characterizing Mary at the cross in Byzantine competition for attention

Mary at the foot of the cross

In Byzantine culture, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a central figure. Byzantine laments for the crucifixion sometimes directed more attention to the weeping Mary than to the crucified Jesus.[1] In sixth-century Byzantine kontakia of Romanos the Melodist, realistic, emotional dialogue set within Christian salvation history richly characterizes Mary. These imaginative developments are best understood as a result of the Byzantine church intensely competing for attention with secular theater.

In Romanos’s kontakion On Mary at the Cross, Mary is an ordinary mother in extraordinary circumstances. Jesus the Christ set his face like flint to Jerusalem and resolutely went to his death according to the will of God the Father. Mary wearily followed her son Jesus to the cross. She insistently questioned him:

Why do you follow this swift path?
Is there another wedding in Cana,
and do you rush there to turn water into wine?
Should I go with you, my child, or should I wait for you?
Give me word, O Word, some word, and do not pass me by in silence.[2]

Where are you going? Should I wait for you? Why don’t you talk to me? These are common questions of mothers to their children. Mary’s subsequent exclamation, “Woe is me,” is also a common refrain of women in gynocentric society and in tragedy.[3] Mary reminds Jesus that his men friends have forsaken him:

Peter does not accompany you —
he who said to you,
“I shall never deny you, even if I die.”
Thomas has left you — he who said: “Let us all die with him.”
And again the others, well-known and intimate friends.[4]

Implicit in Mary’s recounting of Jesus’s missing friends is Mary’s presence. Mary implicitly reminds Jesus that she is more loyal to him than are his closest friends.

Mary argues with her son Jesus and doesn’t easily relent. Jesus urges Mary to stop weeping, to banish her grief, and to be joyful. He figuratively reminds her that she is the center of the church and that all those in the church will serve her. Mary responds:

I rub the tears from my eyes,
and I rub my heart still more,
but my thinking cannot be silenced.

She then reminds Jesus about what he has done in the past. She questions why he is behaving differently now and putting himself in peril:

Raising up the dead, you did not become dead
nor rest in a tomb, O my son and my life. Why, then,
do you say,
“If I do not suffer, Adam is not redeemed?”
Command, O Savior, and straightaway the cripple picking up
his bed walks.
Indeed, even if Adam had been buried deep in a tomb,
as you have raised up Lazarus from the tomb with your voice,
do even so with him.
All things serve you as the Creator of all.
Why, then, do you hasten, my child? Do not
hurry to slaughter.
Do not court death.

Understanding women’s preferential concern for other women, Jesus tells Mary that he also seeks to save Eve. Even then Mary persists in objecting to Jesus following God the Father’s way. If Jesus continues in that way, when will she see him again? Will she no longer be able to visit him? In response to these implorings, Jesus promises to Mary that she will be the first to see him risen from the tomb. He promises to her that she’ll see Eve risen to her former life. He also declares that he must suffer to redeem all suffering and fallen persons. Mary finally acquiesces with self-focus and self-concern:

I shall conquer, child, I shall conquer my suffering.

Grant that I come with you, for it helps me to look upon you.

In Romanos’s kontakia, Mary isn’t an idealized, abstract figure. She has numerous roles, including God-bearer, intercessor, and protector. She also has the character of an “ordinary woman of the people,” a “suburban mum.”[5] Her character is unbounded (“well rounded”) in the sense of requiring empathetic understanding. Mary reveals in Romanos’s imagined dialogue the complex, engaging emotions of a living mother.

Romanos’s characterization of Mary includes large emotional swings. In the kontakion On Mary at the Cross, the refrain “my son and my God” evokes the Apostle Thomas declaring “my Lord and my God.” Thomas sought simple, objective evidence of Jesus’s resurrection. When he touched the wounds of the crucified Jesus, Thomas jumped to the wholly different mode of encountering Jesus as a personal relation to the divine. Mary continually moves between mundane sense and divine sense with the refrain “my son and my God.” Indicating emotional lability, Jesus tells Mary, “do not lament, Mother, but rather cry with joy.”[6]

Romanos’s kontakion On the Annunciation similarly characterizes Mary as a vital, unbounded person and evokes rapidly shifting emotions. Mary is the blessed virgin:

Hail, virgin undefiled, hail, maiden called of God,
hail, chaste, and beautiful and delightful virgin,
hail, virgin full of grace, who did not know a seed time, chaste,
hail, mother who knew no man,
hail, virgin wife. [7]

This characterization disparages men’s sexuality and idealizes Mary’s distance from ordinary sexual relations with men. Yet when the angel Gabriel comes to announce Mary’s forthcoming pregnancy, she responds with worldly suspicion and shrewdness. She declares to Gabriel:

Concerning what you have said, do not conceal from me where it was said.
Was this matter about me spoken of in Heaven?
Why, then, do you not tell me that you are an angel and not human?

Mary treats Gabriel as if he might be an ordinary man trying to seduce her. She questions Gabriel further. With figurative language, Mary shows keen appreciation for heterosexual functioning:

As for the sea that you mentioned to me, the prophet
cleft it with his rod.
This miracle did not happen without some intermediary.
At first it was Moses, then prayers, and the rod were intermediaries.

She confesses to Gabriel that “your beauty, your appearance, your voice” frighten me terribly. Nonetheless, she ultimately recognizes that Gabriel is sent to her from Heaven, and she rejoices in their encounter. With a lovely touch of ordinary, personal psychology, Mary later blames her husband Joseph for the affair:

Where were you, my wise husband?
Why did you not guard my virginity?

Like those to whom Romanos addressed his kontakia, Joseph represents the ordinary community of Christian believers. He responds with his sense of Mary’s emotional range and lability:

Both terrible and sweet does she appear
to me now, and it gives me pause.
I gaze upon burning heat in snow,
Paradise in a furnace,
I gaze upon a smoking hill, upon a divine flower with young freshness,
upon an awesome throne, on a pitiable footstool!

Persons difficult to categorize simply are engaging characters. In Byzantine culture, Mary the mother of Jesus was such a character.

Byzantine homilies had techniques in common with theater. A recent scholarly book entitled The Necessity of Theater defined theater and characters broadly enough to make theater and characters unavoidable in any human society:

Theater is the art of finding human action worth watching, and it mostly does this by finding human characters worth caring about. [8]

A more subtle, historically engaged study distinguished orthodox ritual in Byzantium from theater:

As a solo performer confronted with a virtual sea of hundreds if not thousands of people, some of them easily distracted, the priest relied on the principles of classical rhetoric to keep the laity both engaged and informed. … Of particular interest for theatre scholars is the use of ēthopoieia, “characterization,” by the clergy. In the context of an exegetical homily, ēthopoieia often took the form of a fictional dialogue involving two or more biblical characters. In the past, homilies with dialogue have been ideologically positioned as proto-dramatic on the naïve assumption that all ritual, being primitive, represented a lower-order of cultural development. But the clergy’s long acquaintance with theatre, their theological objections to play-acting; and above all the conservative mode of self-presentation assumed in classical rhetoric argue heavily against this theory. Even when reciting dialogue “in character” as it were, the clergy worked within a carefully constructed regime of diction and gesture, transmitted orally and visually for centuries, which they regarded as distinct from theatre. [9]

Orthodox ritual in Byzantium presented human characters worth caring about from a Christian perspective.[10] More generally, theatrical techniques have long contributed to Christian understanding. The biblical story of Jesus and the Canaanite women makes best sense when understood dramatically. De Maria Magdalena, written in Latin about 1200, is meaningfully interpreted as theatrical lectio divina. Using theatrical techniques while disdaining theater is eminently feasible.

Byzantine circumstances of reception plausibly drove emphatic characterization and emotional lability in Byzantine homilies. The extent of empathetic characterization and emotional lability is generally associated with the intensity of competition for attention relative to competition for acclaim. Christian ritual in Byzantium was heavily engaged in competition for attention:

most if not all of his {John Chrysostom’s} congregation came to {church} services after years of attending theatrical shows year-round, and lacked the training or appreciation for rhetoric Chrysostom took for granted. Chrysostom couldn’t help but notice how restless his flock was every time he stepped up to speak, competing as he did with everything from social climbers to the occasional pick-pocket. … competition between clergy and mimes for audiences was clearly intense. What developed throughout late Antiquity was the equivalent of a media war in which the ambo {platform from which clergy addressed the church congregation} served as the launching pad for anti-theatrical invective while the public stage responded with biting clerical critiques. Both venues enjoyed an avid following, and the popularity of Christian satire was so great that as late as the sixth century Emperor Justinian still had to remind his subjects that it was illegal to masquerade as church folk [11]

Empathetic characterization and emotional lability aren’t necessarily related to any specific medium or abstract form. Byzantine clerics could reject liturgical drama, yet embrace empathetic characterization in homilies. On the other hand, liturgical drama could present scripturally circumscribed, static, indicative characters rather than unbounded, dynamic, empathetic characters like Mary in Romanos’s kontakia. Byzantine icons plausibly generated a stronger sense of personal presence than did many conventional, realistic images.[12] In late eighteenth-century Europe, competition for attention in print was associated with empathetic characterization and romantic sensibility of the sublime in proliferating novels. The nature of symbolic competition, rather than the abstract form of expression, drives the extent of engaging characterization and emotional dynamics.

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[1] Alexiou (1974) p. 62. In the Epitáphios Thrénos, “she {Mary}, rather that Christ, is the central figure.” Id. p. 65. That lament is known to have existed from the fourteenth century. It continues to be performed within the liturgical calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church. Id.

Mary’s lament at the foot of Jesus’s cross was a sub-genre of religious lyric in western Europe. Examples include Carmina Burana, additional 4, “Weep, loyal souls {Flete, fideles animae}”; and Carmina Burana, additional 14, “Not previously knowing lamentation {Planctus ante nescia}.” For Latin text and English translation, Traill (2018).

[2] Romanos the Melodist, On Mary at the Cross, st. 1, excerpt, from Greek trans. Carpenter (1970) vol. 1, p. 196. In this and subsequent quotations, I have modernized the English of Carpenter’s translations to make the text more accessible to ordinary readers. Lash (1995) provides an alternate English translation.

On Jesus setting his face like flint to fulfill the Father’s will for him in Jerusalem, see Luke 9:51 and Isaiah 50:7.

[3] Alexiou has astutely observed:

when “religion” passes from church to hearth, from liturgy to dance and song, from Communion to family meal, women do not only mediate — they take over. … Through tales, songs, and dances, women have been at least equal partners in the transmission of Greek language, myth, and metaphor.

Alexiou (2002) pp. 406, 412. The phrase “at least equal partners” is consistent with seldom-discussed gynocentric dominance. On deep roots of gynocentrism in Jewish and Christian tradition, consider Genesis 2:24.

Tradition known from about the ninth century figures Mary as inspiring Romanos. On Christmas Eve, Mary gave Romanos a papyrus scroll and ordered him to eat it. The textual food from Mary inspired Romanos to preach and sing melodiously. Thus, on Christmas Eve, Mary symbolically gave birth to Romanos as a sacred homilist and poet. Gador-Whyte (2013) p. 77, provides an English translation of the relevant text. Cf. Revelation 10:9-11, Ezekiel 3:3.

[4] Romanos the Melodist, On Mary at the Cross, st. 3, excerpt, trans. Carpenter (1970) vol. 1, p. 197. The subsequent three quotes from this kontakion are likewise st. 7, p. 199 (I rub the tears…); st. 8, pp. 199-200 (Raising up the dead…); st. 15, p. 202 (I shall conquer…).

[5] “Mary reacts to her son’s theological arguments not as a woman who is divinely inspired, but as an ordinary woman of the people.” Alexiou (1974) p. 63. Romanos depicts Mary as an “ordinary, caring mother”; “ordinary human being”; “loyal mother.” Gador-Whyte (2013) pp. 77, 87, 90. Gador-Whyte attributes to Roger Scott the sense of Mary as “suburban mum,” but doesn’t provide a specific citation. See id. pp. 87, 91.

Men, most of whom are ordinary human beings, aren’t mothers. Men, however, are often caring human beings. Most men are also loyal to their families despite facing acute anti-men sex discrimination in family courts. Romanos’s characterization of Mary isn’t constrained by gender stereotypes. His characterization of Mary is more like describing an ordinary, caring, loyal father.

[6] Romanos the Melodist, On Mary at the Cross, st. 3, excerpt, trans. Carpenter (1970) vol. 1, p. 198. The refrain “my son and my God” occurs at the end of every strophe of the kontakion. For the apostle Thomas’s exclamation, “my Lord and my God,” John 20:28.

[7] Romanos the Melodist, On the Annunciation I, st. 1, excerpt, from Greek trans. Carpenter (1970) vol. 2, p. 9. The Akathistos, which Carpenter attributes to Romanos, alternates strophes with long lists of hails to Mary. For a translation, id. pp. 300-9.

Subsequent quotes from On the Annunciation are from st. 6, pp. 11-2 (Concerning what you have said…); st. 9, p. 13 (As for the sea…); st. 11, p. 13 (your beauty…); st. 12, p. 14 (Where were you…); st. 13, pp. 14-5 (Both terrible and sweet…).

[8] Woodruff (2008) p. 22.

[9] White (2015) pp. 59-60. For Byzantine homilies interpreted as proto-drama, see, e.g. Bogdanos (1976). On the sources and influence of Romanos’s dramatic techniques, Cunningham (2008).

[10] Romanos constructed himself within his homilies as one such person. Gador-Whyte has observed:

As a preacher, Romanos is concerned to make his congregation follow this call {to live according to Christ’s example}. One way he does so is by vivifying the Gospel events, creating dialogues for characters and presenting them as believably real and believably sixth-century characters. He makes the Gospel present. … The congregation is encouraged to identify with Romanos’ personae on a number of levels, so that he need only place himself within the story to make the congregation feel that they too are participating in it.

Gador-Whyte (2011) p. 36.

[11] White (2015) pp. 61, 74. Dialogue in homilies “seem to represent at least a ‘wake-up call’ to the audience.” It served the need to “engage the listener’s attention.” Carpenter (2003) pp. 112-3. White (2015), p. 72, states:

priests distrusted applause and regarded it as their duty to enlighten their congregations, not entertain them.

Priests may have supported such ideology, but surely they needed to get persons to attend church and listen to homilies in order to enlighten them. Disliking and distrusting competition for attention isn’t sufficient to free persons from it.

Writing about 1100, Honorius of Autun explicitly compared traditional Greco-Roman theater with the Christian Mass:

It is known that those who recited tragedies in the theaters represented to the people, by their gestures, the actions of conflicting forces. Even so, our tragedian represents to the Christian people in the theater of the church, by his gestures, the struggle of Christ, and impresses upon them the victory of his redemption.

{ Sciendum quod hi qui tragoedias in theatris recitabant, actus pugnantium gestibus populo repraesentabant. Sic tragicus noster pugnam Christi populo Christiano in theatro Ecclesiae gestibus suis repraesentat, eique victoriam redemptionis suae inculcat. }

Gem of the Mind {Gemma animae}, Book 1, Chapter 83, Latin text and English translation from Bevington (1975) p. 9. Honorius of Autun (Honorius Augustodunensis) was a student of Amalarius of Metz. Here’s a English translation of the full chapter. The full Latin text is available in Patrologia Latina 172:541ff.

[12] On (eastern) icons in relation to (western) liturgical drama, Maguire (2003). Introductions to some medieval Byzantine vernacular Greek romances underscore the popular appeal of emotional lability. Here’s the introduction to Belthandros and Chrysantza:

Come! Attend a moment all you young people. I wish to tell you the fairest tale, a beautiful and usual story. Whoever wants to taste of its sadness and joy will also wonder at its account of daring and bravery.

Trans. Betts (1995) p. 5. The introduction to Kallimachos and Chrysorroi similarly declares:

Joy and grief are mixed, even blended together. … if you read this tale and learn the matter of its verses, you will see the workings of Love’s bitter-sweet pangs.

Id. p. 37. Likewise Livistros and Rodamini:

come now and hear with me of love’s passion in the fair story which I shall tell. … I am going to tell a wonderful tale of love and of the terrible sufferings endured by a man of many trials and woes whom Love persecuted.

Id. p. 95.

[image] Icon of the Crucifixion, Novgorod School, c. 1360. Held in Musée du Louvre, Paris. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Alexiou, Margaret. 1974. The ritual lament in Greek tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Betts, Gavin. 1995. Three Medieval Greek romances. New York: Garland.

Bevington, David M. 1975. Medieval Drama. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Bogdanos, Theodore. 1976. “Liturgical Drama in Byzantine Literature.” Comparative Drama. 10 (3): 200-215.

Carpenter, Marjorie, trans. & ed. 1970. Kontakia of Romanos, Byzantine melodist. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Cunningham, Mary. 2003. “Dramatic device or didactic tool? The function of dialogue in Byzantine preaching.” Ch. 7 (pp. 101-13) in Elizabeth Jeffreys, ed. Rhetoric in Byzantium: papers from the thirty-fifth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Exeter College, University of Oxford, March 2001. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Cunningham, Mary B. 2008. “The reception of Romanos in middle Byzantine homiletics and hymnography.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 62: 251-260.

Gador-Whyte, Sarah. 2011. “Self-Construction: ‘Auto-Ethopoeia’ in Romanos’ Kontakia.” Melbourne Historical Journal. 39(2): 23-37.

Gador-Whyte, Sarah. 2013. “Changing Conceptions of Mary in Sixth-Century Byzantium: The Kontakia of Romanos the Melodist.” Ch. 5 (pp. 77-92) in Neil, Bronwen, and Lynda Garland, eds. 2013. Questions Of Gender In Byzantine Society. London: Ashgate Publishing Group.

Lash, Ephrem, trans. 1995. Romanos the Melodist. On the life of Christ: kontakia. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers.

Maguire, Henry. 2003. “Byzantine rhetoric, Latin drama and the portrayal of the New Testament.” Ch. 14 (pp. 215-34) in Elizabeth Jeffreys, ed. Rhetoric in Byzantium: papers from the thirty-fifth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Exeter College, University of Oxford, March 2001. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Traill, David A. 2018, ed. and trans. Carmina Burana. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

White, Andrew Walker. 2015. Performing Orthodox ritual in Byzantium. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Woodruff, Paul. 2008. The necessity of theater: the art of watching and being watched. Oxford: Oxford University Press.