The traditional iconography of some of the “warrior” saints of the Orthodox Church has always disconcerted me a little. Saint Eustathios, Saint Minas, Saint George and Saint Dimitrios are invariably depicted in soldier’s armour, something that seems to fit uneasily with the pacifism of Christianity. In some of the nineteenth century, baroque inspired iconography, Saint Dimitrios, patron saint of Thessaloniki, is actually portrayed on a horse, in the process of sticking his spear into a man lying prone on the ground. This martial quality is emphasized in the apolytikion of the Saint, which at our Parish, being the parish of Saint Demetrios in Moonee Ponds, is chanted every week:
“The world has found you to be a great defense against tribulation
and a vanquisher of heathens, O Passion-bearer.
As you bolstered the courage of Nestor,
who then humbled the arrogance of Lyaios in battle,
Holy Demetrius, entreat Christ God to grant us great mercy.”
The apolytikion is not exaggerating when it suggests a global reach for the saint, for Saint Demetrios is one of the most popular saints of the Orthodox world, transcending ethnic and cultural boundaries. In Russian, he is called Dimitri of Saloniki and was a patron saint of the original Rurik dynasty from the late 11th century on. Izyaslav I of Kiev, whose Christian name was Dimitry, founded the first East Slavic monastery dedicated to Saint Demetrios and of course, the name Dimitri is in common use in Russia today. In Kosovo he is known as Shmitri, in Albania as Shën Mitri and in Lebanon and what is left of Syria, as Mar Dimitri or Mitri, a protector of the beleaguered Christians of the region.
From the Synaxarion of the Orthodox Church, we learn that Saint Demetrios came from a noble family in Macedonia and that he rose to a high military position under Maximian, Caesar of the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, reaching the rank of proconsul. When Maximian returned from one of his campaigns to Thessaloniki, which was his capital, he had games and sacrifices celebrated for his triumph. Saint Demetrios was denounced as a Christian, and thrown into prison. While in prison he was visited by a young Christian named Nestor, who asked him for a blessing to engage in single combat with the giant Lyaios, who was posing as the champion of paganism. Saint Demetrios gave his blessing and Nestor, against all odds, slew his opponent in the arena, as David had once defeated Goliath.
The enraged emperor, learning that this had occurred with Saint Demetrios's aid, first had Nestor beheaded outside the city and then had Saint Demetrios impaled in prison. Later Saint Demetrios’ servant Lupus was beheaded after using his master's blood-stained tunic and signet ring to work many miracles. The Thessalonian Christians buried Saint Demetrios and Nestor next together in the bath where he had been imprisoned. During the seventh century a miraculous flow of fragrant myrrh was found emanating from his tomb, giving rise to the appellation Myrovlitis, the Myrrh Gusher to his name. His tomb is now in the crypt of the great basilica dedicated to him, in Thessaloniki.
Extreme popularity for Saint Demetrios is first attested in the sixth century. It grew because of his miraculous interventions in defense of Thessaloniki during the many sieges it endured during the early Middle Ages, particularly by Slavic tribesmen who overran the Roman provinces of Hellas and Macedonia during the sixth through to the eighth centuries. It is for this reason, out of insecurity and fear, that the saint’s martial quality have been so emphasized and indeed, the final liberation of Thessaloniki in 1913 has also been attributed to him.
The very first pages of the Russian Primary Chronicle, on the other hand, maintain the saint’s marital qualities but present him as a punisher of the Greeks. The Chronicle relates that when Oleg the Wise threatened the Greeks at Constantinople in 907, the Greeks became terrified and said, “This is not Oleg, but rather St Demetrius sent upon us from God.” Russian soldiers always believed that they were under the special protection of the Saint, Demetrius, who was always depicted as Russian in icons displayed in Russian army barracks.
Yet in the teaching of the Church, it is the spiritual warfare in which he engaged, that makes him worthy of emulation and in this way, his depiction holding weapons can be reconciled as merely symbolic and not an exhortation to or a glorification of violence.
According to St. Gregory Palamas, Saint. Demetrios was graced with splendid prophetic power and was counted worthy of "the apostolic and teaching diaconate and a high position". He was full of virtues and was not inferior to the saints in asceticism "and in their radiance of life".
The warfare which St. Demetrios waged within his heart was “comparable to the warfare of the great ascetics. He kept his nous pure of any unseemly thought, protecting the immaculate Grace of holy Baptism, had a will that harmonised with God's law "like a book of God and a tablet and plaque engraved by God or a writing tablet written by the finger of God and placed before all for the common use". In this way St. Demetrios was “chaste in both body and soul. He had his citizenship in heaven and walked on an equal footing with the angels, having a body as well.
The patron saint of Thessaloniki was "both a teacher and an apostle, wise and chaste and holy, and we may say very beautiful and spotless, and made radiant by nature, zeal and grace".
For his encouragement of the young Nestor and his chastity, Saint Demetrius is thus regarded as a protector of the young, and is also traditionally invoked by those struggling with lustful temptations. Thus in his church in Thessaloniki, one of the only mosaics to have survived the Great Fire of 1917, depicts him as a young man, his arms draped protectively around the shoulders of two children.
Given Saint Demetrios’ significance for both the Orthodox Church and the Greek nation, it is not surprising that his feast of 26 October is an important event here in Melbourne, especially for those whose origins derive from Thessaloniki. This year, the significance of the feast is augmented for an event unprecedented in the history of Australian Orthodoxy has taken place: the parish of Saint Demetrios in Moonee Ponds has been granted the gift of a portion of the miraculous and myrrh-gushing relics of the Saint. In this way, all Orthodox Australians are able to feel and witness the immediacy of the Saint, when praying for his intercession, but also partake of a unique piece of history as well. In an age of hard-nosed economic rationalism, of materialism and of spin, the need to touch the ideal of the divine is felt as keenly as ever before. Whether one is called upon, as in the case of Iraq and Syrias’ Christians to compromise one’s faith in order to survive, or in the complacent world of western bourgeois capitalism, to compromise one’s principles and sense of decency, or to sacrifice to any modern day idols, the Orthodox hymns in honour of the saint are a lasting call to remain steadfast:
“Even though callous tyrants gave you over/ to be subjected to the most cruel and painful tortures,/ and thy much-suffering and steadfastly enduring body/ did undergo a multitude of various torments,/ you, O Godly-minded Demetrios,/ did not renounce Christ,/ neither did you offer sacrifice to idols,/ but endured all as if it were somebody else who suffered,/ awaiting future reward and the undying love of the Word of God.”
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 8 October 2014.