Sunday, 20 April 2014

Easter in Corfu

St Spyridon's church, Corfu town.
St Spyridon, who lived in the fourth century, is the formidable patron saint of Corfu.  Not the least of it is his corpse; though he has been dead for 1600 years you can see him today and even kiss his toes.   

An icon of St Spyridon.
Spyridon was born in Cyprus where he was a determined opponent of the Arian heresy. At the Council of Nicaea in 325 he countered the Arians by giving a dramatically simple demonstration of the Trinity.

He took a brick in his hand and squeezed it. At that instant fire shot out from it, water dripped on the ground, and only dust remained. 'There was only one brick', St Spyridon said, 'but it was composed of three elements. In the Holy Trinity there are three Persons, but only one God.'  Some say that Spyridon never went to Nicaea at all.  But others say that thanks to Spyridon and his brick we have today the Nicene Creed.

I believe in one God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth,
And of all things visible and invisible:
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God,
Begotten of his Father before all worlds ...

And I believe in the Holy Ghost,
The Lord and giver of life,
Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son ...

In 649 the Arabs attacked Cyprus and sometime during the three centuries of devastating Muslim warfare against the island that followed, the remains of Spyridon were spirited away to Constantinople. When that city fell to the Turks in 1453 Spyridon resumed his journeys, this time to Corfu.

In Corfu Spyridon did marvellous things.  He is credited with preserving the islanders from the plague, and in 1716 he saved Corfu from the Turks who had mustered a vast army and fleet across the straits at Butrint in Albania.  But when Spyridon appeared in their midst, brandishing a glistening sword and threatening them with a flaming torch, the Turks panicked and broke and ran.

The body of St Spyridon.
Spyridon's body is kept as a relic in his church in Corfu town and on the Saturday before Easter Day it is carried through the streets in a religious procession before being returned to his resting place in a cabinet.  Not that he gets any rest; to receive the benefit of his miraculous powers, thousands queue to kiss his feet.

Easter celebrations at midnight in Corfu Town.

I was fortunate enough to be here one Easter to join the celebrations.  Spyridon buttons, bearing a picture of his corpse, were on sale everywhere, some of them with close-ups of his brown and wrinkly raisin face.  The church was packed and I joined the queue to kiss his feet, then we all tumbled outside where on an upper floor of a near by building an unseen band played loud umpah music to the streets below.  At midnight the town explodes with flashes and booms.

People gather for the Easter fireworks.

On another Easter I went to the top of Pantocrator (the Almighty), the mountain that dominates the island and from where you can see even as far as Italy, over 80 miles away.  And almost at your feet, in Albania just across the strait, lies Butrint, the scene of Spyridon's triumph.  

The view from the top of Pantocrator towards Albania.

Lawrence Durrell has written about Spyridon in Prospero's Cell, his book about Corfu, and also about climbing Mount Pantocrator. 
We climbed the dizzy barren razorback of Pantocrator to the monastery from which the whole strait lay bare, lazy and dancing in the cold haze. Lines of dazzling water crept out from Butrinto, and southward, like a beetle on a plate, the Italian steamer jogged its six knots towards Ithaca. Clouds were massing over Albania, but the flat lands of Epirus were frosty bright. In the little cell of the warden monk, whose windows gave directly upon the distant sea, and the vague rulings of waves to the east, we sat at a deal table and accepted the most royal of hospitalities - fresh mountain walnuts and pure water from the highest spring. ...

At all events the Saint holds the island in his power; the boats that set out nightly for fishing or daily for foreign ports of call, all travel in his benign shadow; and it is he who welcomes you to port on the days when the deep-trenched north wind blanches the sea, and when the ironclads by the Venetian fort turn slowly on the leash to face it. It is he who guards your spirit when the wind screams down the ravines of Pantocrator. And when you are washed up in the dead calm of dawn, entangled like a sculpture in your broken boat and sprung nets - it is in his image and shadow that your soul finds rest.  To him belongs the lovely greeting: Ο Άγιος Σπυρίδων μαζί σου.
Rain falls on Butrint on the estuary opposite Corfu where St Spyridon terrified the Turks.