Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium

Article excerpt

Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium. By Bissera V Pentcheva. (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. 2006. Pp. xviii, 302. $60.00.)

The generality of the title of this book, evocative of the titles of recent epic exhibitions ("Byzantium: Faith and Power" and "Mother of God: Representations of the Virgin in Byzantine Art"), suggests a broad, sweeping view of Byzantine icons of the Virgin. In fact, it is a highly focused investigation of the cult of the Virgin in Constantinople and is based on the development and function of relics and icons at three specific sites in Constantinople: the monasteries of Blachernai, Hodegon, and Pantokrator, taking us, therefore, from the fifth to the twelfth centuries in an intricately developed narrative on the capital, its emperors and empresses, its wars and its religious practices. Extensive supplementary material, textual and visual, supports the argument, which has two strands: the manipulation by the imperial family of the Virgin's cult and the public, processional manifestation of fidelity to the Virgin. The first part of the book looks at the relation of the Virgin and imperial power, and at the origins of the civic cult in which the Virgin took on the role of earlier female protectors of the city, such asTyche and Nike, thus protecting imperial power and leading to state backing for her cult as well as appropriation of it to assert legitimacy. Pentcheva then looks at the role of the Virgin in sieges of the city, such as by the Avars in 626, showing that relics rather than icons of theTheotokos were used at this time to ward off the enemy. Her icons were not carried in public ceremonies until the late tenth century and not until the eleventh were they wielded by emperors in war. …

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