“Oh, my Holy Spyridon…”… When walking in Corfu it is almost impossible to not hear a Corfiot shout this expression.
The church of Saint Spyridon is one of the most important Byzantine monuments of Corfu and its relic is one of the most important pilgrimages of Christians around the world. The canton of “Agios” is located in the centre of the Old Town of the island and the visitor can easily locate it from its characteristic steeple-like red bell tower which is visible by its height from any part of the city. It is 40 metres high, has seven bells and its big blue clock which symbolizes for the people of Corfu “the beats of the heart of the city”.
The church which houses the relic of Saint Spyridon and protector of the island was built in 1589 AD and belongs to the style of the single-aisled basilica. The tall and towering bell tower, as a complement to the temple, was built in 1620 AD. The current iconostasis of the church, made of marble of Paros, was built in 1864 AD. and is the work of the Austrian architect, Mauers. The sky is painted by the Corfiot painter Nikolaos Aspiotis in 1852 AD, while the icons of the iconostasis are made by the also Corfiot painter, Spyros Prosalandis. Today’s shrine was built in Vienna in 1867 AD. and is made of hard, luxurious wood with silver exterior cladding. It is located inside the crypt, which was created especially to receive the relic of Saint Spyridon, which is visited by thousands of foreign and local visitors.
It is one of the three incorruptible relics in the Ionian: of Saint Spyridon, Saint Gerasimos and Saint Dionysios. “From Saint Spyridon the day grows pimple-pimple” the old people used to say… ”
After the feast of Saint Nicholas, the feast of Saint Spyridon is celebrated on December 12, for whom Corfiots believe heals the pimples and banishes the plague. And yet, they believe that he is the helper of Ai-Nicholas on land and sea and he spoils his shoes by running here and there to help those in danger. Both of these Saints do not stop, our people say. ‘They are always somewhere and they help, they help those who are in danger in the open seas and are beaten in the sea urchins. ” (Vassilis Lamnatos, “The months in the rural and pastoral life of our people”)
According to tradition, Saint Spyridon’s relic comes out of the church and on land and at sea, helps those who invoke him.
That is why Saint Spyridon spoils his “pasumakia” (shoes) which are changed by the church periodically.
His shoes as well as parts of his clothing are cut into small pieces and distributed in the form of an amulet to anyone who believes in him.
The procession of the shrine of the Saint takes place four times a year and in remembrance of four great miracles – none of them is the day set by the church in memory of Saint Spyridon, that is, on December 12. These are:- On Palm Sunday, as on that day in 1629, prayers to the Saint saved the island from the plague. On Holy Saturday in 1550, Saint Spyridon saved the island from plague. On August 11, in remembrance of the repulse of the Turkish siege of 1716. On the first Sunday of November, the “First Sunday” as the locals call it, for the second time that Corfu was saved from the plague, in 1673.
All religious events are directly connected with the great musical history of the island, so the well-known Corfu Philharmonic Orchestra always participates in the processions of the Saint. The procession of Palm Sunday, however, is the one in which all the island’s philharmonic orchestras participate.
The life of the Saint
Saint Spyridon was born in 270 AD. in the now occupied village of Assia (Askia) in Cyprus (and not in Trimithounta – today’s Tremetousia – as many write). His family were shepherds, who were somewhat wealthy. Although he was educated, he did not change profession and continued to be a shepherd. As a character, the Saint was simple, kind, full of love for his neighbour. On Sundays and feasts, he often took the shepherds and led them to the holy temples, and then explained the gospel to them. God blessed him to become a frequent protector of widows and orphans. He married and had a daughter, Irene. Soon, however, his wife died. In order to heal his wound, Spyridon devoted himself even more to the teaching of the divine word. After much pressure, he was ordained a priest and when the diocese of Trimithountos in Cyprus became vacant, the people and the clergy elected him bishop. From this position Spyridon advanced so far in virtue that God required him to perform many miracles.
It should be noted here that Saint Spyridon, with the prestige of his holy and moral life in the First Ecumenical Council, which took place in Nicaea, Bithynia (Asia Minor) and in which he participated, defeated the Martians and emerged as one of the brilliant defenders of the Orthodox faith. Saint Spyridon passed away on December 12, 350 AD. He is revered as a saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church and his memory is celebrated on December 12.
The adventure with the relics of the Saint
In 648 AD Cyprus faced major raids by the Saracens and the relic was transported to Constantinople by Emperor Justinian. It was placed in the Church of the Holy Apostles together with the relic of Augusta Theodora and remained there until the priest, Grigorios Polyeuftos, a few days before the fall, took the two remains and transported them through Serbia, Thrace and Macedonia to Paramythia in Epirus. For three years Saint Spyridon was taken from place to place until he reached Corfu.
All this time, the priest placed the remains in bags of straw and when asked answered that it was food in his rucksack. In 1456 AD he arrived in Corfu because he believed that the remains would be safe.
The Ionian Islands at that time were under the rule of the Venetians. The priest, Grigorios Polyefktos, found a fellow citizen, the refugee priest, Georgios Kalochairetis, and bequeathed the relic of the Saint to him. After his death, George Kalohairetis bequeathed the relic of Saint Spyridon to his sons namely Luke and Philip.
The two brothers wished to transport the relic to Venice. The case was even heard by the Venetian Senate. The state supreme court ruled that the relic was the property of the brothers, so they retained the sacrosanct right to carry it wherever they wished. However, the transfer did not take place because there were strong reactions from the people of Corfu. The Supreme Court did not force the issue as the prevailing opinion was that there should be no resentment among the people who were under the Venetian flag.
In 1512 AD a donation contract was drawn up in Arta in the name of Asimina Kalohaireti, daughter of Philip, who married Stamatios Voulgaris, who, in a will dated November 25, 1571 AD. stipulated that the Holy Relic of the Saint remain, as a legacy to her sons and their descendants.
Not only the four miracles mentioned in the liturgies, performed on the island, occurred. As the Saint was so virtuous, God required him to perform many miracles to help fellow human beings in need. In addition to the religious context and tradition, true historical events follow.
The Plague Around 1629-30 AD.
Plague, a highly contagious and deadly disease, struck the island of Corfu without discrimination or mercy. Men and women, young and old, rich and poor, were afflicted daily by the incurable disease and died both in the city and in the countryside. The administration of the island with the first cases rushed to vote and subsequently allocated a huge amount, to limit the spread of the disease. In a short space of time Corfu began to be deserted. The shops were closed and the streets empty. The only movement was that of carts carrying their macabre cargo out of town for burial in mass graves.
One day in the cosmogenic calamity, the faithful and suffering people, despite the recommendations of the doctors to avoid the crowd, dared to flood the holy Church of Saint Spyridon and seek his mediation and divine intervention. Salvation was offered quickly and richly. The historian of Corfu, Andreas Marmoras, who lived at the time, stated that the terrible epidemic, despite the lack of relevant medicines, was reduced to a minimum and stopped completely by Palm Sunday. All the nights during which the city was afflicted with the disease, there appeared to be the light of a supernatural candle shining above the temple of the Saint. It was the sign that the saint was watching over and protecting his people. This is how the faithful explained it. The light was constantly seen by the night watchers of the fortresses.
This terrible epidemic occurred, for the second time, in Corfu about forty years later, in 1673 AD. The plague spread rapidly to cities and villages with multiple cases. The answer of Saint Spyridon to the supplications was not long in coming. The cases decreased daily to a minimum and in the last days of October stopped abruptly. This time, for three nights, the faithful saw a steady light at the top of the bell tower, and in this supernatural light, the miraculous saint hovering with a Cross in his hand chasing a black ghost, the disease, away. He thereby enabled his believers to be saved.
The gratitude of the faithful people was great once again. With the establishment of the Venetian administration, it has been decreed, since then, that every first Sunday of November, a solemn procession of the sacred saint in his glass sarcophagus takes place.
The Siege of Corfu by the Turks
At the beginning of July 1716, during the seventh and last Venetian-Turkish War (1714-1718), the Ottomans besieged Corfu by sea, which in those years was under Venetian (Venetian) occupation. They managed to land forces on the island and capture the forts of Mantouki, Garitsa and the fortresses of Avrami and Sotiros. The fierce attacks of the Turks for the occupation of Corfu lasted for a whole month. The locals, Venetians and Greeks, under the leadership of the German Count, Johann Matthias von der Sulenburg, (1661-1747), resisted vigorously and effectively, repelled Turkish attacks. On August 8, the Turks launched a general offensive, but were repulsed by the besieged with a well-organized counterattack. The next day, August 9, a severe storm caused extensive damage to Turkish ships. On the night of August 10, the Turks decided to abandon the occupation of Corfu and the next day, August 11, they began to leave the island.
A Greek patrol that carried out reconnaissance operations, in order to determine where the enemies would attack from, found the trenches of the Turks filled with rain water from the rain and many Turkish soldiers drowned in them.
The people of Corfu, who throughout the siege, had constantly prayed and supplicated, attributed the salvation of Corfu to the intervention of the protector of the island, Agios Spyridon. According to church tradition, the saint in the form of a monk came out of the church of the same name and holding a lighted torch caused panic among the Turkish soldiers, who fled. The Venetian administration again established August 11, as a day of celebration of the saint and the procession of His holy Tabernacle.
At the beginning of the 17th century AD, terrible drought ravaged the islands of the Ionian Sea and Corfu in particular. The wars waged on Corfu had exhausted the people financially and so misery and hunger occurred. Easter was approaching, the Brilliant. How would people spend such days without bread? In these difficult times, everyone turned to God.
In the church where the relic of the saint was kept, the people were holding a vigil; watching and praying. The priests chanted the saint’s prayer and he responded quickly. On Holy Saturday three ships loaded with wheat were en route to Italy. As they passed Corfu, the sailors suddenly saw the bow of all three ships turning sideways and to the north, in the direction of the island. The wind changed direction and assisted them. An old ‘rasoforos’, a man of the cloth, walked ahead, as if showing them the way and a voice was heard that was repeated many times… “Towards Corfu. People are hungry there. You will be paid. You will be paid. Towards Corfu “.
In a little while, the ships arrived at the port. They dropped the anchors and called on the people to collect the wheat. It was not long before the port was filled with people. The bags of the blonde treasure were dragged to the beach and distributed. Hearts celebrated. The Venetian Government decreed that every Holy Saturday a procession of the holy Tabernacle of the saint would take place, so that the people would always remember this great miracle of their salvation from starvation.
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