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The Mother of God in Middle Byzantine Exegesis, Hagiography, and Homiletics: A Round Table

On Saturday, April 22, the Pappas Patristic Institute held an academic round table on the theme of “The Mother of God in Middle Byzantine Exegesis, Hagiography, and Homiletics.” The event took place in the Archbishop Iakovos Museum at the library of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. The invited scholars included prominent Byzantine art historians, and conversation focused largely on the relationship between written accounts and visual depictions of the Theotokos in Byzantine theology, literature, and art.

The invited scholars were (in alphabetical order):

· Annemarie Weyl Carr (Southern Methodist University);

· Mary B. Cunningham (University of Nottingham);

· Susan Ashbrook Harvey (Brown University);

· Elizabeth Jeffreys (Oxford University);

· Ioli Kalavrezou (Harvard University);

· Michael C. Legaspi (St Vladimir’s Seminary);

· Vasiliki Limberis (Temple University);

· Kalliroi Linardou (Athens School of Fine Arts);

· Nancy Sevcenko (President, International Center of Medieval Art);

· Rachel J. Smith (Villanova University);

· Christos Simelidis (University of Thessaloniki);

· Fr Maximos Constas (Director, Pappas Patristic Institute);

· Tikhon Pino (Assistant Director, Pappas Patristic Institute).

The round table was also attended by two recent graduates of Holy Cross, Melania Linderman and Anberin Pasha.

The round table explored the following three topics: (1) written descriptions of the Mother of God; (2) the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple; and (3) the Mother of God and the Passion.

Sacred Physiognomies

The first theme was introduced by Mary Cunningham. Byzantine ecclesiastical literature contains descriptions of the Mother of God’s appearance and physical features as well as her spiritual and intellectual virtues, which in the ancient world came together under the category of “physiognomy,” a mode of observation and analysis in which the features and characteristics of the face and body are correlated with the attributes and character of the soul.[1] One might expect these descriptions to be related to images of the Virgin in Byzantine art, yet this relationship is not always obvious. It was suggested that, rather than stipulating rules for what an image of Mary should look like, the descriptions may themselves be influenced by artistic images. It was also pointed out that these descriptions may in fact be deliberately vague, presenting an idealized image of Mary—a verbal negotiation of the complexity of her nature transformed by grace. At the same time, for an image to be “like” the original did not, for the Byzantine beholder, require veristic resemblance, because icons were not like portraits made from life aiming to reproduce the details of a particular face (which would have been considered distracting). Instead, to be “like” its archetype, an icon or image had only to be accurately identified as representing its subject, an identification that was secured largely through the inscription of the subject’s name.

The texts under consideration here included

· the Legend of Aphroditianus;

· the Life of Mary the Theotokos by Epiphanios of Kallistratos;

· John Geometres, Life of the Virgin Mary;

· John of Damascus, Homily on the Birth of the Virgin;

· Athanasios of Alexandria, First Letter to Virgins; and

· the description of the Virgin in the Painter’s Manual by Dionysios of Fourna.

The Entry of the Virgin into the Temple

Here the round table focused on the work of the twelfth-century writer Iakovos Kokkinobaphos, who wrote a series of six homilies on the early life of the Virgin Mary, from her conception through the Annunciation and Visitation with Elizabeth. Particular attention was paid to Iakovos’s homily on the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple (homily 3). The text was introduced by Elizabeth Jeffreys, and the homily’s iconography was introduced by Kalliroi Linardou.

The homilies, which survive in only two manuscripts, are well known among Byzantinists primarily for their extraordinary illuminations, which include six full-page frontispieces; six decorated headpieces; and seventy miniatures incorporating 130 different illustrated episodes from the life of the Mother of God. A lively discussion ensued concerning the relationship between the text and its accompanying images, and while it is obvious that the text and the images are mutually interdependent, they constitute two different denotational systems that present unique challenges to interpreters. It was noted that, in the illuminations, the historical narrative of the Virgin’s life intersects with the larger temporal arc of Old Testament typology and prefiguration, combining history with eschatology.

Time is merged with the promise of its fulfillment both in historical time and beyond it. The two intersecting timelines create unexpected dramatic twists and detours in the flow of narration, expressed in what are some the most original and inventive images in all of Byzantine art. For example, where Iakovos describes the joy of creation at the entrance of the Virgin into the Holy of Holies, the accompanying image (shown here) juxtaposes an image of the Entry with a scene of souls in Hades standing in their tombs and receiving the news with joy.

The Mother of God and the Passion

The final topic, introduced by Fr Maximos Constas, was the Mother of God and the Passion, focusing on the Passion narrative from the Life of the Virgin by John Geometres (DOML 77:197-261); and the rhetorical exercise on the same subject by Nikephoros Basilakes (DOML 43:206-223). The intense emotion displayed by the Mother of God at the crucifixion and burial of her son is well known, but only became widespread in the middle Byzantine period. Geometres provides us with a dramatic re-telling of Christ’s arrest, crucifixion, death, and burial from the point of view of Mary, a minor figure in the Gospels who now occupies the foreground. Geometres skill as a narrator is here at its highest as he brings the events of Christ’s final hours into sharp focus. Like most narrators, Geometres exists alongside the biblical characters, and we hear his voice as well as theirs. The epic world embodied in the Gospels is mediated to us through his skillful narrative technique, so that the speech of the sacred actors is intertwined with his own speech. Though Geometres immerses us deeply into the Mother of God’s harrowing experience of the death of her son, there is always space or room for the reader to be detached from the world of the narrative in order to ponder its significance (one pauses frequently while reading Geometres). The reader’s emotional involvement is necessary, for without it the reader will not understand the significance of the events embodied in the narrative; but if such involvement is too great, amounting to a total identification or emotional loss of the self, the reader will not consider the meaning of the events nor judge the conduct of the characters. Maintaining the balance between immersion and detachment is important for Geometres, who understands the events of the Virgin’s life to be “mysteries,” which, like the mystery of the Gospel itself, requires contemplation in order to move past the surface level of meaning.

The Pappas Patristic Institute is grateful to all the guests who joined us for this stimulating and exciting discussion. It provided a unique opportunity to discuss important texts and images surrounding the cult of the Mother of God in Byzantium, the subject of our 2023 Spring Lecture by Dr Mary Cunningham.


[1] See, for example, Epiphanios, Life of Mary the Theotokos: Her stature was medium–although some said that it was more than medium in height. She was fair in coloring, with blond hair, light eyes, beautiful eyes, black-browed, with a prominent nose, long hands, long fingered, and with a long face, filled with divine grace and beauty, without pride, unpretentious, active, and in possession of surpassing humility” (trans. Mary Cunningham [Liverpool, 2023], 78); and John Geometres, Life of the Virgin Mary 10: “She was, by nature, very eager for knowledge, quick at learning, and most refined and charming in her speech. She was fully acquainted with the scriptures, extremely quick of apprehension, most wise with respect to knowledge, and very sensible in her judgement as the soon-to-be mother of the Word and Wisdom. Her voice was most melodious, and her speech was incomparably sweet” (DOML 77:33).


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