Scholars of Byzantium have acknowledged the widespread practice of associating the emperor with the great religious feasts of the liturgical calendar. This practice, attested by ample textual and visual evidence, formulated ideas about the nature of Byzantine imperial power and its relationship to the divine. Empresses too are linked with religious feasts in Byzantine texts and images, although much less frequently than emperors. Despite the prevalence of linking imperial figures with religious feasts, scholars have not explored this body of texts and images from the point of view of gender analysis, and have not examined how this textual and visual rhetoric molded notions about male and female gender roles.
This paper aims to contribute a corrective toward this scholarly oversight through a case study of the visual and textual association between Byzantine empresses and the narrative of the Adoration of the Magi (commemorated during the feast of the Nativity) exemplified by 6th through 10th century texts and images. These include: the representation of the magi on the hem of Empress Theodora’s cloak in San Vitale (6th c.); a passage from the Chronographia of Theophanes (9th c.), which describes the donation of a crown to Hagia Sophia during the Christmas feast of 780 by Empress Irene and her son, suggesting association with the Adoration of the Magi; a late-9th or 10th century text attesting to the mosaic decoration of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which included the Adoration of the Magi, that credits the Empress Helena (4th c.) with the commissioning of this church and its decorative program; a passage from the vita of the iconophile Empress Theodora (written a few decades after her death in the late 9th or early 10th c.) that likens her visit to a holy man to the Adoration of the Magi; and the description of the gift giving ceremony following the empress’ parturition in the Book of Ceremonies (10th c.) which evokes the Adoration of the Magi.
The paper examines this body of evidence to explore how the discourse associating the empress with the Adoration of the Magi contributed to the formulation of the empress’ gender roles and her association with the realm of the sacred. The motif of the empress’ association with the Adoration of the Magi is a particularly promising area for analysis because it offers opportunities for manifold comparisons and connections between an imperial woman and biblical figures, both male and female, and actions: in addition to articulating ideas about patronage or donation (through comparison with the magi’s gifts), it also facilitates the enunciation of orthodoxy (through comparison with the recognition of the true Messiah by the magi), while also communicating notions about motherhood, conception, fertility, and the successful delivery of a child (through comparison with the Virgin Mary). An analysis of this motif offers insight into how biblical figures and stories were employed to define the characteristics of imperial women and their actions, and how the enfolding of empresses into sacred stories manipulated the gendered definition of powerful women.