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Blindness, Dreams, and Relics

The Life of St. Nikon "Metanoeite" contains a small variation on the standard pattern of Dream Archaeology and brings in an interesting new component to this study.  The saint worked to build churches on the island of Crete after the Byzantine's had regained control of the island in 961.  The following story comes from the Life of St. Nikon, 21: Having decided the depart from he island, he traveled from Gortyn and along the way stopped on night to rest at the remains of an older and now ruined church.  It is worth noting that St. Nikon displayed some archaeological acumen: he was able to determine that the church was old because of the fragments of "cornices" (geison).  As he slept he had a dream that St. Photeine appeared to him, asked him to rebuild the ruined church, and threatened that he would not leave the island if he did not do so.  St. Nikon awoke and could not tell whether the vision of the St. Photeine was a "dream (oneiroxanta) or a vision enlightened by grace."  He ultimately decided that it was the former and continued on his way.  But then, suddenly, he lost his sight.  This showed him that the vision was certainly divine will, and once he decided to return to the site of the ruined church his vision returned.  Returning to the site and committed to following the St. Photeine's request, St. Nikon lacked the tools for the work — namely spades and shovels (ptuon — a winnowing shovel!) — but God provided him with a column of fire which attracted the attention of the local residents who soon came to help him rebuild (and apparently excavate) the church.

The role of St. Photeine in this story is quite interesting.  St. Photeine is typically associated with the Samaritan woman from John 4:8-26.  By the 10th century, however, her cult was centered in Constantinople where they celebrated both her martyrdom (March 20th) and the discovery of her relics (August 20th).  A  11th or 12th century life preserves the story of how her relics were discovered.  A epidemic of blindness has swept through the city of Constantinople and a man called Abraham (Abraamios) was distraught having lost his sight.  He cried out to:

"God not to neglect him who was in mortal danger, but to show him the path whereby he should not be deprived of the light that is sweetest to all men. As he was thus despondent and lamenting his condition, he found respite from his despair in sleep, and while he was asleep he saw a divine vision: the vision was of a woman who was already elderly and aged and quite advanced in years, wearing a garment of linen, with a pleasant and charming face. She seemed to carry a large candle, and touched his eyes and said in a cheerful voice: "Blind men, recover your sight, and those who are in darkness, receive the light; for behold, through me, the perfume-bearing martyr Photeine, Christ will grant light to your darkened eyes and will bring an end to your affliction and relieve your suffering. And this is a sign for you. A thickly wooded and dark cave holds my <remains> in its depths, and if you dig you will find me and light will shine II on you and all your household and everyone who calls on my name through Jesus Christ." As she spoke these words, she indicated the place with her hand, and he made a mental note of it. Therefore he quickly shook off his drowsiness, and ran to the spot, after sharing word of his vision with others. And after laboring hard for a short time they found concealed beneath an underground chamber the inviolate treasure, the true pearl, the blooming lily, the venerable remains of the great martyr Photeine, which dimly preserved the features <of the saint as revealed> in the man's vision. Straightaway then the afflicted man embraced, clasped and kissed the <relics>, washed them with his tears, lifted his eyes up to them, and was immediately delivered entirely from his dim sight." (A. M. Talbot "The Posthumous Miracles of St. Photeine" Analecta Bollandiana 112 (1994), 90.)

There are obvious parallel between the inventio of St. Photiene's relics and the story in the life of St. Nikon.  First, the appearance of St. Photeine, a saint associated with healing eye ailments, makes makes it clear why St. Nikon lost his sight after ignoring her appearance to him.  Moreover, both stories involved pious men losing their sight and regaining it only after the recovery of lost sacred object or place.  It is also worth noting that another Cretan saint, our old friend St. John Xenos, lost his sight briefly while resting in a very large, old, Greek building on Crete.  In this case, he is told by the Virgin to build a church to her nearby and when he agrees his sight is restored.

The link between divine revelation and vision is as old as Homer and continues into our own times — surely the blind blues singers of the American south (Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sleepy John Estes, et c.) acquired some of their mystique and inspiration from their lack of sight.  The lack of vision also highlighted the obscured or lost relic or holy place which divine intervention made visible again.  In the case of St. Nikon, the refusal to accept the vision of St. Photeine, both made him blind physically and showed that he was, in fact, blind spiritually to the will of God.  In this context, the close parallels with the conversion of St. Paul would have been clear to a Byzantine audience.

For more on Dream Archaeology see: here, here, here, here, and here.

UPDATE: Over a year after I posted this I discovered an article that made a similar observations regarding the relationship between St. Nikon and St. Photeine: A.-M. Talbot and A. Kazhdan, "The Byzantine Cult of St. Photeine," in A. R. Dyck and S. A. Takac, The Presence of Byzantium: Studies Presented to Milton V. Anastos in Honor of His Eighty-Fifth Birthday. Byzantinische Forchungen 20 (1994), 103-112.

Categories: Byzantium, Late Antiquity
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