The Old Metropolitan Cathedral of the Holy Theodores
"Among the many temples, [the Church of Saints Theodoroi] adorns, honors, and makes the city of Serres known to all, no less so than the other temples. It is a holy and sacred place to wonder and marvel at, built in honor of those saints whose name means 'Gift of God'."
- Theodoros Pediasimos (a man of letters and 14th century citizen of Serres)
The church of the gloriously martyred soldier saints, Saints Theodoroi, known also as the Old Cathedral, is located in the center of the old city of Serres. It is a large square basilica (internal dimensions 15.6 by 24 meters) is divided into two parts, the portico and the main body of the church, which is itself separated by two lines of columns into three naves. The large amount of early Christian masonry that was reused in the building of the church would indicate that it was built as early as the 6th century. The exquisite church has been renovated on a number of occasions. No information is available on the history of the monument until the 15th century. However, the manner in which the church was built, and its final form in particular, are the result of a number of bold, easily distinguished, major alterations made at different periods down the ages. The materials and methods used by the craftsman for each of these alterations have helped most of the reputable scholars who have researched the church's history to draw roughly the same fundamental conclusions as to its architecture and decoration.
It was Basil II, the Emperor of New Rome, who ordered the first alterations to be made to the church in thanks for an unexpected victory over the Bulgarians, won not far from Serres on July 29, 1014. The church's original design - that of a basilica with traverse aisle - was altered. The church was crowned with a dome and the side wings of the traverse aisle were extended to form a three-aisled basilica. Inscriptions bear witness to the fact that the church was dedicated to Saint Theodore the General - and him alone - during the 11th and 12th centuries. The church was destroyed, along with the whole of Serres, in 1205 by the Bulgarians under Ioannitsis. Angelos Komnenos, the Despot of Epirus, captured the city in 1221, and repaired the church in thanks for his great victory over the Franks - led by Robert II, the Latin Emperor of Constantinople - which made his later conquest of Thessaloniki possible. He also beautified the church with magnificent mosaics - adding to the mosaics with which the church had gradually been decorated starting in the last quarter of the 11th century - as an expression of gratitude towards its patron saints.
In 1255, Theodore II Laskaris, the Emperor of Nicaea, gilded the church's icons with gold and silver in repayment for the divine assistance he had received from St. Theodore Stratelates during his army's conquest of Meleniko. From then on, small-scale work was periodically done on the church to keep the ravages of time at bay. The church was ransacked by the Turks in 1571, and suffered great damage from a fire in 1849. On June 29, 1913, the church was completely destroyed, along with the rest of the city, by the Bulgarians.
Rebuilding started in 1938 under Theodoros Orlando, and was completed by E. Stikas in 1959. The monument's future was under threat from natural decay, but the church was repaired thanks to intervention on the part of the Bishop of Serres and Nigrita, and once more took its place in the spiritual life of the city as a place of worship.
The Miracle of 1255
When rebels took control of Melnik, a city not far from Serres, nestled on the slopes of the Pirin mountains to the east of the Strymon valley, Theodore II Laskaris (r. 1254–1258) promptly embarked on a military campaign to recover this important stronghold. On his way to Melnik, the emperor stopped at Serres and, as Pediasimos relates, hastened to the Metropolis in order to implore the Holy Theodores to assist him in his venture. The two Martyrs gave ear to the emperor’s prayers and appeared to him in a vision. As the imperial army was marching toward Melnik, the emperor saw two strikingly beautiful and strong young men of larger than normal stature, but as soon as he turned to a companion to alert him to their presence, the handsome youths disappeared. The two Theodores made themselves visible for a second time at the walls of Melnik. The battle had already begun when the Saints miraculously showed up among the soldiers, having the same wondrous appearance as before. This time, however, they were seen not only by the emperor, but also by those in his entourage. Amazed and filled with joy, everyone sensed that victory was nigh. Shortly thereafter, the enemies stationed outside the walls started to flee, terrified by the Saints’ presence, and before long, the imperial troops gained control of the city.
Pediasimos’ account of Theodore II’s expedition to Melnik corresponds to what we know about this episode that took place in 1255 from the historian George Akropolites (1217–1282). Melnik, like Serres, came under the rule of Theodore’s father, the Nicaean emperor John III Doukas Batatses (r. 1221–1254), in 1246. Until then, both cities had been in the Bulgarian hands. Instrumental in their surrender to the Nicaean forces was Dragotas, a Bulgarian military commander, whom the emperor appears to have rewarded by elevating him to a high position in the garrison at Melnik. When Theodore acceded to the throne, Dragotas rebelled and, as Akropolites reports, laid siege to Melnik. The emperor’s response to the rebellion was swift. He assembled his army as quickly as possible, marched to Serres, spent a night there, and then proceeded northwards, following the Strymon, to face the enemy. The imperial army engaged a contingent of Dragotas’ followers at the Roupel defile (modern Kleidi), where they were stationed, taking advantage of the rough terrain, and after some maneuvering managed to break their defenses. When the news about the defeat reached Melnik, the rebels were thrown into disarray, many fled, while Dragotas himself was crushed under the horses’ feet and, severely injured, died three days later. Akropolites does not mention that during the brief stay of his army at Serres the emperor went to the Metropolis to seek the assistance of the Holy Theodores, nor does he make any reference to the Saints’ miraculous appearances afterwards.
According to Pediasimos’ Miracula, once the matters at Melnik were settled, Theodore II returned to Serres to give thanks to his heavenly allies. This is how Pediasimos describes the emperor’s second visit to the Metropolis. Upon his return to Serres, he went to the Martyrs’ shrine in order to venerate the holy images of the Champions [i.e. Holy Theodores] and celebrate the victory with his entire army. Then he ordered that a sufficient amount of gold and silver be given to some goldsmiths to adorn their holy images, and he entrusted a scholar from his entourage, a very knowledgeable man especially versed in such things, to write a canon in honor of the Crowned ones. And indeed, these things were carried out according to the emperor’s order. There can be little doubt that the emperor expressed his gratitude to his divine namesakes by having the stone icon of Metropolitan John adorned. The use of plural forms in the quoted excerpt (ἱεροὶ τύποι, ἱεραὶ εἰκόνες) does not necessarily mean that the emperor had several different images of the Saints embellished with precious metal. As in the account of the miracle of bleeding, Pediasimos’ use of the plural is explained by the fact that the icon showed a pair of figures. The gold and silver donated by the emperor must have been used for the crafting of the icon’s sumptuous revetment recorded in the ekphrasis of the Metropolis.
The Honorable Skull of Saint Theodore
As we learn from the collection of the miracles of the Saints, compiled by a local scholar, Theodore Pediasimos, the Metropolis of Serres was home to a precious relic, the skull of St. Theodore Stratelates. Pediasimos hails this sacred treasure as “the great wonder of the world, the inexhaustible fount of miracles, the source of good health for both souls and bodies.”
There are two inventories of the Metropolis, one drawn up between 1603 and 1613 and the other in 1620, that list the “skull of Saint Theodore.” Yet, according to an account of the Ottoman expedition in the Morea in 1715, attributed to Constantine Dioiketes, a Greek official at the court of the Wallachian ruler Constantin Brâncoveanu (r. 1688–1714), the skull of the Tiron, not the Stratelates, was kept at the Metropolis. The same source records that the Serres cathedral also boasted the Stratelates’ dagger. Another inventory of the Metropolis, drawn up in 1814, lists the skulls of both the Tiron and the Stratelates, each encased in a silver reliquary, and further records the presence of the Saints’ weapons – two iron daggers. The same relics could be seen at the Metropolis in the late nineteenth century. The old cathedral of Serres now possesses only the skull of the Stratelates, enshrined in a reliquary made in 2009. Before 2009, the skull was lodged in a silver-gilt receptacle fashioned in 1754. At least from the late twelfth century on, the two Theodores received joint veneration at the Metropolis. In a liturgical service composed in honor of the Saints by or at the behest of Gennadios, Metropolitan of Serres (d. ca. 1540), the “all-holy couple” (ζεῦγος πανάγιον) is extolled as the “champions of Serres” (Σερρῶν πρόμαχοι) and “defenders of all Macedonia” (Μακεδονίας πάσης ὑπέρμαχοι). In view of the Saints’ intimate link with Serres, it is hardly surprising that two Slavonic sources should refer to the city by the name of Euchaita.
Originally, the Serres cathedral seems to have been dedicated to Saint Theodore Stratelates alone, whose skull, as noted above, was – and still is – housed in this shrine. Highly indicative in this regard is the fact that, according to Pediasimos’ ekphrasis of the Metropolis, the conch of its sanctuary apse was decorated with a scene of a Deesis in mosaic showing the enthroned Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and, significantly, Saint Theodore Stratelates. The scene certainly belonged to the original late eleventh- or early twelfth-century decoration of the church.
The “Queen of Cities” was also home to some of the relics of the Holy Theodores. Dobrinja Jadrejkovič, the future Archbishop Anthony of Novgorod, who visited Constantinople around 1200, reports that the relics of Saint Theodore Tiron were kept in the Great Palace, while those of Saint Theodore Stratelates, including the general’s shield and sword, were to be seen at the Blachernai. Dobrinja also records that a finger of Saint Theodore – he does not specify whether this was the Tiron or the Stratelates – was in the Church of the Holy Apostles.
Read also: The Serres Icon of Saints Theodores