The Virgin in Song: Mary and the Poetry of Romanos the Melodist

The Virgin in Song: Mary and the Poetry of Romanos the Melodist

The Virgin in Song: Mary and the Poetry of Romanos the Melodist

The Virgin in Song: Mary and the Poetry of Romanos the Melodist


According to legend, the Virgin appeared one Christmas Eve to an artless young man standing in one of Constantinople's most famous Marian shrines. She offered him a scroll of papyrus with the injunction that he swallow it, and following the Virgin's command, he did so. Immediately his voice turned sweet and gentle as he spontaneously intoned his hymn "The Virgin today gives birth." So was born the career of Romanos the Melodist (ca. 485-560), one of the greatest liturgical poets of Byzantium, author of at least sixty long hymns, or kontakia, that were chanted during the night vigils preceding major feasts and festivals.

In The Virgin in Song, Thomas Arentzen explores the characterization of Mary in these kontakia and the ways in which the kontakia echoed the cult of the Virgin. He focuses on three key moments in her story as marked in the liturgical calendar: her encounter with Gabriel at the Annunciation, her child's birth at Christmas, and the death of her son on Good Friday. Consistently, Arentzen contends, Romanos counters expectations by shifting emphasis away from Christ himself to focus on Mary--as the subject of the erotic gaze, as a breastfeeding figure of abundance and fertility, and finally as an authoritatively vocal woman who conveys the secrets of her son and the joys of the resurrection.

Through his hymns, Romanos inspired an affective relationship between Mary and his audience, bringing the human and the holy into dialogue. By plumbing her emotional depths, the poet traces her process of understanding as she apprehends the mysteries that she embodies. By giving her a powerful voice, he grants subjectivity to a maiden who becomes a mediator. Romanos shaped a figure, Arentzen argues, who related intimately to her flock in a formative period of Christian orthodoxy.


Romanos the Melodist (Ca. 485–Ca. 560)

According to stories later told, the Virgin Mary appeared one sixthcentury night to a young man of Syrian descent. the Constantinopolitan winter had pulled dark curtains around the city, and yet people were gathering in the suburb of Blachernae. the famous Marian shrine outside the city walls would attract faithful all year round, but, of course, Christmas Eve—like other feasts with a strong Marian bent—drew considerable crowds. People were thronging, and chants charged the air like incense. the night was filled with excitement.

This man from the eastern provinces was normally stationed at another Marian shrine, the old Church of the Theotokos in the western part of town, namely in the ta Kyrou district—or at least that is how some versions of the story go. He had to walk a little distance to get to Blachernae, but this young adult was not unused to travel. Like so many men who had grown up in other parts of the empire, he had come to the capital to seek his fortune. From his hometown, the city of Emesa (Homs), he had journeyed to Berytus (Beirut), where he was ordained a deacon. Such a childhood and youth may have meant acquaintance with Syriac as well as Greek verse; long before he arrived in Emperor Anastasius I’s (491–518) Constantinople, church services had presumably exposed him to liturgical poetry in both these languages. the Byzantine Empire was a multilingual realm, and urban people often mastered more than one tongue.

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