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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bulgarian Icon: St Demetrius of Thessaloniki

Woodblock print of the icon of St Demetrius of Thessaloniki (Άγιος Δημήτριος της Θεσσαλονίκης), printed by the Rila Monastery (Рилски манастир) of Bulgaria, acquired at the monastery in 1995. St Demetrius is an important military saint of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and its icons are found in many places in Eastern Europe where Dmitri is a common first name.  In Bulgaria, the saint is often shown as a twin of St George the Dragon Slayer. Instead of killing a dragon, St Demetrius is depicted subduing Lyaeos, a gladiator who killed many Christians.

When I asked a monk at Rila what this icon represented, I was told that it was St Demetrius killing the Turks.  The magnificent fortified monastery of Rila, nestled in the snowcapped Rila Mountains south of Sofia, was destroyed by the Ottoman Turkish invaders in the 15th century but gradually rebuilt as the guardian of Bulgarian culture and language during centuries of Turkish rule.  It was not surprising that this icon was reinterpreted in the light of Bulgaria's national independence struggle. During my visit in 1995, I was fortunate to witness the official visit of His Holiness, Patriarch Maxim, Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

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