Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Three Outstanding Byzantine Women

Composed for and first sung in the liturgy of her convent, Kassia's hymns brought her fame as Orthodoxy's only woman hymnographer of distinction. Hers, moreover, are the only hymns by a woman that are included in the liturgy of our church. Likewise, having composed original musical settings for litany of her hymns, Kassia is Byzantium's best known woman composer.

Twenty-three genuine hymns survive from Kassia's pen. These include a long hymn for the dead; hymns for various saints; nine hymns for Christmas and three for the Hypapante (the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple). Her reputation rests mainly on her troparion which is sung on Holy Wednesday. Hailed by critics as a masterpiece of religious poetry, Kassia's Lenten hymn is universally admired for its "beauty of words and depth of feeling." A true poet and believer, the hymnwriting abbess of Constantinople portrays profound human emotions, tracing with sensitivity and sympathy the sinful woman's exodus from sin, her journey to salvation.

More the one thousand years now separate us from Kassia the Melodos. Yet through her troparion she communicates the reality of Christian experience and her own serene belief in Christ's transforming grace.

Two hundred years after Kassia, Anna Komnene, the world's first woman historian, was born in Constantinople on December 2, 1083, the daughter and first child of Emperor Alexios 1. She died sometime after 1148 (and the appearance of Halley's Comet) in the convent Kecharitomene, where in enforced retirement from court politics she lived for over thirty years and where she wrote the Alexiad, the epic history of her father's long reign (1081-1118).

Anna Komnene was probably the most intellectual and best educated woman in the Byzantine millennium. The importance of education and Greek culture form a major theme of the Alexiad, in which the author repeatedly thanks her parents for educating her properly. In fact, this imperial princess spent most of her life studying and learning. Her broad scholarly interests are reflected in the pages of her history, documenting her knowledge of the Bible, theology, philosophy, history, medicine, rhetoric, mathematics and classical poetry, especially Homer. She boasts of her great "zeal for learning." "I carried," she wrote in the preface, "my study of Greek to the highest pitch." And indeed the purity of her Greek was commented on. Anna looked down her nose at barbarians who did not know Greek and at Greeks who fell below her high standards.

Although she had failed in the attempt to become empress of Byzantium, Anna Komnene succeeded in becoming the "golden queen" of its intelligentsia. She turned her apartments at the convent into an institute for advanced studies. There the scholarly princess inspired and presided over a circle of the empire's most original theologians, philosophers and men of letters. One of them compared her to a bright comet appearing among fixed stars.

By any standards, Eudokia, Kassia and Anna Komnene were remarkable women. Anna has been called an "astonishing woman." AIl were gifted and fortunate in the circumstances of their birth into the privileged classes of Byzantine society. Thus they were able to cultivate their talents, to enrich their minds with the priceless heritage of ancient Greece and to write new books, expressing themselves and the Christian Greek ideals of their culture.

In our day books have been written about each of them. These remarks of mine are but brief tributes to three Byzantine women whose contributions to Greek Letters are worthy of our attention and admiration.

But admiration is not enough. Our patron saint Katherine the All-Wise Great Martyr, the Empress St. Eudokia, the hymnwriting nun Kassia, and history writing Princess Anna Komnene challenge us to rid society and church of prejudice and discrimination against women.

St. Katherine's Greek Orthodox Church, Falls Church, Va. January 26, 1986

Anna Komnene

Anna Komnene