Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 11662
  • Author(s)/Creator(s): Vinson , M. P.
  • Contributor(s):
  • Title: The Empress Theodora and the Cult of Domesticity in Byzantine Hagiography
  • Source: Byzantine Studies Conference. Abstracts of Papers 22, ( 1996): Pages 70
  • Description:
  • Article Type: Conference Paper Abstract
  • Subject (See Also): Byzantium Domesticity Empresses Hagiography Theodora, Saint and Wife of Theophilos, Byzantine Emperor Wives in Literature Women in Religion
  • Geographic Area: Eastern Mediterranean
  • Century: 9
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  • Abstract: The "Life with Encomium of the Blessed Empress Theodora" (BHG 1731) is an unjustly neglected hagiographical work from the late ninth century. It has not, for example, been noticed that this "vita" is a "basilikos logos" and conforms quite closely to the compositional guidelines of this genre as set forth by Menander Rhetor. While the use of this rhetorical form affirms Theodora's imperial status, it carried with it the risk that she would be perceived to possess a ruler's masculine traits as well. Since this perception would undercut her claim to sainthood as well as the validity of the official acts of her reign such as the restoration of Orthodoxy, various strategies are employed to portray Theodora as a traditional wife and mother rather than a domineering political figure. For example, the brideshow which resulted in her marriage to the iconoclast emperor Theophilos performs the function of the mythological account of a monarch's origins that Menander urges upon the prospective encomiast. By basing Theodora's claim to the throne on the stereotypically feminine quality of beauty rather than the divine or royal pedigree attributed to male rulers, the author asserts the centrality of her role as wife and in the process defuses any political threat she may have posed to the established order. Other elements in her characterization reveal a similar motivation. For example, not only does Theodora never engage in dialogue with anyone outside her immediate family, but even more significantly, none of this dialogue takes place during her tenure as empress. This emphasis on Theodora's domestic qualities at the expense of her political position has paradoxical results. Theodora never openly challenges Theophilos on the question of icons and in fact plays no active role in his conversion or the restoration of Orthodoxy, which is attributed to her infant son, Michael III, and the heroic actions of iconophile men. Theodora's passivity accomplishes a twofold purpose. First, it allows the defeat of iconoclasm to be presented as an exclusively male accomplishment and thus free from the taint of feminine interference. Secondly, it demonstrates Theodora's acceptance of her subjection to male authority, be it of church, state, or family, and thus affirms her status as an exemplar of feminine virtue. In both form and content the "Life" of Theodora exerted a profound influence on the subsequent hagiographical tradition. Other hagiographers adopt the form of the "basilikos logos" to recount the lives of both imperial and non-imperial women such as the empress Theophano and Irene of Chrysobalanton. Even more important is the shift which takes place in the representation of female sanctity. Where defiance of male authority and rejection of family characterized earlier heroines of the church such as Thekla and Matrona, Theodora's submissiveness and exlusive devotion to her duties as a wife and mother pave the way for a new kind of female saint defined not by her aggressive defense of the faith but by a willing acceptance of the traditional role of wife and mother even, or rather especially, if this role conflicts with her most deeply held religious beliefs. [Reproduced by permission of the author.]
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  • Conference Info: - , -
  • Year of Publication: 1996.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: 01473387
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