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Christopher Walter

St Demetrius

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

5. Conclusion

At the beginning of this entry on St Demetrius, the question was posed: in what points did he resemble and differ from other warrior saints? An examination of his dossier makes it clear that he was in no way, at least at the start of his career, a model warrior saint. In iconography he was invested with their attributes rather late. On the three celebrated ivory triptychs, for example,(95) dated to the tenth century, he figures with other members of the celestial army, but always in court dress as a martyr, not in military costume (plate 44b). On another archetypal picture, the triumphal front is piece to Basil II's Psalter Venice Marc, graec. 17, f. III (plate 64), he apparently holds some weapon,(96) but in the bust representation of him on the lower side of the rim of the panel of the military Archangel Michael in the Treasury of San Marco, Venice, dated to around the year 1000,(97) Demetrius has no military attribute.

Nevertheless, it is clear that, as the defender of Thessaloniki, he had long been participating, on the side of the Thessalonians, in their defence. Even if the relatively early texts -the Passions and Bishop John's Miracula- rarely make allusion to Demetrius' military status, those about Sts George and Theodore Tiron do prepare the way, an account of the reference in Demetrius' second Passion to his having undergone military training, for his assimilation to other members of the celestial army. In iconography, it is more evident that Demetrius assumed a universal military character after the cult of his myron had been established, and that, again, I would place relatively late, since I share Kazhdan's view that the text attributed to John Kaminiates was probably a fifteenth-century pastiche.(98) The thirteenth century seems the most likely date for Demetrius' definitive establishment as a military saint. Manuel Philes, who wrote so many epigrams for containers of Demetrius' myron, lived from about 1275 to 1345. Contemporary art historians, moreover, now tend to place these engraved objects no earlier than the thirteenth century.

Demetrius, therefore, did not do much to help form the Byzantine notion of a warrior saint; rather, this had already been shaped when it was applied to him. He then took to it readily. References to the apotropaic properties of his myron only become abundant in late Byzantine literature, even if the date of the earliest one remains open to discussion.

Consequently, to sum up, St Demetrius was above all, at least from the time that literary information was available, regarded as a saintly martyr whose principal task was to protect the city of Thessaloniki and its inhabitants. Of his antecedents as a citizen of Sirmium; we know virtually nothing.(99) Curiously, the Passions, while they reveal so little about him, do follow the conventional martyrdom sequence for Nestor. Demetrius only kills a scorpion by making the sign of the cross, in the second version, while Nestor kills a pagan gladiator in both versions! The hypothesis may therefore be maintained, but not proved, that the legend of Nestor's martyrdom is antecedent to that of Demetrius, whose function was to intercede for him.

It has been noted in passing that painted cycles for St Demetrius (plate 33), if not numerous, are more so than for other military saints apart from George. The scenes are mostly conventional and, no doubt, generally modelled on those of other saints. However, two scenes in Demetrius' cycle do stand out. One shows him driving off marauders from Thessaloniki. This can be classified as a generic representation of him defending the city of which he was protector. The other, where he spears, or unhorses, a single person, refers to an explicit (if legendary) event: Demetrius killing Kalojan.

For the rest, two icons must be singled out for comment. One has already been discussed above. In fact, it has been mentioned several times.(100) Elizabeth Zachariadou has observed -and, to my mind, rightly- that this steatite icon was made for a Turk converted to Christianity. It is not often remarked that Turkish Moslems, enlisted in the Byzantine army, did convert, and took the name of Demetrius. Zachariadou has called attention to the fact that, on this steatite icon, the Saint holds a bow with three arrows, a typically Turkish detail! Elsewhere, warrior saints often carry a bow, for example several of them at Dečani - but hardly ever three arrows. So Zachariadou's hypothesis is plausible.

The other icon which merits detailed study is that at Sassoferrato. I have already written about this icon, but superficially.(101) It is a composite object. First of all, it contains at the centre an unusually elegant portrait of St Demetrius in mosaic. Secondly, it carries an inscription, of which, as I had already noted, Lampe used an inaccurate copy. Thirdly, there was a place for a phial (now lost) of myron above the icon.(102)

The icon was transferred at some date from the collection of Niccolò Perotti (1429-80) to the Museo civico. How and when it arrived at Sassoferrato is not certain. However, conjecture is possible, and Maria Theocaris has undertaken it.(103) The icon would have accompanied the putative relics of St Demetrius to Sassoferrato. These were deposed in the nearby Abbey of San Lorenzo not later, according to the Abbey's records, than the early thirteenth century by the Normans who had sacked Thessaloniki.

This provides a suitable ending to a brief account of St Demetrius, in which the guiding line has been an examination of his military status. He conforms to the paradigm, in that he had -and still has- his own sanctuary. His Passions, however, as they have come down to us, are relatively late texts, later than the construction of his first sanctuary. His collections of Miracula (all posthumous) bear witness to the fact that, in the first centuries, his interest was almost exclusively in Thessaloniki and its citizens. This is one reason why his cult spread little and why there was relative tardiness in accepting him as a military saint. The emergence of the cult of his myron (which I place late) changed all this. Pilgrims came to his shrine from all over the Christian East. He then became a popular and universal saint. The apotropaic properties of his myron made him appeal to soldiers. It was also an aspect of his individuality.

Other military saints did not exude the myron, which led to the manufacture of numerous encolpia and other reliquaries such as exist for St Demetrius. Moreover, one forms the impressiοn that in private cults not only were those who commissioned them individualistic but also wished the objects to conform to their personal taste and idiosyncrasies.

Demetrius' feats in defending Thessaloniki and disposing of Kalojan, as Sts George, Sergius, the Theodores and Mercurius were reputed in their time to have disposed of other persecutors and enemies, established his reputation as a competent protector and defender, confirming his place in official iconography. He figures regularly, along with other members of the celestial army, in echelons of military saints, particularly on the walls of churches. As the Turkish menace became stronger, so his importance became greater. However, this does not explain why he became so enormously popular in Russia, where the Turkish menace was not great, nor why, in the West, he was virtually ignored. An answer to these two questions lies outside the scope of the present study.


95. Goldschmidt and Weitzmann, Elfenbeinskulpturen II, no. 31 (Palazzo di Venezia, Rome), no. 32a (Vatican Museums), no. 33 (Harbaville triptych, Louvre, Paris).

96. Vid. infra, p. 277.

97. The Treasury of San Marco, ed. D. Buckton, Milan, 1982, pp. 141-7, no. 12.

98. Vid. supra (n. 54).

99 M. Vickers, 'Sirmium or Thessaloniki? A Critical Examination of the St Demetrius Legend', BZ 67, 1974, pp. 337-50. Woods has recently advanced the ingenious hypothesis that the warrior Demetrius derives his military status, not from a metamorphosis of the deacon of Sirmium but from a Spanish martyr, St Emeterius, whose relics would have been translated to Thessaloniki during the reign of Theodosius I and whose name closely resembled that of Demetrius, vid. infra, xxxix.

100. Vid. supra, esp. nn. 61, 62.

101. Art. cit. supra (n. 1), p. 165, n. 29.

102. A. Vasiliev, 'The Historical Significance of the Mosaic of St Demetrius at Sassoferrato', DOP 5,1950, pp. 29-39, gives a full account of the icon (in his translation of the inscription about the myron, 'jar' is hardly an elegant synonym for 'phial'! ) See also Byzantine Art, Ninth Exhibition of the Council of Europe, Athens, 1964, no. 171, p. 238 (with illustration), bibliography, pp. 533--4.

103. M. Theocaris, 'Une icône en mosaique de St Démétrius et la découverte des reliques du saint en Italie', Πρακτικὰ τῆς Ἀκαδημίας Ἀθηνῶν 53,1979, pp. 508-26.

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