25 August 2019

A palace in Corfu first
built 200 years ago for
honoured British diplomats

The Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George in Corfu was once home to a British order associated with ambassadors and diplomats (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Senior British diplomats are regularly decorated with the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George, which was founded on 28 April 1818 by the Prince Regent, later King George IV, while he was acting as regent for his father, King George III.

The three grades of membership carry different initials that have led to in-jokes about their meaning among British diplomats:

● Companion (CMG): Call me god;
● Knight Commander (KCMG) or Dame Commander (DCMG): Kindly call me god;
● Knight Grand Cross or Dame Grand Cross (GCMG): God calls me god.

The purpose of the order was to honour senior British officials in high positions in the Mediterranean territories Britain acquired from France in the Napoleonic Wars. Later, membership was extended to people holding similar posts in other British territories.

The order’s motto is Auspicium melioris ævi (‘Token of a better age’). Its patron saints are Saint Michael the Archangel and Saint George, patron saint of England. One of the symbols shows Saint Michael trampling down Satan.

The Prince Regent founded the order to mark British rule in the Ionian Islands, which came into British hands in 1814 and became the United States of the Ionian Islands in 1817. At first, the order was intended to reward ‘natives of the Ionian Islands and of the island of Malta and its dependencies, and for such other subjects of His Majesty as may hold high and confidential situations in the Mediterranean.’

The order’s original home was the Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George in Corfu, the residence of the Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands and the seat of the Ionian Senate.

The Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George in Corfu, between the old town of Corfu and the Venetian-era Old Fortress was commissioned 200 years ago by Sir Thomas Maitland as the residence of the British Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands. It was designed in the Greek revival style of neoclassical architecture by Colonel George Whitmore of the Royal Engineers and was built in 1819-1824.

The Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George in Corfu was the first building in the Greek Revival style of neoclassical architecture built on Greek territory (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George is also known as the Royal Palace or the City Palace. But to the people of Corfu it is simply the Palaia Anaktora (Παλαιά Ανάκτορα) or ‘Old Palace.’

The palace was the High Commissioner’s residence and the home of the Ionian Senate, but also as the home of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George. The foundation stone was laid on Saint George’s Day, 23 April 1819, and the palace was completed in 1824.

This was the first building in the Greek Revival style of neoclassical architecture built on Greek territory. It was built of limestone imported from Malta, and Maltese workers were employed in its construction. The sculptures in the palace are the work of the Maltese sculptors Vincenzo and Ferdinando Dimech, and the Corfiot sculptor Pavlos Prosalentis.

After Corfu and the Ionian Islands voted to join the modern Greek state in 1864, the palace was a Greek royal residence until World War II.

The palace survived the Italian bombardment of Corfu City during the ‘Corfu Incident’ in 1923. It suffered even greater damage when it was used as temporary housing for refugees from Epirus during the Greek Civil War (1946-1949).

The Greek state was only able to restore the palace interiors in 1954 with the help of a private trust organised by Sir Charles Peake, the then British Ambassador to Greece. Until 1967, the Greek king occasionally used the palace on state occasions while in residence at his nearby villa, Mon Repos.

A view of the harbour of Corfu from a palace balcony (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Today the palace houses the Museum of Asian Art of Corfu. The collection of the museum started in 1927 and consists mostly of donations, the largest being from Gregorios Manos with 10,500 pieces.

The two gateways flanking the palace are the Gate of Saint Michael and the Gate of Saint George. The state rooms consist of a grand staircase, a rotunda in the centre leading to two large rooms, the Throne Room and the state dining room. The Palace was renovated for the EU Summit meeting in 1994.

The palace gardens, complete with old Venetian stone aquariums, exotic trees and flowers, overlook the bay through old Venetian fortifications and turrets. The local sea baths are at the foot of the fortifications surrounding the gardens. The Art Café on the grounds has its own art gallery with exhibitions of local and international artists.

When the Greek monarchy was abolished after the fall of the colonels’ junta, the old Royal Gardens at the palace were renamed the ‘People’s Garden’ (Ο Κήπος του Λαού).

After Corfu and the Ionian Islands voted in 1864 to become part of Greece and the British protectorate ended, the basis of the order was revised in 1868. Membership was granted to those who ‘hold high and confidential offices within Her Majesty’s colonial possessions, and in reward for services rendered to the Crown in relation to the foreign affairs of the Empire.’

Since 1906, the order’s chapel has been in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London. New members are installed at religious services in the chapel, and the knights and dames have stalls in the choir of the chapel.

People are appointed to the order rather than awarded it. British Ambassadors are regularly appointed KCMG or CMG, and this is the traditional award for members of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The two gateways flanking the palace are named after Saint Michael and Saint George (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Church of Saint Spyridon,
the patron saint of Corfu, and
the island’s tallest bell tower

Inside the Church of Spyridon, the most prominent church in the heart of the old town of Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The most prominent church in the heart of the old town of Corfu is the Church of Saint Spyridon. The church was built in the 1580s to house the relics of Saint Spyridon, who, according to legends, has saved the island four times from Ottoman invasions.

Saint Spyridon was born in 270 AD in Assia, a village in Cyprus. When he was young, he was a poor and humble shepherd. He later married and had a daughter. After his wife’s death, his daughter entered a convent and he joined a monastery.

He studied and gained in wisdom and grace, performed many miracles and was considered a saint even before his death. Saint Spyridon also took part in the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325), countering the theological arguments of Arius and his followers.

He was the Bishop of Trimythous, near Larnaca in Cyprus, until he died in 348 AD. When the Arabs conquered Cyprus, his body was disinterred and taken to Constantinople. However, it was said, his body was incorrupt and a sprig of basil would sprout from the grave.

The tower of Saint Spyridon is the tallest on the Ionian islands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

After Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, the relics of Saint Spyridon and Saint Theodora Augusta were brought from Constantinople to Corfu by a Greek monk, Georgios Kalochairetis. He was also a person of wealth, and the relics were kept in his family as private property.

Later, when a daughter of the family, Asimia, married a son of the Voulgari family in Corfu, the saints’ remains became part of her dowry at her marriage, and the relics of Saint Spyridon were later housed in a private chapel in the San Rocco area of Corfu that was owned by the Voulgaris family.

The Voulgaris church was demolished when the outer city fortifications were built by the Venetians to protect the citadel after the first great siege of Corfu by the Ottoman Turks in 1537.

After the Voulgaris family church was demolished, the saint’s remains were moved to a new church that was built in the 1580s within the city fortifications in the Campiello district of the old town.

Saint Spyridon is buried in a double sarcophagus behind the icon screen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The church is located just behind the Liston. The design of the church is typical of the Venetian architecture found throughout the Old Town of Corfu. This is a single-nave basilica and the bell tower, the highest in the Ionian Islands, is similar in design to the contemporary Greek Orthodox church of San Giorgio dei Greci in Venice.

Inside the church, in a small chapel to the right of the iconostasis, the remains of Saint Spyridon are kept in a double sarcophagus. The larger of the two contains the smaller one in its interior and is wooden with silver leaf trim. The smaller sarcophagus is surfaced in red velvet and has a removable bottom to facilitate changing the slippers of the saint.

Because the church has no underground chamber, the small chapel was part of a deliberate design plan to make the relics as accessible as possible. In this small chapel, 53 incense burners hang from the ceiling; 18 of these are golden and the rest are made of silver.

The front of the marble iconostasis resembles the exterior of the entrance of a baroque-style church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The front of the marble iconostasis resembles the exterior of the entrance of a baroque-style church. The ceiling of the church is divided into segments depicting scenes from the life Saint Spyridon and his miracles.

The Venetian Senate offered a gilded silver lamp bearing the reliefs of Saint Spyridon and the lion of Saint Mark to commemorate miracles attributed to Saint Spyridon during the second great siege of Corfu in 1716. The lamp hangs at the west corner of the nave near the women’s quarters.

The inscription on the lamp reads: Ob servatam Corcyram divo Spvridioni tvtelari Senatvs Venetvs Anno MDCCXVI. This translates: ‘For the Salvation of Corfu, to the Patron Saint Spyridon, the Senate of Venice, 1716 AD.’

The largest lamp in the church is near the pulpit. This was offered to the saint by the Venetian High Admiral Andrea Pisani and the other Venetian leaders. The inscription reads: Divo Spvridioni tvtelari vtraqve classe protecta Andrea Pisani svpremo dvce vtrivsqve classis nobiles ex voto Anno MDCCXVII. This translates: ‘To the Patron Saint Spyridon for having protected the two fleets under the leadership of Andrea Pisani, Commander in Chief of the two fleets, the noblemen in votive offering, 1717 AD.’

The people of Corfu come to the church to have children baptised, engagement rings blessed, for weddings, and to pray and light candles every day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The ceiling was originally painted by Panagiotis Doxaras, who worked here in 1727. The work by Doxaras decayed over time, and they were replaced by later by copies painted by Nikolaos Aspiotis. The only remaining trace of Doxaras’s work is the gilded border of the iconography.

Above the west door of the narthex, the imperial coat of arms of the House of Romanov stands as a reminder that the church was under the nominal protection of Russia from 1807 until 1917. Nearby, a painting depicts Saint Spyridon touching the head of the Emperor Constantius II and curing him from illness.

As well as protecting Corfu during the Venetian presence, he is also said to have protected Corfu when it was occupied by the French, Russians, British, Italians and Germans.

Spyridon, or Spyros, is a common name across the island. The people of Corfu come to this church to have their children baptised, their engagement rings blessed, for weddings, and to pray and light candles every day. His remains are carried around the town of Corfu four times a year to celebrate his miracles: Palm Sunday, Good Friday, 11 August, and the first Sunday in November. His feast day is celebrated on 12 December.

Visitor information:

The church opens at 6.30, Matins begin at 7.30 from Monday to Saturday and at 7 on Sundays. The Divine Liturgy begins at 8.30, Mondays to Saturdays and it ends at 9.30 and at 10.30 on Sundays. Saint Spyridon’s relic can be venerated every day after the Divine Liturgy until 1 pm and in the afternoon at 17.00 until the beginning of Vespers.

Vespers begin at 18.00 in October, November and February until March, at 17.30 in December and January and at 19.00 from April until September.

The church closes 30-60 minutes after the end of the Vespers from October to March. From June to September, it closes at 20.30 and in August at 21.30 to 22.30.

Visit the church website HERE.

The Church of Saint Spyridon is open every day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)