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A Lost Work of Byzantine Theology: The Life of the Virgin Mary by John Geometres

Updated: Oct 12, 2022

Fr Maximos Constas, Director of the Pappas Patristic Institute, and Professor Christos Simelidis of the University of Thessaloniki, have completed work on the critical edition and English translation of the Life of the Virgin Mary by John Geometres, which will be published in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library in May of 2023.


John Geometres: Life and Works

John Geometres (ca. 935-ca. 1000) was one of the most highly accomplished writers of the Byzantine period. He flourished in Constantinople during the second half of the tenth century, where he was an imperial military officer, the poet laureate of his day, and a precursor of the eleventh-century Byzantine literary renaissance. His brilliant career at the court came to an end when he fell out of favor under Basil II (in or around 985), but he continued his literary work as a member of an elite religious confraternity associated with the church of the Theotokos in the Kyros district of the capital. It was in this church that the Mother of God appeared to the late-antique liturgical poet Romanos the Melodist, and where he was later buried. The confraternity was likely founded in memory of Romanos and continued his devotion to the Theotokos through the production of poems, hymns, and homilies in her honor.

Though Geometres wrote on a variety of themes and subjects, most of his writings are religious in nature. These include a poetic translation of the biblical odes; epigrams on icons and frescoes; scholia on the orations of Gregory of Nazianzus; a compendium of the ascetic life in classicizing tetrastichs; five prosodic hymns to the Virgin; a lengthy oration on the Annunciation; and a homiletic treatise written for the feast of the Dormition, conventionally known as the Life of the Virgin Mary. A series of elaborate meditations on the events of Mary’s life, the Life is arguably the single most important witness to Marian doctrine and devotion ever produced in the Byzantine world.

The Life of the Virgin Mary

Geometres’s Life of the Virgin Mary is the most outstanding example of several biographies and literary treatments of the Mother of God written in the middle Byzantine period. These biographies include the late-eighth- or early-ninth-century Life of the Theotokos by Epiphanios the Monk; the ninth-century Marian homilies of George of Nikomedia; the tenth-century Life of the Virgin by Symeon Metaphrastes; and a late-tenth-century Georgian redaction of Geometres’s Life of the Virgin produced by Euthymios the Athonite. Biographies of the Virgin were without precedent in the early Byzantine tradition, and Epiphanios is often considered the creator of the genre. Geometres gave the new genre its fully realized form, combining biblical texts, apocryphal literature, and material from patristic homilies in a monumental synthesis of two major literary and liturgical cycles, namely, the cycle of Mary’s birth and childhood, and the cycle of her death, burial, and translation in glory to heaven.

The Life of the Virgin Mary is an elaborate farewell discourse delivered on the annual commemoration of the Virgin’s death (or “Dormition”) celebrated on 15 August, an occasion which provided Geometres with the opportunity to recount in detail his subject’s entire life. The material is presented in chronological order and organized largely around the Marian feasts of the Byzantine ecclesiastical year (as well as the feasts of Christ at which the Virgin was historically present, for example, the Nativity and the Crucifixion). Geometres begins his discourse with the history and genealogy of Mary’s parents, after which he describes her upbringing in the temple, followed by the events recorded in the Gospels (her betrothal to Joseph, the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, the Meeting with Simeon, the Wedding at Cana, etc.), bringing the main narrative to a close with an extended treatment of the Dormition. After this, he briefly recounts the transfer of the Virgin’s garments to Constantinople during the reign of Leo I (ruled 457-474) and then concludes with elaborate praises and prayers of thanksgiving to the Mother of God and her son.

Vaticanus graecus 504, f. 191v, a twelfth-century manuscript containing the Life of the Virgin by John Geometres.

Throughout the Life, Geometres makes frequent references to “today’s feast” and the “feast we are now celebrating.” However, the sheer length of the work, which runs to nearly forty-five thousand words, makes it unlikely that it was read in its present form at a feast or vigil of the Dormition. Instead, it may have been originally delivered in a shorter form (possibly in separate sections over the course of an all-night vigil) and subsequently revised and expanded.

Theological Themes

The Life of the Virgin Mary is a literary and rhetorical masterpiece designed to captivate, delight, and impress its audience. It is also a work of outstanding theological sophistication animated by deeply felt devotion to the Mother of God. Throughout the work, Geometres maintains that the events of Mary’s life are “mysteries” that can be grasped only through an act of “contemplation,” which he achieves through an elaborate theological expansion of the New Testament, drawing out the implications of the incarnation for Mary’s life, as uniquely bound to the life of her son.

In the Byzantine theological tradition, confession of faith in Jesus Christ as the incarnate son of God the Father does not in any way exclude his mother according to the flesh, making Mariology an integral aspect of Christology. From this point of view, Mary’s title of “Theotokos” (God-bearer) is simply the other side of the biblical teaching that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). The Council of Ephesus (431), which bestowed this title on Mary, did so precisely because her human nature guaranteed the truth of the incarnation. The theology of the Council of Chalcedon (451) led to further developments in Marian doctrine and devotion, since its “communication of properties” between human and divine nature gave her a full share in the transformative power of her son’s divine life and work.

In the eighth and ninth centuries, these theological principles figured prominently in the Orthodox response to Iconoclasm, when the doctrine of the incarnation required heightened attention to the physical and spiritual unity of the incarnate Word with his human mother. To demonstrate the reality of Christ’s humanity, iconophile theologians emphasized the reality of his sufferings, which led to a corresponding emphasis on the sufferings of his mother, who was the source of that humanity. When these so-called “affective” features became part of the theological understanding of Mary, they were fully informed by established Christological doctrine. Mary’s maternal compassion, her suffering, and other ostensibly emotional responses were not highlighted for their own sake but were understood in light of the transformation of her human nature in and through the incarnation. The result was that “affective” Marian piety was inwardly structured by the doctrine of the incarnation, while the doctrine of the incarnation became infused with the spirit of piety and devotion.

This is the theological tradition that Geometres inherited, and which he made the principal theme of his Life of the Virgin, namely, the ontological solidarity uniting the human mother with her divine-human son. Geometres compares this union not only to the inseparability of a body from its shadow, but also, and rather strikingly, to the hypostatic union, that is, to the inseparable unity of divinity and humanity within Christ himself:

But what I aim to demonstrate in all these things is that, just as a shadow is inseparable from a body (or rather just as the Word of God, who is also her son, from the very moment he clothed himself in our nature, was never in any way separated from that nature according to his hypostasis, even if he distinctly manifested the unique properties of each of the natures) she too, after he came forth from her womb, was virtually never separated from her son her every deed, habit, and disposition (even if they were separate according to hypostasis), so that when he traveled, she followed him, and when he worked miracles, she also worked miracles, sharing in his glory and exulting in him.

Geometres is careful to qualify this bold analogy with the adverb “virtually” (σχεδόν), and the acknowledgment that the consubstantiality of mother and son in terms of their shared human nature does not lead to a confusion of their personal identities (since “they were separate according to hypostasis”). However, this does not prevent the unity of the mother’s “every deed, habit, and disposition” with those of her son. By virtue of her divine maternity, Mary mirrors the activities of her son throughout all the stages of his earthly life and especially at the time of his passion. Because Christ suffered for human beings, this must also be reflected in the experience of his mother, though their suffering is not symmetrical:

. . . when he was betrayed, dragged off to trial, judged, and suffered, she was not only everywhere present with him, but in those moments especially she also became even more united to him in nature (συνεπεφύκει), and thus she also suffered together (συνέπασχε) with him, and indeed, if it is not too daring a thing to say, she suffered more than he did. For whereas he was God and acted voluntarily and even with longing, she possessed the frailty of being human and a woman, together with extraordinary maternal compassion for such an extraordinary child….

Once again, Geometres ventures a bold formulation but not without qualification (“if it is not too daring a thing to say”), indicating that he knows the parameters of orthodox Christological doctrine and the extent to which he can speculatively overstep its boundaries.

His account of Mary’s suffering at the crucifixion, death, and burial of her son is surely one of the more remarkable narrative sequences in the entire Life and unsurprisingly calls forth some of his most daring claims. Addressing himself directly to Christ, he says:

We give thanks to you who suffered so much for our sake, and who prepared your own mother to suffer so many things for you and for us, so that not only would her equal share of honor of your sufferings bring about our communion with your glory but would also always transact the business of our salvation, remembering her pain when she was with us, and that her love for us is due not only to human nature but also to the recollection of all that she strove to do for us throughout her life.

We give thanks to you who gave yourself as a ransom (λύτρον) (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45) for us, and who subsequently gives us every day your own mother as a deliverance (λυτήριον), so that, whereas you yourself died once and for all for all of us, she dies time and again voluntarily, her inner being consumed with fire as it also was for you, and for those for whom, like the Father, she also gave her son, or even saw him being given over to death.

For Geometres, Mary is not simply the mother of the redeemer but contributes personally to the work of redemption. Like God the Father, she too gives her son over to death. Her suffering adds something to the sufferings of Christ or at the very least extends them. That Mary “co-suffers” with Christ has led some Roman Catholic theologians to argue that Geometres “forcefully affirms” the notion that Mary is a “co-redeemer” with Christ. However, such a reading ignores the fact that Geometres disassociates (through an associative wordplay) Christ from the Virgin (λύτρον vs. λυτήριον), and that the assistance offered by her is wholly dependent on salvation in Christ, while the latter in no way depends on the suffering of his mother.

Vat. gr. 504, f. 192v

After the resurrection and ascension, Mary, who had previously served as the leader of Christ’s female disciples, now takes on a new role. While maintaining her connection to Christ, she assumes leadership of the early church, becoming the “protector, teacher, and sovereign of all his friends and disciples, both men and women, taking upon herself the cares of all.” With Christ’s departure from this world, Mary’s ontological solidarity with her son assumes even greater importance, since she takes the place of Christ who is physically absent: all the disciples had “in place of the Lord’s bodily presence the one who gave birth to his body.” As the leader of the new community, Mary organizes all apostolic activity, and “just as she had suffered with her son, so too she suffered again with his disciples, for she was now their common mother,” so that when “they were bound in chains, she was bound together with them, in spirit being imprisoned with Peter and struck by the stones thrown at Stephen.” The crowning “mystery” of her life is her death and translation to heaven, when she is exalted beyond every creature, becoming the “common mother of all” and “something even greater than a mother, for just as her nature is above nature, so too is her relationship and good will toward human beings.” It is now that she becomes fully a mediator to Christ and an intercessor for the world, “a second mediator between us and the first mediator, a God-bearing human being between us and the man-bearing God,” “lavishly bestowing munificence on all.”

The Dormition

The Life of the Virgin Mary was composed for delivery on the annual commemoration of the Virgin’s repose celebrated on 15 August and known as the Dormition. The recounting of this event is at once the high point of the Life, the lengthiest section of the entire work, and exceptionally rich in theological ideas and concepts. The section as a whole may be divided into three parts of unequal length. The first part is a detailed narration of the Dormition, from the initial appearance of the angel to Mary, through her death, burial, translation, and empty tomb, interspersed with numerous and often lengthy digressions (on the presence of Dionysios the Areopagite at her funeral; on various theories regarding Paul’s ascent to the third heaven; the location of paradise; the transfer of the Virgin’s vestments to Constantinople, etc.). The second part offers a balanced theological consideration of Mary’s death. Geometres frames his remarks by affirming that all things pertaining to the Virgin “unfolded in a manner beyond and even contrary to nature,” including her death. When she died, her spirit departed from her body, which latter was solemnly placed in a tomb, where it remained incorrupt. Three days later, her body was translated from the grave to heaven in a manner “befitting the mother of God,” for she was “raised up to the heavens before the resurrection, just as we will be raised after the resurrection; and she was raised in her entirety, just as her son was,” though unlike him, her soul and body were separated and translated to heaven at different times where they were finally reunited. Geometres explicitly rejects the notion that Mary was immortal and affirms that her death, like her maternity, guarantees the reality of the human nature of her son. He further argues that the Virgin’s translation to heaven is a figure of human nature’s final, eschatological encounter with Christ, so that “this present ascension is proof of the future resurrection.” At the same time, the events surrounding Mary’s Dormition serve as a model for the spiritual life through the symbolic death and resurrection of the soul enacted through asceticism. Geometres then sings the praises of summer and in particular of the day, which he intriguingly compares to astronomical events in the constellation Virgo. This is followed by the third and final part, which contains a series of prayers to Christ and the Virgin, an exuberant celebration of her miracles and intercessory powers, and a prayer for protection and deliverance from civic unrest that concludes the entire work, which Geometres offers to the Mother of God in gratitude for the many gifts she has given him.


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