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Christopher Walter

St Demetrius

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

4. The cult of St Demetrius among Greeks and Slavs

The cycle on the Vatopedi reliquary comprises seven scenes:
1. Demetrius at prayer;
2. he kills a scorpion with the sign of the Cross;
3. Nestor, in military dress, visits him in prison;
4. Nestor, again in military dress, kills Lyaeus;
5. martyrdom of Demetrius;
6. Demetrius heals Marianus;
7. Demetrius, with a long spear, drives marauders away from Thessaloniki (plate 49).

Only in this last scene does he wear military dress and hold a shield.(66) It is this scene which is of interest at present. Can its significance be defined more precisely? In other words, is it a symbolical presentation of the Saint as the defender of Thessaloniki, or does it portray a specific event? Unfortunately the inscription is no help, for it only gives the name of the Saint.

Several - but not many - cycles are known for St Demetrius, and they have been at least partially published. There was, apparently, a mosaic outside the church at Thessaloniki, commemorating the cure of Marianus, but its precise subject is obscure; in any case, it was an isolated picture, not part of a cycle.(67) The earliest surviving scenes of a Demetrius cycle are to be found in the Theodore Psalter, London Add. 19352, f. 125v, dated 1066.(68) Here, as often, Nestor's victory over Lyaeus seems to predominate, while Demetrius is represented at prayer and not in military dress. As I observed earlier, this perfectly fitted one of the dominating themes of the Psalter's illustrations, the efficacy of prayer.(69) It also invites the conjecture that the Passion of St Demetrius was constructed around a pre-existent Passion of Nestor. But of this more later. For the present, it is only necessary to note that in the Theodore Psalter Demetrius was not represented as a military saint.

The same is true in the Menologium made for Demetrius Palaeologus, Despot of Thessaloniki from about 1322 to 1340, Oxford, Bodley gr. th. f.1, f. 54v-f.55.(70) It includes six scenes, apart from a conventional portrait of the Saint in court dress holding a martyr's cross:

1. Demetrius before Maximian;
2. Nestor visits Demetrius in prison;
3. Nestor triumphs over Lyaeus;
4. Nestor (not in military dress) is executed;
5. the martyrdom of Demetrius;
6. the entombment of Demetrius.

In none of these scenes does Demetrius - or, for that matter, Nestor -wear military dress.

In the thirteenth-century church of St Demetrius at Mistra, there are really two cycles intermingled, one for the Saint and the other for Nestor. They comprise ten scenes:

1. Demetrius teaching;
2. Demetrius in prison;
3. Demetrius before Maximian;
4. Nestor (apparently in military dress) visits Demetrius in prison;
5. Nestor fighting Lyaeus;
6. Nestor, in armour with spear and sword, triumphs over Lyaeus;
7. Nestor before Maximian;
8. execution of Nestor;
9. martyrdom of Demetrius;
10. entοmbment of Demetrius.

Again, in none of these scenes, is Demetrius represented as a military saint.(71)

The St Demetrius cycle in the Bogorodica Ljeviška, Prizren (c. 1310-13) is situated in an upper chapel.(72)

The cycle at Dečani has also been competently published.(73) It contains the following scenes:

1. Demetrius gives alms;
2. Demetrius at prayer;
3. Demetrius blesses Nestor;
4. Nestor kills Lyaeus;
5. execution of Nestor, for the first time in military dress;
6. martyrdom of Demetrius (in very poor condition);
7. Marianus seeks to be healed;
8. Demetrius saves Thessaloniki from starvation;(74)
9. Demetrius props up a falling tower at Thessaloniki (here, for the first time, he wears military dress);
10. Demetrius wards off marauders from Thessaloniki (again in military dress);
11. the vision of angels of an illustrios and Demetrius' refusal to abandon Thessaloniki during the siege;(75)
12. Demetrius, in military dress on horseback, spears and unhorses the Bulgarian vojvod Kalojan, as the accompanying inscription explains.

This is an extraordinarily rich cycle. It betrays not only a knοwledge of the literary sources but also of other Demetrius cycles, notably those in which the history of Nestor is predominant. Its iconography borrows from the cycles of other saints. All this helps to formulate, with a measure of certitude, some points about the iconography - and hence prevalent conceptions in the hagiography -of the Saint. It has already been noted that he was venerated - and represented- above all as a martyr. His forte may have been his power of intercession (his representation in prayer, as well as blessing Nestor before his combat, recurs). He performed prodigies for individuals who were citizens of Thessaloniki or who proceeded to his shrine from elsewhere. However, he was also the protector of Thessaloniki, and, given that in the Dečani cycle two related scenes occur, in one of which the Saint is fending off marauders from the city and in the other of which he is specifically killing the vojvod Kalojan, it is possible to affirm that the scene of Demetrius fending off marauders from the walls of Thessaloniki was, at least at the beginning, symbolical. When he killed Kalojan, he was normally represented on horseback, although, perhaps, the two scenes were sometimes confused.(76)

Ιn fact, of course, St Demetrius did not kill Kalojan! The true historical facts are well-known. The Bulgarian vojvod Kalojan (Skalojan -Dog John- to the Greeks), after a successful campaign, in alliance with the Greeks, against the Latins, and a victory at Adrianople, set out to revenge the crimes of the Greeks against the Bulgarians. Basil II had adopted the title of Boulgaroktonos. Kalojan adapted this to Romanoktonos. After a bloody campaign in Thrace and Northern Macedonia, he set siege to Thessaloniki. Alas for him, he was assassinated by another Bulgarian vojvod Manastras, it seems with the collusion of his spouse.(77)

One readily understands that the vojvod Manastras preferred the credit for the assassination to be attributed to St Demetrius. Nevertheless the complicity of a Bulgarian may help to explain why St Demetrius, the protector of Thessaloniki, was also accepted as a protector by the Slavs. The iconography of St Demetrius killing Kalojan at Dečani belongs to a tradition which has a long history behind it.(78) A theme used for Sts Theodore and George was extended to Demetrius. Of this there will be questions later.(79) For the moment it suffices to note that this iconographical presentation of Demetrius, apparently already attested at Krokeai (Laconia), first figured in his cycle in a Slav church, that is at Dečani. It suggests that the Slavs readily accepted this way of presenting St Demetrius, even if, in fact, they knew that Kalojan had been assassinated by a Slav vojvod.(80) Moreover this iconographical type served, more, it seems, than that of Demetrius defending Thessaloniki, for numerous representations of the Saint in Balkan countries, throughout the period of Turkish domination.

It was the military St Demetrius, the protector of cities and churches, who particularly appealed to the Slavs. For this, plenty of evidence exists. The Saint's cult in medieval Serbia came from Thessaloniki, not from Sr(ij)emska Mitrovica. Churches were dedicated to him, the earliest, probably, that at Prilep (c. 1283).(81) There were others at Davidovica (1281-90),(82) Ohrid (third quarter of the fourteenth century),(83) Peć (1345)(84) and Markov monastery (1376-81).(85) Several Demetrius cycles exist in Serbian churches, in an upper chapel in the Bogorodica Ljeviska (1310-13);(86) in St Demetrius, Peć (c. 1345), where the Saint is portrayed driving marauders away from Thessaloniki;(87) in the church at Dečani as already mentioned;(88) at Markov monastery (1376-81), which was also dedicated to the Saint.(89)

One or other of these formulae -Demetrius, on horseback in military dress, spearing or unhorsing Kalojan- was to become a 'typical scene', frequently painted on the facade of churches, with Demetrius normally in the company of other warrior saints, George, a Theodore or Mercurius. This ensemble will be considered later. At present only Demetrius is being examined. He is represented spearing Kalojan on the facade of the church at Morača (1251-52),(90) and again similarly at Dragalevci, Bulgaria (dated 1476 by an inscription, but the paintings on the facade would be later).(91) On the facade of the church at Temska, Serbia, the Saint is unhorsing Kalojan.(92)

It may seem surprising -even paradoxical- that Slavs, particularly the Bulgarians, should have adopted and rendered an increasingly fervent cult to the Saint who was reputed to have killed their vojvod. D. Obolensky offers an explanation.(93) First, the cult of St Demetrius was propagated among the Slavs by Sts Cyril and Methodius, as well as by their successor Clement of Ohrid. A canon for his feast day in Old Church Slavonic, probably composed by Methodius before his death in 886, has no Greek original. It is preserved in the Meneia of 1096. Obolensky quotes an anecdote, for which no Greek model has been found either. It concerns a pagan chieftain who unsuccessfully besieged Thessaloniki but took two maidens captive. He said to them: Ί hear that you have a great god called Demetrius who works many miracles. Embroider me his likeness on an image, so that I may venerate him and defeat my enemies.' However, things did not work out quite as the chieftain had hoped. During the night, the Saint whisked back the maidens to his shrine in Thessaloniki, together with the image which they had made.(94) Nevertheless, it illustrates the attitude of Slavs towards Demetrius, who, they hoped, would bestow on them the same favours as he did on the citizens of Thessaloniki. One readily understands how, in Christian countries subjugated to Turkish Moslems, these representations of St Demetrius appealed to them, subtly but eloquently, for protection against their conquerors.


66. A. Xyngopoulos, 'Βυζαντινὸν κιβωτίδιον μετὰ παραστάσεων ἐκ τοῦ βίου τοῦ ἁγίου Δημητρίου', Ἀρχαιολογικὴ Ἐφημερὶς, 1936, pp. 104-36, plate 2 figs 1-5 (warmly commended by A. Grabar).

67. Lemerle, op. cit. (n. 2), I, pp. 56, 67, § 24.

68. Der Nersessian, pp. 46, 94, fig. 204.

69. Walter, art. cit. (n. 1), p. 172.

70. A. Xyngopoulos, «Ό εἰκονογραφικὸς κύκλος τῆς ζωῆς τοῦ Ἁγίου Δημητρίου, Thessaloniki, 1970; Hutter, Oxford II, pp. 1, 32-3,115, pl. 102-3.

71. G. Millet, Monuments de Mistra, Paris, 1910, plates 68-70, provide the essential documentation, because the frescoes have deteriorated considerably since he and his wife Sophie photographed or copied them by hand; S. Dufrenne, Les programmes iconographiques des églises byzantines de Mistra, Paris, 1970, pp. 7, 34, 37; M. Chatzidakis, 'Νεώτερα γιὰ τὴν ἱστορία καὶ τὴν τέχνη τῆς Μητρόπολης τοῦ Μιστρά', ΔΧΑΕ 9, 1977-79, pp. 162-3, figs 51, 52.

72. Djurić, Vizantijske freske, p. 49.

73 J. Radovanović, 'Heiliger Demetrius - Die Ikonographie seines Lebens auf den Fresken des Klosters Dečani', L'art de Thessalonique et des pays balkaniques et les courants spirituels XlVe siècle, Belgrade, 1987, pp. 75-88; S. Pajić, 'Ciklus sv. Dimitrija', Zidno slikarstvo manastira Dečana. Gradja i studije, ed. V. Djurić, Belgrade, 1995, pp. 353-60.

74. Lemerle, op. cit. supra (n. 2), I, pp. 100-3, Miracle no. 8, § 68-72.

75. An outstanding incident, ibid, I, pp. 157-65, but this is the only surviving representation of it.

76. The fact is that, at least at the beginning, Demetrius was not often represented on horseback. See, however, the representation of him killing Kalojan at Krokeia (Laconia), with an inscription dating the church to 1286, A. Philipiddes-Braat, 'Inventaires en vue d'un recueil des inscriptions historiques de Byzance, III Inscriptions du Peloponnèse, Τ Μ 9,1985, pp. 318-19, § 59. The paintings have been indifferently published by N. Drandakis, ' Ἀπὸ τὶς τοιχογραφίες τοῦ ἁγίου Δημητρίου Κροκεῶν (1286)', ΔΧΑΕ, 14, 1984, p. 213, with no mention of this important picture, to which Pamela Armstrong drew my attention.

77. The principal literary source is the Annales of G. Akropolites, Bonn, p. 26, where he recounts how Kalojan took on the name of 'Ρωμαιόκτονος, while the Greeks changed Kalojan's name into Σκυλοιώαννης; A. Vasiliev, Histoire de l'empire byzantin II (1081-1453), Paris, 1932, p. 181; I. Dujčev, 'Appunti di storia bizantino-bulgara', Medioevo bizantino-slavo I, Rome, 1965, pp. 215-16.

78. Walter, 'Intaglio of Solomon', pp. 35-42.

79. Vid. infra, pp. 127-9. Meanwhile, N. Theotoka, ‘Ὁ εἰκονογραφικός τύπος τοῦ Ἁγίου Δημητρίου στρατιωτικοῦ καὶ ἔφιππου καὶ οἱ σχετικές παραδόσεις τῶν θαυμάτων', Acts, Ninth Byzantine International Congress (Thessaloniki, 1953), Athens, 1955,1, pp. 477-83. She shows how both variants of Demetrius killing Kalojan persisted long in post-Byzantine tradition.

80. Τhus it is simplistic of Hoddinott, op. cit. supra (n. 29), p. viii, 61, to aver that St Demetrius was the Christian successor of the Cabiri and the Thracian Horseman. The Saint's antecedents are rather more complex, C. Walter, 'The Thracian Horseman: Ancestor of the Warrior Saints?', Byzantinische Forschungen 14,1989, pp. 659-73.

81. Djurić, Vizantijske freske, p 17.

82. Ibid., pp. 43-4.

83. Ibid., p. 90.

84. Ibid., p. 58.

85. Ibid., p. 80.

86. D. Panić and G. Babić, Bogorodica Ljeviška, Belgrade, 1975, pp. 68, 99, n. 47 (with no detailed information).

87. A. Stojaković, 'Quelques représentations de Salonique dans la peinture médiévale serbe', Χαριστήριον εἰς Ἀναστάσιον Ὀρλάνδον II, Athens, 1966, pp. 29-30, fig. 3.

88. Radovanović, art. cit. supra (n. 73), fig. 13, introducing a variant iconography with Demetrius unhorsing Kalojan. It has no literary parallel, so that it must be modelled on the scene of Mercurius unhorsing Julian the Apostate.

89. Djurić, pp. 80-3, 218-19, n. 105 (without much concrete information about the cycle).

90. Ibid., pp. 37, 194-5, n. 37. The paintings on the facade are, in fact, much later. V. Petkovic', Pregled crkvenih spomenika kroz posvenicu srpskog naroda, Belgrade, 1950, proposes the 16th or 17th century, p. 197 (date), p. 201, figs 596, 597 (the paintings of Demetrius and George).

91. A. Grabar, La peinture religieuse en Bulgarie, Paris, 1928, p. 291 (date of church from inscription, but the paintings on the outer facade were executed later), pp. 300-1. The inscription calls Kalojan Σ(Κ)ΑΛΟΙΑΝ! (Did the artist not understand Greek?); G. Subotić, Ohridska slikarstva skola XV. veka, Belgrade, 1980, pp. 129-30, fig. 101, pp. 132-3.

92. Petković, op. at. supra (n. 90), pp. 322-4 (16th or 17th century).

93. D. Obolensky, The Cult of St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki in the History of Byzantine- Slav Relations', Balkan Studies 15, 1974, pp. 3-22, reprinted, The Byzantine Inheritance of Eastern Europe IV, London, 1982. There is, in fact, a considerable literature on the subject, notably A. Papadopoulos, Ὁ ἅγιος Δημήτριος εἰς τὴν Ἑλληνικὴν καὶ Βουλγάρικην παράδοσιν, Thessaloniki, 1971; V. Tapkova-Zaimova, 'Le culte de saint Démétrius à Byzance et aux Balkans', Problèmes d'histoire et de culture, Miscellanea bulgarica 5, Vienna 1982, with further bibliography.

94. Cited by Obolensky after D.S. Iliadou, Ὁ ἅγιος Δημήτριος καὶ οἱ Σλάβοι', 8th International Byzantine Congress, Thessaloniki, 1953, Acts III, Athens, 1958, p. 134.

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