Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Kassiane the Nun and the Sinful Woman

Two women, famous for different reasons, will be discussed here.1 Kassiane the Nun enjoys high honor in the history of Byzantine hymnography, 2 while the Sinful Woman, whom the Evangelist Luke introduced into Christian literature, is associated with shame. The Sinful Woman is the subject of the Byzantine nun's most celebrated hymn and, as a result, the bad name or notoriety of the subject has rubbed off on the hymnographer. An old tradition, unfortunately still widely accepted today, identifies Kassiane the Nun, as a fallen woman. Sexist prejudice is the likely source of this unfounded identification. It is my intent here to clarify and to end this misunderstanding.

Kassiane the Nun is Byzantium's most famous woman hymnographer. Her literary fame rests on her sticheron or troparion, formally known by its first line: Κυριε, η εν πολλαις αμαρτιαις (Lord, she who had fallen in many sins). In the manuscripts medieval scribes entitled it: Εις την Πορνην (To the Harlot). To many generations of Greek Orthodox it is familiarly known as Το Τροπαριον της Κασσιανης (The Troparion of Kassiane). Admired, popular and beloved, this hymn is universally acknowledged to be a masterpiece of religious poetry.3 Published in many anthologies of Greek verse, it was rendered into demotic Greek by Kostis Palamas (1859-1943) and later set to music by Dimitri Mitropoulos.

Originally composed for the Orthros of Holy Wednesday, Kassiane's troparion is now sung on the evening of Holy Tuesday.4 The text is included in the Triodion, the service book for the ten weeks preceding Easter. Sacred poets from the sixth to the sixteenth centuries contributed hundreds of Lenten hymns to this book. These include numerous monks and bishops, two emperors of Byzantium, and a single woman, Kassiane. Twenty-nine of these hymnographers are pictured in the front piece of a Triodion printed in Venice in 1601.5

Kassiane the Nun was, in every respect, a worthy daughter of Byzantium. Born in the imperial city sometime before 805, she belonged to an aristocratic family. Her father held the high rank of candidatus at the imperial court. Kassiane was well educated. She received instruction in both sacred and profane learning, studying not only Scripture but also classical Greek authors. Saint Theodore the Studite, the erudite abbot and champion of Orthodoxy, praised Kassiane's learning and literary style as exceptional.

Saint Theodore also praised Kassiane's character and piety. When still a young woman, she defied imperial edicts forbidding the veneration of icons. She endured persecution, and for her defiance was beaten with the lash. Undaunted, however, the devout young woman continued openly to resist the emperor's policies by visiting imprisoned Orthodox monks, comforting Orthodox exiles and by writing letters and sending gifts to them. This crisis of the Church tested and proved Kassiane's faith and zeal.

Kassiane's loyalty to Orthodoxy was not uncommon, for she belonged to a large company of women who defended the traditions and teachings of the Church during a turbulent period of religious crisis which lasted nearly a century and a half (729-843). At that time laywomen and nuns emerged from the safe seclusion of the home and convent to risk their lives in defense of Orthodoxy. In Constantinople within the shadow of the imperial palace they participated in demonstrations against iconoclastic edicts. Some of them were not only persecuted, but were also martyred for their Orthodox faith. One of the first martyrs of iconoclasm was a nun named Theodosia who led a group of nuns in an attempt to prevent the desecration of an icon of Christ at the Chalke Gate in 729. Theodosia knocked down the ladder, which caused the death of the soldier trying to remove the icon. Martyred for her resistance, Theodosia soon became the center of a popular cult in Constantinople.6 Her heroic example provided Orthodox women with a model for activism.

Nor had Saint Theodosia of Constantinople died in vain. Modern historians credit the triumph of Orthodoxy to an alliance of monks and women.7 These women of iconophile sympathies came from all sections of Byzantine society. Two imperial Orthodox women played decisive roles in the struggle against iconoclasm.8 Proudly claiming the title of Basileus, Athenian-born Eirene (797-802) reestablished Orthodoxy in 787. Five decades later, in 843, another empress, "the Blessed Theodora," engineered the final victory, which is annually commemorated on the Sunday of Orthodoxy.9 In addition to the imperial women, countless other women of Byzantium proved themselves loyal to the faith of their mothers and fathers.

Early in life the learned and devout Kassiane had resolved to become a nun. Her religious vocation, however, could not be fulfilled until after 843. At that time she built a convent in the western part of the Queen City, near the old Constantinian walls, and was tonsured a nun. Until her death sometime in the second half of the ninth century, Kassiane lived in the cloister bearing her name.

The foundress of the cloister was its strict and energetic abbess. Within the walled peace of the convent Kassiane supervised the nuns and composed sacred and secular poetry. Her writings have survived in a number of manuscripts dating from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries.