Feast Day of St. Vitus

Add comment June 15th, 2014 Headsman

June 15 is the feast date of the early Christian saint and martyr Vitus.

The 6th century roster Martyrologium Hieronymianum gives us “In Sicilia, Viti, Modesti et Crescentiae”. From this nub grew a legend of the young child of a Roman Senator who turned to Christianity and would not apostatize, fleeing finally to Lucania with his tutor Modestus and his nanny Crescentia and eventually exorcising a demon possessing the son of the Christian-hunting, Empire-quartering Roman sovereign Diocletian. They were all — boy, tutor, and nanny — tortured to death for their troubles; that occurred either by means of or (manifesting God’s customary disdain for the pagan persecutors) after surviving execution in a boiling pot, which has become Vitus’s most typical iconographical emblem. (For example, as seen on the coat of arms of the Austrian town Sankt Veit im Pongau.)


The Martyrdom of St. Vitus, anonymous c. 1450 painting

This story doesn’t have much historical merit, but shrines and chapels to Vitus date as far back as the 5th century so Vitus, whomever he was, had real importance to early Christians.

His cult became especially prominent in medieval central Europe. Prague’s imposing Gothic cathedral bears his name, because Wenceslaus, Duke of Bohemia* allegedly retrieved for it the saint’s arm in a reliquary.**

While many places are dedicated to St. Vitus in Germany, Hungary, and Croatia, the man has red-letter treatment in Serbia — owing to this also being the date in 1389 that the Serbs’ Tsar Lazar was martyred by the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo. As a result, the feast date Vidovdan is a major celebration in Serbia (and to some extent Bulgaria and Macedonia), where it is observed on June 28th — the Gregorian date presently corresponding to the Julian calendar’s June 15th.

The same Vitus who cheers Balkan nationalists trod a completely different path into medical textbooks.

For centuries, Europeans were known to break out in curious ecstatic mass dancing, even sometimes dancing themselves to death. Generally believed today to be psychosocial afflictions, these dancing manias became widely associated with St. Vitus (his patronage includes both dancers and epileptics), whose intercession would be sought to calm the capering souls.

Dancing manias stopped happening in the 17th century or so, but the link between Vitus and involuntary rollick gave the name St. Vitus’s Dance to the condition Syndenham’s chorea — which is characterized by uncontrolled dance-like movement.

* The very Good King Wenceslaus who looked down on the feast of Stephen.

** Speculatively, Sanct Vid might have been selected for Christian veneration in this area to facilitate replacement of the similarly-named Slavic god Svantovid. An active (albeit declining) pagan community persisted in Prague as late as the 12th century.

As with most Slavic deities, Svantovid’s exact characteristics and the extent of his veneration are very poorly documented; however, in 1168, the Wendish fortress of Arkona was conquered by the Danes and the forced Christianization of its inhabitants is commemorated in Laurits Tuxen‘s late 19th century image of Archbishop Absalon casting down Arkona’s idol of Svantovid. (It’s also commemorated by the name of the neo-pagan Russian metal band Arkona.)

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1389: Saint Tsar Lazar, after the Battle of Kosovo

2 comments June 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date (by the Julian calendar then in use) in 1389, Stefan Lazar Hrebeljanovic — that’s Tsar Lazar to you — led the armies of Moravian Serbia against the expanding Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Kosovo.

The Serbs were defeated — thereby plunging, in the national mythology, into a half-millennium of Turkish domination. Lazar was supposedly* captured and beheaded.

For a generation, Lazar had firmed up his authority as the most significant Serbian autocrat outside the Ottoman orbit. The gravity of that orbit, however, grew more powerful with each passing year; soon, it would devour Byzantium.

Here in the 14th century, the Turkish expansion took on vassals in southeastern Europe. For a prince in the marches, a reckoning had to come due.

Of course, some Serbian lords and other Christian rulers were prepared to owe fealty to the Turks.

In the national epic poem The Battle of Kosovo, our day’s hero receives divine visitation charging him to choose between the treasures of earth and those of eternity, perhaps the author’s critique of European nobles who joined the infidel.

‘Lazar! Lazar! Tsar of noble family,
Which kingdom is it that you long for most?
Will you choose a heavenly crown today?
Or will you choose an earthly crown?
If you choose the earth then saddle horses,
Tighten girths- have your knights put on
Their swords and make a dawn attack against
The Turks: your enemy will be destroyed.
But if you choose the skies then build a church-
O, not of stone but out of silk and velvet-
Gather up your forces take the bread and wine,
For all shall perish, perish utterly,
And you, O Tsar, shall perish with them.”

Lazar built the church.

This particular battle grew into one of mythic importance in the national memory of Serbia: the sacred apogee of national honor, even the bulwark of Christendom upon which the Islamic wave broke.**

Its site, “Kosovo Polje” or the “Field of Blackbirds” near Pristina, is a monument to the Serbian and Orthodox cause; that it is located, as its name suggests, in the province forcibly detached from Belgrade by NATO during the Kosovo War makes it a politically touchy bit of topography. Nationalist outfits like the Tsar Lazar Guard are violently displeased with Albanians having say-so about the place.

Not surprisingly, the record of the time suggests less a Balkan Thermopylae than that old historical standby — shifting relationships of collaboration, resistance, and negotiated boundaries amid Ottoman advances and (sometimes) reverses.

Lazar’s own son and heir Stefan Lazarevic became an Ottoman ally; when the Ottomans were themselves invaded, he shifted his alliance to a different regional power, Hungary. His successor, Durad Brankovic, became estranged from that alliance and eventually fought against the Hungarians in the Second Battle of Kosovo … as an Ottoman vassal.†

Be that as it may, St. Vitus’ DayVidovdan in Serbo-Croatian — which is now observed on its Gregorian calendar date of June 28th, remains one of the most sacred days on the Serbian calendar (it’s also the feast day of Lazar, a saint in the Orthodox tradition).

Vidovdan obtained another layer of meaning in 1914, for it was June 28 that Yugoslav nationalists then under the heel of a Christian empire assassinated Austro-Hungarian Archduke Ferdinand and ignited the First World War.

* It’s the predominant version of legend but not a settled historical fact that Lazar was actually beheaded as a prisoner. He may have simply died in battle, or of wounds taken sustained in the fight.

** Subject, like all good myths, to opposing interpretations.

† At the Second Battle of Kosovo, Serbian forces captured the fleeing Hungarian ruler, John Hunyadi, and his eldest son, Laszlo.

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