Thessaloniki, St Demetrios

Era 5AD - 7AD
Location Agiou Dimitriou, Thessaloniki 546 33, Greece

St Demetrios is perhaps the best-known church in Thessaloniki, dedicated to the city’s own saint. The cult of Demetrios and the establishment of his church perhaps dates to the fourth or fifth centuries but this early church was destroyed by a disastrous fire in 604; it was rebuilt and destroyed by a second fire in c620 and rebuilt again. There is much debate as to whether any parts of the earlier churches survived in the later one. The whole picture is complicated by the fact that the existing church was rebuilt from the ashes of a devastating fire in 1917.

The fifth-century mosaics The first church could have contained mosaics and some of these may survive in a fragmentary state on the inside of the west wall of the nave. One of these putative fifth-century mosaics shows a nimbed saint, presumed to be Demetrios, his hands, done in gold tesserae, upraised in prayer, and flanked to his left by a child and an older figure (a parent?) and the fragments of a child (only bits of the leg, robes and head remain) to his right. The saint stands in front of a structure which may represent his ciborium, his shrine, which was a focal point in the church. The other mosaic depicts a standing saint, again probably Demetrios, against a cloud-filled sky, with, above his head, an angel who may be blowing a trumpet or perhaps holding a gold-sheathed staff. A further detached fragment, now in the Byzantine Museum in Thessaloniki, shows a similar image of Demetrios as an orant saint, with a small figure (a child?) to his right.

The ‘Maria Cycle’ There was a series of mosaic images that ran along the colonnade the length of the north inner aisle of the church, including what is known as the ‘Maria cycle’. These were destroyed by the fire of 1917 and are known only from photographs and a series of watercolours by W.S. George made before this fire. This makes their interpretation tricky, since it also seems likely that they went through restorations before and after a fire in the church in the seventh century.

The ‘Maria cycle’ depicts an assortment of saints, often in positions of prayer, together with several smaller figures being presented to the Mother of God and her Child or to St Demetrios. The final surviving spandrel, for example, shows Demetrios in front of a scalloped niche with two medallion portraits, one on either side. To the saint’s right, two small figures raise their hands; to his left a richly-dressed man also does, making an offering according to the inscription as ‘As a prayer for one whose name God knows’. In a final scene at the east end, Demetrios is shown standing in a four-columned structure; to the left is a group of three women, a beardless man and a young girl with a gold cross on her forehead offering doves; the couple behind may be her parents. Behind them is some sort of shrine and at the apex of the seventh arch, a medallion of Christ who looks towards Demetrios. The right hand side of the image has largely gone. The inscription associated with the scene reads: ‘And you, my lord St Demetrios, aid us your servants and your servant Maria whom you gave to us’. On the basis of this inscription, the child has been taken to be ‘Maria’ and four of the scenes interpreted as a set recording her infancy and childhood, though these need not be one continuous scene but stories of four different girls with the crosses on their foreheads marking them as divinely favoured.

The seventh-century mosaics The seventh-century images widely agreed to post-date the fire are all single panels and almost all on the two large piers at the east end of the church at the end of the colonnades, flanking the bema. On the west tribelon wall facing the inner north aisle, a very badly damaged panel depicts a nimbed male saint, probably Demetrios himself, flanked by four churchmen, two bishops, whom Demetrios has his arms round, a priest and a deacon. On the east side of the north sanctuary pier is a panel showing a soldier-saint in an orans pose, usually identified as St Nestor. Below him is an inscription: ‘a prayer for one whose name God knows’. On the west face of same pier is a panel showing another soldier saint in formal uniform with two children clearly under his protection – the saint has his hand on the shoulder of one and his blessing hand above the other. A painted inscription identifies him as George, though he has also been seen as Bacchos (because Sergios is across the way) or even as Demetrios. On the south side of this pier is a panel showing the Mother of God and an orant saint usually identified as St Theodore. She holds a scroll asking for God to hear her prayer; above them, a half-length Christ in a mandorla of blue reaches down towards his mother, as if answering her prayer. This one looks very different to the others and has been suggested to be ninth century.

Moving across the church, but part of the same seventh-century period and possibly the same campaign of decoration, on the west side of the south pier, in the same place as George on north pier, is another soldier-saint, St Sergios in an orant pose and identified by inscription. Sergios, George and Nestor are all very similar in appearance: clean-shaven, young and curly-haired. On the north side of this south pier, facing the bema, is Demetrios himself with the archbishop of Thessaloniki and a figure usually identified as the Eparch of the city. These two are not identified by name (though they are sometimes identified as the founders or the rebuilders of the basilica), and so they become generic representatives of the two most important men in the city. Demetrios, showing his approval and support, has his arms around both. Neither man is haloed, but the battlements of the city behind them look almost like square haloes. On east side of the pier, Demetrios stands with his arm over the shoulders of an elderly man, perhaps the same man as in the tribelon mosaic, a deacon by his dress, and so second to the archbishop in the hierarchy of the church. The deacon gestures to an inscription below which invokes Demetrios’s help for citizens and strangers alike. This man bears a resemblance to the deacon shown in a set of three medallions and an inscription seemingly (as far as we can tell from the drawings) inserted into the mosaics on the upper level of the north colonnade. Finally, close to this pier, there is a bust in the semidome of a small conch in north wall of the south wing: a beardless saint in an orans pose who may be, again, Demetrios.

These St Demetrios mosaics, like the earlier ones, are more contained and personal than the great central apse images in so many other churches. None of the surviving mosaics in St Demetrios were the defining images of the church: we do not know what was in the apse or on the nave walls. Instead, they occupy the end walls, the piers, the arcading of the nave. They emphasise the work of Demetrios and underline his holy powers. They are neither the work of one or two major patrons, as far as can be told, nor do they make a coherent programme. Instead, they appear as a series of separate, independently commissioned panels around a specific theme: the role of the saint as healer and protector, and saviour of the city, a role that the Miracles of St Demetrios, a collection of stories about the saint dating, in part, to the seventh century, underlines. In Christian terms, saints served as patrons for the individual before God, sponsoring even the mightiest, and images such as those from St Demetrios made the holy guarantor visible to his clients and the wider world.

The mosaics very obviously reflect the major function of the church as a healing sanctuary; indeed, the spatial arrangements of the mosaics on the walls of the nave may indicate something of a route that those looking for healing might have followed around the church, praying at different spots. The heart of the cult of Demetrios was his ciborium, the shrine in which the saint, despite the lack of tangible relics, was somehow present and efficacious. This was located in the nave between the spandrels of the arches, specifically at the point where the cycle involving the child Maria starts, and was surely a focus for those seeking the saint’s help. So it seems no coincidence that so many of the miracle-mosaics occupy the registers above and around this site. The Miracles make it clear that Demetrios did not work through his images but by his manifestation, his physical appearance, in dreams or visions, as he is shown in the mosaics, present with those seeking his aid. So the mosaics should be seen as prayers to the saint, as indeed many of the inscriptions on them – ‘a prayer for one whose name God knows’ - show. They are ex votos, often thanking the saint for his help, but also imploring that help, and they form a record of the saint’s power and munificence to his people. The images are also individual and personalised, to the point that specific individuals could, and perhaps still can, be identified. Furthermore, taken together, the images show an on-going veneration across several centuries of the saint and his miraculous powers, a continuing use and re-use of the church space.

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