on horseback, with drawn sword, vid. A. Banck, Byzantine Art in the Collections of the Soviet Museums, Leningrad, 1985, figs 262, 263, p. 319; no. 130, Louvre, vid. Byzance, no. 326, p. 436, Splendeur de Byzance, St. 7, p. 127. Cormack remarked that for the features of Demetrius there was no stable iconography. Kalavrezou-Maxeiner wrote that he was represented with prominent ears. It may be observed that this is often, but not invariably, true.

63. Byzantium Treasures, no. 204b, pp. 189-90.

64. A. Grabar, 'Quelques reliquaires de saint Demetrius et le martyrium du saint à Salonique', DOP 5, 1950, pp. 1-28. He listed: no. 1, the Vatopedi reliquary, pp. 3-6, figs 1-5, via. infra, nos 2-4, the Halberstadt reliquaries, pp. 6-7, figs 6-14, on none of which is Demetrius portrayed as a warrior; no. 5, the Lavra reliquary, pp. 7-16, which Grabar opined to have originally belonged to the Moscow reliquary (no. 7), via. supra (n. 21); A. Orlandos, ‘Ἀνάγλυφον κιβωτίδιον της Μ. Λαύρας', Ἀρχείον τῶν βυζαντινῶν Μνημείων τῆς Ἑλλάδος 8, 1995-96, pp. 100-4, no. 6, the British Museum reliquary, pp 16-18, fig. 17; no. 7, the Moscow patriarchate reliquary, pp. 18-28, figs 19-22, via. A. Bank, Byzantine Art in the Collections of Soviet Museums, Leningrad, 1977, p. 308, figs 203-4 (but no reproduction of Nestor and Lupus), Iskusstvo Vizantii v Sobranijah SSSR 2, Moscow, no. 547 (with only one poor photograph of the emperor and empress), The Glory of Byzantium, no. 36, pp. 77-8 (entry by I. Kalavrezou). To these add the reliquary at Dumbarton Oaks, on which Demetrius is represented armed with a spear, A. Grabar, 'Un nouveau reliquaire de saint Demetrius', DOP 8,1954, pp. 305-13, fig. 35; vid. M.C. Ross, Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Medieval Antiquities II, Washington, 1965, no. 160, pp. 111-12, figs Ixxiv-Ixxv.

65. Via. supra (n. 21). Other Byzantinists regard Theotoka's hypothesis with scepticism.

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