A tiny church in Greece’s Peloponnese dating from the 11th or the 12th century is a miracle of nature, and for the faithful, a sign of God’s power.
Religious pilgrims and sightseers alike come to visit Saint Theodora, near the village of Vasta, 30 km from the town of Megalopoli, in Arcadia, to admire the seventeen oak trees that sprout from the roof and walls of this tiny chapel without any visual evidence of roots.
Although the building is under considerable pressure due to the weight of the trees and the stresses created by the roots running through its walls, it has survived for hundreds of years without damage being caused to the structure or the trees.
Miracle church named after Saint Theodora
The church was named after Saint Theodora who lived in Vasta.
According to local legend, when the area was raided by bandits, Theodora was determined to help defend her village, in spite of it being unthinkable for a woman to do so.
Not to be deterred, Theodora secretly disguised herself as a male soldier in order to join the defense. Unfortunately, Theodora did not survive, and as she lay dying she uttered the following words:
“Let my body become a church, my blood a river, my hair the forest”.
The villagers who were moved by her bravery and her untimely demise built a church at the site of her grave. Legend has it that a local river was re-routed to pass directly under the church.
Eventually, trees sprouted from the roof of the church, but the roots are not visible under the roof and neither inside nor outside the church.
Saint Theodora has become an important saint of the Greek Orthodox Church.
The significance of the oak tree in ancient Greece
In Greek mythology, the oak is the tree sacred to Zeus, the king of the gods. In Zeus’ oracle in Dodona, Epirus, the sacred oak was the centerpiece of the area, and the priests would divine the pronouncements of the god by interpreting the rustling of the oak’s leaves.
The two main types of oaks commonly found in the region are the evergreen holm oak and the deciduous Valonian. Both range in size from a thick low shrub (forming the basis of the modern-day Mediterranean scrub forests) to large trees.
They were valued for their wood and for their acorns, which would ripen in the Autumn. Tannin was also extracted from the acorn cups of the Valonian oak.
This substance was a vital component employed in the tanning of leather hides.
In Greek lore, the primitive, pre-agrarian tribes of Arkadia were said to have lived on a staple diet of acorns.
In classical times it was food only of last resort consumed in times of famine. Usually, acorns were reserved for animal feed.