Saturday, 10 October 2015

Saint Dimitri the Myrrh Gusher – Michelle Lovric

 When you look up the hours of your local ufficio postale in Italy, the website will tell you which date it is closed annually for its particular saint’s feast day. Each post office has its own patron saint, so you had better know your local santo patrono and plan against sending anything urgent off on his or her birthday.

Probably somewhere in Italy, there is a post office for Saint Dimitri, in whom I recently developed a passionate interest. By coincidence, his feast day in the Roman Catholic Church is October 8th, my own birthday.

But my current interest in Saint Dimitri started with this painting on Ebay.

It caught my attention, as it was from Serbia, as is one half of me. (In the Serbian Orthodox Church, Dimitri’s feast day is November 8th).

I loved the prancingness of the horse, the gentle naivety of the saint and the vileness of the villain Saint Dimitri is impaling. It reminded me of the way that another militant saint, George, always skewers the dragon. Indeed the two are sometimes paired in art, and both were patron saints of the crusades.

Saint Dimitri (or Dimitrios, or Demetrios) was born to wealthy Christian parents in Thessaloniki in around 270 A.D. He rose to high office in the army, but he fell foul of the persecutions of Diocletian. Convicted of preaching Christian doctrine, he was speared to death in around 306A.D.
Lyaeos vanquished

In some depictions, like this one, he is shown on a dark horse spearing the gladiator Lyaeos, a fearsome killer of many Christians. Another version of this story is that Dimitri successfully prayed for a young Christian, Nestor, to defeat Lyaeos in single combat. Dimitri was betrayed, and so ended up martyred himself.

His servant Lupus was also beheaded when he used relics of his master – a signet ring and a bloodstained tunic – to perform various miracles.

The body of Dimitri itself was interred by Christian followers and in the seventh century his tomb began to secrete copious flows of fragrant myrrh, which is how he acquired his Orthodox epithet Mirovlitis, the Myrrh Gusher

But his spirit continued to protect his native city of Thessaloniki with miraculous interventions to beat off attackers and besiegers in the form of Slavs, Arabs and Saracens.

I sent the picture to my father, who was born in Belgrade, to ask him what he thought.

My father Vladimir is an eminent haematologist, a lover of music, a great fisherman and the man who gave me a taste for black humour and the fiction gene. We still talk about books several times a week, and it was he who sent me to writers I would otherwise not have found such as Simon Rich and Ned Beauman. And I gave him the heads up on Sandra Newman and Donna Tartt.

 I also turn to my father for forensic assistance when I need to murder someone (in a novel).

And he’s of course all good value for anything Balkan.
With Saint Dimitri, my father was enormously helpful, problematizing the painting in a way that made it even more attractive for me. ‘As you know,’ he emailed, ‘the painting is dated 1899. However, the script, whilst Cyrillic, is not in the current phonetic script that was introduced into Serbia in about 1840 by Vuk (the wolf) Karadzic. The script is in the old Serbian Cyrillic (close to current Russian script), so that I have difficulties in understanding all details, other than it was painted by a Lazar Tchoich (I have anglicised the surname).’

My father and I concluded that this was a faithful copy of a much earlier icon.

What is the value of a copy? If the painting is faithful to the extent that it retains the charm and freshness of the original, and is painted by the hand of an artist – is it not a worthy work? Can an anachronism not be a thing of beauty, when it traps disparate fragments of cultural history like the wings of different vintages of bees and flies in amber?

Of course the work of painting icons is in itself a sacred practice, and this is why an icon from 1899 can easily look like one from 1599.

The more time I spent thinking about Saint Dimitri, the more I wanted him.

And so, Reader, as you can guess, I acquired him, and he sits well among my collection of mutilated polychrome saints.

 Even the cat likes him.

Michelle Lovric's website


Marie-Louise Jensen said...

How fantastic that you get to own the picture of your favourite saint :)

Caroline Lawrence said...

I LOVE Italian saints! Thanks for this delicious one, Michelle.

Ann Turnbull said...

I was relieved to hear that it was just his tomb that gushed myrrh, and not the saint himself.

Lovely post, Michelle. And adorable cat.

Joan Lennon said...

He is tied to your heart in so many ways - it's perfect that he should live with you!

michelle lovric said...

Ann, in fact there were a number of saints who were supposed to gush myrrh or at least fragrant bones from their incorruptible bodies. #

My father's sister, Mira Crouch, has added this further information:

The significant thing is, as a patron saint's day in Serbia, Dimitri's Day - "Mitrovdan" - has been the prerogative of only the best families whose names and origins go back to the old military aristocracy that was involved in the uprisings against the Turks. In this 400-year-old process Mitrovdan - St Dimitiri's Day - had great significance as it marked the start of the descent of the guerilla fighters from the mountains into "safe houses" in select villages for the winter - just as "Djurdjevdan" - St George's Day in the Spring - marked their move back into the forested mountains there to continue their warfare. On both days special church services were held across all Serbia, often at the peril of the people attending them.

It is also worth mentioning that Dimitri was tortured to death and this why he is referred to as the Great Saint.

Leslie Wilson said...

I have always wondered about this particular saint, and the origin of the name in Slav, though I realised it probably was a version of Demetrius. I agree with you about copies - actually, aren't they better, if good, than reproductions, because they have the 3-dimensional qualities of the original, impossible to reproduce on paper? I'm thinking - apropos the myrhh-gushing, of the odour of decay that emanated from the body of the saintly father, Zossima, in The Brothers Karamazov; the very opposite of what you describe. I wonder whether the myrhh-gushing was a simple case of fraud, or whether it was a physical phenomenon, in the way that some bodies were preserved because of the dryness of the place they were bestowed. Or maybe it really was a miracle? Certainly it is a beautiful poetic idea that expresses what people felt about him.
The story about the uprisings is fascinating.