The Virgin as Auctoritas: The Authority of the Virgin Mary and female moral–doctrinal authority in the Middle Ages
(Session sponsored by ICMA)

Francesca Dell’Acqua, Università degli studi di Salerno,

This session aims at exploring a fundamental issue: female authority through the lens of visual/material culture. It involves prominently the Virgin Mary – as well as figures of female authority in the medieval world – because in the late decades of the 20th century, feminist thinkers pointed at the ‘negative model’ offered by the Virgin Mary since for centuries she had been branded by the Catholic Church as a role model for modesty, submission and virginity. However, between late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, the Virgin Mary emerged as Queen of Heaven through preaching and liturgical texts, visual arts and public assemblies – that is, the ‘mass media’ of that time. Mary was pictured as a very strong, authoritative figure, rather than weak and compliant.

Already during late Antiquity, Mary was commonly perceived as the mighty protector and spiritual stronghold of capital cities in the Mediterranean. Between the 8th and the 11th centuries, the role of royal women came to the fore, especially in Byzantium and in Ottonian Germany. Very striking is also the case of a number of major Italian city-states between the 12th and the 15th centuries where the Virgin Mary came to be identified with political and economic supremacy.

In sum, these sessions can help understand what bearing the figure of the humble Virgin Mary eventually had on female leadership, and also how female leadership evolved or not.

Speakers & Abstracts

Photios and the Image of the Mother of God in Hagia Sophia, Constantinople

Mary B Cunningham (University of Nottingham)

The sermon on the inauguration of the mosaic image of the Virgin Mary in the apse of Hagia Sophia, which Photios delivered from the ambo on 29 March 867, portrays its subject as a powerful and influential figure. As James and Webb have argued, Photios believes that the mosaic image reveals the nature, indeed the essence, of the Virgin. He describes her as a loving mother, who ‘fondly turns her eyes on her begotten Child in the affection of her heart’, but also as ‘detached and imperturbable’ in her contemplation of her divine offspring. This is thus a strong and silent kind of power: Mary, according to Photios, enables Christians to approach and venerate their divine Creator. She also symbolises ‘the guarantee of incarnation and salvation’. Although Photios refrains from describing the Virgin herself as ‘Wisdom’ (an epithet that was assigned to Christ, according to early Christian and Byzantine tradition), she is closely associated with this, and all other, aspects of divinity as a result of her birth-giving and nurturing of the Son and Word of God. The 9th-century preacher also juxtaposes the Virgin Mary with the Church in one section of his homily, describing the latter as the Bride of Christ (cf. Song 4–6). The association of such imagery with the majestic pose of the Virgin in the apse of Hagia Sophia is implicit but supported by a liturgical tradition of typology and metaphor that was frequently applied to the Theotokos. Mary’s power thus consists in her role as mediator between heaven and earth – a role that could once again be depicted in an image that helped to draw Christians closer to their God.

The Theotokos and the Widow of Zarepta: The authority of women as widows and prophets

Barbara Crostini (University College Stockholm)

In his 1939 study of the frescoes (Les Peintures de la synagogue de Doura-Europos, 245-256 après J.-C., Rome : Pontificio Istituto Biblico), Robert Du Mesnil du Buisson remarked in passing that the sequence of the miracle of the widow of Zarepta on the West wall of the synagogue at Dura presents this woman in a stance that was later replicated in images of the Virgin and child. The posture of the woman, standing with the baby sitting on the left arm, her hips adjusted sideways to balance the weight, and the right arm open to the side, is uncannily similar to later representations of the Virgin. Starting from this visual suggestion, and given the programmatic importance of these paintings for the development of Byzantine art, I examine the prophetic value of the widow’s testimony. Within the synagogue’s pictorial programme, she can be shown to proclaim the coming of the true Messiah, thus offering a template for understanding the Virgin’s role as ‘showing the way’ to Christ. Although the Virgin is not normally thought of as a widow, her husbandless stance makes her fit into this category where, according to early Christian practice, women enjoyed a particularly high regard and were given special privileges in the community. Combining this marital status with the prophetic license also accorded to women in special circumstances, the Virgin can stand as a fully approved authority in witnessing Christ to the world.

Elevation of Mary’s Authority in Late Antiquity: Her depiction on the jewelled throne and the footstool

Ernesto Mainoldi (FiTMU – Università degli Studi di Salerno) and Natalia Teteriatnikov (Independent Scholar)

Before the 6th century, wall paintings and artefacts in Byzantium and in the West depicted Mary with Christ Child seated on a plain chair or a backless stool. Starting from the first half of the 6th century, however, her representations with the Child changed. From this time onward, she was presented in frescoes, mosaics and artefacts seated on a jewelled throne or standing alone on a jewelled footstool as seen in the apse decorations of the Church of Panagia Kanakariá, Lythrankomi (520–30) or of the Panagia Angeloktistos, Kiti (second half of the 6th century), both in Cyprus. This change in iconography has not, however, been sufficiently investigated. This paper examines visual evidence as well as exegetical and homiletic literature which can explain the specifics of her depiction on a chair or on a footstool. This alone, however, cannot explain why the jewelled throne and footstool replaced the plain ones. The evaluation of iconography and social status of imperial thrones as well as the rising cult of the Virgin and her relics in Constantinople and the theology associated with it in the 5th and 6th centuries will contribute to further understanding the need to visually and socially elevate Mary’s image, as a legitimate authority in religious and social life.

The Coronation of the Virgin as the Queen of City-States

Kayoko Ichikawa (Japan Society for the Promotion of Science / University of Fribourg)

This paper will explore how the iconography and the political symbolism of the Coronation of the Virgin as the ultimate civic guarantor emerged, developed and circulated in northern Europe and the Mediterranean by tracing the origin of the relevant ideas in the early Christian period and their continuous evolution in the medieval period. Visual examples, including a few from the eastern side of the Mediterranean, will demonstrate the dynamics of the religious and political interactions between popes, emperors, kings, religious communities and civic authorities in the Mediterranean world extending to the north of the Alps. They appeared in a wide geographical area favoured by various communities who supported the ideal of a reform movement designating Mary as their leader. It will be argued that the association of the imagery of the Coronation of the Virgin with the autonomy of cities under her direct rulership probably emerged in northern Europe in the early 13th century, and the efficacy of this visual rhetoric was introduced to Italy by intellectuals who travelled north. Most notably in Siena after the miraculous intercession of the Virgin in the Battle of Montaperti in 1260, she was actually called the ruler (gubernatrix) in civic documents and praised as the most powerful queen with great lordship by the confraternity of the laudesi in their hymns (laude) sung before her image. It will be emphasised that the Dominicans played an important role in the dissemination of this Marian imagery and the notion of her authority in the context of ecumenical leadership.

Icons of Authority: New light on the competition between images and relics in Trecento Rome

Claudia Bolgia (Università di Udine)

Contrary to the idea of 20th-century feminist thinkers that the Catholic Church has traditionally used the Virgin Mary as a role model for modesty, submission and virginity, this paper explores how different images of the Virgin Mary were deployed to embody competing authorities in Trecento Rome, certainly including Church authority (but not limited to it). Whilst scholars have generally noted the alternating fortunes of a number of Marian images in Trecento Rome, none have so far fully uncovered the underlying motivations nor the competing claims for primacy with bust-reliquaries of traditional male saints. The discovery of hitherto unknown documentary evidence combined with a fresh analysis of different icons following recent cleaning campaigns will serve to identify these motivations and claims, whilst addressing a number of corollaries, namely: why, amongst the many icons of Rome, did certain of them rise to great popularity, whilst others almost suddenly disappeared? What spiritual and/or political forces lay behind such alternating fortunes? When, by whom and through which artistic and visual channel was the authority of the images promoted? How did the claim of attribution to St Luke fit into this revised picture?

Whilst confirming that images of the Virgin Mary were indeed a powerful expression of auctoritas in the Middle Ages, this paper demonstrates how the different powers fighting over the leadership of the Urbs had the need for different types of Marian images, each with their own specific histories (be these real or invented), to best embody their political strategies and idea of authority.

‘All Glory is in the King’s Daughter’: Depictions of the Virgin as Empress in the late Byzantine world

Andrei Dumitrescu (National University of Arts, Bucharest)

This paper examines the depictions of the Mother of God as Queen in the late Byzantine visual production, aiming to offer some new insights on the development of their iconographic articulation and theological content. Frequently placed alongside the figures Christ as ‘Emperor of emperors’ and King David, in a typological exegesis of Psalm 44/45, the earliest monumental versions of the Marian motif were encountered in the mid-14th-century Macedonian churches. Previous studies tend to interpret the depiction of the Theotokos with imperial insignia as an undeniable innovation, attributing its emergence in late Byzantine painting to a Western influence or to the agency of certain pre-eminent figures of the 14th-century Balkans. I intend to re-evaluate these conclusions in order to integrate the representations of the Virgin as Empress in a broader tradition of illustrating Psalm 44/45, taking into consideration some unexplored connections between wall paintings and manuscripts.

Sainte Foy and the Medieval Imaginary of Female Sacred Power

Bissera V. Pentcheva (Stanford University)

The small Carolingian foundation of the early 9th century at Conques took almost two centuries to transform into a centre of power, closely linked with the Gregorian reform movement and Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula at the turn of the 11th and early 12th centuries. This paper explores the liturgical rite, more specifically the music, poetry and prayers of Sainte Foy and how they codify the authority of the saint as stemming from her virginity, martyrdom and fidelitas to Christ. She is portrayed as second only to the Virgin Mary in the countless miracles she performs and in the efficacy of her prayer. The imagery expounded in the music and poetry will be put in conversation with the depictions of the saint in the sculpture, the miniatures and the treasury arts at Conques. At the core of this analysis will be the distinction between Mary’s power as the Mother of God versus Sainte Foy’s as the fidelis/druda/lover of Christ.

Female Authority, Ecclesiology and Micro-Architecture in Scandinavian Medieval Art

Kristin B. Aavitsland (MF Centre for the Advanced Study of Religion (MF CASR), MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society, Oslo, Norway)

In order to assess the spiritual – and political – authority of the Virgin Mary in medieval Scandinavia, this paper offers a close reading of one of the most spectacular monuments of Scandinavian medieval art, the so-called golden altar from Lisbjerg Church in Denmark. This sumptuous piece of ecclesiastical art, now a highlight of the National Museum in Copenhagen, is dated to the early 12th century and exhibits a carefully composed complex of gilt images, Latin verse inscriptions, variegated ornaments and detailed micro-architecture. The Lisbjerg altar frontal has as its centre the regal figure of the Virgin Mary, enthroned with her Child as sedes sapitentiae, the throne of wisdom, with female saints and virtue personifications surrounding her as a court of ladies-in-waiting. The paper aims to show how the altar’s iconography, inscriptions and architectural commonplaces together produce a ceremonial space in which the authority of the Virgin is solemnly represented. The connection between the altar’s micro-architecture and 12th-century Mariology is especially investigated. Furthermore, the paper intends to demonstrate how the altar’s dense fabric of visualised theological and liturgical meaning centres on the Virgin as Mother of God and prototype of the Church. This serves as a pretext for discussing the ideological and political implications of these visualised ideas in 12th century Denmark – a period of ecclesiastical consolidation in the Scandinavian kingdoms, realms that embraced Christianity at a later stage than most of Europe.





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