St Demetrius of Thessaloniki

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reference number: RI_130

mid-19th century

tempera on wooden panel

44.3 x 38 cm

Saint Demetrius of Thessalonika († c. 306) is one of the most venerated saints of the Christian East, glorified as a great martyr. Demetrius, a native of Thessaloniki, was martyred in the reign of the Emperor Diocletian (284-305), being speared to death in prison. His Feast is celebrated by the Orthodox Church on October 26th (November 8th). In the Greek tradition, he is known as the Myhrbearer, because his relics miraculously produced holy oil. Byzantine texts often refer to him as the Victory-bearer, since the majority of his miracles occurred as aid in time of war. The veneration of the saint made its way to Russia in the 10th -11th centuries, acquiring a special meaning for the Rurikid Dynasty and their court, since St.Demetrius was seen as the patron of warriors and the defender of the realm. After the Battle of the Kulikovo Field (1380), memorial services for the fallen warriors were traditionally held on the nearest Saturday to the Feast of St.Demetrius. Later on, the memorial services started to include all deceased Orthodox Christians and was popularly known as the Demetrius Memorial Saturday.


A popular iconographic depiction of St.Demetrius is his victory over the Bulgarian Tsar Kaloyan, who fell in 1207 while besieging Thessaloniki. The upper part of the composition includes the figure of an angel, who holds the veil depicting two virgins from Thessalonika holding the icon of the saint, who freed them from captivity and brought them back to their city.


The stylistic traits of the piece clearly indicate that it was painted in one of the largest Old Believer iconographic centres in the southwest of Russia – Vetka (today part of the Gomel Province). This region began to be populated by Old Believers since the late 17th century. The instantly-recognizable artistry of Vetka iconography is built upon a generous use of warm, orange-toned gold, resonating colours (the “burning” crimson red and thick grass green), highly detailed and rich ornamentation of the vestments (with bouquets of baroque flowers), as well as a sophisticated etched ornament on the borders and background.

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