Flower symbolism and the cult of relics in medieval Serbia
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The Life of archbishop Eustathios I [Jevstatije] (1279-1286), deserving head of the medieval Serbian Church and a saint, is a very interesting source for studying the cult of relics with the Serbs. This is not surprising considering that the Life was penned by one of the most illustrious of Eustathios' successors on the church throne, Daniel II [Danilo], a learned Athonite and unquestionable master of the hagiographie literary genre. In his account of the life of his distinguished predecessor, Daniel describes extensively the events constituting the key stage in the glorification of a saint, namely Eustathios' death and posthumous occurrences at his grave. As most holy men, Eustathios foresaw his own death, and he departed from this world serenely. He was buried, with due honours, in the 'marble grave' he had prepared for himself in the cathedral church of Holy Saviour at Žiča. In keeping with the well-established saint-making process, a few years after the funeral 'extraordinary signs...' began to occur at the archbishop's grave, in this particular case, candlelight and a multitude of murmuring voices followed by the miraculous cure of an incurably ill person. These occurrences preceded the great miracle which, to the best of my knowledge, is unparalleled in the medieval Serbian practice of relic veneration. Namely, 'one day they found growing from his marble grave three flowers endowed with wondrous beauty and impossible to liken to anything else. For, indeed, they were not of earthly humidity or of union with flowers that grow from earth; but, o wonder, how a dry stone standing for so long in the church could send forth fragrant flowers, to the renewal of the sanctified one's body'. Flower metaphors occur in the Service to the holy archbishop Eustathios, yet another piece penned by Daniel II, notably in his paraphrases of Psalm 92, 12-14 ('The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree: he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon. These that be planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God'). The meaning of these quotations should be looked at within a broader framework, that of the medieval theology of relics where flower symbolism played a significant role. The close link between flowers and relics had its origin in the martyrological tradition and was founded on the belief that the martyrs' heavenly abode is a paradisiacal locus amoenus, a garden with springs of fresh water, lush greenery and copious flowers. It is well known that such a vision of paradeisos - a reconstruction of the Garden of Eden lost through Adam's fall, and an anticipation of the future heavenly abode - was a commonplace in the Byzantine tradition. It found its full expression in the concept of monastic gardens, conceived of as the earthly image of the fragrant flowery meadows of paradise inhabited by the righteous. Two flowers highly charged with symbolic power were the lily and the rose, considered as being paradise flowers, flowers of martyrdom and holiness. Early Christian exegesis often referred to the martyrs as flores martyrum, and to their bodies as heavenly flowers. This connection between relics and flowers involves several aspects that are relevant to understanding the miraculous episode at the grave of archbishop Eustathios. Essential from the theological point of view is the association, deeply rooted in the antique world, between flowers and death and rebirth. This belief in the transforming power of flowers, rejuvenation and renewal of life, found its full expression in a complex and very popular springtime rite - dies rosationes - when the graves of the ancestors were visited and adorned with flowers. The Christianized version of this belief may be illustrated by the words of the prophet Isaiah (66, 14): 'And when you see this, your heart shall rejoice, and your bones shall flourish like an herb.' Needless to say, the doctrine of the resurrection of mankind, rebirth and life everlasting lies at the heart of Christian teaching. Another essential aspect of this subject is the phenomenon of exuding a sweet smell or fragrance, which is in a direct functional connection with flowers. Recent work has shown convincingly how complex and diffuse meanings of this subject are, especially with regard to the relationship between fragrance and fundamental Christian beliefs about the nature, redemption and resurrection of the human body, ascetic practices, or the cult of relics. One of the starting points in Christian exegesis was the message in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (2,14-16) about Christ and the 'savour of his knowledge', interpreted as the 'savour of life' as opposed to the 'savour of death'. Along the same lines, St Ambrose refers to the 'fragrance of resurrection' as anticipating life everlasting. Ephrem the Syrian, who was instrumental in shaping the theological notion of fragrance, argues that a sweet smell is a vehicle for recognizing divine blessing, receiving revelation and sending it out into the world, as at the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles. Eschatological symbolism connected with flowers and scents played an important role in the cult of relics. Fragrance, as is well known, was a key indicator of sanctity and a sign of divine presence. A similar, transcendental, meaning was assigned to other elements of the ritual of elevatio and depositio of relics: resplendent polychrome ornamentation of the coffin, various perfume oils and aromatics, lavish shrouds, flowers laid onto the grave. This is a phenomenon which researchers have recognized, and with good reason, as a distinctive type of 'aesthetics' or religious sensibility which may be traced back to late antiquity and its marked penchant for flowers, bright colours and luminous effects. Finally, this theme has yet another level of meaning that is well worthy of mention: flowers as a metaphor for piety, virtue and ascetic values. This sort of fragrance originates from Christian virtues and deeds - devotion, fasting and prayer - and in particular from the ascetic way of life. The link between fragrance, flower symbolism and asceticism is a distinctive and very popular topos in Christian literature. It also has biblical models, such as, for example, Isaiah 35,1: 'The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.' Exegetes interpreted the concept of the desert in a seemingly paradoxical way as anchoretic paradise and a place of plenty with a multitude of flowers in bloom - metaphor for monks and their virtues. The syntagm desertum floridus, therefore, has not only a strong internal logic, but also a precisely delineated field of meaning. Namely, the main goal of the desert fathers was to 'reconstruct' the Garden of Eden in their own living environments and thus anticipate the future heavenly gardens. The notions contained in the relic-related 'ideology' and practice of the Byzantine world elicited a creative response in the Balkans. The motif of flowers and their fragrance as a metaphor for paradise, triumph over death and rebirth in Christ was given its due place in the process of creating regional and national saintly cults. This may be seen from the texts written for the needs of the cults, such as, for exam-80 pie, the Life of St John of Rila, where the saint's relics are likened to a 'fragrant lily'. Particularly interesting for the subject here discussed is a description of the signs occurring at the grave of St Joachim of Osogov, because it provides a direct analogy with the miraculous uncovering of the relics of archbishop Eustathios. Namely, according to the hagiographer, at that very moment the earth above the grave rose up and the grave became surrounded with many a fragrant flower. In the Serbian environment such ideas can be traced back to the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries or the time of St Sava and Stefan the First-Crowned, that is, the time of the establishment of the cult of their father Nemanja (in monkhood Simeon), the founder of the dynasty. It is quite understandable, then, that the motif of vine with its offshoots, blossoms and fruit became an element of royal ideology in the early days of the medieval Serbian state. Namely, the metaphorical likening of Nemanja's dynasty to a vine laid an emphasis on the idea of dynastic divine election and sanctity. It is already the Service to St Simeon that uses the habitual paraphrase of Psalm 92,12-14 about the flourishing palm tree and Lebanese cedar, but in a distinctive context: their growth and flourishing refers to the growth of Simeon's 'children', which is to say the dynasty and the 'fatherland'. The idea of life-giving growth and thriving is illustrated by other epithets ascribed to Simeon, such as a 'fruit-bearing vine', 'wonderful heaven', a 'flower of faith in the heavenly vineyard', and so on. It should be emphasized that the authors of the eulogies of Simeon, his sons Stefan and Sava, were well-acquainted with the concept of the monastic desert, epitomized by Mount Athos whose attributes are blossoming, fragrance and illumination. Subsequent Serbian writers also made ample use of the idea of the miraculous blossoming and transformation of matter, especially in paraphrasing Psalm 92,12-14. Their paraphrases are never identical, however; on the contrary, the emphasis varies both in substance and in function. Apart from 'ideological' messages about the flourishing dynasty and state, the verses of this psalm are usually used to refer to piety and a virtuous life. It probably is not a coincidence that such references frequently occur in the eulogies to the sainted heads of the Serbian Church, but also to distinguished ascetics. Thus St Sava, 'like a good-smelling lily, is saturated with scents of piety', archbishop Nikodemos [Nikodim] blossoms like a 'fine-growing palm tree', and patriarch Ephrem [Jefrem] 'blossoms offering spiritual gifts'. The virtue attained by two distinguished anchorites, St Peter of Koriša [Petar Koriški] and St Ioannikios of Devič [Joanikije Devički], is described in much the same way. Blossoming as a metaphor for virtuousness and the ascetic struggle did not draw solely upon Psalm 92; it was evoked by a variety of poetic images. The Service to the holy king Milutin, for example, refers to the 'most beautiful flowers of piety', 'diverse flowers of [the king's] many good works', to 'paradise and the lovely lily' or the 'mysterious rose blooming with good works'. The understanding of the ascetic struggle and withdrawal to the desert as a major source of heavenly fragrance and blooming is elaborated with much erudition by Theodosios of Hilandar [Teodosije Hilandarac]. He describes St Sava of Serbia as a 'desert disciple; a child of calling, an offshoot of quietness, a branch of abstinence, a flower of fasting, a fruit of humbleness, perfected by love and compassion'. Theodosios makes ample use of metaphors to describe fragrance as a sign of sanctity and as a vehicle for knowing the higher truth through sensory experience, the truth granted by revelation and divine grace. Similar poetic imagery is found even in post-Kosovo Serbian literature when the predominant saintly model becomes that of the martyr ruler. Thus Gregory Tsamblak [Grigorije Camblak] likens the relics of Stefan of Decani to the flowers of martyrdom and associates them with illumination: 'For at first he grew in your midst as a fragrant rose, and now, amidst the martyrs, he shines forth as a bright star.' Similar attributes were accorded to the relics of the greatest martyr of Kosovo, holy prince Lazar, likened by the writer of his Service to the rose and the lily. The traditional topos of blooming and renewal in the context of the cult of relics continued into the modern age, and in various domains of culture. In the jurisdictional area of the Patriarchate of Pec, this is particularly noticeable in the work of patriarch Paisios [Pajsije] (1614-1647). His programmatic reestablishment of the cults of the Nemanjićs was predicated on theological and poetic models found in the medieval literary legacy. Similar developments are observable in the veneration of the Serbian saints north of the Sava and the Danube between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. The concept of a new lineage, that of the Brankovićs of Srem, of its flourishing and fruits, lay at the heart of the religio-political programme of the Metropolitanate of Krušedol, later of Karlovci, and was used as one of major historical arguments for the legitimacy of the Serbian presence in the region. A distinctive aspect of this theme is the materialization, conditionally speaking, of the concept of the blossoming, growth and enlivening of matter as a paradigm of the future resurrection and heavenly abodes. For understandable reasons, this was the central message communicated by Eastern Christian gravestones. Apart from other symbolical and allegorical signs, it was expressed by way of blooming lilies, flowers, foliate vines and fruits. This is observable in the funerary practice of medieval Serbia, too, but its distinctive feature, to judge from the surviving material, is in that this repertoire occurs in the form of a rounded-off programme on the representative tombs of the heads of the church. Particularly important of these are the marble sarcophagi at the Patriarchate of Pec with their semantically highly stratified ornamentation. The idea of resurrection and heavenly bliss is expressed through motifs such as arcades, blossoming crosses, rosette flowers, foliate vines, lilies etc. Given the symbolical nature and metaphorical and associative qualities of Byzantine funerary sculpture, there are good reasons to believe that this decoration in fact evoked texts such as Psalm 92, 12-14 about the future life of the righteous in the house of the Lord. It is in the light of these considerations that we should look at all aspects of the grave of archbishop Eustathios I and the posthumous miracles that occurred at it. A particularly interesting question is whether the story about the miracle with flowers was reflected in the decoration of his tomb. This should be cautiously allowed, given Felix Kanitz's eyewitness record of 1860 that Eustathios' grave was marked with a marble monument with the lid engraved with a cross on a stepped base and a six-petal flower. This lid, now lost, is known from Kanitz's drawing. This may be a mere coincidence, but the fact remains that this decoration has no analogy in the surviving gravemarkers of the heads of the Serbian Church, and that just as unique is Daniel II's narrative about the flowers miraculously growing from Eustathios' grave. What led Daniel II to use, for the first and last time in his work, flower metaphors to describe the posthumous miracles at Eustathios' grave, remains unknown. And yet, there is no doubt that Eustathios I's 'life and deeds' provided a strong defence for the 'fragrance of virtue' and attributes of the heavenly abode manifested by his body. Namely, his ha-giography, both in details and as a whole, and regardless of whether drawing upon hagiographie commonplaces or historical facts, indeed suggests a person profoundly committed to living the life of an 'earthly angel'. This is demonstrated by the stages of his path: longing for a solitary life from early days, withdrawal from the world, taking of monastic vows, devotion to all monastic duties. Moreover, Eustathios was one of those prelates who looked up to St Sava of Serbia and built their habitus in the most illustrious Christian deserts, withdrawing to Athos and making pilgrimages to Jerusalem and the Judean Desert. Eustathios' lifestyle and service was accommodated to supreme models, and its course and stages clearly suggest a person consciously prepared for the highest offices in the hierarchy. At first appointed hegumen of the monastery of Hilandar on Mount Athos, upon his return to Serbia he became bishop of Zeta, and eventually was elevated to archbishop of Serbia with the blessing and under the patronage of king Dragutin. Daniel II does not fail to describe, using standard topoi, his Christian and pastoral virtues, with a special emphasis on the ascetic aspect of his personality. And yet, what made Eustathios a truly outstanding person were his charisma and his holiness, which Daniel portrays using hesychast concepts such as praxis and vision. The same meaning resides in phrases such as 'well-reasoned discernment' and 'well-reasoned words', fundamental notions in Christian ascetic literature. Such abilities, regarded as being God's gift and a charismatic quality of the highest order, were the true source of the authority that the renowned abbasascetics enjoyed among the larger populace of medieval society. According to Christian beliefs, it was this category of 'holy men' - recipients of divine grace - that was granted the privilege of having their relics exude the 'fragrance of virtue' like paradisiacal flowers. This seems to be the framework in which the true meaning of the 'extraordinary sight' at the grave of Eustathios I at Žiča should be understood.
Source:Zograf, 2008, 32, 69-81
- Faculty of Philosophy, Belgrade