Near the Holy Temple of Saint Spyridon, is the Metropolitan Church of Corfu, Panagia Spilaiotissa, where another important sacred relic is kept, that of the Byzantine Queen Agia Theodora of Augusta, who defended the Orthodoxy in the second Orthodox Iconoclast period.
The church was built in 1577 on the site of the older church of Agios Vlasios. Architecturally it is classified in the category of Ionian Royal three-aisled temples. The renaissance elements of its exterior are most impressive. Apart from the silver shrine with the holy relic of Agia Theodora, the Byzantine iconostasis of the church and a series of great hagiographies of the 14th and 15th centuries are remarkable. In 1841 it was designated as the Cathedral of Corfu.
The church is dedicated to Panagia Spilaiotissa as, after the destruction of the church of the same name, her icon was transferred here, to Agios Vlasios, bishop of Sevastia, whose church was located at the specific location, and to Agia Theodora in Augusta, whose indestructible relic is kept in a shrine inside the temple. Agios Vlasios and Agia Theodora celebrate the same day, on February 11th. The church celebrates on August 15th as well, because the church is also dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
The indestructible relic of Saint Theodora was transported to Corfu from Constantinople, shortly after the Fall of the City (in 1456), together with that of Saint Spyridon.
The litany of the relics of Saint Theodora of Augustus and the "winter"
On the First Sunday of Lent, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the Church celebrates with all its splendour the restoration of the Holy Icons, which marked the end of a hundred-year terrible controversy in Byzantium (726-842). The Sunday of Orthodoxy is celebrated every year in Corfu with special enthusiasm and brilliance, in memory of the final restoration of the sacred icons in Vassilevousa by Empress Theodora.
The procession of its sanctuary, established in 1985 by Metropolitan (Bishop) Timothy, starts at 11:30 am from the Metropolitan Church and follows all the main streets, the large cantons of the old town and Spianada Square in Liston. Accompanied by the city philharmonic orchestra, the clergy, the authorities and congregation follow.
Panagia Spilaiotissa, Saint Theodora the special custom
At the same time, after the end of the Divine Liturgy, in the Metropolitan Church, the “winter”, that is, a piece of watermelon, is distributed to all the faithful. This is a special custom.
The "winter" is shared in memory of Saint Vlasios.
Archbishop of Sevasti, who was martyred during the years of persecution of Christians under Likinios’ rule. This small piece of watermelon is distributed in the “winter”, in memory of the miracle of Saint Vlasios. According to the religious tradition, Saint Vlasios, who was a doctor, on the eve of his martyrdom, and while people were dying of the plague, asked for watermelons to be brought to him. After blessing them, they were distributed to the children, who were finally cured of the disease. Thus, in Corfu, the custom prevailed to bless the “winter” on the day of his memory and to distribute a piece of this fruit to the faithful.
The life of the Saint
Saint Theodora, the Queen, was born in Evesa, Paphlagonia, in 815 AD, to pious parents; the drungary (military man), Marinos and the virtuous Theoktiste Phlorina, who was distinguished for her piety and devotion to the Orthodox faith. The Saint had three other sisters, Sophia, Mary and Irene, and two brothers, Bardas and Petronas. In the year 830 AD she married the emperor Theophilos (829 – 842 AD), who was an iconoclast. Despite the iconoclastic climate, Theodora and her children continued to honour the sacred icons and keep them secretly in their rooms. In fact, the tradition states that mother and children called the Holy Icons “good young men” so that the emperor would not suspect something. Her mother, Theoktistis, left the palace and retired to the nunnery, which she had founded.
In 842 AD Theophilos died and Saint Theodora took over the kingdom and the supervision of her minor son Michael, with her brother Bardas, her uncle’s father, who was a master, and the logothete i.e. administrator under the Byzantine emperors, Theoktistos as co-commissioners. The first action was the removal of the iconoclastic Patriarch John and the election of St. Methodius (honoured June 14). The Synod or assembly of the clergy, which met on March 11, 843 AD, decided to restore the Holy Icons and revived the teaching of the Seventh Ecumenical Synod.
The Holy festival was held on the First Sunday of Lent, in the church of Hagia Sophia, which has since been established as Orthodox Sunday. In addition to issuing of icons, St. Theodora was preoccupied with various other internal and external distractions, such as the Arab invasions of Sicily and Asia Minor, the revolutions of the Slavs of the Peloponnese and the Paulinians of Asia Minor, the campaigns against the Arabs of Crete, Syria and Egypt, plus the complications with the Bulgarian ruler, Vogori, who led Orthodoxy.
Thus, she entrusted the upbringing of her son to her brother Barda, who, for the sake of his own interest, encouraged and strengthened the young king’s every move towards contempt. The assassination of Neoktistos made Agia’s brother powerful, so that he despised and threatened her as well. Later, the Saint’s own son, Michael, and Barda’s brother, ordered her forcible confinement. Together with her daughters Anna, Thekla, Anastasia, Maria and Poulcheria, she was incarcerated in the Monastery of Gastria, in the area of Ypsomathia and her hair cut as a nun.
Theodora lived in the Monastery, until her passing, excelling in solitary life. With humility and patience she faced her isolation, which she considered a gift from God for her salvation. She died peacefully in her sleep on February 11, 867 AD. Her relic was found intact, smelled of myrrh and performed many miracles during the tradition, resulting in her being declared a Saint by the Church. Her body was transported by Megas Photios to Constantinople, where it was kept until the fall. In 1456 it was transferred to Corfu, where it is kept intact in the Metropolitan Church of the island, as a precious gift, sanctifying the faithful.
Ορθόδοξος Συναξαριστής. “Αγία Θεοδώρα η Βασίλισσα”, http://www.saint.gr/3639/saint.aspx
In.gr (2019). “Κέρκυρα: Η λιτανεία του σκηνώματος της αγίας Θεοδώρας της Αυγούστας και το «χειμωνικό»”, https://www.in.gr/2019/03/17/greece/kerkyra-litaneia-tou-skinomatos-tis-agias-theodoras-tis-aygoustas-kai-xeimoniko/
Μοναστήρια της Ελλάδας. “Ιερό προσκύνημα Αγίας Θεοδώρας – Κέρκυρα”, https://www.monastiria.gr/iero-proskinima-agias-theodoras-kerkyra/
Αγία Θεοδώρα η Αυγούστα και το άφθαρτο λείψανό της στην Κέρκυρα http://miteriko.blogspot.com/2018/02/blog-post_11.html