The Medieval Review 12.10.08

Brubaker, Leslie and Mary B. Cunningham. The Cult of the Mother of God in Byzantium: Texts and Images. Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2011. Pp. xxii, 306. $124.95. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6266-2. . .

Reviewed by:

Rachel Fulton Brown
University of Chicago

Nearly thirty five years have passed since Averil Cameron published her seminal articles on the sixth- and seventh-century Constantinopolitan cult of the Theotokos and its importance for the history of Byzantium--twenty five in relative silence. Happily, this silence has now been resoundingly broken. As Cameron herself notes in her Introduction to the present volume, the past decade or so has witnessed "a remarkable surge of interest in the subject of the cult of the Virgin in late antiquity and Byzantium," a surge which to date "shows no sign of abating" (1). Papers presented at conferences sponsored by the Benaki Museum in Athens (2000), the Ecclesiastical History Society (2001-2002), the International Conference on Patristic Studies (2003 and 2007), and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (2006)--the latter providing the original venue for the presentation of many of the papers in the present volume--have raised significant questions about the development of the cult of the Virgin both before and after iconoclasm. Studies and translations of critical texts have likewise appeared, many from contributors to the present volume, including Leena Mari Peltomaa (on the Akathistos), Stephen Shoemaker (on stories of the Dormition), Jane Baun (on apocalyptic tales), and Brian Daley and Mary Cunningham (on homilies for the Virgin's feasts). Historians, art historians, archeologists, liturgists, textual editors and critics: all have been drawn to the subject of the Theotokos, so much so that (as Margaret Mullett notes in her concluding reflections), when invited to participate in the 2006 conference, one "very distinguished Byzantinist...sent his good wishes…with the words 'not the Theotokos again?'" (280).

There is much to be celebrated in the studies published here and elsewhere, if nothing else for the precision that can now be brought to the chronology of many of the most important elements in the history of Mary's cult. And yet, much as with the icons in which she is so famously represented, the question remains whether the Mother of God is present in the current spate of studies in a way in which her ancient and medieval devotees would actually recognize. Again, as Cameron herself notes, although "many scholars are undoubtedly driven to this subject by religious motives...for others...Mary, or the Theotokos, fascinates because of her infinite variety, her capacity to escape whatever formulation we may try to impose upon her. She is both ordinary woman and the Mother of God...In the words of the Akathistos, she is indeed 'the woman in whom all opposites are reconciled'." (5)

Or is she? We may now be clearer about when her churches were founded and how their liturgies developed (as Rina Avner shows for the church of the Kathisma near Jerusalem in Chapter 1, Dirk Krausmüller for the church of the Chalkoprateia in Constantinople in Chapter 14, and Nancy P. Sevcenko for certain monasteries in Chapter 15); likewise about the chronology of the appeal to Mary's emotion (pre- rather than post- iconoclasm, according to Stephen Shoemaker's study of the seventh- century Life of the Virgin in Chapter 4). We are much better informed about the sources and themes of the major homilies of the pre-iconoclastic sixth and seventh centuries (discussed by Pauline Allen in Chapter 5) and of the post-iconoclastic eighth and ninth (explored by Andrew Louth, Mary B. Cunningham, and Niki Tsironis in Chapters 10, 11, and 12); likewise about the themes and arguments of her iconography (explored for the period before iconoclasm by Henry Maguire in Chapter 3 and in the mid-twelfth century Kokkinobaphos manuscripts by Kalliroe Linardou in Chapter 9). We now appreciate how salutations to the Theotokos were translated from Greek into Syriac (as Natalie Smelova shows in Chapter 8). We can now recognize Mary as the guardian of sacred spaces under threat from visiting women along the pilgrimage routes of Palestine (as Derek Kruger shows in Chapter 2) and as a veritable bodhisattva staying on earth to help those who invoke her Son as revealed in the "lowbrow" literature of saints' lives, histories, miracle stories, edifying tales, and apocryphal narratives (analyzed by Jane Baun in Chapter 13). And (thanks to Bissera V. Pentcheva, Chapter 16) we now know that her most precious miracle-working icons, at least before they were melted down by the Komnenoi, were made of metal, not paint.

Nevertheless, again as Mullett notes, the really big questions are still out there: how to contextualize the second-century apocryphal gospels, above all the Protoevangelium of James upon which so much later devotion to the Virgin depends (as Cunningham demonstrates in Chapter 11); how to date the Akathistos, whether to the period immediately following the council of Ephesus (as Peltomaa argues persuasively in Chapter 7) or later; how to explain the fifth- and sixth-century developments of the cult in Constantinople (not directly addressed in the present collection); how to explain the relationship between the various genres in which Byzantine Christians expressed their devotion (touched on throughout the present essays). For Mullett, as for the majority of the authors represented here, these would seem to be largely technical questions, gaps to be filled in our understanding of an historical development. Nowhere (or almost nowhere) is it suggested how answering these questions might force us to revise our understanding of the significance of Mary's cult for Byzantium, not to mention Christianity itself. Rather, again in Mullett's words, Mary is taken throughout as a figure that is "good to think with" (286)--that is, she is no more taken as "herself" than, as is often claimed, she was historically in discussions of Christology or icons.

This is a tendency by no means peculiar to the study of Mary in Byzantium, nor is this a criticism against the quality of the scholarship here or elsewhere. But if Byzantinists are not asking the question, who is? As all of us who have spent our time working with the development of the cult of the Virgin in the West know all too well, almost everything of importance in Mary's cult appeared first in the East: her feast days, her titles, her typologies, her images, her stories, her laments. It is therefore no idle concern even for those not working on Byzantium what her cult meant in the East beyond providing a convenient vehicle for thinking about concerns other than the meaning of her cult--for example, the intricacies of local politics, the nature of matter, or the role of the emotions in theology and devotion. Nor does it help to spend our time trying to distinguish between instances in which she is considered as a "real woman capable of suffering" or "an agent in her own right" and those in which she is venerated "not...for her own sake" but rather, as one contributor puts it, "as [the] medium and guarantor of the Incarnation" (148-149) or, as another avers, "as a metonymy for the affirmation of the full reality of the Incarnation" in the iconophiles' arguments in defense of the icons (195). Never in the ancient or medieval tradition is either her activity or passivity as such actually at issue, despite much hand-wringing on the part of many modern, particularly feminist, critics of her cult.

Neither, however, will she fit comfortably into modern categories of agency, not to mention most modern categories of theology. Rather, she--like her Son--is a mystery, accessible (as Peltomaa argues) if at all primarily through metaphor. But what metaphors? As Andrew Louth perceptively remarks in his analysis of John of Damascus' homilies on her feasts, "What is striking about the examples that John chooses (or rather the tradition which John is following has chosen) is that they are all places where God is to be found, and most of these examples are cultic: the Virgin is the place where God is encountered and worshipped ...Mary is, if you like, theotopos--'place of God'!" And yet, for all that she is "the place of God, the shrine at which we worship...[she] is not just an edifice, an impersonal temple...nor is she simply the ground that was fertilized, the fleece on which rain or dew fell--she is not a passive instrument in God's hands; she is God's partner in the conception and birth of her Son" (158-159). So is she a person or a place? A throne (Isaiah 6:1) or a bush (Exodus 3:5)? An ark (Exodus 32:15) or a blossoming rod (Numbers 17:8)? A candelabrum (Exodus 25:30-40) or a manna-filled urn (Exodus 16:33)? The answer--as Margaret Barker shows in what is undoubtedly the single most original argument for the origins of Mary's cult that I have ever read and the great exception to almost all of the work being done on Mary, whether in Byzantium or in the West--is, of course, all of the above: she is the Mother of God--more particularly, of the Son of God, the LORD Jesus Christ--because she is Wisdom and these are her "types" because she was and is the Lady of the Temple, the Tabernacle of God the Word (Chapter 6).

It is easy to miss how earth-shattering this argument potentially is-- Mullett notes simply in her concluding remarks that Barker is one of those working in the field who "look backwards, to the origins of the Virgin's imagery in Wisdom literature" (282). But the argument here is not simply that later liturgists, hymnographers, storytellers, and homilists drew upon Wisdom literature as a source for their images of the Virgin; this much we already knew, even in the West. Rather, it is that, when later liturgists, hymnographers, storytellers, and homilists drew upon this literature as a source for their images of the Virgin, they were doing so not so as to "fill in the gaps" purportedly left by the Gospels, much less so as to invent (or imagine) the Virgin--"historically" (as most modern critics would have it) simply a young peasant girl of Nazareth--as a figure of devotion. Nor was the Virgin invented (or co-opted) simply as a theological proof. In Barker's argument, Mary was not invented at all--at least, not by the early Christians. She was remembered, much as her Son was remembered as the LORD, the Son of God Most High, to whom she, as the Virgin prophesied by Isaiah (7:14, the definite article is significant), was expected to give birth.

This is not the place to rehearse all of Barker's argument in detail; she herself has a full-length study in progress, the first volume of which, The Mother of the Lord: The Lady in the Temple is scheduled for publication this fall. A brief sketch of her argument will of necessity suffice to suggest its scope. In Barker's reading of the scriptures (both those included in present-day Christian and rabbinic bibles and those accepted by the early Christians but subsequently forgotten or suppressed), the earliest Christians were Jews steeped in the traditions--and memories--of the worship of the temple as it was before King Josiah's famous seventh-century BC Deuteronomic reform (2 Kings 23). This worship was focused on the temple as the representation of creation, itself divided by a veil into the visible (created, material) and invisible (uncreated, heavenly) worlds. The temple was served by priests "after the order of Melchizedek" (Psalm 109/110:4; cf. Hebrews 5:6), while the Davidic kings themselves, once anointed, were seen as "transformed by their anointing and enthronement into sons of God, into the human presence of Yahweh" (93)--that is, the LORD. Nor was the LORD, the Son of God Most High, alone in his temple: his Mother was with him there, too. The earliest Christians remembered her as a woman clothed with the sun, crowned with stars, with the moon under her feet, who gave birth to a male child who was to rule all the nations (Revelation 12:1-2), as a bride, clothed in fine linen (the garment worn by the priests as they stood before the LORD in the holy of holies) (Revelation 19:8), and as a bejeweled city (Revelation 12:9-14). This bride, mother of her son, was the queen of heaven for whom the women of Jerusalem once burned incense, poured out libations, and baked cakes "bearing her image" (Jeremiah 44:15-19); she was Miriam, ancestress of the royal house, the mother of the kings of Jerusalem (Exodus Rabbah XLVIII.4, cited 97). She was Wisdom, the tree of life (Proverbs 3:18), whom Solomon sought as his bride (Wisdom 9:2), who was with the LORD as he brought all things into creation (Proverbs 8:22). And she was (in Barker's words) "the lady [who] was the genius of Jerusalem" (106). She was also expelled from the temple, along with the anointed kings, her cakes, and her candelabra-trees, in the course of King Josiah's "reforms" (cf. 2 Kings 23:6-7, on the destruction of the Asherah). And yet, she, like her Son, was destined to return--or so at least those who came to call themselves Christians (i.e. "little anointed ones") believed.

If Barker is right (as I think she is), this argument changes everything about the way in which we see what we have typically called the "development" of the cult of the Virgin. It did not "develop"--at least, not in the sense of being invented out of whole cloth (or purported Greco-Roman precedent) in order to satisfy the curiosity of those who wanted to know more about the woman they imagined having given birth to their Savior. Rather, like the temple priesthood itself in the person of Christ ("[our] great high priest," as Hebrews 4:14 puts it), it was restored. It was not just that Jesus as the God-man needed a human mother; it was that the LORD needed his Mother in order to be the LORD. Christianity would not be Christianity without her. It is for this reason that she appeared in the Gospels as she does (pace those who would insist that they say "so little" about her); likewise, it is for this reason that she was remembered in the Protoevangelium as having spent her childhood living in temple and as being one of the maidens chosen to weave the veil. The question is not whether "the historical Mary" (who nevertheless most certainly existed, much as her son) in fact did these things; whoever she was, she, insofar as she was Mother of her Son, was always already both human and divine--the living temple (as Germanos of Constantinople put it) containing the life- giving bread (176). Perhaps, just perhaps, this is the reason that she was hailed as the protectress (or genius?) of the city whose greatest church was dedicated, ambiguously enough, to Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom. Following Barker, we now at least know the right questions to ask about how her cult developed in the way that it did.