Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Make a Joyful Noise!

PAIAIOLOGINA: Palaiologina, our fourth hymnographer, is chronologically the last and most obscure. A nun connected with the imperial dynasty, she lived in Thessalonika during the 14th century, five hundred years after Theodosia, Thekla and Kassia. No hymn of hers has yet come to light. Palaiologina's first name is not recorded. Nor do we know whether she was an imperial princess by birth or by marriage. She died sometime before 1387.

This tantalizingly little information about this princess comes from a single source, the 15th century historian Grigorious Sphrantzes (1401-1477). A courtier and diplomat, the historian faithfully served the last three emperors: Manuel II, Palaiologos (1391-1425), John VIII (1425-1448), and Constantine XI, who died a martyr on the tragic Tuesday of May 29, 1453.

Writing on Corfu in his old age, Sphrantzes interrupts his history of the fall of Byzantium to pay tribute to "the most holy Thomais" his godmother. When Thomais was a young girl, her guardian, the sister of Neilos Cabasilas, Archbishop of Thessalonike, had brought her from Constantinople to Thessalonike, which at that time was the second city of the empire. There, Sphrantzes writes, the guardian and her ward "lived in the Convent of Saint Theodora with Palaiologina, a virtuous and learned lady about whom I often heard high praises from our memorable emperor Lord Manuel." Manuel II Palaiologos had known our Palaiologina during one of the two periods when he had been governor of Thessalonike (1369-1373) and (1383-1387), before he ascended the throne in 1391. Years later the aged monarch, who had himself written hymns, reminisced about his hymnwriting kinswoman to his young attendant Sphrantzes.

The historian credits Palaiologina and the archbishop's sister with teaching his revered godmother "virtue and literature." This Sphrantzes must have learned from Thomais herself. On the death of her two teachers, Thomais and another nun inherited all their possessions. After the capture of Thessalonike by the Turks in 1387, Thomais returned to Constantinople.

Sphrantzes himself knew at first hand the hymns of Palaiologina, "I read her compositions, many hymns to Saint Demetrios and Saint Theodora and to other saints as well." Thus he informs us that Palaiologina wrote hymns for the two most popular saints of Thessalonike, the city's tutelary patron and the ascetic ninth-century nun for whom Palaiologina's convent was named. Somewhere, perhaps in the palatine library of Manuel II Palaiologos, Sphrantzes had in his youth seen a manuscript containing Palaiologina's now lost hymns.

From nostalgic recollections of his youth in the days before the empire fell, Sphrantzes bequeathed to the history of Greek letters and hymnography the name of Palaiologina, a pious, learned and virtuous Byzantine princess who wrote hymns in the 14th century. Thanks to him we know that during Byzantium's last century the company of its hymnwriters included a woman.

With Palaiologina we have come almost to the end of Byzantium. We have also reached the end of our list of women hymnographers and the finishing line of this essay. But one final word is in order—a composite profile of Theodosia, Thekla, Kassiane and Palaiologina, a quartet of Byzantine women. They belonged to the sex that did not enjoy equality and freedom. But as members of the elite and aristocratic social class and as women religious they transcended the restrictions and limitations imposed on their sex. They were pious and purposeful, as well as talented, intelligent and educated. Their monastic vocation enabled them to pursue holiness and at the same time to fulfill their leitourgia as sacred poets. Theodosia, Thekla, Kassiane and Palaiologina, women hymnographers of Byzantium, deserve recognition and honor in the history of Greek letters.

St Kassia (Kassiane)

St. Kassia (Kassiane) the Hymnographer