05 September 2019

Corfu Cathedral and its
stories of an empress and
an ecumenical patriarch

The Cathedral of the Virgin Spiliotissas and Saint Vlassis and Saint Theodora stands on a small square at the top of marble steps near the harbour of Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Many visitors to Corfu think the Church of Saint Spyridon is the city’s cathedral, and the relics of Saint Spyridon and the fame of its bell tower make it the most-visited church in Corfu.

However, Corfu also has its own cathedral that has served the Diocese of Corfu, Paxos and the Diapontian Islands since 1841 and that was built in 1577 on the site of a much earlier church.

The Cathedral of the Virgin Spiliotissas and Saint Vlassis and Saint Theodora stands on a small square at the top of marble steps looking out over the harbour of Corfu and across to the Ionian Sea. It is one of the many beautiful churches in the Old City, but is often difficult for visitors to find in the labyrinth of narrow streets and warren of side alleys.

Even then, the impressive marble stairway and the purple façade of the cathedral with a decorative sunburst surrounding the rose window are only appreciated by stepping out of the cathedral and down into Mitropolis Square to which it gives its name.

Looking out to the harbour and the Ionian Sea from the steps in front of the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Diocese of Corfu traces its history to two disciples of Saint Paul, Jason of Tarsus and Sosipatrus of Achaea (see (see Acts 17: 5-9 and Romans 16: 21). The Bishops of Corfu took part in ecumenical councils from 325 to 787, originally as suffragans of Nicopolis and later of Kephalonia.

The diocese was transferred from the oversight of Rome to the Patriarchate of Constantinople in the eighth century, became an archbishopric in the 10th century, and became a metropolitan see later in the 11th century.

After Corfu fell to a Western alliance of the Genoese, Venetians and Angevins in 1204, a Roman Catholic archbishopric was established on Corfu. Under Roman Catholic rule, the Orthodox people of Corfu were served by a head priest (protopapas), who were often in episcopal orders.

However, the Orthodox Diocese of Corfu was not restored until 1800, following the fall of Venice in 1797 and the formation of the Septinsular Republic.

Until the Ionian Islands were united the modern Greek state in 1864, the Diocese of Corfu remained under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Since then, it has been integrated into the Church of Greece.

Inside Corfu Cathedral … built in 1577 and a cathedral since 1841 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The cathedral was built as a church in 1577 on the site of an older church dedicated to Agios Vlassis or Saint Blaise, an Armenian miracle worker and martyr whose feast is celebrated on 11 February.

The new church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary Spiliotissas after the destruction of an older church with the same name. The name Spiliotissa is derived from spilia, meaning cave, a reference to an older church at a cave at the foot of the New Fortress.

The cathedral is a three-aisled church built in a Baroque style that is typical of many churches in the Ionian islands, and with many Renaissance details and features.

Like all Greek Orthodox cathedrals, Corfu Cathedral is filled with icons, treasures and large chandeliers. But here too is a carved wooden iconostasis or icon screen and important paintings from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, Byzantine icons like the Panagia Dimossiana, painted in the 15th century on both sides, icons by Mikhailis Damaskinos from Crete, Emmanouil Tzanes and Panayiotis Paramythiotis, and three remarkable but dark paintings of Old Testament scenes.

The shrine of Saint Theodora is to the right, behind the iconostasis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

On Tuesday afternoon, I was invited behind the icon screen to see and reverence the most celebrated relic in the church, the shroud-wrapped body of the Empress Saint Theodora (Θεοδώρα), kept in a lined silver sarcophagus in a shrine on the right-hand side of the iconostasis.

Saint Theodora (815-867) was empress and wife of the emperor of the Byzantine, Theophilos. She lived during the conflicts and divisions of the iconoclastic heresy, and she brought that conflict to an end in the Great Church of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople on 11 March 843, an event celebrated in the Orthodox Church as ‘the Triumph of Orthodoxy.’

Her husband Theophilos was an iconoclast, but Theodora held fast to the veneration of icons she kept in her private rooms in the imperial palace.

One story recalls how a servant witnessed her venerating her icons and reported her to the emperor. When her husband confronted her, she stated that she had merely been ‘playing with dolls.’ Two of her icons are kept at the monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos to this day and are referred to as ‘Theodora’s Dolls.’

When her husband Theophilos died on 20 January 842 at the age of 29, Theodora became the regent for her son Michael. She called a council chaired by the Patriarch Methodius, at which the veneration of icons was finally restored and the iconoclastic clergy were deposed.

Theodora died sometime after the murder of her son Michael in 867. She was recognised as a saint because of her zeal for the restoration of icons. Her body and the body of the island’s patron saint, Saint Spyridon, were moved to Corfu after the Fall of Constantinople.

The gallery at the west end of the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Saint Theodora’s feast day is 11 February – the same day as feast of Saint Vlassis, and they both share the dedication of the cathedral.

The relics of Saint Theodora the Empress are carried in procession through the streets of Corfu on the first Sunday of Great Lent, celebrated in the Orthodox Church as the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. On the same day, the church distributes pieces of watermelon in remembrance of a miracle attributed to Saint Vlassis, who cured the children of Corfu of a disease of the throat.

The bust at the foot of the cathedral steps, depicting the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I, is a gift from people of Corfu and America. While still a deacon, he was elected the Metropolitan of Corfu in 1922 and was immediately raised to the episcopacy.

Metropolitan Athenagoras became Archbishop of North and South America in 1930, and at the age of 61 he was elected Patriarch of Constantinople in 1960.

The meeting between Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem in 1964 led to rescinding the excommunications of 1054 which mark the Great Schism between the Churches of the East and West. This was a significant step towards restoring relations between Rome and Constantinople and led to the Catholic-Orthodox Joint Declaration in 1965.

Patriarch Athenagoras died in 1972.

The bust of Patriarch Athenagoras outside Corfu Cathedral … he was Metropolitan of Corfu in 1922-1930 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Achilleion Palace
links Corfu with Sissi,
Maynooth and Mayerling

Muses in the Peristyle of the Muses Hall in the Achilleion Palace in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

On the road along the east coast into Corfu town, the Achilleion Palace is close to resorts such as Benitses, and half-way between Messoghi and Corfu town.

This neo-classical palace is one of the most visited sites in Corfu and was built in the 1890s for the Empress Elisabeth (1837-1898) of Austria, known popularly as Princess Sissi and remembered for her beauty and her turbulent and tragic life.

She was born Princess Elisabeth Amelia Eugenia in Munich, the daughter of Archduke Maximilian Josef of Bavaria. At the age of 16, she married the 23-year-old Habsburg Emperor, Franz-Josef I. But, despite having three children, their marriage deteriorated, and her mother-in-law, the Dowager Empress Sophia, took control of the two surviving children, Prince Rupert and Princess Gisela.

She first visited Corfu in 1861, when the island was still a British dominion, and was a guest of the last British governor of the Ionian Islands Sir Henry Knight Storks (1811-1874), in his palace at Mon Repos, near Kanoni.

The dying Achilles by the German sculptor Ernst Gustav Herter (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

After a failed attempt at reconciliation with her estranged husband in Trieste, she returned to Corfu, lured by both the beauty of the island and her love of Greek classics, mythology, philosophy and language. She hired Greek tutors, travelled extensively throughout Greece.

She travelled further afield, visiting Ireland twice in 1879 and 1880, when she stayed with Lord Langford at his home in Summerhill, Co Meath. She hunted in Co Kildare and Co Meath with the Ward Union and other hunts, and famously chased a stag into the kennels in the new chapel at Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, on 24 February 1879.

Later, she returned to Maynooth, attended Mass in the college chapel, and presented the college with a statue of Saint George, one of the few saints depicted on horseback. She also endowed the college with a set of vestments of gold cloth with an edging in green silk decorated with gold and green shamrocks and the arms of Austria, Hungary and Bavaria. They were considered too valuable for liturgical use, however, and were housed in the college museum.

But her domestic life was marked by tragedy, including the tragic deaths of her sister, her brother-in-law, her cousin, her father, and then, on 30 January 1889, the death of her son, Prince Rupert and his 17-year-old lover Maria Vetsera, in a hunting lodge at Mayerling. Was it a double suicide, a murder and suicide, or a double assassination?

The Achilleion Palace was built for Sissi in Gastouri in 1888-1891 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

A year earlier, Sissi had bought a villa in the small village of Gastouri on the mountainside south of Corfu. Now she tore it down, and built a new palace designed by the Italian architect Raphael Carita. It became her island retreat from 1891, just as Corfu had become her second home.

While she was visiting Geneva, she was assassinated at the Beau Rivage Hotel on 10 September 1898 by an Italian anarchist Luigi Luccheni. She was 61. She was buried not in Corfu but with other members of the Habsburg dynasty in the Capuchin church in Vienna.

A week later, more than 600 students assembled for a Requiem Mass for the empress in the new chapel in Maynooth.

Following her assassination, the Acheilleion Palace in Corfu remained empty until 1907, when it was bought by the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who was related by marriage to the Greek royal family.

The empress had a fascination with Greek mythology and classical literature, and dedicated her palace to Achilles, who was killed at the Battle of Troy when Paris hit his heel with a fatal arrow. The myth tells how Achilles was dipped in the River Styx by his mother to make him invincible. But she held her child by his heels, which became his week point.

The main entrance hall to the palace is dominated by a massive marble staircase (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The main entrance hall to the palace is dominated by a massive marble staircase and magnificent ceiling decorations, including the fresco of the Four Seasons by the 19th century Italian artist Vincenzo Galoppi.

At the foot of the stairs are twin statues of Hera and Zeus.

The ‘Triumph of Achilles’ by the Austrian artist Franz Matsch (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Further up the stairs is a large painting of the Triumph of Achilles by the Austrian artist Franz Matsch (1861-1942).

The first room on the right off the main entrance hall was the Empress Elisabeth’s private chapel, and is decorated with a apse fresco of Christ on trial before Pilate, a large painting of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, and images of the Virgin Mary.

Beside the chapel, the Kaiser’s Room was once the private office of Wilhelm II. The exhibits in the room include many of his personal belongings, including documents, portraits, photographs, medals, furniture, and his personal pennant from his private yacht.

The fresco of the ‘Four Seasons’ by the 19th century Italian artist Vincenzo Galoppi(Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

At the back of the palace, the Peristyle of the Muses Hall has an understated elegance. Its pillars and statues surround an inner courtyard, including statues of the muses and busts of philosophers, playwrights and writers – the only non-Greek among them is William Shakespeare.

Above the garden, a statue of the Dying Achilles by the 19th century German sculptor Ernst Gustav Herter shows the wounded Achilles trying to remove the fatal arrow from his heel.

The steps lead down to the garden that overlooks the city and harbour of Corfu, with a giant-size statue by Johannes Gotz of Achilles – 5.5 metres high, holding a spear that is 7.5 metres long – looking out to the Ionian Sea and across to the coasts of Albania and mainland Greece.

During World War I, the palace became a military hospital for French and Serbian soldiers, and it was confiscated at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and was transferred to the Greek state as a part payment for German war reparations. During World War II, it was used as a field hospital by occupying Italian and German forces.

In the post-war period, it was used as a teachers’ training centre, a school, and then as a casino until 1983.

Shakespeare is the only non-Greek among the Wise Men (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Many years ago, I stayed in the Achilleion Hotel, once the oldest hotel in Rethymnon in Crete but long since converted to other uses. It was about 20 years ago, and we joked about the shower in our room being hidden in what appeared to be a wardrobe. One side of the hotel looked down on Arkadiou Street, the main shopping street of the city, and the other looked out to the harbour and the sea.

The wrought iron balconies at the hotel rooms with their griffins recalled the designs of the Achilleoin Palace, and were fading reminders of the influence of Empress Elisabeth on style and taste throughout Greece at the end of the 19th century.

The style of the Achilleion Palace in Corfu inspired arts and crafts throughout Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)