• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Whence St Demetrios?: The Spanish Patron Saint of Thessaloniki

There is a disturbing lack of early evidence for the cult of St Demetrios at Thessalonica. In light of this the majority of modern scholars don’t accept the existence of a historical Demetrios martyred for his faith at Thessalonica. Much of this scepticism is grounded in the fact the earliest surviving martyrology, the Syriac Breviary (dating to AD 411, though its Greek original was written at Nicomedia in AD 362)[1] omits St Demetrios, despite being fairly encyclopaedic on Balkan saints. Implying, first, the saint didn’t die in Thessalonica and, second, the cult must have developed after AD 362.

J. C. Skedros asserted most martyr lists didn’t claim to be comprehensive, however. He preferred to argue St Demetrios was martyred and buried within the walls of Thessalonica.[2] A difficult claim to sustain when the Syriac Breviary almost entirely restricted its martyrs to those who died in the biggest cities and regional capitals – why leave Thessalonica’s leading martyr out?

Skedros swam hard against a current that sprung from H. Delehaye who advanced the idea that Thessalonica’s St Demetrios was really the St Demetrios martyred at Sirmium.[3] The Belgian Jesuit claimed the cult had developed in Thessalonica after the translation of relics from Sirmium. A tidy hypothesis that explained why Thessalonica had never been able to produce the saint’s remains: they had never possessed any in the first place. It also fitted in nicely with a contact relic the city claimed to possess – Demetrios’ orarium (neckscarf) – which didn’t get a mention before the late fourth century.

The neatness, however, came at the expense of certain details. How exactly, for instance, the cult of a deacon over four hundred miles north might have mutated into a military martyr was difficult to trace. Thessalonica’s saint had certainly never been a deacon. Moreover, the longer account of St Demetrios’ life known as Passio altera claimed a relic translation in the reverse, namely, that after Leontios, prefect of Illyricum, reinvigorated the cult of St Demetrios at Thessalonica he took several relics to Sirmium.[4] And, in addition to Demetrios orarium, the Passion altera also mentions an anulus (ring), which turned out to capable of miracles after his follower named Loupos dipped it in his blood (though not miraculous enough to stop his own execution).[5] Both relics were unusual. Neither conformed to hagiographical stereotypes.

D. Woods believes the makings of a solution can be found in two obscure Spanish military martyrs, Emeterius and Chelidonius, whose ring “was carried up in a cloud” and whose neckscarf was “caught up by the wind of heaven and passed into the depths of light.”[6] Highlighting not only the similarity of relics but, more to the point – and contrary to the point of almost all hagiographical literature (which typically sought to provide a spiritual genealogy to relics) – the unusual purpose of their hagiographical accounts to deny their existence. This all hinted at a loss of relics from their (Spanish) birthplaces.

The spotlight is then pointed at the similarity of names (Emeterius and Demetrios), the military-martyr backgrounds of both, as well as the possibility of a translation of the former to Thessalonica during the rise of the Spanish general Theodosius I.[7] After all, he enjoyed long stays at the city on two occasions. First, after Gratian crowned him as his eastern colleague at Sirmium (379). Second, during the winter of 387. Perhaps to show his new Thessalonican HQ a token of his favour he arranged for the translation of two saints who, while insignificant to Iberia, provided spiritual heft to a city that lacked the prestigious remains of rival cities like Sirmium, and proved easy to translate (in turbulent times) by sea.

So far, an explanation as to why a previously unknown military-martyr Demetrios found himself in Thessalonica. However, little as to why such a scandalously obscure figure might find himself catapulted to the forefront of the Byzantine superstar saint league as the patron saint of what was fast becoming the empire’s second city. The key to this transformation lay in the aforementioned prefect Leontios who c. AD 412/3 ended up begging to be relieved of his incurable illness at the saint’s shrine in Thessalonica. After being “laid upon the tomb, he immediately regained his health.” In gratitude, he cleaned up the local area (which was clearly badly neglected) and “erected a holy house dedicated to the martyr.”[8]

Leontios didn’t stick around though and forced the bishop to give him portions of the relics that could be cut (such as the neckscarf and chlamys) so he could deposit them back in his own HQ, Sirmium, where the most impressive church in which he could deposit them was dedicated to St Demetrios the Deacon. Oddly, in time the original Demetrios was eclipsed by the new Demetrios, whose military virtues may have appealed in such a tempestuous period. Which probably led to all the confusion over who founded which church and the original provenance or translation of relics.

[1] G. B. de Rossi and L. Duschesne, eds. Acta SS 65: Novembris 2.1 (1894), L-LXIX.

[2] James C. Skedros, Saint Demetrios of Thessaloniki: Civic Patron and Divine Protector 4th–7th Centuries (1999).

[3] Hippolyte Delehaye, Les legends grecques des saints militaires (1909), 106-8.

[4] Passio altera (BHG 597) chs. 15–16.

[5] BHG 497, chs. 12–13.

[6] Prudentius Perist. 1. 82–92, trans. H. J. Thomson, ed., Prudentius (1953) 2. 105–7, with the exception that he translates orarium as “handkerchief.” The description of the dress of a typical late fourth-century guard in the poem The Vision of Dorotheus (1.332) reveals that the orarium was worn about the neck. See Jan Bremmer, “An Imperial Palace Guard in Heaven: The Date of the Vision of Dorotheus,” Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik 75 (1988) 82-88.

[7] D. Woods, “Thessalonica’s Patron: Saint Demetrius or Emeterius?” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 93, No. 3 (Jul, 2000) pp. 221-234.

[8] BHG 497, ch. 15. Trans. from J. C. Skedros, Saint Demetrios, 153-154.

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