Miracles and a Thief: Lifting the Lid on the Legendary Chest of Saint Simeon
There is an elaborate silver sarcophagus overlaid with silver plaques in a church in Croatia. Legends say that the remains of Saint Simeon are inside it. The chest is protected by UNESCO and it is one of the most important Christian treasures in the Balkans.
The church holding this religious relic is in the city of Zadar, where the Benedictine order arrived centuries ago. The chest is dated back to between 1377 and 1380. It was designed by Italian artists and made by local goldsmiths. It is one of the most remarkable examples of medieval art in the Balkans. A translation of the inscription on the chest says “Simeon the Righteous, holding Jesus, born of a virgin, in his arms, rests in peace in this chest, commissioned by the Queen of Hungary, mighty, glorious and majestic Elizabeth the Younger, in the year 1380. This is the work of Francis of Milan.”
Painting of ‘Simeon the Righteous’ by Alexey Yegorov (1830-1840s). ( Public Domain )
A Thieving Queen
It is unknown exactly when St Simeon lived, but he appears in the gospels. Legends say that when the Eastern Roman Empire had its capital in Constantinople the remains of St Simeon were taken there from the region of Syria. St. Simeon was buried in the city for over six centuries, when in 1203 his remains were transported to Venice.
His cult in Zadar started when a Venetian merchant who traveled with the saint’s remains was caught by a horrible storm near the Dalmatian coast. The merchant escaped the danger by going straight to the harbor of Zadar. When people realized what the man had in his cargo, they helped him protect the saint’s body by hiding the coffin in a cemetery. The ship was damaged and needed some time to be fixed.
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Moreover, the merchant was ill, so he also needed time to recover. The man was afraid he may die, so the monks who tried to heal him took all the documentation he received in Constantinople and started to read it. When they realized that the saint had miraculous powers, they decided that they needed to find the remains of St Simeon. They all had the same visions in their dreams: to find the body, and they were also informed about the miracles performed by the saint. The remains we relocated in the Velika Gospa monastery’s cemetery at the Church of the Virgin. Later it was transferred to the female monastery in this area.
Chest of Saint Simeon from year 1380 in Zadar, Croatia. ( Public Domain )
When Queen Elizabeth of Bosnia, Hungary, and Croatia arrived in Zadar in 1371, she went to join the religious mass and she cracked off a piece of the saint’s finger. She put in in her bra, which was visible because of her dress’ style. People soon discovered what she had done and they wanted to punish her. For a while her life was in danger, but help came from the noblemen who protected her. In the end, Queen Elizabeth had to give the relic back and recompense the church and the people of Zadar for harming their precious relic.
She ordered the design of the elaborate chest from the famous artist Francisco of Milan. The detailed case was made by artists from Zagreb, Reca, and other places in Croatia. She filled the church with many precious gifts, but this was the most expensive one. The chest is rectangular and measures 1.92 meters (6.30 ft.) long and 62.5 cm (24.61 inches) wide. It weighs about 240 kg. (529.11 lbs.) because it is made of silver and some gold. The decoration is detailed and sophisticated.
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Relief from the chest showing Queen Elizabeth presenting a chest to St. Simeon, with her daughters praying. (SpeedyGonsales/ CC BY 3.0 )
The story of the chest is also fascinating after the medieval period. According to a brochure from Laudo Gallery in Croatia:
“The chest of St. Simeon rests in the hands of large bronze Baroque statues of angels, cast from bronze received from seized Turkish cannons in 1648. Before the altar, in the middle of the sanctuary, is the stone sarcophagus with the image of St. Simeon from the 13th century, in which the saint’s body was kept until the completion of the chest. Just how dedicated Queen Elizabeth was to the saint is seen in the fact that she laid her travel crown into the chest with the body of St. Simeon. Only recently was the crown removed from the chest and can be viewed in the art collection of the Zadar Benedictine order. Worshiping of St. Simeon, the patron saint of Zadar, is very strong even today. Visitors to Zadar can see this on October 8 when the city celebrates its patron saint. Many of the faithful from the city and surrounding areas fill the Church of St. Simeon and give testimony to their deep faith and piety towards St. Simeon the Righteous.”