Sunday, June 7, 2009

Tinos' Miraculous Madonna, Corfu's St. Spyridon

Please click on the photos to enlarge them

Mykonos is famous as a party island where anything goes (especially in August!) When we left Mykonos, we stopped on the nearby island of Tinos, which—in contrast-- is one of the holiest spots in Greece (after Mt. Athos, filled with monasteries, where no woman has ever set foot.)

Tinos is a place of pilgrimage especially for pilgrims who need a miracle to heal them, so in many ways it’s like Lourdes. The most pious and most needy pilgrims crawl on their knees from the harbor where they disembark, all the way up to the church, which holds the miraculous icon of the Virgin. In my photos you can see two women crawling up the special carpet which stretches from the harbor to the church. It’s a really long way, especially in the hot sun. Near the top of the climb is a statue of a faceless female pilgrim crawling and stretching her hand toward the church.

We walked instead of crawling to the church but made sure we were modestly dressed. We bought and lit candles to the icon of the Virgin that was so covered with jewelry and diamond offerings that you couldn’t see any part of the icon. Hanging from the church ceiling were hundreds of tamatas—votive offerings---often ships in full sail made of silver and gold. Also hanging there are silver houses, people, horses, autos, even a bicycle. In the harbor you can buy for a Euro a tiny flat silver image of whatever you want a miracle for (wedding crowns, a leg, an eye, a baby, etc.) and slip the tama into the slot of a box near the icon. You can also write your plea or prayer or the boon you seek on a piece of paper and slip it into another box (with an offering of coins.)

After visiting the interior of the Virgin’s church, we went into the underground basement? crypt? where everyone gathered holy water flowing from a spring under the church, filling little plastic bottles solo everywhere for this purpose.

On August 15th, the Virgin’s holiday (which is preceded by two weeks of fasting by many pious Greeks) you can hardly step from the ferryboat onto the harbor-- so crowded is Tinos with invalids and pilgrims seeking help. And on a day in September, the route to the church is filled with gypsies, who celebrate their own holiday of the Virgin Mary and often sleep in the vast church courtyard the night before the celebrations.

Our visit to Tinos was on June 1st . Yesterday, since we are now staying on Corfu, we stopped by the Church of St. Spyridon to visit the miracle-working saint—an old friend, since everyone visiting Corfu must stop by to pay him homage during their stay.

The tower of Spyridon’s church dominates the rooftops of Corfu—a wonderful old, Venetian-style city with narrow winding streets and balconies so close together that neighbors can reach across.

St. Spyridon’s blackened and wizened body is displayed in the church lying under glass. The line of pilgrims who come by to see him and ask for a miracle are expected to kiss the embroidered slippers on his feet. (Actually it’s been a matter of kissing the glass above them every time I’ve gone there.) Gerald Durrell in his delightful book “My Family and Other Animals” describes how his mother warned her children not to actually kiss the slippers for fear of germs—just as I did with mine many years ago.

St, Spyridon in his glass casket is brought out of the church and carried in a parade around town on four occasions during the year. One is Holy Saturday. (Of all the places in Greece, Easter is most dramatically celebrated in Corfu with music and funeral marches and fireworks and marching orchestras and a famous moment on Holy Saturday at noon --the first Resurrection-- when everyone throws clay pots filled with water—the bigger the pot the better—off their balconies, tossing away the sins of the past year until every street is Corfu town is littered with shards.)

The other excursions of the saint around town mark dates when he saved the islanders once again from plague, starvation or invaders. (Corfu has been invaded and occupied by nearly everyone, most notably the Italians and English—which is why the island has such an international flavor.) The Corfiotes believe that the saint secretly walks around every night doing miracles, which is why his corpse wears out a pair of slippers every years, which have to be replaced.

Photographs are not allowed in either of these churches but I took photos outside St. Spyridon, showing the two entrances and the sellers of candles and icons and the place where you can light a candle to the saint. I also photographed an old crone who was begging near the church. I did leave a contribution in her tin after taking her photo---although she never noticed. I was fascinated by the contrast between the old hag and the young woman in the ad above her head.

Corfu is probably my favorite island because of its mixture of cultures and the constant reminder of people and times gone by. One of my dreams is to own a home here some day.

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