Probably somewhere in Italy, there is a post office for Saint Dimitri, in whom I recently developed a passionate interest. By coincidence, his feast day in the Roman Catholic Church is October 8th, my own birthday.
But my current interest in Saint Dimitri started with this painting on Ebay.
It caught my attention, as it was from Serbia, as is one half of me. (In the Serbian Orthodox Church, Dimitri’s feast day is November 8th).
I loved the prancingness of the horse, the gentle naivety of the saint and the vileness of the villain Saint Dimitri is impaling. It reminded me of the way that another militant saint, George, always skewers the dragon. Indeed the two are sometimes paired in art, and both were patron saints of the crusades.
Saint Dimitri (or Dimitrios, or Demetrios) was born to wealthy Christian parents in Thessaloniki in around 270 A.D. He rose to high office in the army, but he fell foul of the persecutions of Diocletian. Convicted of preaching Christian doctrine, he was speared to death in around 306A.D.
Another version of this story is that Dimitri successfully prayed for a young Christian, Nestor, to defeat Lyaeos in single combat. Dimitri was betrayed, and so ended up martyred himself.
His servant Lupus was also beheaded when he used relics of his master – a signet ring and a bloodstained tunic – to perform various miracles.
The body of Dimitri itself was interred by Christian followers and in the seventh century his tomb began to secrete copious flows of fragrant myrrh, which is how he acquired his Orthodox epithet Mirovlitis, the Myrrh Gusher
But his spirit continued to protect his native city of Thessaloniki with miraculous interventions to beat off attackers and besiegers in the form of Slavs, Arabs and Saracens. In some depictions, like this one, he is shown on a dark horse spearing the gladiator Lyaeos, a fearsome killer of many Christians.
I sent the picture to my father, who was born in Belgrade, to ask him what he thought.
My father Vladimir is an eminent haematologist, a lover of music, a great fisherman and the man who gave me a taste for black humour and the fiction gene. We still talk about books several times a week, and it was he who sent me to writers I would otherwise not have found such as Simon Rich and Ned Beauman. And I gave him the heads up on Sandra Newman and Donna Tartt.
I also turn to my father for forensic assistance when I need to murder someone (in a novel).
And he’s of course all good value for anything Balkan.
With Saint Dimitri, my father was enormously helpful, problematizing the painting in a way that made it even more attractive for me. ‘As you know,’ he emailed, ‘the painting is dated 1899. However, the script, whilst Cyrillic, is not in the current phonetic script that was introduced into Serbia in about 1840 by Vuk (the wolf) Karadzic. The script is in the old Serbian Cyrillic (close to current Russian script), so that I have difficulties in understanding all details, other than it was painted by a Lazar Tchoich (I have anglicised the surname).’
What is the value of a copy? If the painting is faithful to the extent that it retains the charm and freshness of the original, and is painted by the hand of an artist – is it not a worthy work? Can an anachronism not be a thing of beauty, when it traps disparate fragments of cultural history like the wings of different vintages of bees and flies in amber?
Of course the work of painting icons is in itself a sacred practice, and this is why an icon from 1899 can easily look like one from 1599.
The more time I spent thinking about Saint Dimitri, the more I wanted him.
And so, reader, as you can guess, I acquired him, and he sits well among my collection of mutilated polychrome saints.
Even the cat likes him.
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