18.06.01, Arentzen, The Virgin in Song

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Katherine E. C. Willis

The Medieval Review 18.06.01

Arentzen, Thomas. The Virgin in Song: Mary and the Poetry of Romanos the Melodist. Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion. Philadelphia PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. pp. xiii, 265. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4907-1 (hardback) 978-0-8122-9391-3 (ebook).

Reviewed by:
Katherine E.C. Willis
University of Central Arkansas

Overall, this is an excellent and instructive book that should have broad appeal to medievalists of all kinds who have an interest in the evolution of the Virgin Mary in early Christianity. One does not have to specialize in the works or life of Romanos the Melodist (ca. 485-ca. 560) or in Byzantine studies to take advantage of the ideas Arentzen offers. Some background, however, in early church history may be useful (i.e., on things like names of church councils, theological positions, doctrines, etc.). Arentzen provides just enough information on these topics so as to provide a quick refresher without weighing down the progress of his argument.

The main reason why Arentzen's book is so illuminating is that his exploration of Romanos thoroughly addresses common misconceptions about the development of Marian cult while revealing insightful readings of the texts themselves.

Arentzen argues that Romanos's works do not "reproduc[e] the Mariology of the great figures of the past." Instead, he "deviates both from ascetic strands and from the Christological strand of earlier Marian texts" (39). Romanos's Mary is thus not a model of monastic or even lay asceticism, and, perhaps more importantly, she is far more than an accessory to understanding the nature of Christ. In the development of Christian theology leading up to the time of Romanos, Mary had been most frequently understood as supporting evidence, so to speak, in Christological debates (i.e., what exactly is the nature of Christ in terms of the human and the divine). For example, when theologians designated her as Theotokos ("Godbearer"), it was a way of affirming that Christ was fully divine and fully human at the moment of his birth. Her role as a person in the Incarnation was often less important the space she provided for the event. As Arentzen puts it, for Romanos, Mary is not a "mere shadow of sound Christology or anchoring of the divine child in human nature" (165).

As Arentzen lays it out, understanding how to read the poetry of Romanos can open up our understanding of how the cult of the Virgin developed and how Romanos himself played a key role in that process. Romanos "fosters her cult" by making her a compelling, personal, individual, and "highly verbal" figure with the status of a "sovereign being" (39). He accomplishes this through "liturgical storytelling" (164), the kind of poetry that creates interactive narrative and draws the participant in to the scene.

Before turning to chapters 2 through 4, it is worth getting a sense of the layout of the book, for two reasons. The first is that chapter 1, "The Song and the City," would be better described as an introduction. In it, Arentzen lays out the necessary background for understanding Romanos in the context of late fifth-century and early sixth-century Constantinople, and provides a helpful preview of the arguments for the following chapters.

The second reason is that it is well worth readers' time to familiarize themselves with Appendix I before continuing any further. It contains the Greek text and Arentzen's English translation (in facing-pages format) of "On the Annunciation," the poem which is the focus of chapter 2 and is referred to in other chapters as well. The prefatory note to the Appendix explains that the original text is difficult to access, and Arentzen has an interest in particular translations for certain passages. His translation is both functional (in the sense of accurately representing the original Greek) and enjoyable to read for a sense of the qualities of the poem. Thus, readers who do not know Greek can profitably engage with the author's translation.

Arentzen focuses on four other texts, not included in this volume: "On the Nativity I" (Romanos's most famous), "On the Nativity II," "On the Nativity of the Virgin," and "On Mary at the Cross." Arentzen's style of analysis often involves extended close reading; the approach yields highly informative and persuasive ideas and sometimes means that large chunks of the text are, in fact, reproduced as sequences of brief quotations. A reader who is not already familiar with these poems would likely benefit from looking them up in advance or having them at hand.

At the end of chapter 1, Arentzen states that his book "tracks three different ways of imagining the Virgin's corporeal and relational presence in sixth-century Constantinople: with an erotic appeal, with nursing breasts, and with a speaking voice. These three categories generate a structure that loosely follows the chronology of the Virgin's life" (44). That structure is also the organizing principle for chapters 2 through 4.

Chapter 2, "On the Verge of Virginity," focuses on the erotic appeal of the Virgin Mary in Romanos's writings, specifically in "On the Annunciation." Arentzen argues that Romanos stakes out an "erotic virginity" rather than an "ascetic virginity" (51) by setting her in a tantalizingly liminal space (53). In Mary's conversation with Gabriel and then with Joseph, she emerges as a powerful (rather than timid or confused) figure. The language of the conversations is sometimes sexually playful; Gabriel is, after all, a male figure who has entered her bedroom. In addition, by drastically reducing the role played by the Holy Spirit in the conception of Christ, Mary takes on the striking, paradoxical, and unique quality of "fertile virginity" (56), seeming almost to conceive by herself (65, 68). She is, in sum, a "relational, attractive maiden and not just a vessel" (86).

Chapter 3, "The Mother and Nurse of Our Life," focuses on the Virgin's nursing breasts. For Romanos, emphasizing that the Mary nursed the infant Christ is a way of "chas[ing] the paradox" of the Virgin Mother: "She is more than a virgin with a birth-giving womb; she is also a virgin with milk-giving breasts" (88). Here, Arentzen's argument is two-pronged. First, he departs from a common reading that the breastfeeding is an "indication of Christ's humility" (90). Second, he shows how the idea of the Virgin as a "maternal provider" (119) was not, as a modern reader might assume, the intuitive approach at the time. Far more common was the idea of the "milk of the Father" (119) or associations of milk with the eucharist. Romanos's emphasis is thus quite revolutionary. The breastfeeding is less about the Christ Child and more about Mary herself: "by having him at her breast she is being lifted, if not to say exalted, into the divine realm" (102). In other words, Romanos is not interested in making God like us, but rather in making Mary like God. This "reciprocity" (117) between them yields, in turn, nourishment that is available to all.

Chapter 4, "A Voice of Rebirth," concerns the nature and consequences of the Virgin's extensive speaking roles in Romanos's works. As Arentzen notes, this is important because "one would be hard pressed to find an earlier or contemporary liturgical text that makes the Virgin speak anywhere near as much as she does in the kontakia of Romanos" (121). The chapter deals first with "On the Nativity II," which presents "Christmas in Hades," where the "joy of Nativity and Easter intersect" (124). In this text, Romanos blurs distinctions between Christ and Mary and gives her an unusual selection of actions, including having her call out directly to the audience and having her descend into hell to awake Adam and Eve. The second text in the chapter is "On Mary at the Cross," which "establishes the Mother as the preeminent witness to Christ's life and work" (143). Even further, it establishes her as a mediator whose voice stands on par (or at least nearly so) with Christ's as she laments, learns, and instructs the congregation: "Her voice constitutes power, a power to transgress and to transform" (163).

Chapter 4 contains what I would consider the only serious weakness in Arentzen's arguments. This is not a book that is interested in theoretical considerations of what exactly "voice" is in a text or in theories of narratology. It would not need to be interested in either of those things, except for that fact that chapter 4 contains some reaches towards the theoretical that are tenuous because no clear definition of "voice" is given. There is only a brief reference to Wolfgang Iser in note 95 in chapter 1, and another on narratology in note 43 in chapter 4. Obviously, defining what "voice" means in pre-modern literatures can require books of its own (here I have in mind A. C. Spearing's work, for example). Simply knowing what exactly Arentzen means by "voice" or what he believes Romanos means by "voice" (and no distinction in this regard is made) would greatly strengthen the import of chapter 4.

Overall, The Virgin in Song is a profitable and enjoyable read. Anyone interested in how Christian thinking about Mary has developed and changed over time should take Arentzen's explanation of Romanos seriously.

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