“He lies in hibernating stillness in his richly wrought casket, whose outer shell of silver is permanently clouded by the breath of the faithful who stoop to kiss it” – Lawrence Durrell
Wandering around the labyrinth of tiny twisting streets we finally arrived at the focal point of the city, the tall, red domed church of Agios Spyridon where lies the mummified body of the patron saint of the island, Saint Spyridon and inside tourists jostled with Corfiots to push their way into a side chapel to visit his elaborate silver tomb.
Outside and around the church there were old fashioned stores selling various cards or pieces of pressed aluminium each with a picture of a part of the body. If you have a bad leg then you buy a leg picture, a poorly arm an elbow picture, a hangover a brain picture and so on and then you take this to the Church and ask for a cure and leave it there so that God doesn’t just forget about it after you have gone and these were securely fastened in bunches to railings and picture frames.
In return for this service it is the custom to light a candle which is as tall as yourself and leave it burning at the door. Six foot candles were burning away with such intensity it might have been what it was like to be caught in the middle of the Great Fire of London and it all looked rather dangerous to me but there were men on hand whose job it was to extinguish the flames as soon as the pilgrim that had left it there was an appropriate distance away down the street and then whisk the unburned portion away for immediate recycling and to cut down and sell to a shorter pilgrim!
We duly noted this and went through the heavy doors into an alternative world of black robed beardy priests, local worshippers and travelling pilgrims all lining up to kiss the lavish icons of their favourite Saint.
I don’t know if this was a special day in Corfu for Saint Spyridon but I suspect it might have been because inside the place was so busy it resembled the first day of the Harrods January sale and people were pushing and shoving and waiting in a long line for their turn to visit the silver casket and to make a request for a miracle cure or for the winning lottery numbers. And the queue wasn’t moving very quickly because having stood in line for so long the pilgrims had plenty of time to draw up an expanding list of requests and having finally made it to the front no one was inclined to rush the experience of an audience with the preserved corpse and everyone seemed to stand around for eternity kissing the icons and the casket and saying personal prayers.
After almost two thousand years the preserved relics are not in great shape and the right hand is missing altogether because that is in Rome so the mummified skin and bone is covered in a sort of embroidered carpet, I assume so that it doesn’t scare the children half to death!
All of this icon kissing means quite a lot of unwanted spit and saliva of course so to deal with this, cleaning ladies with spray cleaners and dusters circulated constantly to deal with the slobber and the germs on a continuous and never ending polishing circuit of the church.
Spyridon is a very important Saint in Corfu who at various times is said to have saved the island from foreign invaders and from outbreaks of deadly disease and because he does his best to try and deliver on the requests of the visitors to his tomb. He is so important to Corfiots that apparently Spiros is even today the most common boys name on the island.
This is my favourite story – it is said that at night when everyone is gone and the town is empty he rises from the silver sarcophagus and walks the streets of Corfu granting peoples wishes. Every year he wears out a perfectly good pair of shoes and every year he has to be fitted up for a new pair! Really!
Sadly there really wasn’t time to stand in the line of people and shuffle slowly to the chapel containing the relics and I couldn’t really think of anything to ask for anyway, except perhaps could Leicester City not get relegated this year, so choking on incense and elbowing our way past genuine pilgrims we made our way to the door and back out into the sunlit street.