On our walks we pass and visit many Byzantine chapels, churches and monasteries so a little information about the saints who name they carry provides added interest. I have mainly used the Greek names (spellings vary) and when confusing the Latin name. There are numerous accounts of the Saints’ lives so I hope what you will read has some authenticity. For more information check out the following websites – we.oca.org and goarch.org. For a concise knowledgeable history of Byzantium I enjoyed the highly readable book by Judith Herrin, Byzantium The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire.
Here are a few saints who are patrons of some of the churches we will see.
AGIOS DIMITRIS (Demitrius)
This popular saint was born to a Roman military commander in Thessalonika in 270AD and when his father died, Emperor Maximian appointed him in his fathers’ place. Maximian was one of the Tetrarchy, rule of four Roman emperors, comprising Diocletian, Maximian with their co emperors, Galerius and Constantius (father of Constantine the Great). Dimitris was a commander at the time of the great Diocletian persecutions (303-311). Persecutions were far more severe in the Eastern Empire although from 305 a series of edicts restored legal rights and property to Christians. Instead of persecuting Christians as ordered by Emperor Maximian (the western emperor), Dimitris urged the Christians to resist, hold the faith and endure their persecution. He also converted many pagans. Dimitris was summoned before the emperor when he confessed to his Christian faith and disgust for idolatry thereby openly criticising the emperor himself, considered a demi-god. Dimitris was imprisoned in a cell to await his death. Whilst in prayer he was visited by his disciple Nester (also a saint) who was to be taken to the arena to be killed by a renown and feared gladiator, Lyaios. He asked Dimitris for his blessing to slay Lyaios which he did after which Nester was beheaded.
Meanwhile, Dimitris whilst in prayer was speared to death by Roman soldiers (306AD). His body and Nester’s were buried under Roman baths in Thessalonika, his relics miraculously producing healing myrrh. Agios Dimitris became venerated as the patron of shepherds, peasants and agriculture in the Greek countryside in the Middle Ages and was accredited with saving Thessalonika – he is the city’s patron saint. The Russians regard him as the protector of Siberia.
Agios Dimitris festival day is 26th October and Agios Nester the following day, 27th.
This saint started life as a member of the Praetorian Guard, an elite group of soldiers serving under Emperor Diocletian who was a fervent persecutor of Christians. Georgios was said to be of Greek descent from Cappadocia or Syria or Palestine (depending upon which account you read) born between between 275-285AD.
When Emperor Diocletian embarked on his persecutions, Georgios retired from the army, freed his slaves, gave away his fortune and went to plead the the Christians’ case before the emperor. On his journey, legend has it that he encountered the dragon of Beirut that terrorised the countryside placated only by sacrifices of children below 15 years of age chosen by lottery. As Georgios was passing he met the king’s daughter being led to the dragon’s cave who told him of her fate. He killed the dragon and so amazed by this miracle was the king and his subjects that they converted to Christianity. Hence the legend of Georgios and the dragon rescuing a damsel in distress, Georgios epitomising the western concept of medieval chivalry, especially venerated by the crusaders who brought their loyalty to the saint back to the West with them. The images we see of Georgios slaying the dragon is symbolic of triumph over paganism.
Onward Georgios travelled to meet the Emperor to appeal on behalf of the Christians. He was unsuccessful instead imprisoned and tortured by a huge stone being placed his chest yet he refused to denounce his religion and was beheaded in April 303.
Georgios is the protector of Greek infantry and soldiers, the Greek Orthodox Church commemorating him on 23rd April (28th in the West)
IANNIS PRODOMOS (John the Baptist)
In Greek he is also known as Ioannis O Prodrom (Saint John the Forerunner) referring to his preparing the way for Jesus. Iannis was born six months before Jesus, his parents Zachariah and Elizabeth (Mary’s cousin) also a made a saint. The couple had no children. Elizabeth was visited by Angel Gabriel who told her that she would have a son who she should name John who was chosen by God to prepare the way for Jesus. John later roamed the wilderness and preached the message of God. Jesus on hearing of John’s reputation sought him out and it was John who baptised Jesus in the River Jordon.
His death is famous – manipulated by her mother, Salome danced before her step father, Herrod who was so enchanted that he promised she could have anything she wished whereupon her mother told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist.
His feast day is celebrated on 7th January.
AGIOS IANNAKIS (Saint John)
Iannakis was one of two disciples of John the Baptist, the second his brother James who went on to be disciples of Jesus witnessing his transfiguration and close to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is said John wrote the Fourth Gospel. He died Rome after suffering terrible torture.
KIMISIS TIS THEOTOKOU / KOIMIOS THEOTOKOU
This means the dormition of our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary. Theotokou commemorates the falling asleep of the Theotokos (the god bearer) and her bodily resurrection before being taken up to heaven. The dormition expresses the belief and signifies the Theotokos’ death without suffering in a state of spiritual peace, her move from temporal life to eternity.
The Virgin Mary was visited by an angel three days before her death telling her to prepare for her burial. On death bed the Virgin Mary prayed for the world and blessed the apostles who were at her bedside. They brought her body to the Holy Sepulchre where the angles from heaven chanted with them. It was here that a man, with malicious intent, stretched his hand upon the bed where Virgin Mary was lying leading to divine intervention severing the man’s hands by an invisible blow. The man repented whereupon his hands were miraculously restored. This scene is frequently depicted in churches in the Mani.
The dormition is celebrated on 15th August after two weeks fasting.
AGIOS KONSTANTINOS (Constantine)
Konstantinos was born in Naissus, Upper Moesia , now Serbia Montenegro to a Roman general, Constantius and Helena, the daughter of an innkeeper who was later canonised as Saint Helena. Eleni is the Greek name. When Emperor Maximian abdicated, Constantius was proclaimed emperor and upon his death in York, England in 306AD, his son Konstantinos was proclaimed emperor (306-337AD). During his reign he promoted Christianity that became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, convening the Council of Nicaea (325AD) that marked the Roman empires’ unofficial sponsorship of Christianity hastening its spread.
Konstantinos’ move to Christianity occurred famously before the Battle of Milvian Bridge(321AD) where he had a vision in which God directed him to fight under the Christian standard (another account that he saw a cross in the sky). He commanded his troops to adorn their shields with a Christian symbol and went on to win the battle defeating Co-emperor, Maxentius. He only converted shortly before his death although Helena was a practicing Christian for some time.
He founded New Rome, Constantinople (Byzantium), that survived until it’s sack by the Ottoman army in 1453. Constantinople was Greek speaking and under Konstantinos and his successors developed a highly sophisticated empire that lasted for over a thousand years.
His mother in her eighties made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and typically of that time sought out the true cross, there being many fake relics at the times – John the Baptist has many heads and hands. Helena was offered three crosses all supposedly true. She ordered slithers from each to be provided, offered them as a cure to a sick woman one only having miraculous properties. That cross is said to have been found 100 feet east of Golgotha (Calvary) that was subsequently incorporated into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The holding of this relic was a factor leading to Jerusalem being elevated to the same patriarchal status to Rome, Antioch and Alexandria. Constantinople was elevated at the same time as being the the capital of the Roman Empire.
Konstantinos’ feast day is celebrated on 21st May,
AGIOS NIKOLAOS (Nicholas)
Born in Lycia to supposedly infertile parents, already at birth was revered for performing miracles, his mother immediately healing from a birth related illness. As a baby he was said to stand on his feet and he began fasting on Wednesdays and Thursdays refusing to accept his mother’s milk.
There are many legends surrounding Nikolaos. One is he saved a ship from the Devil on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land calming the waves that had been stirred up by the Devil. He gave away his money and was renowned for carrying out acts of kindness such as depositing gold coins to a father who was, through proverty, about to prostitute his three daughters thus saving them from a terrible sin. He is also a patron of children. Legend has it three of his pupils went missing and when Nikolaos found them murdered cut up pickled ready to eat, he brought the boys back to life. His kindness, gift giving and association with children links him to the western Santa Clause.
After visiting the Holy Land, Nikolaos retreated into the desert and then entered the Monastery of the Holy Sion but he was told by the Lord to go out into the world. He was later made the Bishop of Myra, Lycia. It was here that he saved the city from famine persuading captains of cargo ships to offload their produce promising them that by the time they are arrived at Alexandria, their destination, the cargo would be restored- it miraculously was.
Nikolaos was imprisoned by Emperor Diocletian (284-305) during the persecutions when he exhorted fellow Christians to endure their torture and not give up his faith. In return, the Lord saved Nikolaos who decades later died in his sleep.
Agios Nikoloas is the patron saint of travellers and prayers offered for deliverance from poverty and floods – just about any misfortune.
AGIOS PANTALEON (Panteleimon)
This saint was born to a rich pagan, Eustorgius of Nicomedia and a Christian mother, Eubula (later canonised). He rejected Christianity, studied medicine becoming the physician of Emperor Maximian ( some accounts say Emperor Galerius) but was converted back to Christianity by Saint Hermolaus who proved to him that Christ was the better physician. Pantaleon freed his slaves and distributed his wealth amongst the poor. In 305AD he was denounced during the Diocletian persecutions, Emperor Maximian wanting to save him but Pantaleon openly confessed his faith with the inevitable result. His legendary death involve hideous tortures including fire and boiling lead yet he remained unscathed. His executioners attempted to behead him but could not, the sword bending away from Pantaleon’s neck. He implored heaven to forgive his persecutors, hence the name Panteleímon, mercy for everyone or all compassionate. He was only when Pantaleon himself permitted his beheading that the executioner could do so milk pouring from his wound instead of blood.
Agios Pantaleon’s feast day is 27th July.
AGIA PANAYIA / PANAGHIA (St Mary)
This is one of the titles for Mary, mother of Jesus, holiest of all humans and of higher status than the saints.
Panagia is also a term of a type of icon, Theotokos whereby the Virgin Mary in full length faces the viewer arms spread open in the “Orans” position (elbows close to the sides of the body with hands outstretched sideways palms up) with a medallion on her chest showing the image of Christ as a child, symbolising Jesus in the womb at the moment of incarnation. This type of icon is also called a platytere “more spacious than the heavens”.
AGIOS PETROS (Peter)
One of the 12 apostles also known as Simon Peter, Simeon or Simon was a fisherman from Galilee and renamed Peter by Jesus. He was present at the Passion and after the Resurrection became the first Patriarch of Antioch and made a journey to Corinth (north Peloponnese) onto Rome where Emperor Nero condemned to death by crucificton. Petros requesting he die upside down as he felt he was unworthy to die upright as Jesus had.
His feast is celebrated on 29th June.
AGIA SOFIA (Sophia)
Agia Sofia was born in Italy, some say living in Rome, at the time of Emperor Hadrian (117-138AD). Before her husband died she had three daughters named after the biblical virtues Faith, Hope and Love. Sofia was a reputed holy woman filled with Devine wisdom and word spread also of the wisdom and beauty of her three daughters. Sofia and her daughters were summoned before Eparch Antiochus who upon learning they were Christians denounced them to Emperor Hadrian who brought the girls and their mother before him. At the time of their martyrdom Faith was age 12, Hope 10 and Love 9. The four prayed to the Lord for strength to bear the inevitable torture and not to fear death. Emperor Hadrian was impressed by the calm and wisdom of Sofia demanding the young girls denounce their faith, and make sacrifices to Artemis but they refused leading to their enduring one by one unspeakable torture (some accounts relaying how they miraculously survived) until they submitted to beheading by sword. After their deaths Sofia buried her daughters outside Rome and some accounts say she died only days afterwards, her martyrdom being that of a broken heart.
Agia Sofia is celebrated on 17th September.
AGIOS SPIRIDON (SPYRIDON)
Accounts vary but it is said Agios Spyridon, as he is typically know, was born in Cyprus in 270AD. He was a shepherd, married with a daughter, Irene, who was also later made a saint. He was reputed to be a kind charitable man distributing his produce to neighbours and the homeless in return for which the Lord rewarded him with the gift of performing miracles. After his wife died, he was made Bishop of Tremithus. During Emperor Maximian’s persecutions he was arrested and exiled.
He performed many miracles- making rain in times of drought, healing the sick, casting out demons and restoring life to a dead infant. He also restored Irene to life so she could tell her father where she had hidden jewellery given to her for safe keeping so it could be returned to the owner. Although accounts vary, during the reign of Emperor Constantine(306-337AD) he attended the Council of Nicaea where he reputably converted a philosopher to Orthodoxy by using a Potsherd to illustrate how one single entity could be composed of three distinct entities of fire, water and clay, a metaphor for the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The item of pottery (some accounts say a brick) miraculously burst into flames water spilling onto the floor leaving dust in his hands. It is this event that led to Agios Spyridon becoming the patron saint of potters. It was at the Council of Nicaea that he met Agios Nikolaos. Agios Spyridon also died peaceably apparently 348AD.
He is also the patron Saint of Corfu.
OTHER CHURCHES WE SEE
Church of Odigitraea (Church of Our Lady). This spectacular church is perched under the cliffs as we walk to Cape Tigani built in the 13th century. It is isolated and said to have been the home of monks and hermits in the caves surrounding it. A story relayed to me by an elderly Stavri resident was of how centuries ago the monks who lived in caves behind the church would alert Maniot pirates to passing Ottoman ships taking a cut of the plunder.
Church of Agios Stratigos, Ana Boulari was built in the 11th century in honour of the Archangel Michail.