Jovan Vladimir was buried in Prespa, and shortly after his death he was recognized as a martyr and saint, being celebrated on May 22; he is chronologically the first Serbian saint. Two or three years after the burial he was reburied in Duklja, but in ca. 1215 his relics were transferred to Dyrrhachium, where they remained until 1381. They have been kept afterwards at the Monastery of St. Jovan Vladimir near Elbasan until 1995, and since then in the Orthodox cathedral of Tirana. To the present day, the relics of Saint Jovan Vladimir attract many believers, especially on his feast day. Another relic connected with the saint is the cross that he held in his hands when he was beheaded. For centuries, it has been under the care of the Andrović family from the village Velji Mikulići in southern Montenegro. It is shown to believers only once a year, on the Feast of Pentecost. Saint Jovan Vladimir is the patron saint of the town Bar, Montenegro. He is classically depicted on icons as a monarch wearing a crown and regal clothes, with a cross in his right hand, and his own head in the left hand.
Jovan Vladimir appears during the protracted war between Byzantium and Tsar Samuil (spelled also as 'Samuel') – the heir to the First Bulgarian Empire. In a situation reminiscent of earlier Serbian rulers, he was pressed by Bulgarian expansion, while being courted by the Byzantine Emperor. Basil II sought the support of other Balkan rulers for his fight against the mighty Samuil, and with this intention he contacted Jovan Vladimir. The Serbian diplomatic mission whose arrival in Constantinople in the year 992 is mentioned in a charter of the Great Lavra Monastery written in 993, was most likely a mission sent by Jovan Vladimir. He was likewise interested in thwarting Samuil.
The alliance with Byzantium, however, did not help the Prince. In 997, Samuil attacked Duklja, and after several weeks of fighting, Vladimir having seen that the Tsar’s huge force could not be resisted, retreated with his army and many of his people onto the hill Kosorog (Obliquus). According to the Chronicle of the Priest of Duklja, Vladimir performed a miracle there: the hill was infested with venomous snakes, but when he offered up a prayer to the , their bite became harmless. Samuil left a part of his army to lay siege to the hill, and carried on conquering other places. After a while, Vladimir surrendered to deliver his people from famine and the sword, and was sent to a prison in Prespa.
While he languished in the prison praying day and night, an angel of the appeared to him and foretold that he would shortly be freed, but that he would die a martyr’s death. His fate in captivity is the subject of one of the most romantic tales of early Serbian literature – the story of Vladimir and Theodora Kosara (spelled also as 'Cossara'), Samuil’s daughter. An oral tradition of the story was recorded in the 12th century in the Chronicle of the Priest of Duklja; this is the Chronicle’s description of how Vladimir and Kosara met:
So Kosara fell in love with the handsome captive, and begged her father for his hand. Samuil, having conquered lands, wanted to bind his new subjects to himself in a more cordial way, not only with the sheer force. He allowed the marriage, returned Duklja to his new son-in-law, and besides gave him the whole territory of Dyrrhachium, to rule them from that point on as his vassal. He likewise sent to Vladimir’s paternal uncle Dragimir, the ruler of Travunia, to come down from a mountain where he retreated with his people before Samuil’s army, and to resume ruling his land. Thereafter, as recorded in the Chronicle, “Vladimir lived with his wife Cossara in all sanctity and chastity, worshipping God and serving him night and day, and he ruled the people entrusted to him in a Godfearing and just manner.” During that time, Church Slavonic literacy and other ecclesiastic influences of the Ohrid patriarchate spread through his realm. He apparently ruled in peace, evading involvement in the major conflict. The war culminated with Samuil’s disastrous defeat by the Byzantines in 1014, shortly after which the Tsar died of a heart attack.
Tsar Samuil was succeeded by his son Gavril Radomir, but his reign was short: his cousin Ivan Vladislav killed him in 1015, and ruled in his stead. Vladislav held that he would make his position stronger if he exterminated the whole family of Samuil, for which reason he plotted the murder of Jovan Vladimir. The new Tsar thus sent messengers to him to demand his attendance in Prespa, but Vladimir did not want to go out his land; not even after many subsequent Vladislav’s promises and pledges that he meant no harm to him. Finally, Vladislav sent him a golden cross with his pledge on it, to which Vladimir replied:
Two bishops and a hermit came to Vladimir, gave him a wooden cross, and confirmed that the Tsar had made the pledge on it. Vladimir kissed the cross, collected a few followers, and set off to Prespa. As soon as he arrived there, he went into a church for a prayer. When he came out of the church, he was struck down by Vladislav’s soldiers and beheaded, all the time holding the cross in his hands; it was May 22, 1016.
Vladimir was succeeded by his uncle Dragimir, who thus ruled both Duklja and Travunia. According to the Chronicle, however, Dragimir was slain during his attempt to establish himself as Duklja’s ruler. Ivan Vladislav was killed in less than two years after Jovan Vladimir’s assassination: he was stabbed in the back with spears while he besieged Dyrrhachium, in February 1018. The Chronicle, though, states that Vladimir appeared before him as an armed soldier, and struck him dead. In any way, the First Bulgarian Empire was terminated the same year, and fully incorporated into the Byzantine Empire. Duklja is not mentioned for the next twenty or so years, presumably remaining a vassal principality of Byzantium.
Jovan Vladimir was buried in Prespa, in the same church in front of which he was martyred. His relics very soon became famous as miraculously healing, attracting many people to his tomb. Shortly after his death, he was recognized as a martyr and saint, being commemorated on May 22. Chronologically, Saint Jovan Vladimir is the first Serbian saint. This canonizing of the deceased ruler was to set a precedent, later to be expanded in the appearance of the Holy Nemanjić dynasty in Raška.
Two or three years after Jovan Vladimir’s burial, Kosara transported his remains to Duklja. She interred him near his court in Krajina, in the church of Monastery of the Most Holy Theotokos. The relics drew many devotees to the church, making it a center of pilgrimage. Kosara did not marry again; by her will, she was interred in the same church, at the feet of her husband. In ca. 1215, Krajina was taken from Serbia by Michael I, the Despot of Epirus. During his brief reign over this territory, Michael I ordered that the relics be transported to Dyrrhachium. According to one of the hagiographies of Saint Jovan Vladimir, he was then recognized as the patron saint of this city.
Dyrrhachium was taken in 1368 by an Albanian ruler Karlo Thopia. In 1381 he rebuilt in Byzantine style a ruined monastery near Elbasan, and had the relics transferred into the monastery’s church. He made an inscription above the church’s door, describing these pious deeds of his in Greek, Serbian and Latin. The rebuilt monastery was accordingly dedicated to Saint Jovan Vladimir, Shën Gjon Vlladimirit in Albanian, and it soon developed into a prominent destination of pilgrimage. In the 18th century, it became the see of the Orthodox archdiocese of Dyrrhachium. Gregory, the Archbishop of Dyrrhachium (1768-1772), wrote in it the Elbasan Gospel Manuscript, the oldest work of Albanian Orthodox literature. To the present day, a great number of believers assemble at the monastery every year on June 4 to celebrate the Feast of Saint Jovan Vladimir. There are numerous stories about people, both Christians and Muslims, who were healed after they prayed by his relics, placed in a reliquary. Every year the reliquary is refilled with new cotton, which is kept there until the celebration and then distributed among the assembled believers. Since 1995 the saint’s relics have been kept in the Orthodox cathedral of Tirana, being brought back to the monastery only for his feast days.
The cult of Saint Jovan Vladimir has been cherished in Macedonia for centuries, and his icons can be found in many Macedonian churches. A tradition has it that his head is in the Monastery of Saint John of Bigor near the town Debar. It was brought there by Vladimir himself during a stormy night, while a great light spread all round. The Church of St. Athanasius near the village Pesočani in the Municipality of Debarca, is said to have been founded by Jovan Vladimir. The church is now half-ruined, but people from the region gather there every year on June 3, the eve of Feast of Saint Jovan Vladimir. They light candles on the remains of the church’s walls, and pray to the saint. It is believed that a stream flowing nearby swells and fills with fish that day after the sunset, and many of the devotees having prayed go to the stream and catch fish. Not far from Pesočani is a village named Vladimirovo. By a local legend, Vladimir was born there, and had his castle there.
Saint Jovan Vladimir is the patron saint of the town Bar in Montenegro, and a festive religious procession passes on his feast day through the streets of Bar with church banners and icons, celebrating the saint. The procession starts out in front of the parish home. When it arrives at the remains of the 6th-century Church of the Most Holy Theotokos, it pauses and a short sermon is delivered. Completing its established route, the procession returns to the parish home. The bronze sculpture King Jovan Vladimir, 4 m in height, has been installed at the central square of Bar in 2001; it is a work of sculptor Nenad Šoškić.
According to a research by Russian historian Ivan Yastrebov, after Vladimir's death Kosara brought the cross from Prespa to Krajina. It was kept with other relics at the Monastery of the Most Holy Theotokos. At the peak of Islamization of this region in the 18th century, the monastery was torn down, and the cross was given to the people of Krajina. They regarded it as a protector of the clan and a symbol of rich harvest, and kept it as a great sanctity, although they converted to Islam. Yastrebov concludes that the cross was taken from them by the neighboring clan Mrkojevići, who then ceded it to the Androvićs. The cross, made of yew wood, was plated with silver at the end of the 16th century. A brass ball was fixed at its bottom, into which a stick is inserted when the cross is carried. It is 45 cm high, 38 cm wide, and 2.5 cm thick.
The cross, followed by a religious procession, is carried every year on the Feast of Pentecost from Velji Mikulići to the summit of Mount Rumija. All the participants in this celebration gather at Velji Mikulići the day before. The procession is preceded by a liturgy in the village's Church of Saint Nicholas, which begins at midnight. After the liturgy, at about one o'clock a.m., the ascent begins up a steep path to the 1593-meter-high summit of Rumija. At the head of the procession is the cross, carried by a member of the Andrović family, a priest goes behind him, and then follow the other participants. Among them are traditionally also Catholics and Muslims of the region. It is carefully observed that no one comes ahead of the cross; doing that is considered a bad omen. The ascending devotees sing:
The procession arrives at the mountain peak before dawn, and at sunrise the morning liturgy begins. A tradition has it that a church dedicated to the Holy Trinity stood at the summit, built by Jovan Vladimir, and razed by Ottomans. There was, therefore, a custom to pick up a stone at a certain distance from the peak, and carry it to that destination. It was believed, when a sufficient quantity of stones were collected, the church would rebuild itself. A church building dedicated to the Holy Trinity stands there again since 2005, erected and consecrated by the Serbian Orthodox Church. After the prayers are offered at the summit, the procession goes back to Velji Mikulići, again following the cross. On the way back, some people pick a medicinal plant called the red root of Rumija. The procession ends at the Church of Saint Nicholas, and folk festivities in Velji Mikulići continue until late at night.
From century to century, the Cross of Vladimir has bathed in the sun's rays at the peak of Rumija on every Feast of Pentecost, excepting the period from 1959 to 1984, when the celebration was not held. Its course was somewhat changed in the 1999: for security reasons, the cross was not carried up to the summit, and it was shown, for the first time, during the midnight liturgy in the Church of Saint Nicholas. That has been a curiosity, because people normally cannot see the cross before the start of the procession.
In 1742, Hristofor Zhefarovich created in Vienna a copperplate depicting Saint Jovan Vladimir’s miracles. Printed impressions of the copperplate were disseminated to a great number of homes of Orthodox Christians throughout the Balkans. The same author included Saint Jovan Vladimir among the rulers and saints whom he illustrated in his Stemmatographia.
The oldest hagiography of Saint Jovan Vladimir is the chapter XXXVI of Chronicle of the Priest of Duklja, written in Latin in the 12th century. That chapter is regarded as the most literary part of the Chronicle, but also as more reliable than the rest of it which is rejected by historians. Some of them consider that the chapter is based on a more extensive text about Vladimir, written in Krajina short time after his death. The author of the Chronicle himself refers to this text as “the book of his deeds, where his accomplishments are related in turn.” Although Vladimir was only a prince, in the Chronicle he is called a king, as the people of Duklja reminisced of him; he is termed the same in folk poems. His title King of Serbia resulted from the fact that the name Serbia was also applied to Duklja, as can be seen in works of 11th-century Byzantine historians John Skylitzes and George Cedrenus.
His hagiographies in Church Slavonic and Greek were printed in Venice in 1690; the Greek one was written in the Elbasan monastery. They have many panegyrical and glorifying features, and in the Church Slavonic hagiography, Jovan Vladimir is called the Tsar of Illyria and Dalmatia. Their main purpose was to reinforce Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire to preserve their faith, and to resist the Ottoman occupation.
According to these two hagiographies, Jovan Vladimir was the founder of the church near his court in which Kosara would bury him. The area where the church would be erected was previously a wild forest. Vladimir rode with three of his nobles through the forest, and saw a gliding eagle on whose breast a cross was shining. The eagle flew down, put the cross on the ground, and became invisible. The four men dismounted bowing down before the cross, and Vladimir ordered that a church be erected at that place. He afterwards went to pray there day and night, feeling that he would soon become a martyr. The hagiographies then describe how he was summoned under a pretext to discuss state issues, and killed by Tsar Vladislav. The murderous tsar struck Vladimir with his sword, but could not hurt him – only when Vladimir gave his own sword to Vladislav, this succeeded to cut his head off. Even a greater miracle happened then: Vladimir took his severed head, mounted his horse, and rode to that church. He walked into the church, knelt down, and said, “, in your hands I place my spirit!” Kosara interred him there with the participation of bishops, amid hymns and paeans.