BMCR 2007.05.11

Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium

, Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006. xviii, 302. $60.00.

Table of Contents

Byzantinists have long anticipated Bissera V. Pentcheva’s (hereafter P.) book. It derives from her doctoral dissertation (Harvard University, 2000), and is a significant contribution to the study of the medieval interpretations of the Virgin. This book appears at a time when interest in the Byzantine figure of Mary and her imagery has risen considerably, and nicely complements the recent publications of two very important volumes: the catalogue of the exhibition on representations of the Virgin at the Benaki Museum in Athens,1 and the papers from the conference that accompanied this exhibition.2

Like Byzantine images, P.’s study is multifaceted: it combines philological acumen and admirable art historical expertise. The scope of this work is impressive and its aim ambitious. P. studies the cult of the Virgin between the fifth and the fourteenth centuries, and explores images of Mary in various media. The book focuses on the veneration of Mary in the centuries after iconoclasm when, as the author contends, emphasis was placed less on her relics and more on her icons. One of the most important contributions of P.’s work is the study of the ways the cult of Mary, and more specifically of her images, was wedded to ideas of imperial victory and legitimate power.

The book is divided in two parts, each consisting of three chapters. The individual chapters are carefully constructed with brief introductions at the beginning and useful summaries of the argument at the end. An index quickly guides the reader to specific terms or themes.

In the first chapter entitled “Origins of the Civic Cult,” P. outlines the beginnings of the important tie between the Virgin and the imperial family in the second half of the fifth century. She writes about the imperial patronage of Marian shrines, and the institution and promotion of Marian feasts such as the Annunciation, Mary’s Nativity, and her Entry into the Temple. Here P. lays the groundwork on the importance of the Blachernai, whose miraculous icon is a subject of the book’s fifth chapter.

In discussing the relationship between Mary and the Constantinopolitan emperors, P. considers the Akathistos hymn as representing the Virgin in imperial terms. She assigns a late fifth-century date to the hymn, and ties its composition to the emergence of Mary’s civic cult and its imperial promotion, and not to her rising prominence as the Theotokos after the Council of Ephesos in 431, as some scholars contend.

P. considers in greater detail the replacement of female personifications of civic concepts such as Tyche and Victoria with Mary, and notes that in imagery this happens later than in literature; the assimilation of these deities to Mary resembles the earlier transformation of the pagan Augusta into a Christian empress. The imperial associations of Tyche and Victoria were transposed onto the Virgin—she was identified as the empress and a regina poli. Unlike most scholars, P. traces the image of an enthroned Virgin with an imperial loros and a crown known as Maria Regina to Constantinople and not to the West. This image disappears in the post-iconoclastic period when the image of the Virgin was stripped of any direct indication of her imperial status; she remained the queen of the city but, as P. points out, “through association, not through costume” (p. 26). Yet, in her full-length representations, the Virgin never discarded one of the most important elements of the imperial costume—the purple shoes—making her relationship with the emperor a little more obvious than P. implies.

The chapter further discusses the involvement of the Virgin and her images in the justification of dynastic rule; according to P., Mary started playing an especially prominent role in the imperial legitimization in the eight century when the Isaurian dynasty first established continuous hereditary rule. The image of Mary as a way to legitimize usurped imperial power is demonstrated by the coinage of two tenth-century rulers: Roman I Lekapenos and Nikephoros II Phokas, where she is represented crowning the emperor or helping him in supporting a cross. Lack of legitimacy through birth is thus replaced by legitimacy through military victory, which the emperor shares with Mary-Victoria.

In her second chapter on “The Avar Siege: Memory and Change,” P. discusses the rewriting of the account of the Avar siege in 626, and the incorporation of Marian icons in the story some time in the middle Byzantine period. P. notes that at some point the icon which saved the city was identified with that of the Virgin Hodegetria. This transformation of the Virgin’s icon as conduit of divine power and its direct engagement in the protection of the Byzantine capital in the modified accounts of the siege P. relates to the emergence of icon-centered state cult of Mary which gradually replaced the earlier cult based on her relics. Through careful analysis of literary sources, the author challenges traditional notions about the pre-iconoclastic incorporation of Marian icons in the public life of Constantinople, and especially in urban processions, and argues instead that it happened well after the end of the iconoclasm, sometime in the tenth century. P. points out the rising importance of painted panels with the image of the Virgin as guarantors of imperial military victory in the second half of the tenth century and their participation in triumphal processions as in the entry of John I Tzimiskes in Constantinople in 971, or in the military campaigns of Basil II in 989 at Abydos and Romanos II Argyros in 1030 at Aleppo.

These observations neatly tie the second to the third chapter of the book, entitled “In the Context of War,” where P. discusses the militaristic dimensions of the Virgin and especially her images, which were articulated in two main ways: through assigning names to the icons that refer to military victory, such as Akatamachetos (“invincible) and Nikopoios (“victory bringer”), and through inclusion of a host of military saints in relation to the images of the Virgin, as seen, for example, in the narthex dome of the katholikon of the Nea Mone in Chios (fig. 61), or on ivory diptychs and triptychs (figs. 53, 59). The author argues that the prominence given to Mary in matters of war was due to her paradoxical virginal motherhood and to her willingness to sacrifice her Child on behalf of humanity. In order to illustrate the latter point, P. brings in the two masonry icons of St. George and the Virgin with Child on the templon of the fourteenth-century church of St. George in Staro Nagoricino. P. describes the expression of the Christ child on this masonry icon as “composed and serene”; its facial features are, however, no longer legible (figs. 67-68).

A problematic area of the chapter is the study of images of the Virgin on crosses known as strategikoi stauroi which were used in battles or military triumphs (pp. 69-74). It is hard to pinpoint, however, which of the crosses that P. discusses functioned as strategikoi stauroi and which did not. Their large size and imagery are in no way indicative of their military function. It seems impossible to distinguish then the strategikoi stauroi from those regularly used in liturgical processions around the city.

P. ties the militarization of the verbal and visual images of the Virgin since the tenth century to the rise to power of emperors such as Phokas and John Tzimiskes, who were not porphyrogenetoi but victorious generals who needed additional confirmation of their legitimacy. For this reason, according to P., they enlisted the images of the Virgin in securing their position as heads of the Byzantine empire. The author notes a general tendency since the tenth century of representing saints, the archangel Michael, and the emperor as warriors, but she omits a fundamental study by Alexander Kazhdan which treats the phenomenon of militarization of the Byzantine imperial ideal from the historian’s perspective.3 This article would have nicely complemented P.’s conclusions by providing a broader and better justified context for the representations of Mary as a general of God’s celestial armies.

The second part of the book traces the development of icon processions and the ways the Komnenian emperors utilized them in the promotion of their rule by incorporating famous Marian icons in their commemorative services. The emphasis is on the elaborate interactions between icons and emperors.

The fourth chapter is dedicated to the Hodegetria icon (“the one who shows the way”), and more specifically to its iconography and properties. P. begins by discussing the origins of the Hodegetria, and notes that her iconography as we know it today is a result of the panel’s employment in processions in the post-iconoclastic period. In order to highlight the relationship between mother and child, the new iconography focuses on gestures and gaze. The Virgin directs the viewer’s attention to the Child with her right, or as P. identifies it, “speaking” hand which firmly distinguishes her from the earlier, pre-iconoclastic images of Mary and the Child. The main message of the Hodegetria is about prayer and supplication which was determined by the icon’s integration in large public processions which had similar purpose.

P. distinguishes between icons that exhibit the hodegetria iconography, but are not named, from those that simultaneously conform to the iconography and display the name Hodegetria. A study of the sources about the icon suggests, according to the author, that it came to prominence only in the eleventh century. P. associates the story about St. Luke painting it with attempts to promote the icon’s cult and to elevate the status of the sanctuary where it was kept—the Hodegon Monastery. The author’s reconstruction of the Tuesday procession with the icon is based on narrative images of processions, and more specifically on twelfth-century representations of the Virgin’s Presentation in the Temple in the beautiful Kokkinobaphos manuscripts. The most explicit textual source that ties the Hodegetria icon to the Virgin’s Presentation in the Temple, a fourteenth-century homily by Joseph Bryennios, is not really about the Tuesday procession, but about a singular case of transfer of the icon from the Chora (moved there earlier for safekeeping purposes) back to her home, the Hodegon Monastery.

The fifth chapter of the book is dedicated to the Blachernai and the ways a new Marian iconography of an orant Virgin with the Child hovering in a medallion before her chest was promoted in an attempt to maintain the prominence of the sanctuary. The author notes that the popularity of the image on personal seals is reflective of the metaphor of the Virgin as a seal, and ties it to the dogma of the Incarnation and the Immaculate Conception. P. expands on Hans Belting’s definition of “living icon,” based on the Greek word “empsychos,” into “inspirited” (with the Holy Spirit).4 The inspirited images P. relates to a revival of Neoplatonic philosophy in the second half of the eleventh century, according to which the material and the changes that occur in it reflect divine presence. The new image of the Virgin with the Child hovering before her chest is one of these inspirited images and reflects contemporary notions of matter as a way for the divine to manifest itself. This image, P. feels, is a visualization, but not a subject of a weekly occurrence in the Blachernai, known as the “usual miracle” (it happened every Friday). It involved the lifting of a veil that covered one of the icons at Blachernai, specifically the one found during eleventh-century reconstructions immured in the church apse that represented the Virgin holding a medallion with the Child before her breast. According to the literary evidence, the painted Virgin would appear as if alive animated by the mysterious descent of the Holy Spirit. The author thinks that the Neoplatonic inclinations of the Byzantine audience (and more specifically of those who wrote about the miracle) enabled it to perceive the changes that happened to the painted Virgin as she opened her arms to embrace the astonished viewers. Not equipped with this particular cultural attitude, a Latin pilgrim, who provided one of the accounts about the miracle, did not see any changes in the appearance of the icon; he simply noted that the veil attached to it lifted itself “by the grace of God.”

This chapter is followed by an appendix in which P. usefully accounts for all published images of the orant Virgin with the Child enclosed in a medallion before her chest. The final chapter of the book discusses how icon processions were incorporated in the commemorative rites for the Komnenian emperors at the newly built Pantokrator monastery (1136) which they used as their mausoleum. P. reconstructs the importance of the salvific role of litania by bringing into her discussion an illustration from one of the twelfth-century Kokkinobaphos manuscripts where the procession with the child Mary on the way to the Temple is paralleled below by groups of people emerging from their coffins as they do in images of Christ’s Resurrection (figs. 108-109). The monastery’s founder and emperor John Komnenos purposefully detoured the processions and incorporated them into the memorial services not only because he believed that they were spiritually efficacious, but also because the presence of the famous Virgin icons at the imperial tombs further enhanced the status of the new Komnenian dynasty.

In this chapter, P. discusses how icons were named in order to reflect their affiliation as well as their form and function in their specific sanctuaries. She contends that it was the use of icons in public litania that led to their naming with qualitative terms from Marian hymns, such as eleousa (“the merciful one”), paramythia (“consolation”) and episkepsis (“protection”) thus making apparent the wishes of the audience for supplication and protection. Of interest is P.’s discussion of the icon of the Virgin Eleousa in the homonymous church of the Pantokrator monastery. Its prominence in the funerary and commemorative rites at the Pantokrator, were, as the author implies, the reason for the prominence of the icon in funerary contexts in other churches such as the now destroyed church of the Dormition in Nikaia, in Lagoudera, and St. Neophytos’s hermitage in Paphos on Cyprus. Yet it cannot be said that the primary function of these three churches was funerary, and the images of the Virgin Eleousa do not appear in close proximity to burials. Indeed, one need look in the thirteenth-century paintings of the cathedral church of Prizren of the Virgin Leviska where a frescoed icon of the Virgin named Eleousa is painted holding a basket in one hand and the Child Our Provider in the other.5 The image is purposefully paired with a representation of the Wedding at Cana evoking, and even anticipating, the eucharistic gifts. The context of this image is in no way funerary, demonstrating the limitations of P.’s interpretation of the Byzantine use of images of the Virgin named Eleousa.

This book will surely remain one of the important studies of the Byzantine images of Mary. P.’s analysis of literary and visual sources is confidently stated, and in most cases is ingenious and penetrating, although with certain shortcomings. The book is beautifully put together and is generously illustrated with high-quality color and black and white photographs. P.’s writing style is clear and easy to follow, making the work accessible to Byzantinists and to non-specialists alike.


1. Maria Vassilaki, ed., The Mother of God: Representations of the Virgin in Byzantine Art (Milan: Skira, 2000).

2. Maria Vassilaki, ed., Images of the Mother of God: Perceptions of the Theotokos in Byzantium (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005).

3. Alexander Kazhdan, “The Aristocracy and the Imperial Ideal,” in The Byzantine Aristocracy IX to XIII Centuries, ed. M. Angold (Oxford: B.A.R., 1984), 43-57.

4. Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence. A History of the Image before the Era of Art, trans. E. Jephcott (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994), 261-96.

5. Draga Panic and Gordana Babic, Bogoroditsa Leviska (Belgrade: Srpska knjizevna zadruga, 1975), 130, pl. LI.