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Averil Cameron

The Early Cult of the Virgin

From “Mother of God; Representations of the Virgin in Byzantine Art”.
Edited by Maria Vassilaki.

Second Part

Augustine accepted the centrality of the virgin birth in the understanding of Christology and did not question the now accepted role of Mary in other respects. He did however take the doctrine of Mary in new directions which, in the context of his theology as a whole, can be labeled ‘Western’. Two fundamental issues critical to his life and thought also dominated the rest of his thinking about her: the problem of human sinfulness and the issue of marriage. Throughout the rest of his life, Augustine was troubled by the problem of human sexuality: was it part of man's fallen nature, an evil in itself? If so, how should Christian marriage be understood? He approached these problems with a psychological depth rarely seen in other patristic writing, and they influenced his thinking about Mary just as they shaped the rest of his theology. As Bishop of Hippo on the coast of North Africa, Augustine was far removed from the politics of asceticism within Late Roman families as they were experienced in the aristocratic circles of Italy, and his thinking revolved much more round the questions of authority and division within the Church itself which were so central a part of Christian life in North Africa. A major strand in his thinking concerned exegesis of the book of Genesis, to which he kept returning. What was the significance for mankind of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, and where did sexuality and marriage fit in God’s intentions? (40) It would be fair to say that as a result of pondering these problems in On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis and later works Augustine arrived at a more complex understanding than most other ascetic writers. For him Adam and Eve were not sexless creatures in Eden, but possessed the ideal harmony of body and soul intended for humanity. Conversely, only Mary at the moment of conception and in the virgin birth restored this ideal equilibrium. There was however a darker side to Augustine’s conclusions. Even in marriage, sexuality as it actually was in the real world was inescapably a sign of the fall, a view which Augustine propounded in his answers to the more relaxed views of contemporaries like Julian of Eclanum, and which led him into a detailed examination of the mechanics of the sexual act.(41) This too had implications for his view of the role of Mary. He was prepared to concede that she was the single exception to the universal sinfulness of mankind after the fall of Adam and Eve,(42) a view which has been taken by many to point to the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. And because of his conclusion that marriage in itself was not intrinsically a sign of sin, but something good in itself, he was able to see Mary as exemplifying not simply female virginity but also the dignity of women in general.(43)

Both the general debate over asceticism in the fourth century and the promotion of the ideal of virginity as an aim even at the highest levels of society, by certain writers, necessarily involved its advocates in appealing to the example of the Virgin Mary. The doctrine of Mary was also, if paradoxically, deepened and clarified by the vigorous arguments which took place on particular points, especially her perpetual virginity. Equally, the ascetic agenda also entailed interpreting the limited Scriptural references to her in ways which supported the ascetic view, and in applying the same methods to the exegesis of other relevant Scriptural texts, such as the Song of Songs. However, it is important to note that this Marian exegesis was also increasingly accompanied by an emotional and imaginative spirituality focused on the person of Mary. The analogy of Mary with Eve, already spelt out in the second century, was deepened and reinforced, and we find in fourth-century writers such as Gregory of Nyssa further signs of the typology of Mary which was to become so much a feature of later homiletic and visual art. One of the most important writers from this point of view was Ephraim the Syrian, whose deep influence can be felt in the hymns of Romanos, the sixth-century deacon of Hagia Sophia, and whose thinking passed into the treasury of Byzantine imagery of the Mother of God. Ephraim’s career began at Nisibis on the Persian frontier, and when that city was ceded to the Persians in 363 he migrated to Edessa and continued his activity there until his death in 373. In Ephraim's Syriac hymns are already displayed the emotional attachment and personal devotion to the Virgin which are such features of later Byzantine artistic and literary expression.(44) He repeatedly dwells on the holiness and purity of the Virgin, and on the mystery of her motherhood of Christ, beyond human comprehension: Our Lord, no one knows how to address Your mother. [If] one calls her ‘virgin’, her child stands up, and ‘married’ -no one knew her. But if Your mother is incomprehensible, who is capable of [comprehending] You?'(45) Her virginity was prefigured for him by the virgin earth which gave birth to Adam, the virgin Eve and the burning bush. Christ bursting from the tomb was like the triumphal opening of Mary’s womb. Mary is a model for all chaste women, and the figure of the Church. Ephraim’s imagery applied to Mary is the richest so far encountered. She is the second Eve, but utterly different from the first: while Eve was, as it were, the left, blind eye of the world, Mary is the right and luminous eye. And for the first time, Mary is the bride of Christ, as well as sister, mother, handmaiden and daughter.(46)

The second strand in fourth-century attention to Mary was the dogmatic and Christological. The virgin birth was not a theme at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, nor even the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. But by the early fifth century it was quite natural that debate at and before the Council of Ephesus of AD 431 should have centered on Mary’s status in the context of the birth of Christ. The Council confirmed her title as Theotokos, literally ‘she who gave birth to God’, a term which had been in frequent use for a century at least and which was used in distinction to Christotokos, ‘she who gave birth to Christ’, as signifying beyond doubt the divine nature. Like the matter of Mary’s virginity after as well as before the birth of Christ, the application of the term Theotokos was still controversial.(47) At the Council of Ephesus its justification was upheld by Cyril of Alexandria against Nestorios, Patriarch of Constantinople since 428. A Council held in Rome in 430 had already pronounced against Nestorios, and Cyril sent legates to anathematize him; he was formally deposed by the Ecumenical Council convened at Ephesus in 431.(48)

After this, although Christological dispute continued unabated, focusing on the dual or single nature of Christ, Mary's status was assured and she was now formally recognized as the Mother of God. This was commemorated in Rome by the building there, by Pope Sixtus III, of the great church of Santa Maria Maggiore with its mosaics of the Annunciation and the Adoration of the Magi, one of the most impressive and also the earliest churches dedicated to the Virgin, and one which represents a milestone in her depiction in visual art.(49) Before the Council a notable homily in praise of the Theotokos had been preached in Hagia Sophia at Constantinople, in the presence of Nestorios, by Proklos, a priest and effectively chaplain to the Patriarch Attikos (406-425), who, though a candidate for the patriarchate after the death of Attikos’s successor Sisinnios, had been passed over in favor of Nestorios himself.(50) Proklos eventually did become patriarch in 434. His homily, however, delivered shortly before Christmas in the year 430,(51) was in the circumstances highly inflammatory, and did much to raise the level of feeling against Nestorios and in favor of the Theotokos title. It also took to unprecedented heights the imagery and typology of Mary which we have seen presaged in the writings of Ephraim and others, and it set a pattern for all later Byzantine homiletics on the subject.(52) The theme of Mary as the New Eve is here expanded by a mass of other Biblical images: Mary as the Ark, the Ladder of Jacob, the Fleece of Gideon, the Red Sea, the Temple of Solomon, the Unopened Gate, the Jar Filled with Manna and many others.(53) The Biblical however represented only one type of imagery; Proklos ranged much more widely, and Nicholas Constas has also examined his striking imagery of weaving, whereby the Virgin’s womb is likened to a workshop containing the loom on which the flesh of God is woven.(54)

Proklos's homily, closely followed as it was by the affirmation made by the Council of Ephesus, seems to mark a critical moment in the history of devotion to the Mother of God. From now on the gates were open for both personal piety and formal cult; equally, we now gradually begin to see a development in Virgin’s representation in visual art which will soon lead to the icons of Virgin and Child with which this exhibition is concerned, and to similar representations in monumental form.(55) And in Byzantine homiletic and liturgical hymns alike, the full glory of the poetic presentation of Marian themes is released. Fifth-century homilies continue Proklos's treatment of the theme and prefigure the sixth-century hymns of Romanos and the works of later authors, where the representation of the Mother of God is more emotive and less Christological than before.(56)

With the outcome of the Council of Ephesus, therefore, the way was opened for fuller development -liturgical, artistic and doctrinal. In Constantinople this soon took effect through the initiative of the imperial family, when in the reign of Emperor Leo III (457-474) and his wife Verina, as described in later accounts, the robe or veil (usually known as the maphorion) of the Virgin was solemnly brought to the city and deposited in a reliquary in a church dedicated to her. We are told that the imperial translatio was depicted in a mosaic which showed Mary seated on a throne, with the emperor and empress on either side, with their daughter Ariadne and their son, mistakenly named here as the future Emperor Leo II.(57) Furthermore, a second large image was set up in the church showing the Virgin flanked by angels, as in a number of early icons including the icon of the Virgin from the monastery of St Catherine on Sinai, and with St John the Baptist and St Conon (sic), while two officials, Galbius and Candidus, were shown in front of the Virgin and Child, in attitudes of prayer. There is a number of difficulties surrounding these accounts, for instance whether the veil and the robe of the Virgin were in fact the same. An alternative version ascribes the deposition of the robe at Blachernai (one of the churches of the Virgin which she is said to have founded) to the Empress Pulcheria, while the chronicler George the Monk tells of its finding in Jerusalem by a pious Jewess and its deposition at Blachernai under Leo I;(58) later generations produced variant versions. Nor is it clear whether the icon of the Virgin that was paraded round the walls of Constantinople during the siege of the city by the Avars and Persians in 626 was in fact a fifth-century icon of Blachernai.(59) Nevertheless, Constantinople was now the home of relics of the Mother of God and began to have its own images of her. In contrast to Rome, where early icons of the Virgin are still known, none of the early Constantinople images survives to this day.(60) If it can be relied upon, the description of the decoration of the Blachernai church would fit well with other surviving sixth-century images, such as the Sinai icon and the well-known textile now in Cleveland, Ohio, where the seated Virgin is also surrounded by archangels and saints.(61) In the surviving apse mosaic at Kition in Cyprus she is standing, but still flanked by an archangel on either side. In these early examples, the Virgin is often enthroned, as she is also in Santa Maria Maggiore, but the way is also being paved for her transformation into the tender figure standing or seated alone with her Child and wearing a simple veil rather than a queenly crown.(62)

An important element in this development is the parallel increase, especially during the sixth century, in the liturgical and poetic celebration of the Mother of God. The kontakia or hymns of Romanos, written under Justinian (527-565) mark an important stage; among them we should mention in particular his kontakion on Mary at the Cross, written for Good Friday, on the reading John 19: 25, and incorporating a dramatic dialogue between Christ and his Mother as she laments his suffering. Romanos's vivid treatment of the Virgin’s lament, a theme already found in Ephraim, drew on deep sources of emotion and poetic imagination, and was to prove a model for later homilists in their recreation of Mary’s anguish.(63) Elsewhere, for instance in the kontakion on the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, he represents Mary as speaking directly in wonder at the birth of her Son, with an emphasis on her as a dramatic figure in the dynamics of the life of Christ. Although the doctrinal content of Romanos's hymns should not be underestimated, this poetic treatment contrasts with the much more theoretical approach to the Virgin in earlier patristic theological treatises, and it made possible, or was perhaps rather itself a symptom of, a growing personal devotion to her during this period. From the same period we have examples of Coptic hymns surviving on papyrus, written as acrostics, glorifying the Virgin under the well-known types encountered since Proklos.(64) Also during the sixth century we find the development of Marian liturgical feasts, in particular that of the Assumption, or, in the Eastern tradition, the Dormition, celebrated on 15 August, which was to become one of the Twelve Great Feasts in the Byzantine Church. This was formally recognized in the reign of Emperor Maurice (587-602), and celebrated at Blachernai.(65) Eventually this too was to pass into the repertoire of representations of the Mother of God in visual art and to become the most important of all her feasts. As in earlier centuries, devotion to the Mother of God was also expressed in apocryphal narratives, which told the story of her falling asleep and being taken up to heaven.(66) Justinian's nephew and successor, Justin II (565-578), made benefactions in her honor at Blachernai and Chalkoprateia, the two churches in Constantinople holding her robe and her girdle, and his wife Sophia is represented as praying to her in Corippus’s Latin poem celebrating Justin's accession.(67) Other hints in the same poem indicate how fast her cult was growing in the city, and how commonly she now appeared in various forms of visual art -textiles as well as the more familiar icons. She also featured in anecdotes of miraculous intervention, such as the story told at the end of the sixth century by the ecclesiastical historian Enagrios of the rescue by the Mother of God of the boy thrust into a furnace by his father, a Jewish glassblower, and the child’s subsequent conversion together with his mother.(68) This is only an early example of many later stories, variations of which featured miraculous appearances by the Mother of God or miracles associated with her icons. It is however indicative of a very clear general development in piety towards her, and in the increasingly prominent role which she played in Christian faith. Depictions of the Virgin with the Child were a central feature in the general growth in religious images which also belongs to this period, for it was through the Mother of God that Christ’s human as well as divine nature could be shown; he was rarely shown alone except as the Ruler of All. But this very concentration of iconographic theme led in itself to the focus on the Mother of God herself as the central subject.

In the early seventh century Constantinople came under threat from the Avars and then also from the Persian siege in the great war launched against Byzantium by Chosroe II. The landward side of the city and the walls were the most vulnerable, and in 619 the relic of the Virgin’s robe was removed from Blachernai to Hagia Sophia for safekeeping, and after the danger was past returned to its home in solemn procession, which was commemorated in an annual feast celebrated on 2 July.(69) In the narrative of these events and in the institution of the feast by the patriarch of the day, the robe emerges as a wonder-working relic, and the Mother of God herself as patron of the capital city. The account, probably by the same Theodore Synkellos who also wrote a homily on the siege of 626, records how, when the casket was opened, the purple silk in which the garment was wrapped had shriveled away, while the simple cloth of the robe itself was completely unharmed by time, proving that the robe partook of divine grace, in that ‘it not only clothed the Mother of God but that in it she actually wrapped the Word of God Himself when he was a little child and gave him milk, whence rightly this divine and truly royal garment is not only the cure for every illness, but justly is incorruptible and indestructible, proclaiming the indestructibility and incorruptibility of its wearer’.(70)

By this date, the Virgin's doctrinal role could be taken for granted, and she was increasingly represented as the ideal of tender maternal protection. While images of her enthroned and flanked by angels and saints still emphasized her majesty, a rather different conception was also expressed in the many stories of her miraculous intervention and in the idea of her robe as a protection for individuals and for the city.(71) Now, too, the narrative of her life took shape in the Akathistos, the best loved of all Byzantine hymns to the Virgin. This long celebration of the Virgin later sung regularly on the fifth Saturday in Lent and written in twenty-four stanzas arranged in acrostic form, each followed by a refrain, rehearses first the episodes of the Annunciation and Nativity and then the Virgin’s doctrinal role, praising in its treatment of these two themes the Mystery of the Incarnation. Throughout the hymn she is hailed under her many differing types and titles, and in the final stanza she is addressed and invoked as the supreme Mother and protectress of all who call upon her.(72) According to later tradition the Akathistos was first sung after the deliverance of Constantinople from the siege of 626, and composed by Patriarch Sergios himself (alternatively by Patriarch Germanos after the siege of 717-718), but the substance of it more probably took shape earlier, some time in the sixth century. If so, it clearly belongs in the same context as the kontakia of Romanos, to whom it has sometimes been attributed, and is an important example of the contemporary development in devotion to the Mother of God which also led to her being seen as the one who, through her relics and her icon, saved the city from attack in the early seventh century. In the Akathistos Hymn the scenes from the Virgin’s life combined with later homiletic and doctrinal developments to form a mature and at the same time poetic whole which found immediate recognition within the liturgical life of the Byzantine Church. In later centuries it was made the basis for cycles of the life of the Virgin in monumental painting and in manuscript illustration, and it certainly contributed greatly towards the firm establishment of devotion to the Mother of God at the heart of Byzantine religiosity.

It was not surprising therefore, especially after the attribution of the city's deliverance from the Avars to the efficacy of the Virgin's robe, that the people of Constantinople should have turned to her for protection during the dangerous siege of 626. According to the contemporary Chronikon Paschale, her prayers successfully prevented the enemy cavalry from damaging the church at Blachernai and the city was saved by the intercession with God of ‘his undefiled Mother, who is in truth our Lady Mother of God and ever-Virgin Mary’.(73) Another contemporary text, the homily written by Theodore Synkellos, tells of how the patriarch put her icon on the gates, and of how she intervened in battle to sink the enemy ships.(74) The court poet George of Pisidia also begins his epic poem on the siege with an allusion to an icon of the Virgin,(75) and while different details appear in the contemporary and later sources her saving role is repeatedly emphasized. She is even depicted in the texts as leading the Byzantine forces into battle as their general, and sinking the enemy fleet in the waters of the Golden Horn like the chariots of Pharaoh in the Red Sea. Homilists writing of later sieges of the city in 674-678, 717-718 and 860 were to develop the ideas still further; not only has the Virgin Mary become the Mother of God of later Byzantine art and liturgy, but she has also become the special defender of Constantinople.(76)

Over this long period of something more than six hundred years, therefore, we can trace a steady development in attitudes to Mary and to the way in which she was represented in art and literature. She was from an early date the object of vivid curiosity, then of doctrinal speculation and theological debate about the nature of the Incarnation. Gradually, though not until Late Antiquity, she attracted devotion, prayer and even worship, and was increasingly depicted in icons, mosaics and in other media such as ivory and textiles, commissioned by individuals, churches and rich patrons. Though later authors naturally traced back later highly-venerated icons to much earlier periods, and the origins of the famous Constantinopolitan image of the Virgin known as the Hodegetria, for example, are wrapped in mystery, by the early seventh century Constantinople was the home both of revered images of the Virgin and of her robe and girdle, and the Virgin was the subject both of much-loved religious poetry and of a number of accounts which ascribed to her the city's very survival. It was not surprising therefore if the attitudes of the Iconoclasts towards the Virgin were somewhat ambivalent, for in one sense she was classed with the saints whose images they attacked, and yet in another she was given a status close to God and almost divine herself, ‘Higher than the Cherubim’, and above reproach. But it was the personal devotion and attachment which by the early seventh century she so widely attracted which most of all gave her the central role that she enjoys today in the art and devotion of the Orthodox Churches.


40. Brown 1988, 397-407.

41. Brown 1988, 407-419.

42. ‘On Nature and Grace’, 36.42, PL 44, 267.

43. ‘Serm.’ 51,3, PL 38, 334-335.

44. for an introduction to the huge ‘oeuvre’ of Ephraim, Brock 1983; ‘The Luminous Eye’; McVey 1989.

45. McVey 1989, 131.

46. McVey 1989,150.

47. Kelly 1985, 494-499; Pelikan 1996, ch. 4.

48. for the background, GrillmeierBacht 1975(2).

49. See n. 16 above.

50. Constas 1995,169-194, with full bibliography.

51. For the date, van Esbroeck 1987, 149-64, n. 2; for its later reception, Constas 1995,175, n. 24.

52. Cunningham 1988, 53-67; Caro 1971.

53. Constas 1995,177.

54. Constas 1995, 180-183.

55. In the case of apse mosaics, Spieser 1998, 63-73, gives a list of known elevant examples.

56. Cunningham 1988, 53-67.

57. Translated in Mango 1972, 34-35, Wenger 1952,54ff.; Baynes 1949a, 87-95; Baynes 1949b, 165-177. For the complex textual tradition and for the Greek texts and French translation, Wenger 1955.

58. Wenger 1955; Geo. Mon., de Boor, 2, 617.5.

59. Cameron 1979b, 47.

60. For the early icons of the Virgin in Rome, Belting 1994, 63-72,115-124.

61. ‘Age of Spirituality’, no. 477 and pl. XIV.

62. For the apse mosaics, Spieser 1998, 63-73.

63. Alexiou 1974; Alexiou 1975, 111-140.

64. Kuhn and Tail 1996, I.

65. Jugie 1944; Wenger 1955; Cameron 1978, 95ff. The source for Maurice's regularization is late: Nikephoros Kallistos. ‘HE’ 17.28, who despite the dating in fact puts it in the context of the reign of Justinian. The belief itself was already well established, and a homily by Theoteknos of Livias on the Assumption (Wenger 1955, ch. 2) probably dates from the 6th century.

66. For their many versions, Wenger 1955; Van Esbroeck 1995.

67. Jugie 1913, 308ff. Sophia: Corippus, ‘In laudem Iustini’ 11.52-69, on which see Cameron 1978, 82-84.

68. Evagrius, ‘HE’ 4.36; also in Gregory of Tours, ‘De Gloria martyrum’ 9; 8,10,19. The Virgin’s power is regularly associated in the texts with the discomfiture of Jews.

69. Cameron 1979b; Wenger 1955, 116-18. Speck 1980, 57-58 rightly points out the assimilation in later texts of the Virgin’'s role in the attack of 619 and the siege of 626.

70. Speck 1980, 53-54.

71. For the development of the latter, Belting-Ihm 1976.

72. Trypanis 1968, 17-39.

73. Bonn 725-726, 716 (trans. Whitby and Whitby 1989, 169ff., with notes ad loc.).

74. Sternbach 1900.

75. ‘Bell. Avar.’ 1-9, Pertusi 1959; also ‘Anth. Pal.’ I, 120-121.

76. Belting 1994, 58-63; some extracts: Belting 1994, 495-498; Speck 1980, 58-59; Frolow 1944,16-27.

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