August 27, 2019

The Veneration of Saint Phanourios in the Orthodox Church

By John Sanidopoulos

In the Orthodox Church today, Saint Phanourios is numbered among one of its most popular saints. He is especially known as the patron saint of those who need help finding lost or hidden things, much like Saint Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) among Catholics. And if you invoke the help of Saint Phanourios in finding something lost, you make a promise to bake a cake called a Phanouropita, which you will then bring to church to get blessed and distributed among the faithful as a testimony to his aid. This is usually as far as most people know about Saint Phanourios.

But who is Saint Phanourios and how did he become so popular among the Orthodox faithful? This is actually a complicated question that scholars have grappled with for years. He is presented as an early Christian martyr who was a soldier and suffered various forms of torture before being killed. However, there is not even the slightest mention of a saint with the name Phanourios until we find him depicted in icons on the island of Crete in the 15th century by iconographer Angelos Akotantos, and in a 16th century Vatican codex,[1] which simply speaks of a miracle that involves bringing a copy of an icon of Saint Phanourios from Rhodes to Crete.

We get the details about the discovery of Saint Phanourios from a text written in the late 18th century called the New Leimonarion, where it is said that Arabs in Rhodes found many icons that were decayed in the ruins of an old church and discarded them, but there was one icon that looked like new which was recovered by Orthodox Christians and brought to Metropolitan Neilos of Rhodes. The Metropolitan was able to decipher the name of the Saint depicted as being "Saint Phanourios", who was dressed in a military uniform holding a candle and cross and surrounded with twelve scenes of his life and martyrdom. The Metropolitan took the icon to Constantinople and received permission from the Ecumenical Patriarch to rebuild the church where the icon was found.

We are then told of three deacons from Crete who sought ordination, but had to travel to Kythera in order to be ordained since Crete was ruled by the Venetians and did not allow Orthodox ordinations. On the way back from Kythera after their ordination, they were captured by Arab pirates and taken to Rhodes. While there they heard of the many miracles of Saint Phanourios and prayed to him for their deliverance. Indeed, with the help of Saint Phanourios they escaped bondage and gave thanks to Saint Phanourios in his church. They then returned to Crete, taking with them a copy of the icon of Saint Phanourios.

It is said that the icon of Saint Phanourios was discovered in Rhodes in the mid-14th century at the earliest, while the miracle of the deliverance of the three priests from Crete took place in the mid-15th century. We know that icons of Saint Phanourios could already be found in Crete in the early 15th century, and there was even a chapel dedicated to Saint Phanourios at the Valsamonerou Monastery in Crete built in 1426. Before this time, there is absolutely no evidence of the existence of a saint with the name Phanourios.

It is interesting that the three priests from Crete had to go to Kythera to get ordained, for it was in the foam waters of Kythera that the goddess Aphrodite suddenly appeared according to ancient Greek literature. Like Aphrodite's sudden appearance, we also have the appearance of Saint Phanourios, who came out of obscurity and suddenly became one of the great saints of the Church.

No Byzantine sources mention a Saint Phanourios, and there are no icons of him from before the 15th century. The official story presents his origins in Rhodes, one source in Cyprus, but actual history presents his origins in Crete. In the medieval city of Rhodes within the walls there is only one church dedicated to Saint Phanourios today, and this during Ottoman and Venetian rule was called Peial el Din medjid. This church was given to the Greeks after World War 2 and was dedicated to Saint Phanourios in 1946. It was believed that this church, where the icon of Saint Phanourios was allegedly found, before the Turkish occupation, was originally named after Saint Phanourios, but evidence shows it was most likely dedicated to the Archangels. We should also keep in mind that the original icon of Saint Phanourios discovered in Rhodes in the 14th century no longer exists and it has been lost to history. The only evidence we have of the veneration of Saint Phanourios on the island of Rhodes dates back to 1946! Before that, the only shrine dedicated to Saint Phanourios in the world was on the island of Crete at the Valsamonerou Monastery, though we do know of a few icons also on the island of Patmos from the 17th century, probably by Cretan influence.

Valsamonerou Monastery

All this evidence has led some of the leading scholars in hagiography, such as L. Petit and Ε. Halkin among others, to dismiss the stories about Saint Phanourios and call him a fabricated saint. In the Greek periodical Ekklesia from 1947 and 1948 there is recorded a dialogue between Metropolitan Ezekiel of Thessaly, Sofoklis Avraam Choudaverdoglou-Theodotos and Gregory Papamichael where it says that until the late 19th century the Church of Greece considered Saint Phanourios to be non-existent as a historical figure and that the Holy Synod issued an encyclical forbidding any churches being dedicated to him. Archbishop Meletios of Athens (1918-1920) also forbade the consecration of any churches dedicated to Saint Phanourios. The scholar M. Gedeon believed that the icon allegedly found of Saint Phanourios in fact probably read "ΑΓ ΦΝΡ" and Metropolitan Neilos centuries ago read into it "Phanourios" (Φ[α]ν[ού]ρ[ιος) instead of a more familiar name like "Onouphrios", though it was probably Φ[α]ν[ά]ρ[αιτος] or Φ[α]ν[ε]ρ[ωτής] which means "the one who reveals."

A close examination of the icons of Saint Phanourios, especially of ones with the twelve scenes from his life, or of him trampling a dragon, shows a remarkable resemblance with that of Saint George. The main difference between the two depictions is that Saint Phanourios is shown holding a cross with a lit candle. This indicates that he is looking for something or trying to bring it to light. Thus in the 15th century we begin to see Saint Phanourios become the patron saint of finding lost things. But before this became widespread, it was Saint George who served as such a patron. For example, Saint George is the patron of farmers and animal husbandry, and was invoked if animals got lost so he could help owners find them. This was done in Rhodes up until the 20th century. Young women also on the island of Rhodes would invoke Saint George to help them find a husband. The origins of Saint Phanourios finding things is helping people find their lost animals, just like Saint George. Moreover, it was Saint George who was invoked as the liberator of captives, just as Saint Phanourios would come to be in his first recorded miracle.

This and further evidence shows that Saint Phanourios is probably just another name or an epithet for Saint George. The name "Phanourios" never existed as a name, but it serves well as an epithet, since it means "Revealer". If one Saint could be given the epithet "Revealer", it would be Saint George, since he was invoked to reveal that which was hidden or lost. When Greeks pray to Saint Phanourios to help them find something, they say: "Saint Phanourious, reveal to me...." In Greek it sounds more like: "Holy Revealer, reveal to me...." They are invoking someone who reveals, not necessarily someone named "Revealer".

On two different occasions the Church of Greece issued an encyclical stating that a Saint Phanourios does not exist and that churches should not be built in his name. His icons and a chapel first appeared in Crete in the 15th century and there is no trace of his existence in Rhodes until the mid-20th century. The story of the discovery of his icon on the island of Rhodes in the 14th century was either the result of confusion or plain old storytelling to make Saint Phanourios a separate person whose origins have to do with being found or discovered, to promote him as a patron saint of lost or hidden things. The reality however is that Saint Phanourios is most likely an epithet for Saint George, and in his icons as the Revealer he is given certain characteristics to emphasize his power to help in finding lost or hidden things, such as the candle in his hands. As he became separated from his actual identity, he was given other differences, such as straight hair instead of the curly hair Saint George usually has.

The origins of the veneration of Saint Phanourios in Rhodes probably has to do with a church that was one of many churches destroyed by the Turks in 1481 outside the city walls called San Giorgio di Proventura, built by the Knights of Saint John. The medieval Latin word proventura may be translated into English as one who is happy or one who is favorable or one who is lucky. The word "Phanourios" roughly has the same meaning, in the sense that Saint Phanourios helps one to be happy or to be favorable or to be lucky by revealing that which is hidden or lost. Since Saint George bore this epithet by the Venetians on the island of Rhodes, we may have here the origins of Saint George the Revealer who became Saint Phanourios, since it is common to call saints by their epithets instead of their full name, just as it was done by the ancient Greeks with the Greek gods and is still done today by modern Greeks. In fact, the Greeks of the island of Rhodes may have called this Latin church "Saint George the Phanourios" or "the Phanouriotis" which they shorted to Saint Phanourios. This epithet then may have traveled to Crete along with an icon from Rhodes, and over a short period of time, not knowing the origins of the epithet, they just assumed Saint Phanourios was the name of a separate saint.


1. A 2008 research paper on folklore [Marianthi, Kaplanoglou. "The Folk Cult of St Phanourios in Greece and Cyprus, and its Relationship with the International Tale Type 804." Folklore 1(2006):54-74] suggests that there are two manuscripts. The first is the mention of a miracle included in the Cod. Vat. Gr. 1190 (dating from 1452 and written in Crete) and was published in the Acta Sanctorum. The second manuscript originates from Heraklion, dating from 1600-1640 (Vassilakes-Mavrakakes 1980-81, p. 226). Both of these manuscripts describe a miracle that took place which caused the Saint's fame to spread from Rhodes to Crete.