Tuesday, October 24, 2023

A Very Curious Legend of St Raphael

The revised version of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, in the notes to the entry for the feast of St Raphael the Archangel, says that “In the Ethiopic Synaxarium... is a curious account of the dedication of a church to St Raphael in an island off Alexandria early in the fifth century.” A reference is given for an English translation of this Synaxarium, which is basically the Eastern version of the Martyrology, but no further information is given about the dedication or what makes it curious. In the marvelous age of the internet, I was able to track the text down at the following website, (https://stmichaeleoc.org/html/Pagumen_03.htm) where I discovered what a spectacular understatement “curious” is in describing this legend.

“On this day are commemorated the glorious angel Raphael the archangel, the third of the vigilant, holy and heavenly archangels; and the dedication of his church, which was built to him on an island outside the city of Alexandria in the days of Saint Theophilus the Archbishop (385-412, the predecessor of St Cyril); and the miracle which was made manifest therein, and took place thus.

A certain rich woman from the city of Rome came to Saint Theophilus the Archbishop, and with her were her son and a picture of the glorious Archangel Raphael, and much money, which she had inherited from her parents. ... And Saint Abba Theophilus built many churches, and among them was the church, which was on the island outside the city of Alexandria, and was dedicated in the name of the glorious Archangel Raphael; and Abba Theophilus the Archbishop finished the building thereof and consecrated it as it were this day.

And whilst the believers were praying in the church, behold the church trembled, and was rent asunder, and it moved about. And they found that the church had been built upon the back of a whale... on which a very large mass of sand had heaped itself. Now the whale lay firmly fixed in its place, and the treading of the feet of the people upon it cut it off from the mainland; and it was Satan who moved the whale so that he might throw down the church.

And the believers and the archbishop cried out together, and made supplication to the Lord Christ, and they asked for the intercession of the glorious Archangel Raphael. And God, the Most High, sent the glorious angel Raphael, and he had mercy on the children of men, and he drove his spear into the whale, saying unto him, ‘By the commandment of God stand still, and move not thyself from thy place’; and the whale stood in his place and moved not.

And many signs and wonders were made manifest, and great healings of sick folk took place in that church. And this church continued to exist until the time when the Muslims reigned, and then it was destroyed, and the whale moved, and the sea flowed back again and drowned many people who dwelt in that place.”

The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore has a mid-19th Ethiopian painting in tempera on canvas which represents this legend, in which we see the Archangel fixing his spear through the church building. Unfortunately, the lower part of it, which would have shown the whale, is missing.

Here is a more complete representation of the story, depicted in a mural in a monastery in Ethiopia. (This image is reproduced by the kind permission of Sara Genene.)

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