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Monday, October 25, 2010



Church of Jason and Sosipater, Corfu

One of the jewels in the island of Corfu is the small church of Saints Jason and Sosipater, located between the Garitsa neighborhood of the town of Corfu and the palace of Mon Repos. The church is not visible at first sight, as it is surrounded by a neighborhood of varied buildings and some tall houses, but once found, it is quite unforgettable for its elaborate Byzantine style. Built of stone and marble, sometime prior to the year 1000 A.D., it is the oldest church in Corfu Town and a rare Byzantine work of art. It is dedicated to two disciples of the Apostle Paul who were reputedly responsible for the island’s conversion to Christianity in the first century. It is said that the tombs of the two saints are located on the right and the left of the entrance, but this has never been verified.

The church is of the simple cross-in-square type on two columns with a dome. The cloisonné wall masonry (stone blocks enclosed in bricks) is decorated with bricks and tiles set in various patterns. Stones taken from ancient structures in the neighboring village of Paleopolis, within walking distance of the church, were used as building material in the walls.

Church of Jason and Sosipater, Corfu
Detail of cloisonne

The church was built by skilled masons, probably from Attica or Boeotia, on a pre-existing church, located in the area previously known as the Anemomylos. This earlier church was a standing catholicon of a monastery originally dedicated to St. Andrew. Katherine, wife of Thomas Palaiologos (brother of the last Roman Emperor, Constantine XI), sought refuge in this monastery when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453.

In the interior, of the original decoration of the walls only a few fragments of frescoes have survived, dated to the 11th - 13th centuries A.D. In the 17th century, the church was enriched with icons painted by the famous Cretan artist, Emmanuel Tzanes. In the years 1960, 1969, 1972, 1976, and 1978 the monument was restored, the wall paintings and portable icons were cleaned, and the surrounding area was remodeled. The church still functions today, although it does not belong to a parish.

Church of Jason and Sosipater (detail), Corfu

Who were these saints, Jason and Sosipater? There lives appear to be well documented by an archeological record that supports their history as enlighteners of the island. They are mentioned by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, where he refers to them as his relatives. "Timothy, my fellow worker, sends his greetings to you, as do Lucius, Jason and Sosipater, my relatives." (Romans 16:21).

Jason and Sosipater

Jason was born in Tarsus, as was Paul, so he was probably kin; Sosipater was born in Achaea. The former was appointed bishop of Tarsus by Paul; the other was appointed bishop of Iconium. Eventually, they made their way to Corfu and arrived there in about 40 A.D. The sources coincide in attributing to them the building of a church for Stephen, the protomartyr, on this Roman island. They are both jointly reputed for having Christianized the island, one of the first corners of the Roman Empire in Greece to be Christianized. After a long life, they themselves died peacefully of old age.

Jason and Sosipater

Wild stories surround their rather prosaic reputation as proselytizers, however. An extensive hagiography began to develop around them. Traveling about and preaching the Gospel, it appears, soon got them into trouble. The lord of Corfu threw them both in prison where seven thieves were also imprisoned. According to legend, their names were Sagornius, Jakishol, Faustian, Januarius, Marsalus, Euphrasius and Mamminus. The ethnic background of those who peopled Corfu in the first century is rather difficult to establish. The apostles converted these seven to the Faith, and turned wolves into lambs. Upon hearing this, the lord of the island ordered that these seven be put to death in boiling pitch. Thus, they received the wreath of the martyrs. While the king was torturing the Christians, his daughter, the virgin Cercyra (which is also the ancient Greek name of the island), watched from the window at the suffering of these men, and learning the reason for which they were being tortured, she declared herself a Christian as well, and promptly distributed her jewelry among the poor. The lord, her father, was enraged at his daughter and, failing to extirpate the religion from her mind, ordered the prison burned, with her in it. The prison burned, but the virgin remained alive however. Upon hearing of this miracle, many people of the island sought baptism. The infuriated lord ordered his daughter to be tied to a tree to be slain by arrows, no doubt a method he had learned from the story of the proto-martyr Stephen. In the course of subsequent persecution of the Christians among neighboring islands, this lord drowned off the coast of Corfu, which only confirmed to the faithful the righteousness of their faith and of the martyrdom of Cercyra. Thereafter, Jason and Sosipater were probably able to operate more freely, and lived in the island to a ripe old age.

Today, Jason and Sosipater lie peacefully under the stone floor of the beautiful little church in Corfu which was built at the beginning of the eleventh century of Christian rule. The tranquility of the place, its ancient and elaborate stone-work, the peace which is conveyed by its age, belies the violence whereby the Christian faith was originally established in this Greek island, as well as the violence of the Slavic invasions that followed the collapse of Roman power in the island. To look at the quiet architecture of this small building is to sense the meaning of the Greek concept of hesychia, with its connotations of stillness, rest, quiet, and silence. As well, it is tranquility in the eremitic tradition of prayer which was prevalent in the Eastern Orthodox churches of the Byzantine rite. Hesychazo: to keep stillness, is the sensation given by these ancient stones.

The church of Sts. Jason and Sosipater on Kerkyra, sole church of Byzantine architecture from the Roman period on the island. Here are preserved relics of Sts. Jason and Sosipater (their skulls are in the Monastery of Hosios Loukas in mainland Greece).

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