Religion

The people of Corfu take their Orthodox religion, with its elaborate ceremonies, most seriously. Saint Spiridon is the patron saint of Corfu Greece, and Corfiots honour him with great religious sentiment.

The Saint, as he is known, is present in many ways in their daily life and many celebrations are devoted to him. For the inhabitants of Corfu, these are ways of showing gratitude and adoration, for it is believed that he has saved Corfu from disaster many times during its long history.

Saint Spiridon was born in Tremithous in Cyprus in 270 AD. The son of a poor family, he had no education and earned his living as a shepherd. After the death of his beloved wife, he dedicated himself to the church and eventually rose to become the Bishop of Tremithous. He took part in the First Ecumenical Council in 325 AD at Nicaea, in Asia Minor. This was an event of extreme importance at the time for the Orthodox Church.

Among the serious religious matters that were discussed by the Council, the Arian heresy was condemned. During the Maximinian Persecutions, Saint Spiridon was arrested and exiled. He lived and died in Cyprus, working miracles all his life. When the Saracens took the island, the Cypriots opened his grave in order to remove his sacred bones and take them to Konstantinople.

They found that his body had remained intact, and a scent of basil emanated from the grave; a true sign of the sainthood he had shown during his life. When Constantinople fell in 1453, a Corfiot elder, Georgios Kalohairetis brought him to Corfu where his three children acquired the Saint as an heirloom. The sacred remains then passed as the dowry of his daughter Asimia into the possession of the Voulgaris family, who placed them in their private church (located on the site of the Pallas Cinema).

The Saint was transferred to his present church when the original was demolished during the fortification of Corfu Town. There is not an exact date which shows when the Saint was closely and strongly associated with the islands destiny and was raised to the status of patron saint, but we should look back to dates before 1553. According to tradition, Saint Spiridon saved the island from great famine at this particular historical period.

Similar miracles are also associated with the Saint, such as the saving of Corfu island from plague in 1630 and 1673, and also from the Turkish invasion of 1716. Spiros is a very common name in Corfu, and comes from Spiridon, the Christian name of the Saint. There is practically not a single family in Corfu that does not have somebody named after the beloved saint! Also, when the Corfiots want to swear on their word of honour, they mention with respect the name of Saint Spiridon.

Four times a year (the 1st of November, 11th of December, Palm Sunday and the Saturday of Holy Week, just before Easter Sunday) his remains are carried round Corfu town in solemn procession, to commemorate his miraculous interventions. All of these dates are bank holidays for Corfiots, who gather in the Spianada Square and the main roads of Corfu to honour their Saint. The processions are accompanied by numerous bands, which are all worth seeing and hearing.

An island with such strong musical tradition definitely associates the honour of the Saint with triumphant or deeply religious music events. Saint Spiridon’s church was originally built in the Sarocco area in Corfu Town, but the present structure was erected in 1590 in the heart of the Old Town (Campielo). The church is typical of religious buildings in the Ionian Islands, and differs greatly from the Byzantine style churches that can be seen in the rest of Greece.

The differences are noticeable inside the church, which is the greatest religious monument of Corfu. The strict and stylized Byzantine painting is not present, as the works are heavily influenced by the Renaissance. The ceiling was divided into 17 sections separated by gilt frames and the paintings show scenes from the life of the Saint and the four Evangelists. The marble screen is also a remarkable work and the Saint’s relics are kept in a 19th century silver sarcophagus to the right of the altar.

A trip to the church of Saint Spiridion is definitely worthwhile when a guest is in Corfu. It stands as one of the most interesting places to visit on the island, and its historical value is huge. It is also a major monument of religious devotion and will fascinate its visitors.

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