23 November 2019

An icon of the Four Martyrs
of Rethymnon is honoured
in a monastery in Thessaloniki

An icon of the Four Martyrs of Rethymnon by Alexandra Kaouki now in the Rectory in Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

One of the icons I moved from the bookshelves in my study at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute to the Rectory in Askeaton is a copy of the icon of the Four Martyrs of Rethymnon from the workshop of Alexandra Kaouki (Αλεξανδρα Καουκι) on Melissinou Street, beneath the slopes of the Venetian Fortezza in Rethymnon.

I have spent much time in Rethymnon for more than 30 years, and this icon represents the story, traditions and religious faith of the people of this town in Crete. The original icon by Alexandra Kaouki hangs above the desk of the Bishop Eugenios of Rethymnon in his office.

Last Sunday [17 November 2019], another version of Alexandra Kaouki’s Icon of the Four Martyrs of Rethymnon was given a special place of honour in my favourite monastery in Thessaloniki, the Holy Patriarchal and Stavropegic Monastery of Vlatadon. This monastery, where I spent Easter Day in the Orthodox calendar last year [8 April 2018], is associated with the families of the four martyrs.

The ceremony was organised by the Rethymnon Association of Attica, To Arkadi to mark their 90th anniversary (1930-2020). The attendance included people from Crete in traditional Cretan costume when as icon was blessed by Bishop Nikiforos of Amorion, who is the Abbot of Vlatadon, and Metropolitan Eugenios, Bishop of Rethymnon and Avlopotamos.

The Divine Liturgy also commemorated the 153rd anniversary the people who were burned to death at the Arkadi Monastery.

The Monastery of Vlatadon in the hills above Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The Monastery of Vlatadon was founded between 1351 to 1371 by the Empress Anna Palaeologus and was named after two monks from Crete, Dorotheos and Markos Vlattis, two of the closest friends of Saint Gregory Palamas, Archibishop of Thessaloniki.

These two brothers travelled with Saint Gregory to Constantinople in 1341, when he was called before the synod called to deal with the hesychast controversy and Saint Gregory’s theological differences with Barlaam of Calabria.

The monk Dorotheos returned with Saint Gregory to Thessaloniki and took up permanent residence in the city. He later became Archbishop of Thessaloniki from 1371 to 1379. His brother Markos travelled to Mount Athos, where he lived as a monk at the Great Lavra, but he too returned to Thessaloniki in 1351, when the brothers founded the Monastery of the Pantocrator at Vlatadon.

The Four Martyrs of Rethymnon were members of the Vlatakis family, which claimed descent from the same family as the monks Dorotheos and Markos Vlattis from Crete who gave their name to the Monastery of Vlatadon.

The Four Martyrs of Rethymnon were originally Crypto-Christians. They were members of the Vlatakis family and came from the Melambes region. All four were executed by the Turks outside the walls of Rethymnon in 1824 for adhering to for their Christian faith.

The Four Martyrs lived in Melambes in the Agios Vassilios district of Crete at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. They were farmers who were virtuous, humble and with great hearts and spirits. They were all married with children and all were they were brothers or cousins of each other and members of the Vlatakis family: Emmanuel and Angelis were brothers, the sons of Giannis Vlatakis. George was the son of Constantine Vlatakis and Nikolaos was the son of another Giannis Vlatakis.

Crete had been occupied by the Turks since 1669. The area of Melambes, including Agios Vassilios, Amari and Messara, was constantly raided by Turks from the Amari area, and many people were faced with three options: to remain a Christian and face discrimination and persecution; to convert to Islam; or to become Crypto-Christians, pretending to convert to Islam but secretly remaining an Orthodox Christian.

The Four Martyrs came from a family of Crypto-Christians who converted to Islam publicly but secretly remained Christians. Crypto-Christians fulfilled their religious obligations, including confession, Communion, marriage, baptism, and so, in secret and with discretion.

With the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence in 1821, the four future martyrs joined the cause and took leading roles. They were in the frontline at the battle of Melambes at Kako Ryaki (Bad Stream) and also took part in battles at Kali Sykia, Agios Giannis Kamenos and later at Vathiako and at Monasteraki.

In mid-1822, the Turkish forces in Crete were reinforced with troops from Egypt. Although the revolution was crushed in Crete in 1824, the four future saints continued to live in Melambes and were living openly as Christians. Mehmed Pasha of Rethymnon heard of their new open practice of Christianity and took this as an affront to the Sultan and as treason.

The four went into hiding in Santali, and the pasha sent troops to Melambes, where they met the president of the village, Katergaris. Katergaris and his sister, who was the wife of Nikolaos Vlatakis, were persuaded to send Mathios Katergaris to tell the four to return to Melambes with a promise of their safety. When the martyrs came down to the village, the Turks arrested them immediately and tied them up. Despite the protests of Katergaris that the Turks were not keeping their promises, the detachment left for Rethymnon with the four martyrs.

The Venetian Harbour seen from the old Customs House in Rethymnon … the Four Martyrs were held prisoners here for four months in 1824 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

When the detachment arrived at Rethymnon, the four martyrs were jailed in the prison in the old Venetian Harbour, on the site of today’s Customs House.

At first, Mehmet Pasha tried to convince the four to convert to Islam, promising high offices, honours and gifts. But they refused to engage in any discussion, insisting: ‘Christians we were born, Christians we want to die.’

The Turkish governor was enraged and ordered their strict isolation and torture, hoping to break their determination. For four months, from July to October, they endured tortures in prison, with the Pasha ordering a new and harsher ordeal each day. But their faith in Christ proved to be unyielding.

Mehmed Pasha then called a special court martial to try them for denouncing and insulting Islam. When they were sentenced to death, they heard the verdict with Christian calm and pride.

They spent their last night peacefully, according to a tradition recorded in a poem by Giorgis Avgoustakis of Melambes:

In their sweet dreams they saw a big miracle
four bright Angels were flying above them
they were holding golden crowns in their hands
they said to them,
Christ has sent us to be with you
because for his love you are giving your lives

The Four Martyrs were executed outside the Porta Guora, the Venetian gate that marked the entrance to the old town of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The day before their execution, the news was proclaimed by a herald through the streets of Rethymnon. All shops were forced to close and the Turkish and Greek residents were ordered to attend the public execution.

On the morning of 28 October 1824, a procession began at the Turkish prison and made its way through the streets of Rethymnon, finishing at the Porta Guora, the big Venetian gate that marked the entrance to the old town. The four were then taken outside the walls of the city, to an open space by the big plane trees where the Church of the Four Martyrs stands todays.

Kneeling in the open space outside the Porta Guora gate, with their hands tied, they saw their executioner holding his sword, and heard him ask: ‘Will you adopt the Turkish faith?’

The standard answer was a humble ‘Yes, my Lord.’

But instead the first man in line surprised everyone with a scornful ‘No.’

A few seconds before his head was cut off, he added: ‘I was born a Christian and a Christian I will die.’

One by one, the others did the same.

The sword of the executioner came down four times and beheaded the four men. As each was executed, his dying words were: ‘Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy).’

Christ the Pantocrator in the dome in the Church of the Four Martyrs in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

For three days their bodies lay unburied outside the gate. But during those three days, it is said, a fragrant smell filled the air. On the fourth day, some brave Christians, led by Antonis Pourdounis and George Lagos, and assisted by Emmanuel Papadakis, the Pasha’s translator, collected the remains and buried them at the Church of Saint George, east of Rethymnon. The church was part of the Monastery of Arkadi.

A year later, Bishop Ioannikios of Rethymnon had the four bodies exhumed and brought the brought the bodies and the skulls to the Cathedral in Rethymnon. Some remains were also brought to the Monastery of Arkadi.

Tradition says that the homes of the Four Martyrs in Melambes were razed to the ground and later burned the village.

It is difficult to ascertain with historical certainty what happened to the families of the four martyrs. Local people believe that in the case of the families of Nikolaos, George and Angelis, some family members were killed while others were been sold into slavery either in Crete or in the East.

However, the story of the family of Manouil or Emmanuel Vlatakis were passed on by one of his descendants, George Maragakis from the village Kouses, near Iraklion, who heard them from his father, Giannis Maragakis (1889-1976), a great-grandson of Emmanuel Vlatakis.

According to this account, Emmanuel Vlatakis and his wife had four children: two sons Nikolaos and Giannis, a daughter Kroustallenia and another son whose name is not recalled. After Emmanuel’s execution, his wife and two of their sons were shelter by an Italian widower in Rethymnon. One son later moved to Chromonastiri, a village outside Rethymnon, where he had three children: Stylianos, who later became Archimandrite Sofronios, Maria and Anastasia. Another son became a shoemaker and returned to Melambes and his son, Antonios Vlatakis, later became a lawyer in Rethymnon.

An influential Turk, Mirolai Pasha from Tymbaki, offered protection to Nikolaos Vlatakis and he became a carpenter by trade.

The daughter Kroustallenia was taken by a Turk for his harem, forced to convert to Islam and given the name her Fatme. Her brother Nikolaos, with the help of Mirolai Pasha, secured her freedom and she returned to Christianity. She named her child Emmanuel after her father, but he died as a young adult.

Nikolaos later married Maria Kolatsidakis from the village Kouse, and he settled there as a carpenter. They had four children who became known as the maragakia or ‘little carpenters,’ and eventually their surname became Maragakis. One of those four children, Emmanuel, later returned to Melambes, where he resumed the name Vlatakis. But he was also known as Letzomanolis, a combination of his mother’s surname and his own first name.

Manolis Vlatakis or Letzakis died at the age of 94 in 2001. He had five sisters, Anastasia, Vasiliki, Maria, Chrysi and Sophia. All had children, and their descendants still live in Melambes.

Immediately outside the old town, beside the Porta Guora gate, the Church of the Four Martyrs is one of the largest and most-visited churches in Rethymnon, and it stands in a busy square of the same name, Tessaron Martiron.

The church is a fashionable venue for baptisms and weddings at weekends. It was here I attended the celebrations of Good Friday and Easter in the Orthodox calendar earlier this year [2019].

The church was completed on 28 December 1975, but stands on the site of two previous churches, the first from 1905 to 1947 and the second, which was demolished in 1972.

The church stands on the site of the execution of the Four Martyrs. The central aisle of the church is dedicated to these four local saints. The north aisle is also dedicated to the Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebaste – Roman soldiers martyred in Armenia during the reign of Licinius in AD 320. The south aisle is dedicated to the Ten Holy Martyrs of Crete who were beheaded by Decius in 250 AD.

Throughout Greece, 28 October is a national holiday, ‘Οχι’ Day, recalling Greece’s trenchant ‘No’ to Mussolini that brought Greece into World War II on 28 October 1940. But in Rethymnon, 28 October is also the day when the city recalls the Four Holy Martyrs.

Inside the Church of the Four Martyrs in Rethymnon on Good Friday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Tales of the Viennese Jews:
9, Leonard Cohen and
‘The Spice-Box of Earth’

Decorative spice-boxes in the Jewish Museum in Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The Tales from the Vienna Woods is a waltz by the composer Johann Strauss II (1825-1899), written just over a century and a half ago, in 1868. Although Strauss was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church, he was born into a prominent Jewish family. Because the Nazis had a particular penchant for Strauss’s music, they tried to conceal and even deny the Jewish identity of the Strauss family.

However, the stories of Vienna’s Jews cannot be hidden, and many of those stories from Vienna are told in the exhibits in the Jewish Museum in its two locations, at the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse and in the Misrachi-Haus in Judenplatz.

Rather than describe both museums in detail in one or two blog postings, I have decided over these few days or weeks to re-tell some of these stories, celebrating a culture and a community whose stories should never be forgotten.

Leonard Cohen’s new, posthumous album, Thanks for the dance, was released yesterday [22 November 2019]. One again, many of the lyrics are infused with his Jewish spirituality, which deepened as he got older but always had a place in his poetry and his songwriting. When he died three years ago, on 7 November 2016, the Jewish Museum in Vienna issued a statement saying ‘We mourn the death of Leonard Cohen. The man with the deep and commanding voice can now be heard only on recordings … Leonard Cohen, the 20th-century prophet of the past, is dead, but his voice lives on.’

His voice and songs had featured that year in the museum’s exhibition, Stars of David: The Sound of the 20th Century, which closed on 16 October, just three weeks before he died. The lyrics of the first verse of Hallelujah were displayed at the start of the exhibition:

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Leonard Cohen left his mark in Vienna. After a concert in the city in 1976, he visited the Arena, a concert venue that was being occupied at the time, and gave an additional concert.

With his description of the Arena as the ‘best place in Vienna,’ he gave the young protesters his support and backing as the demanded to liberate the city from the dusty traces of fascism, persecution, and the extermination of the Jewish population. They felt he had backed their opposition to the small-minded ‘reconstruction’ of Vienna after World War II, and to the self-imposed silence that covered everything.

Cohen returned to Vienna many times, and in 1984, he said of local audiences: ‘In Vienna, there’s a certain value placed on vulnerability. They like to feel you struggling. They’re warm, compassionate.’

A few years later, he wrote a song about Vienna, Take This Waltz, based on the poem Pequeño Vals Vienés (‘Little Viennese Waltz’), written by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca in New York in the early 1930s.

In this song, released in 1988 on the album I’m Your Man, Cohen’s fascination for the morbidity of Vienna came to the fore once again, but with a coolness that is impossible to emulate:

There’s a concert hall in Vienna
Where your mouth had a thousand reviews.
There’s a bar where the boys have stopped talking,
They’ve been sentenced to death by the blues.
Ah, but who is it climbs to your picture
With a garland of freshly cut tears?
Ay, ay ay ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz,
Take this waltz, it’s been dying for years.

The exhibitions in the two Jewish Museums in Vienna and in the Jewish Museum in Bratislava include interesting collections of spice boxes. Those spice boxes in these three museums reminded me of Leonard Cohen’s second collection of poems, The Spice-Box of Earth, first published in 1961, when he was 27.

The title of the book is found in the poem Out of the land of Heaven, which is dedicated to the artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985).

On the Sabbath, Jews say, the ‘Sabbath Queen’ or the ‘Sabbath Bride’ descends from Heaven to heal the sufferings of the Jews. The arrival and departure of ‘Her Majesty’ is marked by ceremonies. When she enters, everybody is happy; when she leaves, there is a strange sadness. But people take comfort in a symbolic that includes inhaling the aroma of spices contained in an ornamental box, often made of silver, the spice box.

Spice-boxes are an essential part of Havdalah (הַבְדָּלָה, ‘separation’), the ceremony marking the symbolic end of Shabbat and ushering in the new week. Like kiddush, Havdalah is recited over a cup of wine. The ritual involves lighting a special Havdalah candle with several wicks, blessing a cup of wine and smelling sweet spices.

Havdalah engages all five senses: to feel the cup, to smell the spices, to see the candle flame, to hear the blessings, to taste the wine.

Spices in Hebrew, are usually kept in decorative spice-boxes to beautify and honour the mitzvah, and are handed around so that everyone can smell the fragrance. In many Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, branches of aromatic plants are used for this purpose, while Ashkenazim have traditionally used cloves.

A special braided Havdalah candle with more than one wick is lit, and a blessing is recited. If a special Havdalah candle is not available, two candles can be used, and the two flames joined when reciting the blessing.

The central blessing of the Havdalah is:

Blessed art thou, God, our Lord, King of the Universe
Who distinguishes
Holiness from the everyday,
Light from dark,
Israel from the nations,
The seventh day from the six workdays.
Blessed art thou, God,
Who distinguishes holiness from the everyday

As people recite the words ‘Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam, bo’re m’orei ha’esh,’ they hold their hands up to the candle and gaze at the reflection of the light in their fingernails.

As Havdalah concludes, the leftover wine is poured into a small dish and the candle is extinguished in it, a sign that the candle was lit solely for the mitzvah of Havdalah. In a reference to Psalm 19: 9, ‘the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes,’ some people dip a finger in the leftover wine and touch their eyes or pockets with it.

After the Havdalah ceremony, it is customary to sing ‘Eliyahu Hanavi’ (‘Elijah the Prophet’) and to bless each other, Shavua’ tov, ‘Have a good week.’

The text of the Havdalah service exists in two main forms, Ashkenazic and Sephardic. The introductory verses in the Ashkenazic version (beginning הנה אל, Hinei El) are from the Books of Isaiah and Esther and the Psalms. In the Sephardic liturgy, the introduction begins with the words ראשון לציון, Rishon L’tsion, and consists of biblical verses describing God giving light and success, interspersed with later liturgical prose.

The four blessings over the wine, spices candle and praising God for separation between the holy and the profane are virtually identical between the traditions. The phrase בין ישראל לעמים, bein Yisrael l’amim, ‘between Israel and the nations,’ is based on Leviticus 20: 26.

The Spice-Box of Earth became the most popular and commercially successful of Cohen’s early books, established his poetic reputation in Canada, and brought him a measure of early literary acclaim.

My copy of this book, to paraphrase words in another Leonard Cohen song, ‘has grown old and weary,’ or, rather, it is battered, stained and dog-eared. As I read through it the other evening, I could remember which poems I had selected for poetry readings in Wexford in the early and mid-1970s, including ‘I have not lingered in European monasteries’ and ‘The Genius.’

In Out of the Land of Heaven, the poem that gives this book its title, Leonard Cohen writes:

Out of the Land of Heaven
Down comes the warm Sabbath sun
Into the spice-box of earth.

The poem seems to be a verbal invocation of one of Marc Chagall’s painting. The rabbi thrusts his hands into the ‘spice-box of earth’:

Down go his hands
Into the spice-box of earth,
And there he finds the fragrant sun
For a wedding ring
[for the Sabbath Queen]

And he tells them:
The Queen makes every Jew her lover.

The book concludes with ‘Lines from My Grandfather’s Journal’ and the final verse is an ‘Inscription from the family spice-box’:

Make my body
a pomander for worms
and my soul
the fragrance of cloves.

Let the spoiled Sabbath
leave no scent.
Keep my mouth
from foul speech.

Lead your priest
from grave to vineyard.
Lay him down
where air is sweet.

Following the success of The Spice-Box of Earth, Leonard Cohen retreated for several years to the Greek island of Hydra, where he worked on more poems and songs.

I am listening to his posthumous album, Thanks for the Dance, which arrived in the post as it was released yesterday [22 November 2019].

Praised are You, Adonai our God, who rules the universe, Creator of all kinds of spices.

‘Down comes the warm Sabbath sun / Into the spice-box of earth’ … spice-boxes in the Jewish Museum in Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Other postings in this series:

1, the chief rabbi and a French artist’s ‘pogrom’

2, a ‘positively rabbinic’ portrait of an Anglican dean

3, portraits of two imperial court financiers

4, portrait of Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis

5, Lily Renée, from Holocaust Survivor to Escape Artist

6, Sir Moses Montefiore and a decorative Torah Mantle

7, Theodor Herzl and the cycle of contradictions

8, Simon Wiesenthal and the café in Mauthausen

9, Leonard Cohen and ‘The Spice-Box of Earth’

10, Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Jewish grandparents

11, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his Jewish librettist

12, Salomon Mayer von Rothschild and the railways in Vienna

13, Gustav Mahler and the ‘thrice homeless’ Jew

14, Beethoven at 250 and his Jewish connections in Vienna

15, Martin Buber and the idea of the ‘I-Thou’ relationship

16, Three Holocaust survivors who lived in Northern Ireland.

17, Schubert’s setting of Psalm 92 for the synagogue.

18, Bert Linder and his campaign against the Swiss banks.

19, Adele Bloch-Bauer and Gustav Klimt’s ‘Lady in Gold’.

20, Max Perutz, Nobel laureate and ‘the godfather of molecular biology’.