Sunday, December 8, 2013


Leslie Brubaker, Mary B. Cunningham, The Cult of the Mother of God in Byzantium: Texts and Images. Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies. Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2011. Pp. xxii, 306. ISBN 9780754662662. $124.95.

Reviewed by Diliana Angelova, University of California, Berkeley (

Version at BMCR home site


In the last dozen years, studies on the cult of the Virgin Mary in Byzantium have flourished. Scholarship on the Mother of God has grown by a few monographs, a landmark exhibition, and two edited collections of essays.1 Building upon path-breaking earlier scholarship, this recent work has reinvigorated the topic for Byzantinists. This is so because many of the central questions in the field engage the Byzantines' enduring devotion to the Virgin Mary. The Mother of God is more than "good to think with;" she is indispensable to some of our most basic historical questions.2 These include the origins and significance of Byzantine religious images, the cult of relics, the relationship between church and state, the Christian East and medieval West, center and periphery, popular devotion, and official doctrine.

The present volume consists of sixteen papers, originally read at a 2006 conference. In addition to the essays, the volume includes a preface by Leslie Brubaker (co-editor of the volume along with Mary Cunningham), an introduction by Averil Cameron, a concluding essay by Margaret Mullett, in-text figures, collated (mostly color) plates, and a general index. It is an attractively illustrated and produced book. The main interventions of the collection concern the pre-iconoclastic veneration of the Virgin, and the "registers or levels" of Mary's veneration among different groups and places (xxi).

Essays in the volume are grouped in four thematic sections elaborating upon these two broad concerns. Section I includes articles dedicated to local dimensions of Marian devotion in the pre-iconoclastic era. Rina Avner broadens the subject by focusing on the Kathisma (seat) of the Virgin, an early Christian complex near Jerusalem. The author deftly argues that it made a lasting impression on Marian feasts and devotion (29). Derek Kruger helps us conceptualize Mary's agency by applying the anthropological concept of boundary to three works: John Moschus' Spiritual Meadow, Anthony of Choziba's Miracles of the Theotokos, and the Life of Mary of Egypt. He concludes that Mary in these texts emerges as "a penetrable barrier," a guardian and a "link between the sacred and the profane" (29). Drawing beautifully on texts, Henry Maguire's essay on sixth-century depictions of Mary proposes that those images mostly engaged with the "natures of Christ." Maguire thus strengthens the idea that Marian cult developed after Iconoclasm. Stephen Shoemaker, revisiting some conclusions of his path-breaking monograph, unsettles this conclusion.3 He uses as his entryway the Life of the Virgin, Mary's earliest extant vita, generally dated to the 600s and known only from a Georgian translation. He focuses on its influence over George of Nikomedeia's Passion homilies (9th c.), credited as the first texts to emphasize Mary's role in the Passion and the Resurrection of her son. He concludes that Marian literature and piety were not "a product of the post-iconoclastic period, . . . but rather they belong to late antiquity, the seventh century if not perhaps earlier" (66-67). Pauline Allen ably analyzes the thorny subject of the Greek Marian homiletic tradition. She provides a useful overview of the extant, lost, and dubious works from the 500s and the 600s, and then discusses homilies on the feasts of the Annunciation and the Hypapante. Her major finding is that homilists "accept, sanitize, or ignore negative or ambiguous passages in the New Testament relating to the Mother of God" (84).

Section II contains four essays on the development of Marian appellations and typology. The first, by Margaret Barker, looks into the striking connections between "titles and imagery" used for Mary (especially in the Akathistos Hymn, the Kanon of the Akathist, and the Protevangelium of James) and those employed to describe Wisdom in earlier biblical and pseudo- epigraphical texts (92). The connections highlight an unappreciated link between the mother of the king in the Judaic tradition, the heavenly mother of Yahweh, the Lord, and the Virgin Mary. Barker thus sees the various lofty, and even puzzling, epithets for the Virgin Mary as reviving an older Judaic tradition. This provocative conclusion has significant (yet unstated) consequences for the debate over the connections between the Marian cult and Greco-Roman religions and Byzantine empresses. Leena Mari Peltomaa's essay approaches the question of epithets through the Akathistos Hymn, a work that was also the subject of her 2001 monograph.4 This article, like the monograph, argues for a fifth-century date for this important hymn. Peltomaa proposes that the Akathistos appellations for the Virgin were chosen to affirm the idea of the Theotokos (God-bearer). They were thus steeped in fifth-century dogmatic debates. Natalia Smelova's essay on Melkite Syriac translations of Greek theotokia, or hymns on the Virgin, provides a valuable overview of the genre and the extant manuscripts, and compares several of these Syriac theotokia to the Greek originals. In the theotokia, she finds a "well-elaborated Old Testament typology of the Virgin Mary," a conclusion that resonates with Barker's findings (121). Smelova also reveals that the Syriac translators deployed a variety of approaches, ranging from faithful renditions of the Greek words and syntax to dogmatically-motivated alterations and elaborations. Kalliroe Linardou's essay examines the visualization of Old Testament typologies of the Virgin in two twelfth-century manuscripts (Paris, B.N. gr. 1208 and Vat. gr. 1162). The manuscripts, almost identical and lavishly illuminated by the same artist, contain the homilies on the Virgin by James of Kokkinobaphos, known also as James the Monk. Linardou focuses on four frontispieces (Jacob's Vision, the Burning Bush, the Couch of Solomon, and Isaiah's Vision and Purification). She convincingly argues that the images underscore "Christological/soteriological agenda steadily and unambiguously to such an extent that Mary's role is undermined" (148). This conclusion, combined with the author's proposal that the Vatican manuscript was intended for the "use and instruction" of a woman, Eirene, sister-in-law of Manuel I Komnenos, invites questions about the relationship between the cult of Mary and the ideal deportment of imperial women as envisaged, respectively, by the preacher and the artist (149).

The three essays in Section III seek to illuminate Marian devotion through the study of eighth- and ninth-century sermons. Andrew Louth concentrates on John of Damascus, whose work he contextualizes as nourished by two "fully elaborated" strands in Christian devotion (that he ingeniously contrasts to Rabbinic Judaism): doctrine (the Church Councils) and the imagination (apocryphal literature, especially the second-century Protevangelium of James) (156). John's work, in Louth's analysis, integrates both strands seamlessly and imaginatively, advancing dogma and providing the vivid details "to satisfy the curious" (160). Mary Cunningham employs the Protevangelium as a lens into the development of eight-century Marian homiletic literature. She attributes the popularity of the Protevangelium to the establishment of Marian feasts that were inspired by the apocryphal text. The examined homilies of Andrew of Crete, John of Damascus, Germanos of Constantinople, John of Euboia, and Kosmas Vestitor demonstrate that the Protevangelium provided the matrix for elaboration, dramatization, and heightening the emotional response of the congregation. Niki Tsironis's essay on the emotion and the senses resonates with recent scholarly interest in the phenomenology of the icon.5 Tsironis focuses on Andrew of Crete, John of Euboia, Germanos of Constantinople, John of Damascus, and Theodore Stoudite. Her conclusions affirm the Byzantine theology of the image and concur with scholarship on the representation of sorrow in Byzantium.6 She connects emotive writing to iconophile affirmation of "matter and its potential to partake of sanctity; . . .as an indirect way of bringing out the reality and the consequences of Incarnation theology" (185).

The final part of the collection concerns later developments in Marian cult. In the opening essay, Jane Baun looks at the "apocalyptic" ("revealed") Panagia. In it, Baun examines three major ways in which Mary revealed herself in "lowbrow" literature: "visions, apparitions, and revelations, most of them recorded in non-official, apocryphal literature," mostly from the ninth to the eleventh centuries (200-1). Baun argues that Marian belief can only fully be appreciated when "lowbrow" literature is considered along with the "canonical 'highbrow' sources" (201). She makes the intriguing argument that the "Apocalyptic Panagia" exemplifies a people-led development of dogma for the East (204). A handy table records the instances of the Revealed Panagia according to types. Dirk Krausmüller also draws attention to religious innovation. His focus is the clergy at the famous Marian church in the Chalkoprateia. He carefully surveys liturgical, homiletic, and hymnographical sources from late antiquity to the tenth century to conclude that the patriarchate promoted three new Marian feasts hosted at the Chalkoprateia. The new feasts aimed at challenging the Chalkoprateia's main rival, the Blachernae church of the Virgin (245). Nancy Ševčenko revisits the significance of the Virgin's lament in the eleventh- and twelfth-century Good Friday monastic apodeipnon (compline, "after-supper" prayer). She connects the service and its history to well-known twelfth-century frescoes of the Entombment, which focus on the Virgin's mourning for her dead son. She argues persuasively that the context for understanding those frescoes went beyond the annual service on Good Friday and extended to the weekly commemoration of the dead on Friday evenings. The final essay in this section is a concise précis of Bissera Pentcheva's provocative monograph The Sensual Icon (2010). The essay is partly structured in conversation with Annemarie Weyl Carr's scholarship on the materiality of the icon, especially her important argument that Leo of Chalcedon articulated icons as "presence."7 Pentcheva applies the notion of "presence" to metal-clad icons. She sees metal icons as providing "an ideal spectacle of surfaces constantly changing under the shift of ambient light," and offering a "performance," a "sensual spectacle," that "gave the deceptive perception of presence" (273-74).

Margaret Mullett's conclusion summarizes the essays, outlines ways in which they further scholarship, and at the same time opens them up with questions for further research. Her desiderata include the successful completion of the Australian homily project as well as more work on the second-century apocryphal gospels, the dating of the Akathistos, the role of the empress Pulcheria in the cult of Mary, the late sixth-century developments, Marian miracles, databases of dated Marian epithets, Marian hymns, and the liturgy, which she refers to as "the great uncharted territory" (287). On the methodological side of things, Mullett challenges current scholars to think about how cultural change works. Do ideas jump from one literary genre to another, to art, or do they migrate in some other way? To the question she poses in the title, her response is a resounding "Yes, the Theotokos, again, and again, we hope, in future conferences, exhibitions and volumes" (288).

To sum up, this new collection of essays on the Mother of God succeeds in achieving its goal admirably. It has indeed expanded our understanding of Marian cult in Byzantium and has pointed towards new and exciting directions for future research.


1.   For an overview, see A. Cameron, "The Cult of the Virgin in Late Antiquity: Religious Development and Myth-making," in The Church and Mary, ed. R.N. Swanson, Studies in Church History, no. 39 (Woodbridge, Suffolk and Rochester, NY, 2004), 1-21. Also see M. Mullett's essay in the reviewed volume.
2.   Here I quibble with the notion that "women are good to think with," of which the Virgin is seen as a good example. See Mullett's essay in the collection for the quote and its use in this context (286).
3.   Stephen Shoemaker, The Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary's Dormition and Assumption (Oxford, 2003).
4.   L.M. Peltomaa, The Image of the Virgin Mary in the Akathistos Hymn (Leiden, 2001.)
5.   For instance, B. V. Pentcheva, The Sensual Icon: Space, Ritual, and the Senses in Byzantium (University Park, PA, 2010). The sensual property of Christian images was also elaborated earlier in J. Elsner, Art and the Roman Viewer: The Transformation of Art from the Pagan World to Christianity, Cambridge studies in new art history and criticism (Cambridge and New York, 1995).
6.   Particularly, H. Maguire, "The Depiction of Sorrow in Middle Byzantine Art," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 31 (1977): 173.
7.   A. W. Carr, "Leo of Chalcedon and the Icons," in Byzantine East, Latin West. Art Historical Studies in Honor of Kurt Weitzmann, ed. C. Moss and K. Kiefer (Princeton, 1995), 579-84.

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