As For Me and My Icon

Some sharp-eyed readers may recognize this face, this image, or find it familiar. It is the image on the cover of my book, Prodigal Daughter: A Journey to Byzantium, to which I have already referred (product placement!) in earlier posts. It is a representation of St Demetrius by an unknown 15th century Russian iconographer, and I first saw a reproduction when I visited the studio of an iconographer in Edmonton in 2000. I had explained to her, rather bashfully, that I was about to set out on a research trip to the Balkans in pursuit of the Great Martyr of Thessalonica, Demetrius, and wanted to commission from her a travel-size icon that I could take with me as a kind of talisman for the journey.

Now, I had no developed idea at the time of what an icon is for, religiously – this was a research trip, I emphasized – but the iconographer assured me that she was asked to write or paint icons for many different reasons, none of which she ever questioned. Obligingly, she had laid out for me a score of art books, each with a page opened to an iconographic image of the saint, and asked me to choose the one I wanted for my icon. All I could see was a swarm of colours and figures until two types of St Demetrius came into view: one, like St George, had him seated on a horse, cape flaring behind him, spearing not a dragon, however, but a man writhing on the ground; and a second type, a three-quarter portrait of a saintly figure with a halo and cross. My eyes stopped at the one robed in the richest, most saturated colour of red I had ever laid my eyes on. It was the 15th century Russian version. “This one, please.”

And so, some weeks later, my icon and I set off, the saint carefully bundled in a soft, blue velvet bag. He went everywhere with me. I propped him up in all the rooms I stayed in, from Paleohora in Crete to Thessalonica in northern Greece; from Cetinje, Montenegro, to Plovdiv, Bulgaria; and points between. In Canada I presented him at a conference on iconography and at a literary reading at a Valentine’s Day Tea. At home he fit on a small easel on a corner of my dresser in front of which I lit a votive candle every day.

As I said, I was doing research.  I interviewed theologians and Orthodox priests, surveyed mosaics and icons in many churches and read about them, and began to absorb why the religious icon (literally, image, from the Greek) is such an important, in fact essential, part of Orthodox Christian worship and liturgy. I had absorbed as much – just by spending my childhood and youthful Sundays  inside an Orthodox church – but I had no idea why. Now I was learning.

In a nutshell – and I quote from the small classic on the subject, Orthodox Iconography, by Constantine Cavarnos – “True icons focus the distracted, dispersed soul of man on spiritual perfection, on the divine.” I (re)learned that, on entering a church or chapel, you light a small candle and place it in a candlestand next to an icon or two, you bow and make the sign of the cross, kiss the icon and say a small prayer. (This is veneration, not worship, and acknowledges the essentially symbolic nature of the image. We Orthodox are not worshipping Wood and Paint.) I learned much about the symbolic elements of St Demetrius’s representation, for example: his beardless face means he died a young man; he carries the spear of his martyrdom; his figure is elongated to emphasize his unworldly aspect; the gold of the halo symbolizes the “eternal uncreated light of God.”

Each new approach to this image, from the modest panels in country churches to the grand mosaics of his Basilica in Thessalonica, not to mention the pomp and circumstance of the many vigils and liturgies I participated in on his feast days, thickened the meaning of that serene and self-knowing face that I gazed at, focusing, I hoped, on the divine.

However, as the sages say: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. In my zeal as a researcher, leaving few stones unturned, I found myself following the paper trail of scholars (archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists, Byzantinists and Classicists) who disputed the Church’s version of the life and death of Demetrius – that he had been a notable citizen of Thessalonica who had converted to Christianity and was martyred for it during the last of the Roman persecutions of Christians in 304 and whose tomb is located underneath the Basilica consecrated to him. Instead, another story altogether was proposed as having more correspondence with evidence than the hagiography (writing about saints). According to their evidence, Demetrius was a deacon in the Roman town of Sirmium (in modern Serbia) and was martyred there – beheaded and thrown into the Danube –  from where his cult migrated to Thessalonica, establishing that city as an important pilgrimage and therefore commercial site in Byzantium. (After which, it was implied, the Greeks refused to let go of him.) I narrate all this in my book as a kind of sleuthing, while trying to reconcile the disputatious relationship between “materials that the historian can use” and “those he should leave to poets and artists as their property” and to believers. [Hippolyte Delehaye, The Legends of the Saints]

Ultimately the Demetrius of the icon faded from my view: it lost its talismanic property as the “facts of the matter” overtook the “legend” transcribed by that very image. I put him away in his blue velvet wrap and into a drawer and left him there.

Some years later, while visiting a friend in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, I stepped into its Church of St Demetrius. It had recently been handsomely renovated and my friend, an Orthodox monk, urged me to have a look. Yes, the renovated interior was splendid with icons, marble and chandeliers. Outside, I noticed the entry, down a few steps, to a small art gallery, and I stepped in. The exhibit presented the work of graduating students from Plovdiv’s Academy of Fine Arts – along three walls, a long line of icons. I spent a few minutes in front of each, pleased with myself that I had come a long way in this business of Orthodox saints and now could identify almost all the subjects. And then, there he was: St Demetrius; and I stood transfixed. The iconographer/artist had represented him in the familiar presentation of head and shoulders and chest, wrapped in red, beardless and with a full head of thick brown hair. But his expression! Slightly furrowed brow, deeply-lidded eyes, a gaze turned away from me toward something beyond my ken: I had never elsewhere seen such a fusion of physical beauty with sorrowful resignation.

The icon was for sale. I rushed out to find an ATM to pay with Euros. The gallery attendant took my details and, several weeks later, the Saint arrived at my home in Edmonton. I took him to church to be blessed (without the blessing he would only be a painting) and he stands in the “beautiful corner” – bright, shining worship space – on my bedroom cupboard. Demetrius had borne witness to his Christ, and the iconographer has caught him at the moment of his transition from suffering to perfection. I think he is haunted by some memory yet of the life that had been so fresh and muscular even as it bled out of him.  He does not return my undistracted gaze.

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stephanie sampson
stephanie sampson
4 years ago

Interesting what you said about having your own personal icon to travel with, and also coincidentally I was just reading about the often small illustrated Book of Hours which in the Middle Ages most people owned and carried with them as a very personalized intimate connection to christian faith.

Ruth McMonagle
Ruth McMonagle
4 years ago

One day on our way up the steps to the parthenon in Athens, we stopped at a tiny Orthodox Church. The icon of the virgin was set away to one side in a tiny chapel. The guard, speaking in Greek, motioned to me to visit her. To my surprise I decided to do so. I sat and I told her how I was feeling about things. To my further amazement, I was filled with joy and a lightness that stayed with me! A strange experience for a protestant! I never doubted it nor tried to explain it.

David Holm
David Holm
4 years ago

My understanding and appreciation of icons, official saints, and the Virgin Mary is guarded and skeptical at best, but your description of your Plovdiv Demetrius remains poignant, impressing me with the intensity of his love for God and the importance of the next life relative to this.