August 27, 2015

The Veneration of Saint Phanourios on the Island of Crete

Icon of St. Phanourios painted by Cretan iconographer Angelos Akotantos, mid-15th cent.

The veneration of Saint Phanourios began on the island of Rhodes in the mid-fourteenth century when his sacred icon was discovered in the ruins of an old church. Shortly thereafter, according to the synaxarion of the Saint, his veneration spread to Crete and became widespread ever since. According to the synaxarion of St. Nikephoros of Chios, the veneration of Saint Phanourios on the island of Crete began with a miracle, and is described as follows shortly after the discovery of the icon of the Saint in Rhodes:

"At that time the isle of Crete had no Orthodox hierarch, but a Latin bishop, for it was ruled then by the Venetians, who had shrewdly refused to permit an Orthodox hierarch to be consecrated whenever one died. This they did with evil intent, thinking that with time they could thus convert the Orthodox to the papal doctrines. If Orthodox men wished to obtain ordination, they had to go to Kythera.

It came to pass that there went forth from Crete three deacons, traveling to Kythera to be ordained priests by the hierarch there; and when this had been accomplished, and they were returning to their own country, the Hagarenes captured them at sea and brought them to Rhodes, where they were sold as slaves to other Hagarenes. The newly consecrated priests lamented their misfortune day and night.

But in Rhodes, they heard tell of the great wonders wrought by the Great Martyr Phanourios, and straightway they made fervent supplication to the Saint, beseeching him with tears to deliver them from their bitter bondage. And this they did each separately, without knowing ought of what the others were doing, for they had each been sold to a different master.

Now, in accordance with the providence of God, however, they were all three permitted by their masters to go and worship at the temple of the Saint; and, guided by God, they came all together and fell down before the sacred icon of the Saint, watering the ground with the streams of tears, entreating him to deliver them out of the hands of the Hagarenes.

Then they departed, somewhat consoled, each to his own master, hoping that they would obtain mercy, which in fact did come to pass; for the holy one had compassion upon their tears and hearkened unto their supplication. That night he appeared to the Hagarenes who were the masters of the captive priests, and commanded them to permit the servants of God to go and worship in his temple lest he bring dreadful destruction upon them. But the Hagarenes, thinking the matter sorcery, loaded them with chains and made their torments more onerous.

Then the Great Martyr Phanourios went to them that night and brought them forth from their bonds, and encouraged them, saying that the following day he would, by all means, free them. He then appeared to the Hagarenes and, reproaching them with severity, said: 'If by tomorrow you have not set your servants at liberty, you shall behold the power of God!' Thus saying, the holy one vanished. And, O, the wonder! As many as inhabited those houses all arose blind and paralyzed, tormented with the most dreadful pangs, the least with the greatest.

But, though bedridden, with the help of their kinfolk they considered what to do, and finally decided to send for the captives. And when the three priests were come, they inquired of them if they were able to heal them; and they answered: 'We shall beseech God. Let His will be done.'

But the Saint appeared again to the Hagarenes on the third night and said to them: 'If ye do not send to my house letters of manumission for the priests, you shall have neither the health, nor the light [of sight] which you desire.' And when they had again conferred with their kinfolk and friends, each one composed a letter of emancipation for his own slave, which were left before the icon of the Saint. And O, the wonder!

Even before the messengers sent to the temple returned, those, who before were blind and paralyzed, were healed; and marveling they set the priests free and dispatched them to their homeland amicably. The priests, though, had a copy of the icon of St. Phanourios painted and took it with them to their own country, and each year the memory of the holy one is piously celebrated amongst them."

The scene above depicts the Myrrhbearers, the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, who visited Christ’s tomb after the Crucifixion.  The scene below depicts three priests who were returning to Crete when they were caught in a terrible storm and prayed for deliverance. Saint Phanourios and the Virgin Mary miraculously appeared and rescued them, dispatching the two demons that had caused the storm, seen here in retreat above the ship. This image is attributed to Angelos Akotantos, mid-15th cent.

Saint Phanourios is celebrated on August 27th, which is the date his icon was discovered in Rhodes. He is seen as a healer of various diseases and in particular headaches, as well as helping young maidens find a spouse. All these are accompanied with the baking of a Phanouropita.

Below are some of the many shrines associated with Saint Phanourios in Crete:

Saint Phanourios Chapel in Varsamonero Monastery of Vorizia, Heraklion

In the mid-fifteenth century the abbot of Varsamonero Monastery, Jonas Palamas, erected a chapel dedicated to the Saint in the monastery around 1426, though perhaps earlier. Abbot Jonas is the one who had achieved the release of the Cretan priests mentioned above and commissioned the icon of Saint Phanourios that he brought from Rhodes to Crete. He was also cured of a serious leg infection with the help of the Saint. This monastery stands in the village of Vorizia, 52 kilometres south-west of Heraklion, and the Chapel of Saint Phanourios houses some incredible fourteenth and fifteenth century frescoes which are pure artistic masterpieces and unique examples of the Cretan School. It is said that El Greco studied here in his early years.

In this chapel on the iconostasis is a very old and miraculous processional icon of Saint Phanourios. Until today suspects who have been accused of stealing animals are taken there to swear their innocence. It is believed that Saint Phanourios will reveal the thief, and for this reason it is deeply rooted in the people to not lie for fear of punishment. People from the surrounding regions threaten those who are accused of stealing that they will be taken to give an oath before Saint Phanourios, and even the courts take such matters seriously if an accused thief refuses to do so.

One tradition says the following concerning this: Once there were two shepherds who went to the chapel to swear before the icon. One shepherd had stolen an animal from the other. The shepherd whose animal was stolen then placed his palm on the icon and said: "Saint Phanourios, if he has stolen from me and will not give back, then give him a sign." The other had his hand on the icon also. As soon as the word "sign" was said, blood began to run from the nose of the shepherd who stole. And when the other shepherd saw this and confronted him, the thief confessed his crime and his nose stopped bleeding.

Many people in Crete believe Saint Phanourios was a shepherd, and it is believed that the figure glorifying God in the icon of the Nativity of Christ is Saint Phanourios.

Icon of Angelos Akotantos, mid-15th cent., depicting Saint Phanourios trampling on a dragon.

Angelos Akotantos (+ 1450) from Crete, who was associated with Varsamonero Monastery and acquianted with Abbot Jonas Palamas, has painted a number of the Saint's icons, many times depicting him killing a dragon; this tradition is found mainly in Crete especially in icons of the fifteenth century when the Saint is said to have saved many Cretans from certain death from the hands of the invading Ottomans. There are seven icons attributed to him of Saint Phanourios, three bearing his signature. His art is believed to have helped contribute to the spread of the veneration of Saint Phanourios throughout Crete.

Saint Phanourios Church in Kitharida

This church belonged to the Monastery of the Panagia Eleousa which itself belonged to the Monastery of Saint Irene. The church, which is located in a cultivated valley below the hills of Krousonas, can be seen on the right as you enter the village. Saint Phanourios is one of the most architecturally interesting Byzantine churches on Crete. It is composed of three aisles and a narthex which is located in front of the sanctuary. The three aisles end up in three concave recesses at the back of the church. Above this part of the church there are three domes, one for each aisle. It is rare to find domes above the sanctuary of the church and this is one example. The church's exterior is decorated with rosettes (circular glazed surfaces) which are unusual for their size (often as big as a dinner plate) and for their decorative paintings which include birds.

Saint Phanourios in the Gorge of Venerato, Heraklion

Circled by the trees and waters of the gorge, this Chapel of Saint Phanourios is outside the village of Venerato and near the Monastery of Paliani. It is a popular spot for visitors, and brings in a crowd of believers on the day the Saint celebrates on August 27th.

The Tree and Church of Saint Phanourios in Achlada, Heraklion

The ancient Cretans worshipped Apollo as a Stirakit, a tree divinity, the heir of the immemorial god of vegetation. Today Cretans no longer worship trees, but there is a tree in the village of Achlada (named after the pear trees) associated with a miracle of Saint Phanourios. At the roots of this tree an icon of Saint Phanourios was found, and Saint Phanourios himself appeared here indicating the place he wanted a church built to house this icon. There is a tradition of leaving clothing at this tree that belongs to someone who is seeking healing from the Saint; by leaving their clothing behind they are also leaving behind their illness. The church that was built nearby the tree only operates on the feast of Saint Phanourios.