Cover image for Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium By Bissera V. Pentcheva

Icons and Power

The Mother of God in Byzantium

Bissera V. Pentcheva


$44.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06400-0

312 pages
7" × 10"
20 color/100 b&w illustrations

Icons and Power

The Mother of God in Byzantium

Bissera V. Pentcheva

“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.”


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

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 the 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.

“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 (chronicles, hymns, sermons, poems) used to deepen her arguments and draws on extensive supplementary material such as coins, seals, ivories, and paintings. . . . [Icons and Power] 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. . . . [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.”

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






A book that explores the role of icons of the Mother of God in Byzantium has long been a lacuna in the study of medieval visual culture. The two main contributions in the field, David Freedberg’s Power of Images (Chicago, 1989) and Hans Belting’s Likeness and Presence (in German, Bonn, 1990; English tr., Chicago, 1994), were the first to draw attention to the role of cult images in society. Their large thematic, chronological, and geographic scopes precluded close analysis of the primary sources or concentration on Marian images. At the same time, the major studies on the cult of the Virgin (Graef’s Mary, 1963; Warner’s Alone of All Her Sex, 1976; Pelikan’s Mary Through the Centuries, 1996) have primarily focused on issues of theology and have not engaged the material expression of devotion and the ritual practices. By contrast, this book contends that icons of the Theotokos are fundamental to the understanding of the Marian cult and medieval visual culture.

Byzantine image theory is based on the dogma of the Incarnation. Once the virginal body of Mary received and gave flesh to the divine Word, it offered relative holiness to matter, validated the circumscription of the divine in a human form, and legitimized the production and veneration of images. Icons of the Mother and Child not only form an Orthodox defense of the visual and material, but also bestow power to the pictorial form to mediate the exchange between the divine and human spheres.

Byzantium has traditionally been considered a culture of icons that consolidated in the sixth century, was interrupted by Iconoclasm (A.D. 730–843), but was then reestablished after the victory of the so-called Orthodoxy in 843. This position, still prevalent in the studies by Belting, has recently been challenged in a series of articles. Yet no monographic study has reconsidered the evolution of icon-centered Byzantine visual identity and rooted the discussion in the textual tradition.

When did the Byzantine icon-centered identity emerge? The present book attempts to answer this question by focusing on the cult of the Virgin Mary in Constantinople from the fifth to the thirteenth centuries. The Theotokos was perceived as the protector of the capital and the state. But the way her power was manifested changed over time. Previous studies have centered either on the early cult or on its later manifestation, failing to grasp and explain its transformation. Drawing on medieval image theory and representations of Mary in a variety of media, including seals, panel-paintings, miniatures, and mosaics, this book argues that devotion to the Mother of God changed from a relic-based to an icon-centered cult in the period after Iconoclasm. Subsequently, a network of public processions with Marian images developed in Constantinople and triggered the establishment of similar ritual practices in the rest of the Eastern Orthodox world.

In addition to icons, this book also sets out to explore how the cult of the Mother of God embodied political ideas and promoted the concept of empire. She was perceived as a guarantor of imperial victory and legitimacy, thus inheriting the functions of the Roman Victoria. It is in Byzantium where this powerful link between Marian devotion and the idea of empire became established and from which it then spread to the rest of the medieval world. Therefore, it is important to explore how her Byzantine cult was staged. As the eastern half of the Roman Empire, Byzantium’s identity was defined by Roman law, Greek language, and Christian religion. Its capital, Constantinople, became the New Rome. In this setting the figure of the Mother of God rose to become the protector of city and state, whose undefeatable power stemmed from her paradoxical virginal motherhood.

Her influential state role is revealed in the words with which she was addressed in Byzantium: Theotokos (Bearer of God) and Meter Theou (Mother of God). Both terms speak of power and contrast sharply with our current Western perception of Mary as a tender and delicate figure, revealed in the terms by which she is called: Virgin or Madonna (“My Lady,” a term that derives from the twelfth-century medieval culture of love). For the Byzantines and even today within the Orthodox East, Mary is the powerful Mother of God: Theotokos, Meter Theou, Theometor, Panagia (All Holy), or Bogorodica, and Mati Boýija (Mother of God).

For years the study of the cult of the Theotokos in Byzantium was mainly focused on the establishment of iconographic types. This approach was established by the two seminal publications of Nikolai LihaËev and Nikodim Kondakov written in the beginning of the twentieth century. Both works focused on the formation and spread of iconographic types of the Theotokos. LihaËev gathered and explored mainly Marian representations on seals, whereas Kondakov collected Greek and Latin texts and images in all media in order to establish how a few miracle-working icons gave rise to the formation of visual formulas. Kondakov’s theory of types has exercised a strong influence on the subsequent scholarship of the Theotokos. Marian representations have thus often been examined in terms of types and discussed from the point of view of style.

Of the very few scholars who have attempted to reevaluate the relationship Kondakov posited between a name and a visual schema, André Grabar was the first. He argued that Kondakov’s theory holds true with regard to types based on toponymic terms (those deriving from the names of the sites where the icons were kept). At the same time, Grabar discerned the existence of so-called qualitative or poetic names, which derive from hymnology and refer to the powers of the Mother of God. These epithets do not identify any particular image type of the Theotokos and can thus be indiscriminately attached to any Marian depiction. My study explores how poetic names define the function of icons.

New advances in the field of Byzantine literature have also contributed to the study of Marian images. Paul Speck and Alexander Alexakis have focused on the Byzantine theory of images produced during the period of Iconoclasm. They have exposed the complexity of texts written in defense or refutation of images, and the presence of interpolations about images added at a later date. In addition, new editions of Byzantine and Latin sources have enabled the reevaluation of the written tradition of several miraculous icons. The recent studies by Averil Cameron on the Mandylion image of Christ, Christine Angelidi on the Hodegetria, and Gerhard Wolf on the icon of the Virgin in Santa Maria Maggiore have uncovered the role of cult icons in society. By deconstructing the written traditions, these scholars have revealed the changing social practices and beliefs manifested in the use of images. Similarly, the new computerized database of Byzantine texts, the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, has made possible a more efficient exploration of a vast number of written sources.

Starting in the sixties and continuing through the eighties, art-historical exploration of the cult of the Theotokos primarily focused on the early pre-Iconoclast period. The interest has only recently shifted to the later centuries, and with this shift attention has been redirected away from iconographic and stylistic considerations and toward a more functional analysis of the role of images in society. Following the “iconic revolution” spurred by Belting’s and Freedberg’s books, Annemarie Weyl Carr has explored aspects of the public role of icons and relics of the Mother of God in the Byzantine and post-Byzantine traditions. Nancy –evËenko has opened new ground in the study of the role of icons in the liturgy. Ioli Kalavrezou has examined the creation of new visual formulas, in the post-Iconoclast period, that expressed the Orthodox dogma of images. The recent Russian publications edited by Alexei Lidov have also advanced a contextual approach to the analysis of Byzantine and Russian icons. Finally, a recent exhibition organized at the Benaki Museum has offered a substantial collection of Marian images and recent studies on the cult of the Mother of God in Byzantium. Yet no monographic study has offered a comprehensive account of the development of the Marian cult in Constantinople.

This book not only covers a broad span of media ranging from seals to monumental painting, but also engages in systematic collection, translation, analysis, and interpretation of a wide range of written sources that include chronicles, homilies, hymns, and epigrams. The textual tradition records the multiple functions of icons in the religious practices of Byzantium. The close link between art and text, already demonstrated in Henry Maguire’s fundamental book, Art and Eloquence, is here expanded. The analysis of hymns, homilies, and epigrams is employed to uncover the rhetorical structure of images and explore their visual strategies. By considering both the written and visual traditions, this book sets out to deconstruct the legends concerning famous Marian images and thereby uncover the historical development of Marian devotion in Constantinople and the gradual establishment of a Byzantine identity linked to icons and icon processions.

This study focuses on three major monasteries in the Byzantine capital—the Blachernai, the Hodegon, and the Pantokrator—and proceeds to weave a narrative of conflict and synthesis of the rituals of these Marian centers and their role in shaping imperial ideology. The Blachernai, one the earliest sanctuaries, promoted the concept of the Theotokos as a guarantor of imperial victory and protection. The monastery was situated at the northwestern end of the city, outside the circumference of the walls and in constant danger of barbarian attacks. In the beginning, the miraculous powers of the Mother of God were invested in the holy spring and the relic of Mary’s robe. Emperors came to pray at the Blachernai before leaving on military campaigns. A weekly Friday service was also celebrated here, followed by a procession. People believed that these weekly ceremonies activated the power of Mary. Similarly, the monastery became the site for an annual feast offering thanks to the Theotokos for securing victory over the enemies in the past. The ritual was called the Akathistos, after the name of the famous hymn sung on this occasion. Icons were gradually introduced into these services and processions. The Blachernai monastery thus rose as the site where Mary’s relics and icons and celebration of her past victories over the barbarians secured protection of the capital and imperial triumph.

In the course of the eleventh century, a new icon from a different monastery took over the functions of the Blachernai: the Hodegetria, meaning “she who leads the way.” It was housed in a sanctuary called the Hodegon and became the major icon of the weekly processions of its monastery. Through these ceremonies, the Hodegetria acquired public prominence that led to its eventual integration into the established annual Akathistos celebration at the Blachernai. It is this annual service that fostered the belief in the Hodegetria as the material vehicle through which Mary’s protection of Constantinople became manifest.

The increasing role of icon processions in the public expression of the cult of the Mother of God led Byzantine emperors to seek the power of Marian images to promote the dynasty of the Komnenoi and consolidate the increasingly hereditary model of imperial power. John II Komnenos (1118–43) built a new imperial mausoleum at the monastery of Christ Pantokrator (“ruler over all/everything”) and co-opted elements of the rituals of both the Blachernai and the Hodegon. On Fridays, the traditional procession of the Blachernai was made to stop at the Pantokrator monastery for a weekly commemorative service. Similarly, a new litania required the Hodegetria to be brought to the Pantokrator monastery for the annual commemorative rituals. Through these ceremonies the emperors were able to draw their subjects into the imperial cult, secure their rule, and ensure life after death.

In response to the increasing role of icons in Marian public devotion, new iconographic types developed after Iconoclasm. As this study reveals, the Hodegetria was one of these new visual formulas, as were several other image types exemplified by the icons of the Blachernai monastery. The uncovering of a Middle Byzantine date for these visual schemas offers a new understanding of the origins and development of Marian iconography.

The material is organized in two parts: Part I focuses on the link between devotion to the Theotokos and imperial power; Part II draws attention to the use of Marian icons in public ceremonies. Each part consists of three chapters. In Part I, Chapter 1 explores the establishment of the early civic cult of the Theotokos in Constantinople; Chapter 2 focuses on the textual tradition of the Avar and Arab sieges of the capital, the gradual emergence of icon processions, and the transformation of the memory of the past; Chapter 3 examines the concept of virginal motherhood that is fundamental to the understanding of the role of the Theotokos and her images in the context of war. In Part II, Chapter 4 deconstructs the myth of the Hodegetria and explores the character and significance of the Tuesday processions (litaniai) of this panel; Chapter 5 returns to the Blachernai site and discusses the emergence of new cult practices, such as the “usual miracle” created in response to the challenge of the increasing public presence of the Hodegetria and its processions; and Chapter 6 focuses on the litaniai with icons at the funeral site of the Pantokrator monastery and the role of Marian panels of the Blachernai and Hodegon in the development of imperial commemorative ceremonies. In presenting the structure of devotion to the Mother of God in Constantinople, this book uncovers the original Byzantine template that inspired the politically motivated and image-centered civic cults of the Virgin Mary in both the Orthodox East and the Latin West.