Byzantine Devotion to the Passion? Francis, Stigmata and Polemic (Part 6a)

Discussion of allied questions: Trajectories of Latin and Byzantine Devotion to the Passion

(For readers unfamiliar with the naming conventions, ‘Latin’ in this post means what we today term ‘Roman Catholic’ and includes Germanic and Latin-language speaking monarchies in North and West Europe, while ‘Orthodox’ means ‘Greek Orthodox’. As the topic pre-dates Luther and Calvin, ‘Latin’ would also encompass those denominations which later took shape in Northwest Europe, as their roots lay in a ‘Latin’-rite context. Likewise with regard to the Russian Patriarchate: ‘Orthodox’ would include all those churches associated with Constantinople in the ‘Byzantine Commonwealth’.)

In the previous post I looked at the origins of the term ‘stigmata’ among the monks of St Peter Damian. I showed that in contrast to other mystics of the time, Francis’ wounds are not recorded to have been self-inflicted. According to the evidence we have in Thomas of Celano and Julian of Speyer, Francis’ stigmata were not taken upon himself by Francis himself — no self-flagellation or self-piercing is recorded in the context of his reception of stigmata. This is the case even though Francis’ efforts at self-mortification earlier in his life were clearly noted, and despite the almost commonplace recording of other mystics’ self-induced ‘stigmata’. One final difference between Francis’ stigmata and the wounds of previous and contemporary mystics is that in Francis’ case, the wounds are recorded as having contained nails, which were not removed (or not removable?), and the wounds did not heal. In other words, Francis’ hagiographers had no reason to break with earlier tradition if they wished to demonstrate that his stigmata were proof of devotion. The only reason to do so would be for literary effect (such as one finds in the Fioretti), and neither Thomas nor Julian’s accounts seem written in that vein.

In terms of the larger tradition, Francis’ stigmata were explicitly associated with the Cross, having appeared around September 14, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and with burning love, appearing after the image of a Seraph, an association elaborated upon by hagiographical commentators and speculative cosmologically-oriented theologians. Francis’ stigmata seem never to have been associated with judgement or punishment. Even the Alsatian sisters whom I referenced in the previous section seem not to have viewed their self-flagellation as punishment, but rather as Imitatio Christi, or at this early date perhaps the term Participatio is preferable. Likewise, Francis’ stigmata were treated as a seal indicative of perfect or perfected conformation to Christ’s life. Francis’ stigmata, as a seal of conformation to Christ, ultimately fit into the larger tradition of Imitatio Christi. In Francis’ case, however, the peculiar manifestation of the wounds in his body moves beyond spiritual imitation through the inner life and outward acts of mercy and enters the realm of physical transformation.

Thus we return to the original question asked at the start of this section: Why stigmata as a sign of participation in Christ? I earlier proposed the answer: because non-self-induced stigmata would be understood a particular way by Francis’ contemporaries. Though clearly shaped by later commentators, the question of why miraculous stigmata are absent among Byzantine saints, and the subsequent question of how stigmata might have been interpreted within a Byzantine theological framework, without distorting or discounting the assumptions of that framework, remain open. Several possibilities, however, present themselves. Key to answering these questions is understanding the historical associations surrounding devotion to the Passion in the context of eleventh and twelfth century Byzantium, and a comparison of like devotions as they developed about a century later in the Latin West.

The purpose of uncovering similarities and differences between East Roman and Italian City State spirituality is to discover why stigmata appeared or ‘made sense’ in the West but not in the East, and rests on the fundamental theorem that a miracle of holiness only occurs in a context in which it can be interpreted as such without doing violence to the preceding tradition. It seeks to answer the question, ‘Why in Italy and not Byzantium?’

Misunderstanding of Latin devotion to the Passion on the part of Orthodox Christians continues today. Quenot (1997:167), in discussing the role of the icon in Orthodoxy compares the ‘cross of pain’ in West with the ‘glorious cross’ in East, neglecting to realise that the ‘cross of pain’ imagery really doesn’t begin to show in the West until after the sixteenth century, during an era of increased medicalisation and anatomical studies, a resurgence of plagues, imperialist expansion in the Americas, and Protestant-Catholic polemic wherein accusations of morbid crucifixion scenes could be re-appropriated by Catholics as identity markers (and made even more extreme as a result). The seeming absence of devotion to the Passion within Orthodoxy (outside of Holy Week services), presents an additional hindrance to placing Francis and his stigmata in context. Without private devotions like the Stations of the Cross or the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, why should Passion devotion be understood by the Orthodox? In fact, however, Byzantium, or Orthodoxy, did have devotions to the Passion, which flourished under the Comnenian dynasty of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. That is the first of two principal arguments in this post. The second is that the changes in iconography of the Passion during this period in Byzantium mirror those dispositions which motivated devotion to the Passion among medieval Latin Christians, whose writings served to promote devotion to the Passion.

Both Byzantine and Latin developments in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries are associated with increasing contacts with Jerusalem from the eleventh century onwards, and both seem to be rooted in an initial devotion to the Holy Cross. How that commonality manifested itself in hymns, liturgical commemoration, and private devotion, however, slowly changed during the centuries surrounding Francis’ life. I will therefore briefly explore the development of devotion to the Passion-Crucifixion in the Byzantine empire and the Latin West as they were presented and shaped during the Central Middle Ages, roughly corresponding to the eleventh through thirteenth centuries.

Renewed impetus for these devotions emerged in the East when Constantine IX Monomachos funded the rebuilding of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the emperors of the succeeding Comnenian dynasty gathered relics of the Passion from Jerusalem to the capital. In the Latin kingdoms of both East and West, the main driver of these devotions was provided by the Crusades and the transnational society permitted by a ‘Latin East’ connected to Northwest Europe. Part and parcel of the Crusades were preachers, pilgrims, and soldiers, each of which had their own particular spiritual concerns and emphases, which they brought with them to the East, and back with them to the West and North.

I will begin with Byzantium, as the forms taken by and stimulus to devotion to the Cross and Passion there pre-date the emergence of similar changes in devotional patterns in the West.

In Byzantium, of course, devotion was both constrained and informed by the recent two-century struggle with iconoclasm, while the West had no such constraints placed upon its devotions. (Iconoclasm was not a major point of theological contention in the West until the sixteenth century, when both Catholic and especially Protestant churches had their walls stripped of frescoes and wall-paintings.) With regard to Byzantium, the creation of two icons, the Nymphios icon in the eleventh century and its associated services in Holy Week, and the Man of Sorrows icon following soon after, both illustrate how devotional patterns focused on the Passion developed during the period. A minor controversy over the heterodox use to which an Akathist hymn to the Mandylion (the Veronica/ Face of Christ icon) was put towards the end of the twelfth century sharply curtailed the official popularity of other icons associated with the Passion.

For the Latin West, two strands of devotion to the passion roughly contemporary to Francis’ lifetime will be examined. The first are strictly devotional-theological in nature, while the second is more social, and treats the uses to which devotion to the Cross and Passion were put by preachers recruiting in the North for the Crusades. The fact that Francis did visit the Latin kingdoms of Outre-Mer, will provide the international flavour these devotions had in the Latin-rite church, and clearly help situate Francis within the character of the emerging High Medieval period. Most evidence, however, will be drawn from North of the Alps. This is somewhat unfortunate, as Francis’ career geographically spans the Mediterranean basin.

One final element in the Latin and German speaking countries during the period, which I will not explore in this post, is the emphasis on love as transformative, a theme especially taken up within the Troubadour tradition as it becomes assimilated to the religious context of the Ligurian littoral (eleventh through thirteenth centuries). While St Symeon the New Theologian (d. 1022) also emphasised love and desire (see his Hymn to Eros) as key to religious devotion, the ‘ecology of love’ and its language present in Byzantium under the Comneni was rather different from that elaborated by the courtly romances in Aquitaine and Champagne in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Since the differences in how romantic love was conceived is incidental to my argument, I will not go into detail about them here; suffice it to note that although Manuel Comnenos was interested in courtly love and traditions, and at least four medieval Greek romances exist, those influences do not seem to have been enough to impact how Byzantine devotion to Christ or his icons was expressed linguistically (at least in the materials available to me).

The resulting developments in both Byzantium and the Latin-rite world create a network of devotional practises, stemming from similar points of reference, but which nonetheless come to resonate with different nodes in the two geographic and liturgical traditions. These nodes become foundational for much of what becomes ‘essentialised’ as ‘Catholic’ and ‘Orthodox’ spirituality in the succeeding centuries.

The Passion of the Byzantine Commonwealth

What was devotion to the Passion like in twelfth century Byzantium? If so, what forms did it take?

Byzantium had a devotion to the Passion, and an emotionally-charged devotion at that, but three elements conspired to channel that devotion into the specific directions it took for the Commonwealth, especially as compared to the forms which developed in the Latin kingdoms. The first and most important element was the role of the icon in Byzantine society. Icons during the period continued to serve doctrinal ends, but at the same time became more emotive and abstract. New icons, such as the Nymphios, Threnos, Mandylion, and Akra Tapeinosis icons, were created through a convergence of monastic offices and private devotional material needs. The creation of these icons occurred in the context of the second element, the Imperial focus on gathering relics associated with the Passion from Jerusalem to the Capital. These relics not only drew attention tot he Passion itself, they also informed the new icons. After the sack of Constantinople by Venice in 1204, icons portraying the holy images of relics like the Veil of Veronica and the Shroud of Turin were all that remained in Byzantine hands, the actual relics having been borne away to the West. In the end, icons needed to meet both elite and popular devotional theology. The resulting union led the Byzantine Christian towards different associated theological ‘symbols’ than in the West, both in the initial assumptions about the icon (as material reminder of the reality of the Incarnation), the specific Eucharistic overtones the image might have possessed, and in the particular politico-dogmatic ends towards which approved icons were put.

The third element is wrapped up in a general scepticism among the literati regarding holy people, which led to devotional literature reflecting not hagiography, but the interior life. This shift in focus contributed to fostering a climate in which manifestations like stigmata would not have been understood or welcomed; and elite theologians resisted embedding the contemporary ‘holy man’ or ‘holy woman’ formally into the theological systems of the time. (This contrasts with the role Francis played for scholastic theological cosmologies, as noted in an earlier post.) The goal(s) of the interior life in the devotional literature that was produced (or more pointedly, which has survived) were transformation in Christ, in part via emotive conviction, but in greater part through experience of the divine light while still alive — and through ‘iconisation’ after death.

Change in Byzantine Culture in 11th and 12th centuries

To examine what sort of interpretation stigmata would have had in Byzantium, as an earthly representation of the crucified and risen Christ, the role and creation during the twelfth century of icons during which mirror the Passion-Resurrection may be informative. I will briefly describe the context in which these icons emerged, and the changes which occurred in iconography during the eleventh and twelfth centuries before I turn attention to specific icons of the Passion.

The eleventh and twelfth centuries, roughly corresponding to the dates of the Comneni dynasty (1081 – 1185), were a period of individualistic ferment in social and religious life in the East Roman Empire of Byzantium. A middle class had emerged through the twin means of trade and education, as the historian Angold details in Church and Society under the Comneni 1081 – 1261. This new middle class evinced a degree of individualism not previously seen in Byzantium on so wide a scale, and its commercial products, Angold writes, “were responsible for the new emphasis on the Hellenic element of Byzantine culture and on a humanist ethos. They seem to have been equally responsible for the changing patterns of piety” (Angold 1995:387). Those patterns shifted from an emphasis on the public and social displays characteristic of the preceding Macedonian dynasty, to private devotions and “an emphasis on the autonomy of the individual” (Angold 1995:6).
Angold suggests that public church services may have divided society; leading many to prefer private devotions in personal chapels and family monasteries, arguing that “if there was little open dissent” against the ruling elites — and the existence of icon- and sacrament-denying heresies in Anatolia and the Southern Balkans may belie that caveat — “there was [nonetheless] a degree of alienation from the imperial regime and a certain indifference to the hierarchical church in matters of worship and belief” (Angold 1995:7).

The primary vehicle by which Orthodoxy as a practice of both elite and popular elements remained cohesive during this period was, unsurprisingly, through the icon. Fortunately, Included among the commercial goods produced for the new middle class, and which have survived to the present, were icons meant for personal veneration (Kazhdan and Epstien 1985:97). In any event, images for veneration and procession are more common (or have more commonly survived) from the 11th and 12th centuries than earlier, even though the iconodule position was firmly established from the eighth century onwards.

Icons: Development and Devotion under the Comneni

With few exceptions, at the centre of private devotion during our period stood the icon. In part, the centrality of the icon may have been inspired by the fact that ‘fashions of lay piety seeped out from the monasteries’ (Angold 1995:391). The result is that monasteries hardly held a monopoly on icon veneration. Angold (1995:388) traces the existence of several confraternities in Byzantium dedicated specifically to veneration of a particular icon, church or shrine. (For more on these confraternities, see Hordein (1986). ‘The Confraternities of Byzantium’ in Studies in Church History 23:25 – 45.) Angold (1995:458) highlights several festivals centred around both a saint, the saint’s icon, and a confraternity devoted to the saint and his or her icon, among which were the Festival of Agatha in February; the Notaries’ festival on Nov 25, which, despite usually falling during the season of Advent, was celebrated as a Carnival, with people dressing in masks; and the ancient holiday of the Broumalia from Nov 24 to Jan 1. The pattern of Byzantine confraternities contrasts with the Western, specifically Italian model. Confraternities there made up for a weak state apparatus, particularly in the Italian city-states, and functioned side by side with various guilds and neighbourhoods demarcated by their dedication to particular saints. (In common with the Orthodox commonwealth, however, local celebrations for saint’s days can still be experienced in various parts of Italy and the rest of Catholic Europe; Italy in particular is famous for specific pastries associated with local saint day festivities.)

Given the centrality of the icon and its popularity in several strata of Byzantine society, it should be unsurprising that the icon began to undergo various changes during the Comnenian period. These changes ultimately established the criteria we use today to define what makes an icon an icon rather than a painting. As one well known twentieth-century iconographer writes, during eleventh through sixteenth century “the Church gave testimony above all about its conviction that if ‘God became man’ it is in order that ‘man might become God’; and the icon, in perfect harmony with theology and with the liturgy, pointed in a more special way to the fruit of the Incarnation, with the deification of man. With increasing precision, the icon showed the world an image of man become God through grace. .. Beginning with the eleventh century, it became a precise, exact, dogmatic system” (Ouspensky vol 2:207).

One change is that apocryphal subplots start to appear in icons. The presence of such narrative elements lent a more narrative function to icons, and allowed them function as a visual shorthand for meditating on a saint’s life (Kazhdan and Epstien 1985:97; footnote references Rothkrug 1979). An example of such an apocryphal subplot in the life of Jesus is the Threnos icon, to which we will return momentarily. The scene of Mary lamenting over the body of Christ purports to be a scene drawn from scripture; and yet it is not explicitly recorded in scripture — and therefore is called ‘apocryphal’, which, I would emphasise, does not mean ‘untrue’, or ‘invalid’ as a devotional theme).

Iconographic changes moved beyond the inclusion of narrative devices, however, towards the opposite direction. The precision of iconography stemming from the Comneni dynasty derives in part from stripping perspective out of the icon’s field. As Kazhdan and Epstein (1985:98-99) point out, perspective needs visual props — landscapes, incidental figures, buildings. The absence of perspective allows a greater degree of abstraction. The resulting abstraction and opulence worked together to clarify the focus of the icon, potentially playing out in the minds or experiences of the devout who venerated these new icons. Speaking specifically of Passion images in 12th century iconography, the art historian Belting points out that “a further consequence of the creation of this iconic type, which is isolated from any narrative context, is a transformation of the expression the image is conveying: the Christ figure lends itself to a contemplation which is no longer directed to a specific biblical scene but to the new reality as it exists in the liturgy” (Belting 1980:6).

Textual evidence attesting to the personal experience of a devout person from the period under discussion as he or she venerated or meditated in front of an icon is hard to come by. However, an early twentieth century Russian iconographer will illustrate what role the abstraction of an icon played in the spiritual development of some Orthodox faithful in his time. In the work, Icons: Windows on Eternity, Limouris quotes a ‘Letter of Muscovite iconogrpaher’ written in 1930. The letter first clarifies the function of an icon, before moving on to its role in prayer: “What does an icon, i.e. a picture expressed, or more exactly, revealed in a plastic form, do? It does the same as prayer [which to be authentic must have “a real bond with the prototype, whose action impresses its character on that prayer”] and in its highest modes of expression, a sacrament.”

This sacramental character of the icon is achieved, the anonymous iconographer writes, because “Iconography has its own intrinsic existence and meaning: it ascends towards the sublimest heavenly images and merges with them. But it also has an active, instructive meaning, for it teaches mystery. These two aspects are not separate of course, but constitute a whole.” (For the interested reader, Limouris 198 provides a side note on Russian contemplation, or diathaxis in Greek.)

In addition to both narrative inclusion and narrative abstraction during the Comnenian period, the icon also became more ‘humanised’. Subtle changes in how the subject was portrayed helped directed a shift in focus to the transfigured humanity of the icon’s subject. Quenot (1997:166) describes how, beginning in eleventh century crucifixion icons, “Christ appears with his eyes firmly shut, perhaps as a reminder of his mortal human nature. The increasingly curved position of his body served as a further indication of his death.” Additionally, although the Cross had for centuries been the subject of iconographic portrayal and veneration, even by iconoclasts, under the Comneni, the human subject of Jesus, and Jesus’ death emerged as an iconographic theme in several icons which make their initial appearances in this period.

Despite the lay and monastic preference for icon veneration, Pagoulatos (2008:27) notes that incorporating icons into the liturgical life of the church in Constantinople was difficult. Even in 11th century, some monasteries only carried cross and gospel codex in procession. Among laypeople, in contrast, “one can easily find icons that were prescribed [for liturgical use] in the typika of private monasteries founded by laymen since these patrons could impose the use of their favourite icon on the ceremonies of their monastery.” In those monasteries, the liturgical situation was somewhat different.

Belting (1980) reiterates that while the cathedral liturgy of the Hagia Sophia was ‘static’ until the 13th century, the monasteries of the capital developed “a rich corpus of new texts, rites, and even entire services.” The monastery of the Virgin Euergetis’ eleventh century typikon, for example, “introduces the celebration of Good Friday with a nocturnal ‘service of the Holy Passion’ which includes the reading of George of Nicomedia’s homily … and Romans Melodos’ kontakion ‘Come and let us praise Him who has been crucified for us.’ It concludes the celebration of the same day with another new service… which includes a lament or Kanon Threnodes of the Virgin, possibly Symeon Metaphrastes’ hymn ‘Thelon sou to plasma’ and also the famous burial song ‘The noble Joseph.’ Thus we find two new services, rich in mystagogical elements and full of psychological realism, the one contemplating Christ on the cross, the other the deposition, the lament, and the burial. The burial elements reappear in a third service… on Holy Saturday.” As the authors note, Saturday’s services do not seem to become important until after the thirteenth century.  (For a brief article on the origins of George of Nicomedia’s homily and the well attested hymnological tradition of Mary’s lament at the Cross, see Tsironis (1997).  George of Nicomedia:  Convention and Originality in the Homily on Good Friday.  Studia Patristica vol 30.  Available at )

The hymns and sermons thus brought together liturgically in the new eleventh century service for Good Friday were originally composed in the sixth century (Melodos), ninth century (Nicomedia), and latter half of the tenth century (Metaphrastes). It is interesting that the expansion of the liturgy first centres around Passion week, though given that the Eucharistic liturgy itself commemorates the Last Supper, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ, perhaps this coincidence of thematic augmentation is not so significant.

Panagoulatos relates the development of new services to new icons: “A fully developed artistic liturgy emerged out of a contest with iconoclasm and grew after the introduction of Palestinian, monastic elements into the liturgy of Constantinople [cf. Sevcenko, Taft].” (Panagoulatos 2008:24). New services need new icons, Belting agrees; or a single one which is abstract enough to encompass several services. One such icon, Belting suggests, was the purpose of the Akra Tapeinosis icon. Another is the Nymphios icon. Because the Nymphios icon is clearly linked to a specific liturgical service (or set of services), I will treat it first.

Now incorporated into the Constantinopolitan liturgy, the Nymphios (‘Bridegroom’) service is held in the evenings of the opening days of Passion Week. The icon associated with those services is particularly apt for our purposes (although it does not portray Christ with the wounds of Crucifixion). It roughly corresponds to the ‘Ecce Homo’ image in the West. Pagoulatos points out that “the present Byzantine Rite-Typikon, in which the service of the Bridegroom is contained, has been preserved in the eleventh or twelfth-century Typikon of the Euergetes [Evergetes] monastery in Constantinople, Codex 788 of the University Library in Athens” — the same typikon in which the Good Friday hymns are contained. That manuscript contains an eleventh century synthesis of Palestinian monastic and Constantinopolitan cathedral elements. It is the earliest textual evidence we have for the Nymphios service. “[A]nd thus it reflects the state of Byzantine liturgy after the end of Iconoclasm (843 CE) when the use of images was no longer in question and the Constantinopolitan and Palestinian liturgical elements were synthesized into one” (Pagoulatos 2008:24. He references Dmitrievskij (1965). Opisanie Liturgitseskich Rukopisej:vol 1:256-614, 543-546. Also Wellesz (1998). A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography. A translation of the typikon can be found on Google books).

Panagoulatos argues that the particular form of the Nymphios icon originated in the 1100s, at the height of the Comnenian dynasty. He suggests that the icon “may be related to the iconographic type of the dead portrait of Christ”, in contrast to Professor Andreas Xyngopoulos, who “argues that the Nymphios icon where Christ is represented in a stand-up position wearing the purple garment and the thorny crown on his head is an iconographic type, which was influenced by the western type of Ecce Homo and was disseminated later in art (especially in the art of the Ionian islands) possibly through the seventeenth-century Cretan painter Ioannis Moschos.” (Pagoulatos 2008:23n24. See A. Xyngopoulos, Sxediasma istorias tes threskeutikes zografikes meta ten alosin, reprint (Athenai: e en Athenais archaiologeke etairia, 1999) 246-247 and plate 59.1. For more on the Bridegroom icon and matins see Taft, History of the Liturgy; and ). However, Anna Komnena references a Nymphios icon, though it could be the Akra Tapeinosis or ‘a sleeping boy of the Anapeson type, the two being interchangeable in their meaning'” (Belting 1980), so it is very possible that the Nymphios icon in use today in the Orthodox church does in fact predate the seventeenth century.

Regardless, the other icon emerging at this time and definitely used liturgically, is the portrait bust of the Man of Sorrows or Akra Tapeinosis (‘utter humiliation’, referencing Isaiah 53:8), of which the earliest surviving examples date from twelfth century Kastoria. “The dead figure seems to allude to a biographical moment, but does not make clear which specific moment it is alluding to. Since the figure, though represented dead, is shown upright but not nailed on the Cross, it cannot be connected with any known event in the [Gospels’] Passion narrative.” Belting suggests that the Shroud (latterly, of Turin) preserved in the Byzantine imperial palace may have “justified the creation of our icon; with time, the icon came to reflect a shift of emphasis [from the Crucifixion? in private or liturgical devotion?] to the burial proper.” Belting also references a mosaic icon for private use, of ca. 1300, which has ended up in Sta Croce in Rome to attest to that evolution. (Another early image survives in metalwork, preserved in Jerusalem, in which the Crucifixion and the two lamenting angels are more prominent than the burial – Belting 1980:12)

The aforementioned earliest icon of the Akra Tapeinosis which we have, from Kastoria, is actually double sided; on the reverse side is a sorrowful Virgin Hodegetria, holding an infant Christ. John Mauropos in the eleventh century calls the Virgin associated with the Akra Tapeinosis icon, ‘The Mother of Passion’ (i.e. the icon-type of the Virgin predates the Akra Tapeinosis). Belting brings out the associations between the two icons, and particularly the change in expression from a peaceful Hodegetria to a sorrowful Mother of Passion: “To understand this seeming paradox [of a usually serene Hodegetria being sorrowful] we must first connect her with her dead Son on the front of the panel, and second with the texts of Passion liturgy in which, when the Passion begins, the Virgin remembers the childhood of her Son.”

With regard to the Marian icons, which have a history of their own in relation to the Passion, Belting remarks, “the portrait icon [of the Virgin] invited empathy on the part of the beholder in that it embodied the partner who was to receive the ritual address of the community,” but also, in combination with the Virgin Eleousa icon, that “the protohumanist ethos lies in the Virgin’s eventual insight into the necessity of the Passion to achieve salvation. The soteriological argument was also intended to affect the beholder. It suggested an inner training or conversion to reason; the Virgin was to appear as a prototype of model behavior, of the spiritual catharsis of the religious ego.” The icon, in other words, functions as a model by which the person meditating upon the feelings and thinking of the portrayed saint can come to reach similar noetic consonance. As Belting remarks, “Like her companion images, the Eleousa is at once both an instrument and an object of mystagogical thinking. The ‘new interest in pathos and human feelings’ which was observed in twelfth century art in fact seems to have had deeper roots. A lay public, increasing in number, seems to have developed a new demand for religious and emotional experience to which art had to respond.” I will return to the emphasis on emotional religious experience below, with St Symeon the New Theologian.

As a small icon, though, the Akra Tapeinosis came to be used for private devotion, implying a use outside the monastic liturgy. When would a monastic spiritual father have recommended devotion to one icon versus another, and to what sorts of people, or in what personal spiritual circumstances? That is a question an anthropologist would want to know the answer to, or a social historian. Unfortunately, I don’t have the source material to answer that question for the twelfth century Byzantine commonwealth. Belting mentions an early thirteenth century reliquary from Georgia also shows a variation of the Man of Sorrows icon, and was meant for the private devotions of the Queen, Tamar. He also references a fourteenth century fresco in Pec, of St Demetrios in prison, holding a small icon of the Man of Sorrows. “Another aspect of private use is attested in funerals during which our icon was placed on the chest of the dead.” The icon, then, seems to be thematically related to contemplation on mortality, or specifically, the presence of life in death. To actually prove this meditative theme, however, I would need to quote from textual sources clearly associated with the icon; I do not have those resources available to me at the moment. In fact, however, Belting notes that the Akra Tapeinosis icon does get used as a substitution for crucifixion scenes, if a twelfth century Gospel book preserved in Petersburg is any evidence. The question I wonder is what does this equivalence imply? Why shift from the crucifixion proper to this scene, especially for more portable icons? Those questions will have to remain open for the moment, as I turn to examine the second element which shaped the forms of Byzantine devotion to the Passion, what I have termed ‘the Imperial programme’.

The Imperial Programme: Eucharist, Province, Capital

The Komnenian dynasty oversaw several synods and trials important for the theological development of the Church. Although scholars may tend to decry to trial of John Italos, the results of which strongly curtailed philosophical inquiry and theological scholarship, nevertheless, theological debate did continue, and under Imperial sponsorship. (In fact, Clucas (1981) argues that the trial of John Italos was politically motivated in part to establish Alexios I’s credentials among the monastic party at the time, securing the emperor’s orthodox credentials.)

Among the issues debated was the sacrifice of the Eucharist. To whom was it offered? The Trinity as a whole? The hypostasis of the Father alone? The question of the Eucharist may have come to the fore during these centuries for two very different reasons. First was the continued existence of iconoclast groups who claimed that only the Eucharist was a true icon; that is, the sacrifice of the liturgy made present the reality of Jesus. (For interested readers, Kazhdan and Epstein 1985:12-13 discuss in greater detail the competition between icons and communion in the ninth and tenth centuries – cf. Grolimund 2005). Second was ongoing disagreements with the practises of the Latin-rite, which used unleavened bread. Given that the Byzantine territories included parts of Sicily and Southern Italy, which, while they may or may not have used leavened bread, were certainly in contact with neighbouring regions which used unleavened bread for the Eucharist. Two Councils, of 1156 and 1157, treated the custom of azymes (unleavened bread). In addition to theological-legal responses, iconography was deployed to popularise correct understanding of the position taken by the Imperial administration on the matter of the Eucharist.

The theme of the Eucharist, particularly as it intersects with the Passion of Christ is taken up in the iconography of the period, particularly in the Imperially-connected church of St Panteleimon in Nerezi (currently in the Slavic Republic of Macedonia). The fresco cycles of that church, one of the few remaining from the Comneni dynasty, brings together the themes of the death and burial of Christ, the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice to the whole Trinity, and the role of hymnographers as guardians of Orthodoxy and the tomb of Christ. Yet the movement between Passion and Eucharist also progressed along more material lines, as images embroidered on the aer, or cloth which covered the Eucharistic elements, gets transferred to iconography, and made available for public devotion.

The connexion of Passion and Eucharist at Nerezi is not just coincidental with the source of the divine liturgy in the Last Supper and Crucifixion, however. The frescoes also reference the Imperial efforts at securing the material remains of the Passion and bringing them to the Capital, where they were housed in the Imperial palace, and displayed for public veneration. As already mentioned, some of these relics bore images reportedly imprinted by Christ himself, and the frescoes at Nerezi, like the icons designed for private devotion, reproduce those relics in iconographic form.  The resulting associations tie together the themes of iconodoule orthodoxy, Eucharist, Passion, and Imperium.


In a chapter titled ‘Lay piety at Byzantium: beliefs and customs’, Angold mentions that the Eucharist was received only about once a year by laypeople, perhaps due to ‘the awe invested in’ the divine mystery (Angold 1995:441). In contrast, Kazhdan and Epstien reference an epistolary exchange between a hermit and his spiritual father concerning how the Eucharist could be celebrated by the hermit on his own, allowing him to receive communion without church or priest (Kazhdan and Epstien 1985:89). Both trends, of infrequency and distance in public practice on the one hand, and intimacy and autonomy in individual practice, are indicative of the eleventh and twelfth century trend towards spiritual needs being filled in ways other than the public liturgy of the Church. (To be sure, one can attend the divine liturgy and derive spiritual nourishment from it without necessarily receiving the Eucharist; my point is that piety found at the least, additional outlets for devotion.)

The success of the iconodules (those who supported the veneration of icons as orthodox), whose strength had historically lain and continued to lay with monastics, combined with the continued existence (or renewed appearance) of small heterodox groups who challenged iconodule hegemony throughout Anatolia and the Balkans, to lead orthodox Byzantine theologians to articulate religious ideas along new lines in the Comnenian period. The newly-secured role of the icon acted as a point of consolidation for and the litmus test of the Orthodoxy of such ideas. Thus, while the layperson may not receive the Eucharist more than once a year in these two centuries, it should seem no accident that the Melismos icon, which portrays the Eucharist as Christ-child within the Eucharistic chalice, was first written in this period (Kazhdan and Epstein 1985:97n58). Belting (1980) notes the Melismos icon (child in cup) first appears around 1192 in Kurbinovo, and does not appear in Nerezi (frescoed around 1162), where the Hetoimasia occupies its place. (The Hetoimasia is a representation of God’s throne, often with either the Gospel book or, in the twelfth century, the instruments of the Passion, and with a dove. The whole implies the reign of the Holy Trinity, the image of the hypostasis of the Father unable to be portrayed as the Father was not incarnate as a human.) Theologically, the icon of the Christ-child in the Eucharistic cup is a perfect example of co-opting the heterodox notion that only the Eucharist could be a true icon; but it could perhaps function as well to subvert iconodule claims by cleverly shifting the direction of iconographic contemplation away from the written image and back towards the divine mystery at the altar (Kazhdan and Epstein 1985:97n58; cf Ouspensky vol 2:222).

The Melismos makes the host visible as a child. Another icon, the Epitaphios, makes the Eucharist visible as the dead body of Christ. Belting argues that the Epitaphios makes its way from amnos aer, seen during the Great Entrance after the recitation of the Creed, to the Passion ritual of Holy Week, where it can represent the Eucharistic host it both displays and conceals (protects). Belting sees a similar method to the Threnos icon (see below) at work in the Epitaphios-Amnos which covers the gifts at the altar (“Amnos” = “sacrificed lamb”). On these cloths, Christ’s body is portrayed as laid out for burial, ready to be covered by a burial shroud — not unlike the gifts at the altar awaiting consecration. At that moment, Belting reminds us, “Eucharistic symbolism is combined with Passion realism.” Both images, the Melismos and Epitaphios icons, seem to have been introduced around the same time, in the twelfth century, as an enamel preserved in Petersburg and a fresco in Samari (Messenia) attest. The enamel contains the phrase ‘Christ is set forth and has a share with God/ XC prokeitai ka metexetai Theo”, which Belting sees as having Eucharistic overtones (Belting 1980:13), while the fresco quotes John 6:56 (‘He who eats my flesh…’). Markov Manastir, decorated around 1375, actually contains a fresco which combines both images.

(The particular element of processing with the epitaphios seems to have become popularised during the Comnenian period. (Cf Belting 1980-81 and Belting 1990:90-129, esp 120 — yet he also indicates that he transfer of the epitaphios from the Great Entrance to the Passion ritual seems to have occurred in the fourteenth century, when the Gospel book was covered by the aer in the Great Saturday procession. See also Panagoulatos, who refers to Demetrios Pallas, “Passion und Bestattung Christi in Byzanz. Der Ritus-das Bild”, Miscellanea Byzantina Monacensia, 2, 1965:233ff.)

The Nymphios and Akra Tapeinosis icons may also have taken an initial association from the Eucharist. The Akra Tapeinosis seems to have originated from the image embroidered on the aër, the covering over the gifts on the altar. Although several images were used for that covering, most commonly, they portrayed the burial or deposition of Jesus’ body after the crucifixion. The epitaphios used in the Lamentations procession for the Matins of Holy Saturday (held in anticipation on Friday nights today), is an example of that sort of image.

Earlier, I mentioned the icon of the Mother of Passion on the reverse of the Kastoria Akra Tapeinosis. Later images of the Virgin come to show her flanked by two angels holding instruments of the Passion (in the Latin Church this Virgin of the Passion type becomes known as Our Lady of Perpetual Help); in a Novgorod icon of the twelfth century, the obverse of such an icon, however, portrays the Mandylion, the Veil of Veronica. Altogether, “the group of the Mother and Child and the Cross become interchangeable features, the one emphasizing the sacrificial lamb, the other the sacrificial altar…” (Belting 1980:10). Again, even certain icons of the Virgin Mother as she contemplates the eventual Passion and Death of her Son, thereby come to have Eucharistic overtones.


Eucharist, Passion, and Liturgy come together in the iconographic programme of the Komnenian era church of St Pantaleimon in Nerezi. “Considering that not a single ensemble of Komnenian wall paintings has survived to the present in Constantinople itself, the frescoes at Nerezi are of especial importance,” writes Sinkevic in her 1996 article on the origins and purpose of the frescoes. (Other examples of Macedonian regional styles from the period are the church of Hosios David in Thessaloníki and Church of the Transfiguration at Chortiatis near Thessaloníki (Sinkevic 1996:35).)

The church, according to its inscription, was decorated at the expense of Alexios Angelos, cousin of the emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143- 1180), and son of Theodora, the youngest daughter of Alexios I Komnenos (1081 – 1118). He was present at the 1166 Council of Constantinople (which treated a debate concerning the Eucharistic sacrifice). Adrian-John Komnenos, cousin to emperor Manuel I, was archbishop of Ohrid, nearby Nerezi. Other imperial relatives were in the region, and Manuel I, seeking to secure his influence of the area, often visited Skopje; the monastery at Nerezi would have provided a safe haven for the emperor to visit, according to Sinkevic’s research.

As a Comnenian foundation, the frescoes reflect a more cosmopolitan style, and influenced later church decor in area (Virgin Eleousa at Veljusa, Hagios Nikolaos Kasnitzi in Kastoria). The plan of the frescoes follows a regular, organised pattern, but is important as the first example of grouping saints according to their ‘genre’: warrior, monastic, martyr, hymnographer. The devotional execution of the iconographic plan allowed Alexios Angelos to publicly state his own position in the ideological battle. “The distinguished status of the saints at Nerezi is in direct opposition to the politics of Manuel I and the writings of the twelfth-century hagiographers. Both Manuel I and the contemporary writers displayed a great skepticism and questioned the whole institution of the holy man. … However, judging by the cycle at Nerezi, the saints preserved their importance and continued to act as a powerful vehicle in the economy of salvation in the minds of Byzantine aristocrats” (Sinkevic 1996).

In addition, one icon is quite new. A procession of bishops celebrating the Eucharist and portrayed carrying liturgical scrolls are arranged so that they are inclined and acknowledging the Hetoimasia at the centre of the composition. The Hetoimasia, as I mentioned above, is an “image of the prepared throne, [which] symbolises the Holy Trinity, with the Gospel book and cross surmounted by a crown of thorns, referring to the presence of Christ, and the dove representing the Holy Spirit.” The ensemble reflects the theological debates held in councils at Constantinople from 1156 – 1176 over the Eucharistic sacrifice, which, they ultimately decided, is offered to the Holy Trinity, “inseparable and divine” (Sinkevic 1996:37). I would draw particular attention not only to the use of iconography to promote a particular theological-political position, but specifically to the presence of the Crown of Thorns, an image not only associated with the physical capacity of Christ who suffered as a human, but also an image of a relic associated with the Passion, protected by the Imperial family in the Capital.

If we turn to less politicised icons of the Passion present on the walls of the foundation, special attention should be paid to two in particular: the Descent from the Cross and the Threnos. In the Descent, Christ’s face lays against the Virgin’s cheek as he is being taken down. The intensity of the moment is conveyed through very bold facial expressions which focus attention on the physical suffering of Christ, and Mary as Virgin of the Eleousa.

In the Threnos (Lamentation of the Virgin over the dead body of Christ) composition, Christ is laid out on the earth, his mother cradling his head, John stretched out and over him. Angels offer their garments to the group (perhaps as burial wrappings). The Thenos icon, of course, is a new narrative subject for iconography. Belting remarks that the Threnos “purports to be a biblical occurrence but, in fact, is the product of hymnographical and homiletic rhetoric, which invented the details of the kissing and embracing and even introduced the scene as such into the religious experience of the Middle ages,” beginning at least as early as the ninth century, when similar imagery is reflected in a homily by George of Nicomedia (Belting references Weitzmann 1961, ‘The Origin of the Threnos’ and Maguire 1977, ‘The depiction of Sorrow in Middle Byzantine Art”. Cf Cormack 1975, “Painting after Iconoclasm”). The homily by George of Nicomedia, as already noted, “served as the lesson on Good Friday, at least from the eleventh century onward, in small monastic circles, which may also have commissioned the painted Threnos” (Belting 1980). The new icon would therefore pair itself with ‘a newly introduced threnos office which offered the religious experience that also become the function of the image.” The threnos icon “was to become one of the favorite subjects and perfect realizations of a new language of church art in the twelfth century. Not only did it use a language borrowed from that of liturgy; it owed its very existence to a new way of staging the mysteries which the liturgy developed, beginning with the eleventh century. It is here [in the Threnos icon] that we have a glimpse of the spirit of the time…” (Belting 1980:3). (A very evocative Threnos appears again at Vatopedi, on Athos, in the south, upper register inside the porch of the katholikon, but I don’t have the dates for that fresco).

Apropos to the association of the icons with the offices to which they pertain, beneath the frescoes of the passion are icons of hymnographers: they whose writings gave substance to the offices for which these new icons were written. Babic identifies these saints: St John of Damascus (d. 749), St Kosmas of Maiouma (d. 752), St Theodore of Stoudios (d.826), St Theophanes Graptos (d. 845), and St Joseph of Sicily (d. 886). All are iconodoule hymnographers and theologians of the previous dynasty. We have already has reason to mention hymnography in association with the creation of new icons for liturgical use. Perhaps the presence of these hymnographers in close association with the Passion cycle are meant to remind the fellow worshipper of the sources of Christian faith and revelation? Their position beneath the Passion scenes would seem to indicate they are the guardians of the tomb of Christ, whose presence is invoked by the Eucharistic liturgy through the hymns they composed in defence of orthodoxy. (Sinkevic has indicated she is writing an article on the relation between the snippets of hymns held in the hymnographers’ hands and the passion narratives above, but I have been unable to locate that article. However, see N.P. Sevcenko, “The five hymnographers at Nerezi”, Palaeoslavica 10 (2002), 55 – 68. Cf. Ovcharova (2004). “Images of the Holy Hymnographers in the Iconographical Programme of the Church of St Panteleemon in Nerezi, Macedonia (1164).” Al-Masaq. Vol 16, No 1:131-146.)

Because the themes of the Passion are so prominent in the iconographic narrative of Nerezi, Sinkevic suggests that Alexios Angelos intended to be buried there. The Passion motifs are thus, in Sinkevic’s view, funerary in nature. In fact, it seems more plausible that Sinkevic views the church as a burial site because an arcosolium is located in a chapel in the NW chapel, and the rest of the narrative interpretation is based around the presence of an arcosolium, which could have been prepared for the imperial patron, or could have been prepared to house relics of a holy person; we don’t actually know. Whether frescoes are present in the arcosolium is neither examined nor mentioned. Sinkevic’s suggestion that the Passion cycle constitutes the church as funerary monument is not supported by further arguments in its favour; instead, Sinkevic develops the theme of intercession based on the portrayal of the church’s patron saint, Panteleimon (like Ss. Cosmas and Damian, one of the physician-saints).

At Nerezi, if intercession is the overall theme, I would suggest a better reading than Passion-as-Funereal-Inscription is the idea of Christ-who-heals through the Passion, which makes possible (though not of necessity) the Eucharistic sacrifice — and the medical work of St Pantaleimon. Sinkevic confirms that the narrative scenes of Christ’s life “are spatially related to the scenes which either anticipate or portray his sacrificial death” (Sinkevic 1996:38). (This is not too distant from Latin devotion to the Passion, which also roots itself in Eucharistic devotion.) As such, the church may also associate itself with the well-known efforts of the Komneni to portray themselves as the guardians of the relics of Christ’s passion. It would not be far-fetched to imagine an encomium about how the numinous emperor graces the church with his presence, conveying in his sanctified person that holiness conveyed by proximity to the holy relics of our Lord’s passion and death, relics whose presence are evoked in the emperor’s absence through the iconographic programme of the church. However, a more sound thesis would refer to the burial slab of Christ, which Alexios Angelos’ cousin, the emperor Manuel, brought from Ephesos.

Imperial Relic Collecting.

Beginning with Alexios I, the imperial dynasty secured various relics associated with the Passion and Death of Jesus. The initial impetus for imperial interest in the Passion may have been stimulated in part by Constantine IX Monomachos (d.1055), who had funded the rebuilding of the Church of the Anastasis (or Holy Sepulchre) beginning in 1042. (The church had been mostly destroyed by the Fatimids under Caliph al-Hakim (bi-Amr Allah) in 1009.) However, as Alexios I had appealed to Pope Urban II to launch a crusade for the recapture or protection of Christians in the Holy Land, it cannot be said that the Comnenian dynasty simply followed in Constantine IX’s footsteps; rather, they augmented that interest by securing for themselves those items which could be transported from the Holy Land to Constantinople, where they could be ‘safe’. By means of collecting relics from Jerusalem, the imperial dynasty was able to serve at least two political interests at once: one, clerical-elite and associated with the imperial cathedral of Hagio Sophia, and two, lay, whose individualistic piety was becoming more and more centred on the humanity of Christ.

With relics brought from the historical Jerusalem, the emperors were able to extend a liturgical motif, most pronounced in descriptions of the liturgy sung in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia, which proclaimed Constantinople a Holy City. With the relics of Christ contained within its walls, those hymnographic descriptions were now woven into the physical fabric of the capital city. The eleventh century chapel in Boukeleon had already became the repository for relics of the True Cross and the Mandylion (the image of Christ’s face on Veronica’s cloth), which came to the City in 944 CE. Now, it was to contain the tunic woven without seams, the crown of thorns, the lance of Longinus, and a phial of blood from Jesus’ crucifixion, in addition to the robe of the Virgin and the head of John the Baptist. The Church of Holy Apostles preserved the pillar against which Jesus was scourged. Finally, the slab on which Jesus was laid after the crucifixion was kept in the Church of Pantokrator, which Manuel I, grandson of Alexios I, met upon its arrival in the City (Harris 2003:11). Kazhdan and Epstein (1985:96) quote the inscription engraved on the slab:

“Our lord Emperor, Manuel, re-enacts the resolve of the Disciple as he bears on his shoulders that stone upon which the Lord’s body was placed and prepared for burial in a winding sheet. He lifts it up announcing in advance his own burial, that in death he may be buried together with the Crucified One and may arise together with our buried Lord…”

As the authors note, “Manuel I met the stone of Christ’s unction at the Boukoleon harbour of the Great Palace when it was brought from Ephesus to Constantinople and carried it on his shoulders to the Chapel of the Virgin of Pharos. This was less a penance than an identification with Joseph of Arimathea, at least according to an inscription reportedly on the slab.”(ref. C. Mango (1969), ‘Notes on Byzantine Monuments’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 23-24.) For my purposes, it indicates the association of death as the passage through which all humans are to pass, and the hope of resurrection in Christ. In other words, the devotion to the Passion is focused on the transformation of the believer after death, just as in life, he or she sought to imitate the disciples who followed Christ.

The gathered relics of Christ’s Passion constituted Constantinople as a second Jerusalem, according to the historian Harris’ argument in Byzantium and the Crusades. The emphasis at the time was, in fact, on the material mementoes of the Passion; the Ressurection seems to have been only a minor current of devotion at the time. The Comenenian emphasis on the Passion contrasts strongly with the idea put forward by polemicists who in later centuries strove to differentiate Orthodoxy from Catholicism by proclaiming Orthodoxy’s emphasis on the Resurrection, in distinction to Catholicism’s mis-emphasis on a Passion without culmination in the Harrowing of Hell and triumph of the Third Day.

Through such means as relic collecting, Angold (1995:71) asserts that Alexios I put himself and his family “at the forefront of a new wave of lay piety… In keeping with the monastic ideal it was a piety that concentrated on the humanity of Christ and the humiliations he had endured for [humanity’s] salvation… God had humiliated himself for Mankind. In return it was the emperor’s duty to protect his flock for whom he had been made man, suffered in the flesh, poured out his own blood and suffered a shameful death. These were sentiments that fitted very well with the new currents of monastic piety with their emphasis on the Passion of Christ. They would find pictorial expression on images such as the Lamentation [Threnos] and the ‘Man of Sorrows’ or ‘Akra Tapeinosis.'” Images associated with these relics — e.g. the Mandylion (Veronica) and Epitaphios — proliferated (Kazhdan and Epstien 1985:96).

It seems unsurprising that those two relics, the Mandylion and the Shroud (of Turin), housed in the Boukeleon chapel were not only relics but more to the point, relics that were also images, imprinted at the time of Jesus’ passion or burial. They thus occupy a liminal space, serving as both icon and relic. They served an iconodoule purpose as well, being image and relic, advancing the iconodoule argument that God can be portrayed because he was made portrayable through becoming flesh. Related to a relic preserved in the Palace, the Mandylion, for example, was a ‘true likeness of the Savior’s face, [and] was taken as factual proof of the reality of Christ’s incarnation” (Kazhdan and Epstien 1985:96). Icons portraying the ‘icon not made by hands’ could thus find space among those who doubted the orthodoxy of other icons.

The relationship between imperial and private devotion, I would suggest, was mediated through the creation of specific icons relating to images present on relics of the Passion (Kazhdan and Epstein 1985:97). The Akra Tapeinosis is one example. The Nymphios icon, which portrays Jesus as he emerged after being scourged at the pillar housed in the Boukelion, is another. The Mandylion as well may have been used in Passion rituals, according to Belting (1980:10). The Mandylion icon mentioned earlier, housed in Novgorod, seems to reflect an early twelfth century Byzantine model. The reverse of the Novgorod image, Belting notes, portrays the relic of the True Cross used in the liturgy of Hagia Sophia. “The icon, in fact, reproduces two different cult or relic images, namely, the Holy Face and the holy ‘Cross of the Symbols of the Passion'” (Belting 1980:10). That is, the Novgorod icon reproduces the two icons most amenable to an iconoclast sensibility. Ultimately, the feast of the Mandilion was abolished around 1100, due to the possibly heterodox use Leo of Chalcedon made of its kanon. Akathists to it still do survive, however.

Icons of the relics of the Passion would find a role in private devotion and public procession, ‘portable relics’ as it were, through which the faithful could venerate the reality of the relics which were materially associated with the one whose imaged they portrayed. After the sack of Constantinople by Venice in 1204, and the looting of its relics, all that the Byzantine Commonwealth had left were the images of those relics it formerly housed. Before then, however, “the cult objects proper, the materialized symbols of the mysteries of the faith, had not only stimulated liturgical vision but also inspired artistic creation to match the new patterns and thoughts of the liturgy” (I cannot relocate the source of this quote; pos Belting 1980 or Kazhdan and Epstien 1985). After the end of the Latin occupation of Constantinople, these icons moved from the private and monastic spheres of devotion and became incorporated into the public liturgy as we know it today.

The Holy Man and Hagiographers in the Twelfth Century

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries a good deal of devotional literature was produced for consumption by the middle class of traders and bureaucrats. The period saw Isaac the Syrian’s writings translated from Syriac into Greek, the composition of Philotheos of Sinai’s works on the Jesus prayer, and was the same period when Elias Ekdikos (Ecdicos) was active, leading Ouspensky at least, to characterise the period as a ‘renaissance in spiritual life’ (Ouspensky vol 2:227). This literature focused on individual experience of the divine. It was not opposed to the sacraments of the Church, nor to the established hierarchy, and thus was not banned by the clergy of the Great Church. However, in concert with elite scepticism of outwards signs of holiness, it did serve to turn devotion inward, or at best, allow the expression of such devotion only in front of one’s spiritual father.

Even men recognised by later ages as holy were could be viewed unfavourably during the eleventh century. By far the most illustrious individual theologian living in this period was St Symeon the New Theologian. His thought epitomises the streak of autonomy of the age, which conflicted with the established hierarchy inherited from the Macedonian dynasty. (This autonomy should not be confused with the spiritual vice of egoism, though few seem to have examined the shadowy border between the two).

Symeon emphasised the necessity of feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit within the believer’s own body. It was only after such experiences himself, which he had while working in the Imperial administration, that he came to embrace the monastic life. Kazhdan and Epstein (1985:92) summarise the distinctive individuality of Symeon’s spiritual ‘system’ as follows: “The only effective means [to salvation, for Symeon] was ultimate obedience or self-abasement before Almighty God, the internal enthusiasm that results in seeing the divine light. For Symeon, the believer stood alone before God in the universe, before the emperor in society, and before the spiritual father in the monastery… Symeon’s search for individual salvation may be seen as a reaction against tenth-century institutionalization and order. it was quite natural that he tried to substitute the emotional and spiritual exhilaration of self-discipline for the cold organization of the Byzantine church. It was just as natural for the ecclesiastical establishment to oppose this form of individualism, whereby people related directly to God. The hierarchy attacked Symeon exactly where his theology was most personalized, in the ‘heretical’ veneration of his friend and monastic master, Symeon Eulabes.”

Not only could the icon be used to further doctrinal positions, as mentioned above, but Morris (1996:89), along with many other scholars, has noted that the eminence of a monastic founder was measured not only by his or her inclusion in Synaxaria beyond his locale, but also by the creation of an icon in her or his honour. In fact, it is on just such a point that Symeon the New Theologian was reprimanded, as he had created an unauthorised icon of his spiritual father (also called Symeon).

For my purposes, the incident illustrates that in Byzantium, the deification or transfiguration of an ascetic in Christ is exemplified not so much physically (although relics left by holy persons played and continue to play an important role, and the role of relics in the iconoclast struggle has yet to be written), but by his externalised ability to be ’embodied’ in a devotionally used icon. (For the idea of the icon and transfiguration in Christ’s incarnation, and thus also deification achieved by the saint portrayed in an icon, see Ouspensky vol 1:157-160.) That trend in spirituality, of deification into a written icon, has continued into the early twenty-first century, as I experienced while residing in the Middle East. The abbot of one monastery in Lebanon related to me the story of when he was younger, painting an icon, and his spiritual father asked him to make an icon of a particular saint, whose name that abbot shared. The abbot at first thought the spiritual father meant he was to write an icon on a prepared board of wood; only later did he realise that the spiritual father was asking that the abbot turn himself into an icon, writing it with his life and actions.

In the twelfth century, however, the literati, in fact, seemed more fond of scathing attacks on men who would make claims to holiness. Kazhdan and Epstien reference Nicholas of Methone’s hagiography of St Meletios of Myoupolis. St Meletios was once disparaged in front of the emperor by a monk who had been “seduced by the desire for human glory and assumed a mock ascetic life… Using as his weapon ‘the poverty of spirit’, [the false monk] presented himself as a simple hermit, illiterate and unaware of sophisticated monastic doctrine.” It would be interesting to explore this hagiography in greater depth, to see how presentations of Francis’ poverty were received; certainly later Franciscans living in the Capital concerned the Palaiologan dynasty, for they and the people were attracted to the evident sincerity of the Franciscan poverty. In the twelfth century, however, “the literati not only mocked the fanatic and debunked his pretensions, they also tended to disdain hagiography as a literary genre. Twelfth-century hagiographic writing is remarkably meager, while derisory commentary is surprisingly rich” (Kazhdan and Epstein 1985:95).

Several articles and monographs have been written on the status of the holy man (or woman) in 12th century Byzantium, and I feel no need to go into detail here. Important for my argument is the emphasis on interior devotion which manifests in transformation after death, either in the form of an icon which brings the presence of the individual’s holiness into contact with devotees, or through the leaving behind of relics.

(The interested reader can see Magdalinio 1983, “The Byzantine Holy Man in the Twelfth Century”, The Byzantine Saint. University of Birmingham Fourteenth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, pp 51 – 65; Paschalidis (????) “The Hagiography of the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries.” Ashgate Research Companion: 143 – 160; and Galatariotou (1991). The making of a Saint. The life, times and sanctification of Neophytos the Recluse. Cambridge University Press.)


The relationship between devotion to relics and to icons has not been properly explored in the literature, yet we know relics were, and remain, important indicators of sanctity in the Orthodox Church. Aside from relics associated with the Passion, those which were part of or had come in contact with saints were also valued. In the twelfth century, “pietism was reflected in the increasing popularity of relics. Christopher of Mytilene’s description [no. 114] of a relic collector indicates not only how avidly holy items were sought, but also in what disdain the practice was held by the well educated: he censured the foolishness of the monk Andrew, who was consumed with a passion for relics. Andrew had managed to collect ten hands of the martyr Prokopios, fifteen jaws of St Theodora, eight legs of St Nestor, four heads of St George, five breasts of St Barbara, twelve forearms of St Demetrios, and twenty hips of St Panteleimon” (Kazhdan and Epstein 1985:95f).

To understand the place of relics, one must understand what they opposed. Angold (1995:443) relates three characters from the medieval Byzantine epic Diogenes Akritis, a trinity of Charos, Death, and Hades. Charos ferries humans away from life, and is opposed by Love (as a psychopomp, he is sometimes identified with the archangel Michael); Hades rules over the dead; and Death, of course, ends human life. In the words of the epic, they are “these three man-killers, the three unpitying… the young they spare not, nor respect the old, nor fear the strong, nor honour the wealthy, beauties they pity not, but turn to dust, and all things work to mud and stinking ash.” (From Diogenes Akritis. Grot VIII:270-276.)

It would be well to remember the hymns and sermon from the Liturgy of the Resurrection, in which Hades, as ruler of the kingdom of the dead, is ‘vexed’ at Jesus’ entrance into his kingdom, Life had entered the kingdom of death. Saints likewise were victorious over these enemies of humankind. They were divinised and transformed through their close relationship to Christ. (Whether the transformation was a result of, or as a reward for, their combats is beside the point). That holiness inhered in their physical bodies, with the result that “relics were believed to endow proximity to the Godhead” (Kazhdan and Epstein 1985:96). In this we see Byzantine ideas of physical transformation come not so much through imitation of the Passion’s sufferings so much as through death, the natural end of all humans, and through the mystery of the Harrowing of Hades which brought about the Resurrection. Although Latin polemicists might argue that Byzantines focus too much on the Light of Tabor (seeing that as transformative) and do not approach Golgotha, or pass over it briefly in favour of the Resurrection, this is too simplistic. Certainly, it does not reflect themes present in Byzantine literature during the Comnenian period.

Just as in the twelfth, so also In the twenty-first century, relics remain an indicator of sainthood. In fact, one hermit I spoke with on Athos posed the question to me: What is a saint? A saint, he said, is someone who leaves behind relics. On Athos, as throughout the Orthodox world, whether in Syria and Lebanon or Russia and Romania, relics are known by their incorruptibility, their pleasing fragrance, the occasional myrrh which flows from them, the miracles associated with them. On Athos, an additional miracle occurs with those who die there: their bodies do not experience rigour mortis, but remain pliable, as in life.

In part, the Byzantine emphasis on post-mortem transfiguration is one way around the twelfth century scepticism regarding claims to holiness when applied to living persons. A living person is susceptible to error, sin, or outright hypocrisy. Indeed, stories abound of men who were thought to be holy, but whose true spiritual state was only revealed after death, when their corpses putrified quickly, raising a stench few could stomach, while men whose holiness had been unknown during life were discovered only after death, when their bones exuded myrrh or gave off a sweet fragrance. (This tradition is not unknown in the Latin rite: one devil’s advocate has argued against the holiness of Pope Pius IX because his body decayed so quickly that a Swiss guard standing watch nearly fainted. Conversely, the assessment by an embalmer that the body of Pope John Paul II had been barely touched up for his funeral was used to suggest something numinous about this person for whom crowds called he be declared ‘santo subito’.)

It is an interesting question: the goal of human life is deification or divinisation (theosis), a goal possible while living, if we are to take sainthood seriously; and yet despite a saint’s behaviour in life, his or her theosis is really only known after death. The theology of post-mortem transfiguration comes head to head with the idea of a living metamorphosis (with attendant behaviour appropriate to that metamorphosis) in the twelfth century, when both positions were popularly held, before East and West decided in favour of one or the other possibility.

Although Francis’ biographers, both early and late, go to some lengths to stress Francis’ perfect imitation of Christ’s life on earth, for which the stigmata were a ‘seal’, they did not neglect to record post-mortem miracles which would further confirm his holiness. The transformation of Francis’ body thus continued after Francis’ death. Thomas of Celano records that the brethren saw his corpse transfigured: “There appeared in him in fact the form of the cross and passion of the spotless lamb who washed away the sins of the world, while he seemed as though lately taken down from the cross… and they beheld his skin glittering with whiteness,… and his other members [limbs] had become soft and pliant like those of an innocent child.” Like the monks who die on Mt Athos, Francis suffered no rigor mortis. The stigmata, which Francis took pains to conceal, were then examined: “Not the prints of nails but the nails themselves formed out of his flesh and retaining the blackness of iron” were discovered. One of the disciples kissed the right side, “in whose wound a solemn memorial was enacting of Him who, shedding forth blood and water together from that same part, reconciled the world to the Father.” (Note the similarity of devotion expressed by the North European mystics, of associating the wounds of Christ with the actions which they accomplished in bridging the divide between the mortal human race and the deathless Godhead.) Thomas relates that for the disciples, the sight of the stigmata was one of joy, not grief.

For Thomas of Celano, the stigmata are a form not only of Imitatio Christi, but also, and more clearly, of Transformatio: “From the time when true love of Christ had first ‘changed’ the lover [Francis] ‘into the same image’ [of Love, Christ], he concealed and hid that treasure [the stigmata]” (Thomas of Celano, First Life, Chapter 93). Having a different theology of both the icon and divinisation, and thus what it means to be an icon of Christ, Latin writers stress principally the similarity and union with God as represented by the Stigmata. An icon may convey a relationship between its prototype and the devotee’s actions towards it; here also, the stigmata conveyed for Latin Christians the idea of relationship to Christ in all its transformative capacity. In this regard, Thomas even references the vision of a fellow Franciscan to impress upon the reader to understand the extent of Francis’ transformation in Christ, this time drawing upon a post-mortem account of Francis: Once, a certain brother of the order had a vision of Francis, but could not distinguish whether it was Francis or Christ whom he beheld; “It seemed to the brother… that the person of Christ and of Saint Francis was one.” As Thomas comments, “He who cleaves to God becomes one spirit with him and God Himself shall be all in all.” (A conscious allusion to Francis’ favourite prayer, ‘Deus meus et omnes’.)

* * * Next Post: Passion Devotion in the Latin Kingdoms * * *


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