Between God and Tsar. Religious Symbolism and the Royal Women of Muscovite Russia

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Isolde Thyret. Between God and Tsar. Religious Symbolism and the Royal Women of Muscovite Russia. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2001. xvi, 275 pp. Plates. Glossary. $40.00, cloth.

Medieval Russia was a pictorial culture. Its speculative thought comes into view not in treatises but primarily in its icons, frescos and architectural monuments. In this stimulating study of the religious symbolism associated with Muscovite royal women, Isolde Thyret takes this feature of medieval Russia seriously. Without neglecting the standard textual documents used by historians to construct an understanding of Muscovite society, she uses to great and convincing effect the knowledge encoded in paintings and other forms of pictorial representation in order to shed light on the place of royal women in the historical development of the Muscovite political landscape. Readers are advised to take particular notice of the poem by Aleksandr Blok with which Thyret introduces her study; its meditation on piety centre on the Mother of God and Divine Wisdom seems entirely apt in a book that begins and ends with two royal Sophias, Sophia Palaeolog and Sofia Alekseevna. Indeed, in the final chapter, Thyret makes some startling observations about Divine Wisdom personified in the regency of Sofia Alekseevna that open the door to further reflection on this pivotal religious concept in Russian cultural history.

Before proceeding I will make my only negative comments about this wonderful study. First, the book ought to have included at least a few colour reproductions of the many artworks that form such an important part of the argument. Second, the Christian God is Triune: there are only three divine hypostases, not four as the author claims. (p. 165).

In Chapter One, "The Myth of the Tsartisa's Blessed Womb," Thyret carefully reexamines Muscovite royal women's motherhood through which they secured their political and social power and prestige. Taking exception to the standard historical view according to which the rise of the Muscovite state saw the royal women slowly disappear into the private realm of family life and the terem, Thyret demonstrates that the wives of grand princes and tsars continued to serve the interests of the state in important ways. Thyret first describes various traditional functions associated with royal motherhood, including the bearing and nurturing of healthy children, the preservation of harmonious relations among the male heirs, and the guaranteeing of the faithful execution of the prince's last will and testament, to name a few. As Thyret notes, in the absence of primogeniture, the royal mothers frequently intervened with authority to thwart nascent fraternal plots against the future heir to the throne (p. 21 ). Observing that the political status of the royal women was intimately connected with their ability to produce viable offspring, Thyret examines how the myth of the tsaritisa's blessed womb could be used even to the advantage of princesses who did not produce the required heir. In an elaborate and carefully worked out theory, fully documented in texts and tapestries, the blessed womb myth anchored belief in the direct intervention of God in the birth of the royal heir. While bolstering the political and religious position of the Muscovite royal dynasty, the myth also saved some royal women from an immediate loss of prestige in the event of infertility., In a thoughtful treatment of Solomoniia Saburova, wife to Vasilii Ill, Thyret shows how she transcended biological motherhood in the literary imagination of the day. Tonsured against her will and sent to the Pokrov Monastery in Suzdal', Solomoniia Saburova soon came to be regarded as the spiritual mother of the Muscovite state, using her spiritual fecundity to benefit the realm and thus retaining her stature as a powerful figure in the Muscovite political pantheon. Like her, other royal women ritualized their motherly importance through pilgrimages to popular national shrines and the invocation of such patron saints as Sergius of Radonezh, Nikita of Pereslavl and the Moscow metropolitan saints Peter and Alexis. …