22 May 2021

Holy and Righteous Jovan Vladimir, Prince-Martyr of Duklja

Saint Jovan Vladimir of Duklja

Today in the Holy Orthodox Church we commemorate a young man of blameless life, the Serbian prince Jovan Vladimir, who ruled the principality of Duklja – what is now Montenegro – around the turn of the eleventh century. A young ruler who was killed unjustly for political reasons, his life mirrors those of the Russian princely martyrs Boris and Gleb, the Bohemian ducal martyr Václav and the Old English atheling Éadweard.

Jovan Vladimir [Srb. Јован Владимир] was born in the year 990. Having been raised according to Christian principles by his father Peter [or Petrislav] of Duklja, he ruled the principality from his childhood, and upon his majority he was already considered to be a thoughtful, peaceful and just ruler – and was described as such by the Byzantine historian John Skylitzēs. He ruled from a hill named Kraljič, which is currently the village of Koštanjica in southeastern Montenegro. It was his misfortune that he was born during a period of protracted warfare between the Bulgarian Empire and the Byzantine Empire. His father had been approached by Emperor Basil II ‘the Bulgar-Slayer’ for support against the Bulgarians; although Peter did not send any soldiers, the diplomatic relations between Duklja and Byzantium remained cordial under Jovan Vladimir. The Bulgarian Tsar Samuil attacked Duklja in the year 1009, in order to head off a possible alliance that could undermine him. Jovan Vladimir retreated with his armies to Oblik, which was infested with venomous snakes. Offering a prayer to the Lord, he asked for Christ’s aid. As a result, the snakes became tame and did not attack his soldiers.

Samuil lay siege to Oblik, and Jovan Vladimir, not wishing to cause his people any further suffering from violence and starvation, surrendered himself into the hands of the Bulgarian Tsar. He was taken in chains to the Tsar’s capital at Prespa (today Little Prespa Lake in Greece), and thrown into the dungeons. What happened afterwards became the basis for one of the truly great High Medieval romances.

Samuil had a daughter whose name was Teodora Kosara. This young woman was deeply pious and minded to follow Christ; upon hearing that her father had taken many captives in Duklja, she asked his permission to go with her maids and wash the feet of the captives in imitation of Our Lord. Seeing no harm in granting this wish, her father allowed it. Kosara descended into the dungeons and began to carry out her good work. She began to wash the feet of a young man of her own years. Looking up at him, she found him handsome. Engaging him in conversation, she found him to be sweet and gentle and modest in character, and full of wisdom and knowledge of holy things: ‘to her his speech seemed sweeter than honey and the honeycomb’.

Having fallen for her father’s hostage, Kosara went straight back to Tsar Samuil and asked to be given to Jovan Vladimir in marriage. Samuil found this proposition expedient, as it would allow him to retain control over Duklja without having to resort to force of arms. (Samuil seems to have been led by the nose by his daughters in this respect. His elder daughter Miroslava had similarly pled for the hand of the Armenian prince Ashot of Taron and was granted it.) He freed Jovan Vladimir from prison, married his daughter to him, and placed him as his vassal over the lands of Duklja.

Jovan Vladimir and Teodora Kosara had one daughter together, who ended up marrying the Serbian prince Stefan Vojislav. When Samuil died of a heart attack in 1014 following a military defeat at the hands of the Greeks, his son and Kosara’s brother, the chivalrous Gavril Radomir, ascended to the throne of the Bulgarian Empire. However, he did not reign long. The following year, however, his cousin Ivan Vladislav assassinated Gavril, and then usurped power for himself. Seeking to stamp out any further threats to his consolidation of power, Ivan Vladislav then made a plot to cut off Kosara from political consideration by murdering her husband. He issued an ‘invitation’ to the Serbian prince to join him in Prespa.

According to Skylitzēs, Jovan Vladimir would have gone himself, but his wife insisted on going in his place and making a demand for his safe passage. Vladislav welcomed Kosara and offered her a golden cross to take back to Vladimir as a token, but Vladimir refused it, saying that he would accept instead a wooden cross similar to the one that Christ was crucified on, from the hands of a priest. Vladislav sent two bishops and a hermit with the wooden cross which he had taken an oath on, and Jovan Vladimir kissed it and took it with him to Prespa. He went into a church to pray, and as he was leaving the church, he was taken by Vladislav’s soldiers and beheaded on the very church steps. In this way he met his death in a Christlike way at the hands of a political rival.

His wife, Teodora Kosara, never remarried. She transported the remains of her beloved husband from Prespa back to Duklja and had them buried at the Prečista Krajinska Church close to Jovan Vladimir’s main court. She herself became a nun and entered a community of monastics nearby. When she herself reposed, she requested that she be buried at her husband’s feet. The relics were translated from thence by the Despots of Epirus, from which they fell into the hands of the Arberian warlord Karl Topia in the late 1300s; he had a church erected in Saint Jovan’s honour in Elbasan in central Albania.

Saint Jovan Vladimir was the first of many Serbian princes to be recognised as a saint, as many of the descendants of Saint Stefan Nemanja, including most notably the glorious Saint Sava, were cut from a similar God-fearing cloth. Holy martyr Jovan Vladimir, blameless sufferer and believer in the saving Cross, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion for Saint Jovan Vladimir, Tone 3:

Your holy martyr John, O Lord,
Through his sufferings has received an incorruptible crown from You, our God.
For having Your strength, he laid low his adversaries,
And shattered the powerless boldness of demons.
Through his intercessions, save our souls!

Church of St Jovan Vladimir, Bar, Montenegro

1 comment:

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