The Pennsylvania State University
Cover for the book Icons and Power

Icons and Power

The Mother of God in Byzantium Bissera V. Pentcheva
  • Publish Date: 3/16/2006
  • Dimensions: 7 x 10
  • Page Count: 312 pages
  • Illustrations: 20 color/100 b&w illustrations
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-271-02551-3
  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-271-06400-0

Paperback Edition: $44.95Add to Cart

2010 John Nicholas Brown Prize sponsored by the Medieval Academy of America

“This is a major work. It provides a much-needed overview of the development of the cult of the Virgin in Byzantium between the fifth and thirteenth centuries. But it is much more than that too. In its richly detailed account of how icons of the Virgin helped shape Byzantine imperial ideologies, it offers a significant contribution to studies of gender and empire. Its deployment of an unprecedented range of sources, its attentiveness to both major and minor artistic media, and its brilliant descriptions of the role of icons will ensure that it becomes a standard book on the Virgin and her cult in Byzantium.”
“The book is well written in good and precise prose and laid out with logical clarity in combination with well-chosen and beautifully produced illustrations on at least two-thirds of the pages. Pentcheva is in command of many texts used to deepen her arguments and draws on extensive supplementary material such as coins, seals, ivories, and paintings. . . . Indeed, it should be of value to anyone concerned with religious cults, devotion, and the relation of rulers to religious symbols.”
“Aimed primarily at Byzantine scholars, this important study will also be of great benefit to medievalists and theologists.”
“Pentcheva’s book provides a significant response to the issue regarding the relationship of the cult of relics and the cult of images, and offers insight into new iconographic formulae that characterized Marian images of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. As such, this text should be read not only by Byzantinists, but also by scholars focusing on the western tradition.”
“The volume is a rich dossier of texts and images. The excellent plates illustrate works of art ranging from large mosaics to seals and coins. The captions are highly informative. An extraordinary number of primary sources are included in translation, some of them for the first time in English, and the Greek and Latin originals are always included in the footnotes.”
“[The] book is both complex in terms of scholarly research and important for non-experts, in order to understand that the material artifacts of Christianity are polysemous. This study, beyond the mere pleasure of its many illustrations, was also enlightening in what it told me about the ever-unfolding story of devotion to the Mother of God.”
“This insightful study of the role of Marian icons in Byzantine society, with a particular focus on their imperial resonances and underpinnings, has as its foundation a profound knowledge of both written and visual texts. . . . [In] general, the presentation is handsome and the text error free, enhanced by copious illustrations, many full page and some twenty in color. Pennsylvania State University Press is to be congratulated on the production of another outstanding art-historical book, one that most medievalists will need to read.”
Icons and Power is an ambitious project, the results of which are a welcome and significant addition not only to the study of Byzantine culture and society, but more broadly to Marian studies as a whole. The book brings much-needed contour to the study of the image of Mary in the Byzantine east.”

The Virgin Mary embodied power rather than maternal tenderness in the Byzantine world. Known as the Mother of God, she became a guarantor of military victory and hence of imperial authority. In this pioneering book, Bissera Pentcheva connects the fusion of Marian cult and imperial rule with the powers assigned to images of this All Holy woman.

Drawing upon a wide range of sources and images from coins and seals to monumental mosaics, Pentcheva demonstrates that a fundamental shift in Byzantine cult—from relics to icons—took place during the late tenth century. Further, she shows that processions through the city of Constantinople provided the context in which Marian icons emerged as centerpieces of imperial claims to divine protection.

Pentcheva breaks new ground, contending that devotion to Marian icons should be considered a much later development than is generally assumed. This new perspective has important implications not only for the history of imperial ritual but also for understanding the creation of new Marian iconography during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Centered upon fundamental questions of art, religion, and politics, Icons and Power makes a vital contribution to the entire field of medieval studies. It will be of interest as well to all those concerned with the cult of Mary in the Christian traditions of the East and West.

Bissera V. Pentcheva is Assistant Professor of Art History at Stanford University .


List of Illustrations


Note on the Transliteration of Slavic and Greek

List of Emperors, A.D. 324–1204


Part I. The Theotokos and Imperial Power

1. Origins of the Civic Cult

2. The Avar Siege: Memory and Change

3. In the Context of War

Part II. Icons in Practice

4. The Hodegetria Icon and Its Tuesday Procession

5. The Blachernai Responds: The Icon of the “Usual Miracle”

6. Synthesis: Imperial Memorial Rites at the Pantokrator





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