Thomas Arentzen & Mary B. Cunningham (eds.), The Reception of the Virgin in Byzantium: Marian Narratives in Texts and Images (Cambridge University Press, August 2019).
Two thousand years ago, Mariam from Nazareth gave birth to Jesus—or so most stories go. She was an young Jewish mother whose modern significance led National Geographic (Dec 2015) to dub her “The Most Powerful Woman in the World.” A lot has happened to Mariam, and the dynamic between her humble beginning and her status as a lady of power—the Mother of God—often took form most powerfully within the realm of narratives. Even before the Jesus movement became the religion of the Roman Empire, stories about Mary and her son flourished—in oral lore, but soon also in writing and imagery. And to this very day, of course, artists, poets, and other storytellers still find new ways to imagine her.
During one of the earliest centuries of Christian history, devotees of Jesus performed a song about the Virgin conception:
The Holy Spirit [fem.] opened her [i.e. the Spirit’s] bosom, and mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father […]
The womb of the Virgin took it, and she received conception and gave birth.
So the Virgin became a mother with great mercies.
And she labored and bore the Son but without pain, because it did not occur without purpose.
And she did not require a midwife, because he caused her to give life.
She brought forth like a strong man with desire, and she bore according to the manifestation, and she acquired according to the Great Power. (Ode of Solomon 19.4–10, trans. J. Charlesworth)
A cosmic event comes about through the taking of divine milk by the Virgin; with force and desire this woman gives birth. She draws heavenly lines across the horizon, integrating into her earthly self the mysterious liquid of conception. Other extraordinary features of the ode aside, the Virgin Mother appears as an almost otherworldly and transgressive figure. She attracts divine power in the created world and translates divinity into something tangible through the strength of her body.
In the fourth century, Athanasius wrote letters to ascetic maidens in which he brought Mary down to earth, imagining her in her private chamber. He emphasized her sexual virginity and virtuous timidity, pointing out that “she did not permit anyone near her body unless it was covered, and she controlled her anger and extinguished the wrath in her inmost thoughts.” For the bishop in Alexandria, the Virgin functions as a ascetic model, and he renders her a humble woman whose modesty negates any transgression.
The Virgin Mary—this person who came to play such a pivotal role in Christian and Islamic traditions—has captured the attention of many scholars in recent decades. Books have zeroed in on hitherto unknown (or understudied) sources and charted the development of her early cult, as Christian believers started praying to her, portraying her, and elevating her in liturgical celebrations.
At the seventeenth International Patristics Conference in Oxford 2015, Mary B. Cunningham organized a workshop exploring the ways narratives transmitted and shaped Marian devotion in later centuries. Our forthcoming edited volume The Reception of the Virgin in Byzantium: Marian Narratives in Texts and Images (Cambridge University Press, 2019) grew out of this gathering. The collection of essays pulls together threads of recent scholarly efforts and research endeavors, shifting focus from cult to account, from devotion to imagination. Tracing the evolution of Marian traditions through a millennium of stories, from late ancient to middle Byzantine, the book ends in the period during which authors started to write full-blown biographies of Mary. People like the Constantinopolitan monastic Epiphanios of Kallistratos set out to gather all available information about her life and write a comprehensive version. Along that way, various interpreters had lent her their own tweaks and twists in the service of reception.
Another notable feature of The Reception of the Virgin in Byzantium is the focus on kanon hymns. These long liturgical works, which emerged from the liturgical environment of late ancient Jerusalem, consist of individual odes tied to the nine biblical odes or canticles. Kanon hymns tend to be rich in imagery, and as they usually include so-called theotokia (verses dedicated to the Virgin, often as invocations), they are important Marian sources. One kanon, for instance, meditates on the expulsion of Adam from Paradise. Its last theotokion reads:
You are the spiritual gate of life through which none may pass, O Virgin Theotokos, unwedded: by your intercessions, open for me the gates of Paradise that were closed long ago that I may glorify you, for after God, you are my helper and strong refuge!
Here Mary is interpreted as the one who reopens Paradise. Ever since Late Antiquity, Byzantine and post-Byzantine Christians have sung such kanon hymns and theotokia as part of their religious rituals. Nonetheless, modern Mariological scholarship has mostly neglected these poems.
In part, this neglect may reflect how the whole history of Marian storytelling can be narrated as the unravelling reception of one particular text, namely the Protevangelium of James. This second-century composition provides a strikingly early and—compared to the canonical gospels—complex account of Mary’s life. Could the rich Marian material of the Qur'an be imagined without the Protevangelium? Hardly. Could the feasts of the Virgin in Christian churches be conceived of without it? Unlikely. Would Byzantine iconography of the Theotokos have developed like it did? Doubtful.
While the Protevangelium was a prominent resource, however, Byzantine stories nevertheless continued to develop. Both scholarly and popular caricatures paint Byzantine authors as resistant to change, but Marian narratives reveal active innovation and revamping of received traditions. In Byzantine works, the whole lifespan of one woman was pulled in different directions, as a matrix for dogma, but also as inspiration for struggling ascetics. Through Marian stories, individuals expressed their desire for salvation and communities articulated collective wishes for divine protection. In various media storytellers fashioned a model for humans, yet the Virgin might also transgress human limitations drawing divine milk into her own womb. Marian traditions offer a multifaceted account: she possesses military strength as a protectress of Constantinople as well as supernatural penalizing abilities, she is transcendently attractive, and for some, like Athanasius, she offers an example of humility.
Moreover, our approach to Mary in the volume bypasses the emphasis on cult and dogma that has led Marian historiography to tell of a before and after the Council of Ephesus (431). It is true that this ecclesiastical meeting provided official sanctioning for applying to Mary the epithet Theotokos (“God-bearer”), so that after the council, the Christian church within the Roman Empire (at least in principle) accepted her veneration and the idea that Mary gave birth to God. For Marian narratives, however, there is no crucial before and after Ephesus. The Reception of the Virgin in Byzantium shows the magnificent variety in Byzantine storytelling about the Virgin Mary.
Stories bring people together. Every country has its tales, and every romantic couple its origin myth(s). Stories shape cultures and interpret the worlds we inhabit. The Byzantine Empire may be described as “a large and complex web of intersecting stories which informed the actions and perceptions of its people, even as those same people continuously retold and recast these stories for themselves.” Stories about the Virgin—who played a vital role in the religious everyday-life of most Byzantine Christians—supplied threads for that web and colored the imaginaire of a whole civilization. The people shaped her as she shaped them. Even as they were standing in church between the various poses and positions in which iconographers had imagined Mary, they participated in narratives that reverberated from the walls of their church structures. The girl birthed via miraculous conception would herself breastfeed a divine child. She who had conversed with an angel would suffer with her son at the cross. And yet, her own end befell her peacefully, as the Son received her and angels witnessed her cosmic flight. Amidst these echoing stories, Byzantine women, men, and children glimpsed a mother, a maiden, a model, a mystery. Who she was to them cannot be divorced from who the Byzantines were to themselves.
The Reception of the Virgin in Byzantium consists of essays that explore these themes and try to make sense of how Byzantines told of their Theotokos. Contributors include Thomas Arentzen, Leslie Brubaker, Maximos Constas, Mary B. Cunningham, Francesca Dell’Acqua, Maria Evangelatou, Georgia Frank, Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Evgenios Iverites, Elizabeth Jeffreys, Derek Krueger, Andrea Olsen Lam, Maria Lidova, Damaskinos Olkinuora, Eirini Panou, and Stephen J. Shoemaker.
 Athanasius of Alexandria, First Letter to Virgins 1 3–17, trans. David Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 277–9.
 e.g. Nicholas Constas, Proclus of Constantinople and the Cult of the Virgin in Late Antiquity: Homilies 1–5, Texts and Translations (Leiden: Brill, 2003); Averil Cameron, “The Cult of the Virgin in Late Antiquity: Religious Development and Myth-Making,” Studies in Church History 39 (2004): 1-21; Chris Maunder (ed.), Origins of the Cult of the Virgin Mary (London: Burns and Oates, 2008); Leslie Brubaker and Mary B. Cunningham (eds.), The Cult of the Mother of God in Byzantium: Texts and Images (Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011); Stephen Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016).
 See Mary B. Cunningham’s chapter in the volume; a broader bibliography includes J. Dräsecke, “Der Mönch und Presbyter Epiphanios,” Byzantinische Zeitschrift 4 (1895): 346–62; Albert Dressel (ed.) Epiphanii monachi et presbyteri edita et inedita (Paris and Leipzig: Brockhaus and Avenarius, 1843).
 For the early kanon, see Stig S. Frøyshov, “The Rite of Jerusalem” in The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology : www.hymnology.co.uk/r/rite-of-jerusalem; for the later reception in the wider Byzantine rite, see Dimitri Conomos, “Byzantine Hymnody” in The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology: www.hymnology.co.uk/b/byzantine-hymnody. For an overview of Christian, Jewish, and Samaritan liturgical poetry in the period, see Ophir Münz-Manor, “Liturgical Poetry in the Late Antique Near East: A Comparative Approach,” Journal of Ancient Judaism 1:3 (2010): 336-61.
 Christopher, Kanon on the Transgression of Adam, Ode 9.5; translation by Derek Krueger.
 There are exceptions, of course; see for instance Jaakko Olkinuora, Byzantine Hymnography for the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos: An Intermedial Approach, Studia Patristica Fennica 4 (Helsinki: Societas Patristica Fennica, 2015).
 Emmanuel Bourbouhakis & Ingela Nilsson, “Byzantine Narrative: The Form of Storytelling in Byzantium,” in L. James (ed.), A Companion to Byzantium (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 263.
Thomas Arentzen is Researcher at Uppsala University, where he leads the project Beyond the Garden: An Ecocritical Approach to Early Byzantine Christianity (funded by the Swedish Research Council). Since 2014, he holds a PhD from Lund University (2014), and he earned his habilitation in Church History at the same institution in 2018. His publications include The Virgin in Song: Mary and the Poetry of Romanos the Melodist ( University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).