In a previous posting, we looked at Dmitriy/Dimitriy Solunski, Demetrios of Thessaloniki — one of the noted warrior saints in Eastern Orthodox iconography. In that posting we saw that the defeated figure fallen to the ground in his icons is often vaguely called the “King of the Infidels.”
In Serbia, however, he has a very definite name. Let’s look at a 14th century fresco from Vuisokie/Vysokie Dechani:
The inscription at the top tells us,
“Holy Dimitriy Impales Tsar Kaloyan of Zagora.” Kaloyan (c. 1170-1207) was a Bulgarian voevod. He died during the siege of Thessaloniki, killed in a plot, it is generally believed, involving the head of his mercenaries, a man named Menastra. However another account suggests pleurisy as the cause for his death. In any case, a legend soon arose that St. Dimitriy killed Kaloyan with a lance, which of course was impossible, given that Dimitry had supposedly been martyred in the early 4th century; so Kaloyan’s death became, in popular belief, a miracle attributed to the saint.
Here is Dimitriy again, seen in a 12th century carved stone relief from Kievan Rus. And the other figure is understood to be St. Nestor — Nestor Solunskiy, that is Nestor of Thessaloniki.
Nestor was said to be a handsome young man who received his Christian belief from Dimitriy/Demetrios. It happened that Emperor Maximian, who had imprisoned Dimitriy for his Christian belief, was also fond of games and spectacles. He had a favorite wrestler named Lyaeos (Slavic Лий/Liy). This man, from the Germanic Vandal people, was of huge stature, very tall and immensely strong, and supposedly his strength was enhanced by demons. He put on a performance in which he wrestled people — among them many Christians — on a wooden platform, then threw them onto the points of spears and other sharp weapons that were sticking up below the platform.
Nestor, seeing all this, went to Dimitriy in prison and asked his blessing to defeat Lyaeos in a contest. Dimitriy gave him his blessing, and in doing so foretold not only Nestor’s victory but also that he would suffer for Christ.
Nestor went to where Lyaeos was doing his wrestling and killing, and taking off his outer garments, he loudly and publicly challenged him. The Emperor warned Nestor against it, saying that the young man’s small size was no match for the huge Lyaeos. But Nestor replied that he would fight in Christ’s name.
That angered Maximian, who then told Nestor to enter the platform. Nestor overcame the much larger Lyaeos, and threw him down upon the upright spears, killing him as Lyaeos had killed so many others.
The Emperor was so upset by this that on learning Dimitriy had encouraged and helped Nestor defeat Maximian’s favorite by blessing the young man, he condemned both Dimitriy and Nestor to death. Dimitriy was killed with spears, and Nestor was beheaded. This is said to have happened in the year 306.
It is far from a “turn the other cheek” kind of Christianity, but that is how some of these hagiographic legends go.
Here is a 14th century fresco from Dechani showing Nestor defeating Lyaeos:
Nestor is ranked among the warrior saints in iconography, and he is often shown with armor and weapons, as in this 14th century fresco, again from Vysokie Dechani in Serbia: