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Saint Demetrios (d. 304 CE) is one of the most popular saints in Orthodoxy, particularly in Thessaloniki. He is patron saint of the city and tradition relates he was born there. A large Church in the centre of the city, Hagios Thessaloniki, is dedicated to him. The first church for Demetrios was built on this site around 100 years after his death (late 4th century). The current Church (fig. a) was built mainly in the 10th century but contains important Byzantine mosaics from the 7th century, including depictions of the saint (fig. b).
According to tradition, Demetrios lived in Thessaloniki during a time of great persecutions against Christians. He boldly proclaimed his faith in Christ, resulting in his execution by order of the Emperor Maximian on October 26th 304 CE. Many stories about his posthumous body performing miracles, such as healing, have been recorded. Since the 10th century icons of Demetrios have depicted him as a warrior saint and wearing the red cloak of martyrdom. Demetrios was martyred by having spears thrust into his side, a subject shown in icons (e.g. see fig. c).
In the current version, however, Demetrios isn’t dressed as a warrior saint, but is depicted in the garments in which we find him in pre-10th century Byzantine art – though he is also wearing the red cloak of martyrdom decorated with a small cherub and floral patterns and which also includes a headdress. Interestingly, and unusually, Demetrios is, with his left hand, pulling aside his chiton so the viewer can see his wound. His right hand is raised upwards and leads the viewer to a break in the heavens (top left) where Christ is shown in half-length holding an open scroll (no inscription) with his left hand and crowning Demetrios with a laurel wreath with his right. The laurel-leaf crown signifies victory in the ancient world and in this context victory over death through martyrdom. The wound in the saint’s side further consolidates him with Christ who also received a lance in the side during his sacrifice on the Cross (John 19:31-37) – in icons of the Doubting of Thomas we see Jesus similarly revealing his wound to the apostles (e.g. fig. d).
In fact, the gestures of Demetrios in the current icon exactly mirror those of Christ in the Doubting of Thomas iconography – one arm raised, the other pulling aside the garment (see comparison below).
And yet this type of feature where the saint shows his spiritual wounds is more commonly found in Western depictions of martyrs or saints who have suffered for Christ (e.g. see fig. e). In the mediaeval West there became a greater focus on visualising the sufferings of Christ and the suffering of the saints. Such suffering creates co-solidarity between God and humans. The influence of this on art seems to derive from monastic practices associated with texts such as Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love (14th c.), and later Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises (16th c.). In these texts the devout person imagines, for instance, that they are suffering with Christ during his passion. According to Catholic tradition, St Francis (12th-13th c.) received the stigmata on his own body – the crucifixion wounds that Christ experienced at Golgotha (e.g. see fig. e). Here the physical manifestation of the wounds of sacrifice are transposed from Christ to the saints, a phenomenon that continues to the present day as we find in accounts of more recent saints such St Gemma Galgani (1878-1903) and St Padre Pio (1887-1968).
This idea becomes heightened in the Baroque period, especially in Spain where Ignatius of Loyola was from. Two sculptures by Pedro de Mena in the Metropolitan Museum of Art illustrate this highly emotive style perfectly (see fig. f). Here Christ and the Virgin are shown together with similar bodily positions, gestures and forlorn facial expressions. In addition, his arms are tied, and her arms touch the place of her heart. There is a direct correlation, thus, between Christ’s suffering and Mary’s, and mainly evoked through echoing gestures, bodily positions, and facial expressions.
The current icon seems to relate, to some extent, to this approach, creating a direct connection between Demetrios and Christ specifically in the context of suffering. As mentioned above, this is partly attested in the mirroring gesture and bodily wound between Demetrios in the icon and Christ in the Doubting of Thomas typology (fig. d). However, as consistent with Orthodox tradition, there is also a greater emphasis (in contrast to the Western examples) of the victory over death that spiritual suffering enables: signified here principally through the triumphantly raised arm and especially the crown of laurel. The Greek inscription in the bottom-left of the panel further relates to this theme and reads as Demetrios addressing Christ about his wound: ‘You see, Word (Christ), what the lawless ones did; you see my side pierced with a lance for Your sake’.
The style of the current object indicates that it was created in Greece or the Balkans in the mid-19th century. A similar work from Bulgaria can be seen in the Church of St Demetrios in Plovdiv, Bulgaria (fig. g).