12 December 2021

Praying in Advent 2021:
15, Saint Spyridon

Saint Spyridon is buried in a double sarcophagus behind the icon screen in the Church of Saint Spyridon in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, known many places as Gaudete Sunday. Later this morning (12 December 2021), I am presiding and preaching at the Parish Eucharist in Castletown Church and preaching at Morning Prayer in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick.

But, before this busy day begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

Each morning in my Advent calendar this year, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflections on a saint remembered in the calendars of the Church during Advent;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

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

Saint Spyridon, is the patron saint of Corfu, is celebrated in the calendar of the Orthodox Church on 12 December, and 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 the saint, who, according to legends, has saved the island four times from Ottoman invasions.

Saint Spyridon was born in the year 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.

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.

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. 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 ceiling was originally painted by Panagiotis Doxaras, who worked there in 1727. The works 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, Saint Spyridon 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.

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

Luke 3: 7-18 (NRSVA):

7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’

10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11 In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12 Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ 13 He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ 14 Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

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

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (12 December 2021, Third Sunday of Advent) invites us to pray:

Gentle God,
We rejoice in You.
Let us strive for truth, honour,
And all that is praiseworthy.
May we find peace through prayer.

Yesterday: Karl Barth

Tomorrow: Samuel Johnson

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The front of the marble iconostasis in the Church of Saint Spyridon resembles the exterior of the entrance of a baroque-style church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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