Icons have been often described as a method of teaching about theology, Christ’s life and His Saints to the illiterate. In centuries past – and it seems for most of human history – the majority of people could not read or write and so Christian churches were decorated with Biblical images and Saints for their edification. I was always a bit wary of this description of icons because, on top of most icons having written descriptions on them anyway, very few iconographic images can be read “cold”. A fairly deep knowledge of the Bible and the lives of the Saints is needed before icons can be easily identified as depicting such-and-such a story or showing a particular Saint. At best, they are a reminder of the person it depicts, but not really a teaching method. The Gospels and the lives of Saints were primarily learned by hearing them, usually in church.
The life of Saint Phanourios (or Fanourios; Gr. Φανουρίου) is different, however, because literally everything we know of him – his life, his martyrdom, even his name – was revealed by an icon discovered many centuries after he lived.
In the 16th century the Greek island of Rhodes fell to the Ottoman Empire, after being previously ruled for two centuries by the Catholic Order of the Knights Hospitaller. Seeking to rebuild the old fortress, the new Muslim occupiers started to look for reusable stones. They discovered an old ruined Orthodox church, perhaps neglected ever since the Knights Hospitaller took over the island, and began digging out its foundations. Amid the rubble, the soldiers discovered many Orthodox icons, all of which were rotted beyond recognition except one, which looked as new and as bright as if it had been painted that very day. The Turks did not see any value in the icon and left amid the ruins. However, a group of Orthodox monks had observed the icon’s uncovering and brought their Bishop, Metropolitan Nilus of Rhodes, to see it. Nilus read the inscription, as clear as everything else on the icon, as being “Saint Phanourios” (meaning “Revealer” in Greek) and not recognizing the name declared him to be a newly-discovered Saint.
His life and some of his background had to be gleaned from the icon itself. St. Phanourios was shown as a youth (beardless) in military uniform, holding a Cross, indicating his martyrdom, on top of which is a lighted taper. His youthful appearance and military uniform suggested he was among one of the many virgin-martyrs of the Roman empire in the second and third centuries A.D., before Emperor Constantine’s legalization of Christianity in 313. These saints were often young educated Roman men, secretly Christians, who gained rank in the Imperial army. These saints most often bravely confessed their faith after refusing to offer sacrifice to the idols, were tortured, and then executed. The most prominent example of these type of Saints is Saint George the Victory-Bearer.
More details of his martyrdom could be found in twelve panels around the border of the icon. These panels show him being questioned by an official, being beaten with stones by soldiers, stretched out on the ground while soldiers whip him, then having his sides raked with iron hooks. He is also shown locked up in prison, standing before the official again, being burned with candles, tied to a rack, thrown to the wild animals (who obviously do not touch him given subsequent scenes), and being crushed by a large rock. The remaining scenes depict him standing before idols holding burning coals in his hands, while a demon stands by lamenting his defeat by the saint, and finally, the saint stands in the midst of a fire with his arms raised in prayer.
When and where St Phanourios lived were not know, but Metropolitan Nilus had enough information to piece together the story of his martyrdom and sought to have the church rebuilt in his honour. The new Muslim ruler of Rhodes refused, but Nilus was undeterred and went to Constantinople to petition the Sultan himself. His pleas were successful and the church of St Phanourios was built on the site the saint’s icon was discovered, within the city of Rhodes. His feast-day became the anniversary of the icon’s discovery: 27th August.
The church was closed down by later Turkish rulers and converted into a mosque, not being reverted to an Orthodox church until the island was liberated by the Italians after World War One. At that time the plaster on the interior walls was removed to reveal remarkably well-preserved frescoes from the 16th century. The church today also has an icon of St Phanourios, of course, which may or may not be the original although it is certainly a faithful copy if not. Even if the icon is not the original, it scarcely matters. The original icon has done God’s job of revealing Saint Phanourios to the world, and ensuring his legacy and intercessions are known.
Numerous miracles have been ascribed to Phanourios, particularly in the centuries immediately after he was newly-revealed. Due to his unique method of discovery, St Phanourios is also considered a patron-saint of lost things. Among Greeks generally, and Cypriots in particular, there is a pious tradition of baking Phanouropita (lit. Phanourios’ Cake), a sweet round loaf flavoured with cinnamon. The phanouropita is baked when a person wants to find something – whether material or spiritual – and taken to church to be blessed by the priest, then distributed among the parishioners.
A heavenly song of praise is chanted radiantly upon the earth; the company of angels now joyfully celebrate an earthly festival, and from on high with hymns they praise thy contests, and from below the Church doth proclaim the heavenly glory which thou hast found by thy labors and struggles, O glorious Phanourios.
(Troparion to St Phanourios in Tone 4)
- Full life of St. Phanourios: includes descriptions of his best-known miracles.
- Prayers to St. Phanourios
- Recipe for Fanouropita: if you have a better recipe, leave it in the comments!
- “Saint Phanourios Resource Page”: all of the above, plus more, in one place if you want to read a lot more about this Saint.