Imagining the Virgin in the Byzantine Night

Imagining the Virgin in the Byzantine Night

Paper given by Thomas Arentzen

Delivered at the Norwegian Institute at Athens on 1 February 2018

In the early Byzantine period, the Virgin Mary rose to prominence among Christians – especially in the capital city of Constantinople. She became known as the Theotokos, the one giving birth to God. Icons spread among her devotees, and remnants of her clothes, some stained by her own breast-milk, were venerated in churches and shrines. But, the stories about who she was did not primarily reach people through biblical readings or through stylized pictures. Late antiquity saw a flourishing of narrative poetry. During Justinian’s reign, Romanos the Melodist wrote long songs staging the virgin mother in dramatic dialogue with other Christian characters, conveying ideas and stories about her to an animated Constantinopolitan populace. In night vigils, he carefully crafted a sense of Marian corporeal presence. The author projected a vibrant and outspoken Theotokos in the middle of the Imperial city, in poetic lines where eroticism converges with piety and power.

Thomas Arentzen is a postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo .

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