Philobiblon: Thanks for all the art

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Thanks for all the art

I'm currently reading about Byzantine empresses, particularly Irene (empress 775-80), Euphrosyne (820-29) and Theodora (829-42), all of whom were supporters of icons in the great battle over religious rules during this period. Without them, it is suggested, the iconophiles might have won and we'd live in a very different visual world.

When Theodora's husband, Theophilos, died in 942, she became regent for her two year old son. Criticised by a holy hermit, she responded. "I will rule with a firm hand. You will see." She is celebrated as a saint for the restoration of icons the following year, marked as the "Triumph of Orthodoxy". (p.2)

Earlier, Ignatios the deacon said of Irene's behaviour during the council of 787: "Irene was a mere woman, but she possessed both the love of God and firmess of understanding, if it is right to give the name of woman to one who surpassed even men in the piety of her understanding." (p. 8)

Years ago, when I first encountered Byzantine history, I was fascinated by the number of prominent empresses, quite a contrast to the Arab and Muslim world of its early centuries, when women are almost invisible. The explanation that I came up with then was that Byzantium remained throughout most of its history supremely confident; it was "new Rome", and it had all that history stretching back, so it could allow lots of "odd" things to happen without feeling threatened by it, not the case with the new upstart empire and religion. Later, when Islam was more confident during what we usually call the early Middle Ages, women became more prominent. Not perhaps an entire explanation, but I think quite a useful one.

I wonder, could you generally say that women do better in confident societies than nervous ones?

I couldn't find a single useful web page on any of the empresses. On iconoclasm there's the (biased) Catholic view here, the Orthodox, and a shorter but more balanced outline here.

And some gorgeous pictures here

From: Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium, Judith Herrin, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 2001. (Now in Waterstone's Goodge St for £7.)


Blogger Ronnie Smartt said...

Lovely to read those euphonious names. Warren treadgold says of Irene that "she had won great credit byvrestoring the icons, but even by blinding her son never quite overcame the disadvantage of being a woman." She probably murdered her husband too, by poison. I think that in line 4 you mean "iconoclasts", and i confess that I cannot think why you have included Euphrosyne (thoughb this is entirely due to ignorance on my part).

11/23/2004 06:14:00 pm  

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