THE FIRST MARTYR OF SERDICA – ST. POTITUS OF SERDICА
Dr. Veselina Vachkova
A silver statue of St. Potitus (about 145 – about 160) from his church in Ascoli Satriano, 17th century.
Chronologically the first Christian saint, stably connected with Serdica, is St. Clement. In the Christian tradition until 19th century is constantly pointed that before he was a pope and a martyr, St. Climent was a founder of the Church of Serdica and its first diocesan. However, St. Clement has never been cited as born, living for a long time or died in Serdica. The first Christian martyr, for whom is expressly marked not only that he was in Serdica, but that Serdica is his hometown, is St. Potitus (Potitii) of Serdica. His biography, like this of St. Clement of Rome, is extremely important for the understanding of the Christian history of Sofia. St. Clement is believed to be ordained personally by Apostle Peter. It means that his connection with the town outlines the temporal borders of the Church of Serdica, putting it among the apostolic cathedrals from the first century. St. Potitus was and continuous to be remarkably honorable right to the South Italy. It means that the spread of his cult describes the geographic range of the Church of Serdica for about a century and a half before the signature of St. Potitus at the First Ecumenical Council from the name of local Calabrian diocesans.
According to all early, and to the most of the late versions of his legend, St. Potit was born around 145 (or 137) in Serdica, in Dakia. St. Potitus from Serdica, around 13 – 14 – year – old child, was a son of a rich local pagan priest. Although the efforts of the father to educate his son in the spirit of “strong faith and morality of the forefathers”, Potitus accepted the Christianity, affected by the surroundings of the numerous local churches; when his father, who brought not typical pagan name Iliya, didn’t succeed in coming him back to the “faith of the forefathers”, he was himself convinced in oratory of his son and became a Christian. St. Potitus does with the help of God many miraculous cures. One of his benefactions – the healing of the favorite daughter of the “emperor Antonin”, followed or accompanied by her baptism in the Christian faith, costs the life of the child – healer. Because no one before could cure the girl (who actually had been smitten by demons), the emperor suspected him in witchcraft. For this accusation and for the refusal of negate from Christ, St. Potitus was officially beheaded.
According to some versions of his legend, St. Potitus received martyr wreath in his hometown, from where his relics were moved by miracle way to Italy. According to other stories, Potitus himself, after he turned his father to Christianity and did many miracles, was moved by miracle way from Serdica to Italy.
The explicit clarification in the legends is that it is about Serdica in Dakia. In the Sardinia Island the saint is famous as San Potito Sanitiko or Trikariko. Besides this, San Potitus there was not such a young man who did miracles in the Rome metropolises, but probably a hermit, who was living with the wild animals, for whom, together with Archangel Michael, the mountain Gargan was dedicated.
Beside the different opinions about the place where St. Potitus died, all his legends claim that the martyr-healer dies very young – at about 15-year. Having left the father’s family and dedicated to the service in God, he neither thought nor had time to create his own family. Potitus is not a monk or a hermit and turns into a “male equivalent” of the martyrs virgins – fiancés of Christ like St. Ekaterina, St. Irina, St. Anastasia (and actually like Faith, Hope and Love in one of the most popular versions of the legend of St. Sofia). The pathetic history of the child wonderworker and martyr St. Potitus has been popular not only in South Italy but it has also excited not only the people who had lived during the centuries of his time.
Today in his native Sofia no one suspects that St. Potitus has ever existed until in South Italy the saint of Serdica is really popular.
Italian icons of the child – wonderworker and martyr St. Potitus of Serdica from 19th – 20 th century.
So, one of the greatest erudite of the Early Middle Ages – St. Isidore of Seville (560 – 636) is highly attracted by the figure of the child – wonderworker and writes one of his first legends.
Considering the unflagging by the time honor to St. Potitus, the question arises: What has happened with the memory of the child – martyr in his native Serdica? Because in Sofia nowadays not only that cult to St. Potit is missing but no one suspects about the existence of the discussed “ Italian ” (it means “ Catholic ”) saint. When looking for the right answer to this question at first place we must have in mind the fact that today a given cult does not exist, did not mean that it has not been spread during the Late Antiquity and during the middle Ages. Anyway, during the following centuries St. Potitus is forgotten on the Balkans.
How could be the memory of St. Potitus of Serdika resurrected and integrated in the history of the Bulgarian church and mostly in the Christian past of his hometown? The most adequate and the most direct way to the reanimation of the memory of the great martyr of Serdica from the second century is his legend to be presented in a short, but not devoid from its beauty, type during the conversations in the capital monuments, which are direct or indirect connected with him. If we start by the opposite chronological way, the first similar monument is the Boyana Church. It is visited by thousands of Bulgarians and hundreds of foreigners. The Boyana Church can be one of the places for honor of St. Potitus of Serdica. This temple is dedicated to St. Pantaleymon, too and has a very well saved mural of the saint. It is a natural place where by presenting the patron of the church it can be made a deviation to the little earlier saint of Serdica, whose legend in a huge extend is in the basis of the St. Pantaleymon’s one. After this introduction all that will be said or shown in the church of Boyana, will seem and sound in a different way: a church will be presented, built in a town, which has given to the Christian world its martyr still in 160.
The same approach can be used during the presenting of frescoes and icons, which represent St. Potitus in other churches, as well as the temples, whose patrons are St. St. Kozma and Damyan or these, which have images of these saints.
A perfect occasion to listen about St. Potitus of Serdica is every visit to the biggest Bulgarian sanctuary – the Rila monastery. St. St. Lavur and Flor, who have inherited a part of the legend of St. Potit, are to a huge extent “mirror saints” of St. Ivan of Rila. Coincidentally their memory is honored on the same day – 18th August and in the old services of St. Ivan are inserted parts of the services of both Ulpian saints. The Rila monastery, dedicated to St. Ivan of Rila of course, is a perfect place for a revival of the memory of St. Potitus for one more reason. Although today generally St. Ivan of Rila is connected extremely with Rila, the saint himself, calls “his fatherland” not Rila (or his supposed home place Skrino), but exactly Sredec. In the middle Ages, not only the relics of the saint have been kept for a long time in Sredec, but he has been defined as “a light of the diocese of Serdica”. Naturally, a connection between the two great lights of Serdica – the wonderworkers Potitus and Ivan can be made, during every conversation or visit of churches and monasteries, whose patron is St. Ivan of Rila or those which have his image. Such examples are frequently visited by people monasteries from the Sofia St. Gora German and Kurilo, which are dedicated to the biggest Bulgarian saint.
Let’s finish with the two places, where a conversation about St. Potitus, the first martyr of Serdica, will be not only an extremely good addition, but it will be the accent, the beginning of the presenting of the monument. We have to mention, of course, the two most ancient temples in Sofia – St. George the Rotunda and the Basilica of St. Sofia.
It is hardly ever necessary to mention how bigger a depth, authenticity and persuasiveness the presenting of the Museum under St. Sofia with “The tomb of Honorius” will have, if it begins not only with the names of the hypothetic founders of the church of Serdica St. Apostle Kliment and St. Apostle Andronik, but also with a story about the life of the first local follower of them, who has died for the Christian faith – St. Potitus – the child – wonderworker and martyr.