Thomas Arentzen. The Virgin in Song: Mary and the Poetry of Romanos the Melodist. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.
Late antiquity, Thomas Arentzen observes, was a time of poetic experimentation and innovation in the eastern Mediterranean as sacred stories were retold through lengthy stanzaic and metrical hymns in the form of piyyutim among Jews and madrāshē among Syriac-speaking Christians (7). This resurgence of poetry both within and without Christian Churches points to the societal significance of poetry as a medium for disseminating religious teachings to a broader audience in late antiquity and early Byzantium.[i] The early Byzantine poet Romanos the Melodist (ca. 485-560), who left behind an oeuvre of at least sixty festal poems or kontakia, was part of this context. Performed during the nocturnal vigils that punctuated the liturgical calendar, the kontakia brought to life biblical characters and narratives through dramatic literary techniques and vivid imagery.
In The Virgin in Song, Thomas Arentzen demonstrates the centrality of Mary within the “civic imaginary” of sixth-century Constantinople through an examination of Romanos’s characterization of the Virgin Mother in his kontakia. Following the rhythms of the liturgical calendar, Romanos composed works that spanned the arc of Mary’s life from her initial exchange with the archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation to her suffering at the death of her beloved son on Good Friday. Focusing on the Marian-themed compositions among Romanos’s larger corpus, Arentzen contends that the poet’s artistic choices consistently place Mary at the center of these verse re-narrations. As a result, Romanos simultaneously fashions a dynamic portrait of her maternal virginity while also cultivating his audience’s relationship with her as an empathetic and authoritative mediator of divine mercy. This depiction was neither a simple reflection of nor a stark contrast to the gender norms regnant within Constantinople: “Romanos’ Virgin Mary was cast in dynamic correlation to the ideals of female life and the social world in which real women lived” (34).
In chapter one, “The Song and the City,” Arentzen orients his reader to the historical context and poetic style of Romanos. Scholarly accounts of Romanos’s life must re-construct his portrait from meager biographical details and legendary accounts. Born in the city of Emesa (modern-day Homs), Romanos’s Syrian origin and probable bilingualism, tantalizingly suggested by the resonances between his poetry and the works of Syriac authors, raise fascinating questions worthy of further research.[ii] He was later ordained a deacon in Berytus (Beirut) before traveling to Constantinople during the reign of Emperor Anastasius I (491-518).[iii] Despite the constraints of our sources, Arentzen’s opening pages bring to life an artist whose very legend of inspiration links him to Mary and the propagation of Marian devotion. Synthesizing the key debates and contributions of earlier scholarship, Arentzen presents the features of Romanos’s chosen poetic form, the kontakion, with crystalline clarity (6-16). The ecclesial setting and liturgical life of Constantinople form a critical backdrop to these works that transgressed the boundaries between the liturgical present and the biblical past through sensory imagery, direct address, and participatory refrains. As Arentzen quips, in the performance of the kontakia, “the transcendent collapses into the palpable” (16).
In chapter two, “On the Verge of Virginity,” Arentzen begins his exploration of Romanos’ Marian kontakia by examining the qualities of her extraordinary virginity. A leitmotif that runs throughout this work is Arentzen’s assertion that Mary’s virginal status expresses a relational quality distinct from the asocial tenor of ascetic virginity: “Instead of resisting the world through ascetic virginity, Romanos’s Mary embraces the world through erotic virginity” (51). Written at some point after 530, On the Annunciation retells the events of Luke 1:26-38 in verse, eschewing any mention of the Holy Spirit and expanding the dialogue between the angelic messenger, Gabriel and the youthful Mary. Arentzen draws out the Christological significance of this interpretative choice, outlining the contributions of earlier homilists such as Proclus of Constantinople, Basil of Seleucia, and Severus of Antioch. These earlier preachers emphasized the role of the Spirit in initiating conception and foregrounded Mary’s womb as a corporeal marker of her passive receptivity. In stark contrast, Romanos focuses our attention insistently on Mary and her fertile virginity by sidelining the operation of the Spirit, highlighting her active role in the Incarnation as an “unwedded bride” (numphē anumpheute) (56-57). In his poetic persona, Romanos invites his audience to emulate Gabriel’s approach. Anticipating the exaltation of Mary in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), he proclaims her an “empress” worthy of universal acclaim. Through the layering of light imagery and the typology of the burning bush (Exodus 3:5), Romanos attributes to Mary a resplendent virginity whose awe-inspiring presence is attested to by Joseph in the second half of this kontakion (70-72). Arentzen draws our attention to the playful peppering of erotic language in the exchange between Mary and Joseph. One memorable example is Mary’s accusation that Joseph has failed to properly guard her virginity, for “Someone with wings came and gave me betrothal pearls for my ears; he hung his words like earrings on me” (XXXVI 12.4-8) (73). Here Gabriel acts in the guise of a suitor presenting his bride-to-be an engagement gift, directing our attention to Mary’s ears as the passage for her miraculous conception. Through such details Romanos destabilizes our expectations of virginity and marriage, for Mary both is and is not a bride.
Moving from the scene of the Annunciation to the birth of Christ in On the Nativity I and II, Arentzen interrogates the identity of Romanos’s breastfeeding Virgin in chapter three, “The Mother and Nurse of Our Life.” Known by the Greek galaktotrophousa, Egyptian icons of Mary breastfeeding the infant Jesus are some of the best-known visual attestations of this theme (89). Arentzen notes that the nursing Mary is frequently absent from early Christian authors. For the second-century author, Clement of Alexandria, it is God the Father who “nurses” the Church with the “milk” of the Logos, de-emphasizing the gendered nature of breastfeeding (112-113). A nursing Mary underscores the tension between the universality of a suckling infant and the notion of the incarnate Lord being nourished at a woman’s breast. For early Christians this quotidian scene was a sign of Christ’s merciful condescension to human dependence as well as an example of the paradoxes inherent in the Incarnation. While Romanos invokes Mary’s nursing in several kontakia, Arentzen’s detailed examination of On the Nativity I and II draws out fully the Christological implications of Mary’s nursing without construing statements about her corporeality and virginity as fitting neatly upon a preconceived “Christological map” (106). Romanos’s attention to the Marian body points to an emerging devotion to her as a nourishing and caring figure not only for the Christ-child, but by extension for all believers.
The fourth chapter, “A Voice of Rebirth,” serves as the denouement of Arentzen’s work. As Arentzen helpfully reminds the reader, the voice was the “authoritative presence” for Byzantine rhetors, and Romanos’s attribution of authority to Mary’s voice had an unmistakable dramatic effect on the listener (120). He outlines the various strategies the poet used to achieve this aim, including his use of imaginative speech (ethopoiia) for characterization, her direct address of the congregation, and opportunities for the congregation to inhabit her voice in communal response. Such loquacity was at odds with the standard expectations of virginity. Citing the work of Giulia Sissa on conceptualizations of female virginity, Arentzen draws a contrast between the closed, silent body of the parthenos, and this emboldened verbosity of the “poetic” Mary. Within the kontakia there is a duality in Mary’s voice:
There are two aspects of Mary’s voice in the kontakia, the dramatized voice and the thematized voice. The thematized voice is her voice as it is spoken of; the word “voice” may then often appear in a more metonymical sense, representing her ability to make herself heard, and to speak on someone’s behalf. She is said to be the voice of her people, for example. In an instance of both dramatized and thematized voice, Mary speaks about herself as “the mouth… of my entire race” (122).
This method of characterization is not confined to a single Marian kontakion. In On the Nativity II, Arentzen directs our attention to the spatial range of Mary’s song that reaches Adam and Eve in Hades, awakening them to the miracle that has happened through her. In addition to her vocal reach, evolving depictions of Mary’s voice are integral to the development of Christian views of her powers of intercession, an under developed concept through the fifth century according to Arentzen. Echoing the properties of intercession frequently attributed to the “Holy Man” in late antiquity,[iv] the poetic Mary speaks to God and humanity with emboldened intimacy, opening up communication across the ontological divide (140). When depicting her address of Christ, Romanos frequently applies the term parrhesia, a rich and philosophically-laden term within his immediate context (141). The emotionally fraught and complex portrayal of Mary in On Mary at the Cross, provides Arentzen ample ground to demonstrate the nuances of Mary’s clear-eyed exposition of the promise of resurrection and her profound grief at the threat of separation from her son. Mary’s voice exemplifies the thoroughly relational quality of Romanos’s Mariology:
She descends with sympathy and emotional compassion. She takes a human voice into the divine realm and a divine voice into the human realm. Neither Christ’s birth nor his death can bypass his mother. She helps the audience witness and understand these events, take part in them, and benefit from them (159).
Such a portrayal departs from the sparsely detailed sketch of Mary contained in the canonical Gospels as well as her characterization as a silent and passive vessel of the Incarnation extolled by early Christian interpreters. Romanos offers us a woman of flesh and blood, fully in command of her voice and her role within the drama of salvation.
The depiction of virginity within Romanos offers helpful nuance to the standard narrative of the concept within histories of sexuality and gender in late antiquity and the role of Mary’s virginity in forming normative expectations. Arentzen casts in stark relief the poet’s nuanced portrait of Mary’s virginal state, distinct from the ascetic and monastic ideals of sexual renunciation. Both virginal and maternal, this “poetic” Mary emerges as a powerful exemplar of female fertility, integrating social roles and expectations. Arentzen differentiates the exemplarity of Marian virginity from its ascetic counterpart:
The Foucauldian fascination with late antique asceticism – the art of controlling one’s own thoughts and body – has led scholars to identify Marian virginity too readily with ascetic virginity, eclipsing the ways in which some ancient writers, such as Romanos, did not identify the two at all. If the rise of the ascetic movement had to do with an urge for individual purity in a time when public cults and priesthoods were in decline, Romanos’s oeuvre represents the reverse tendency: a strengthening of public cults and the “vicarious” purity of the Virgin Mary. (166)
In The Virgin in Song, Thomas Arentzen makes a vital contribution to our understanding of sixth-century Constantinople and the ecclesial poetry that shaped Christian believers. Modern readers of Romanos’s kontakia encounter the charged theological atmosphere of the sixth-century eastern Mediterranean along with the scintillating beauty of his verse. In an appendix, Arentzen includes the Greek text and his own vivid translation of On the Annunciation. Arentzen’s deft command of Romanos’s theological and historical context shines through in his careful readings of the Marian material, which in turn train the reader to perceive the aesthetic qualities and acute psychological profiles found throughout Romanos’s larger corpus.
Early Christian poetry – whether composed in Latin, Greek, or Syriac – has been an under-explored genre within late antique literature.[v] These compositions, however, offer scholars of the period valuable resources for analysis. To invoke the insight of Paul Ricoeur: “A work does not only mirror its time, but it opens up a world which it bears within itself.”[vi] In conversation with Susan Ashbrook Harvey and other scholars of comparative hymnography, Thomas Arentzen brings together social, intellectual, and literary history in his study of early Christian theological development and spiritual formation. Along with Derek Krueger’s Liturgical Subjects: Christian Ritual, Biblical Narrative, and the Formation of the Self in Byzantium and Sarah Gador-Whyte’s Theology and Poetry in Early Byzantium, The Virgin in Song provides a welcome entrée to the field. The “poetic turn” in the study of late antiquity and early Byzantium represents a valuable integration of these texts into our historiography on the intellectual, artistic, and theological concerns of the age.
[i] Ophir Münz-Manor, “Liturgical Poetry in the Late Antique Near East: A Comparative Approach,” Journal of Ancient Judaism 1 (2010): 336–61.
[ii] See Lucas Van Rompay, “Romanos le Mélode. Un poète syrien à Constantinople,” in Early Christian Poetry. A Collection of Essays, edited by J. den Boeft and A. Hillhorst, 283-296. Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae, 22. Leiden: Brill, 1993.
[iii] See also José Grosdidier de Matons, Romanos le Mélode et les origins de la poésie religieuse à Byzance (Paris: Beauchesne, 1977).
[iv] Cf. Peter Brown, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971): 80-101.
[v] See Karla Pollman, The Baptized Muse: Early Christian Poetry as Cultural Authority (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017).
[vi] Paul Ricoeur, “The Model of the Text: Meaningful Action Considered as a Text,” Social Research 38 no. 3 (1971): 544.
Erin Galgay Walsh is a Ph.D. Candidate in Early Christianity at Duke University and an editor at AJR. She is currently writing her dissertation on the poetry of Narsai, Jacob of Serugh, and Romanos Melodos. Follow her on Twitter @ErinCGW