Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day — a day more often associated with the 19th century workers’ movement than with 9th century Byzantine theology.
But . . . there is a cultural connection. The women who marched for workers’ rights to the tune of “Bread and Roses” asserted “Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses, too” – spiritual as well as material sustenance. Similarly, the figure of Kassia (b. 805-810, d. bef. 865), yet another aristocratic woman who took up the monastic life, underscores the role of the visual and musical arts in the life of Christian worship and contemplation.
The icon of Saint Kassia shown here would have been among those artifacts outlawed and destroyed by the 726 CE order of the Byzantine Emperor Leo III, in an effort to end the veneration of lifeless, idolatrous images. The doctrinal dispute quickly took on political overtones within Byzantium and between Byzantium and Rome, and took sometimes violent turns. The first iconoclastic period was brought to an end by the efforts of the Empress Irene, who engineered a church council at Nicea in 787 that reinstated the use of images in the church and forged a reconciliation between the Eastern and Western branches of the church.
The controversy erupted again in 814. Kassia was evidently an iconodule — that is, a supporter of images — based on letters written to her by Theodore of Studium, one of the chief theological apologists for the iconodule position. (An excerpt from one of these letters indicates both that Kassia had shared her early writings with the monk, and that she had already considered pursuing monastic life as a response to the ongoing controversy.)
Although the second period of iconoclasm was begun under Emperor Leo V, it was continued under the Emperor Theophilus. This might make the legend surrounding Theophilus’ relationship with Kassia suspect. As the story goes, Kassia was on the short list for consideration as Empress, and was almost the Emperor’s chosen, but lost out when she responded with a witty theological retort to the Emperor’s disparagement of women at the engagement ceremony. (When the Emperor mentioned that “from a woman [i.e., Eve] came all baser things,” she replied “and from a woman [i.e., Mary] came all better things.”) In any case, Theophilus married Theodora, not Kassia; when he died in 842, Theodora, now regent, reinstated the veneration of icons.
Some time after this, Kassia is known to have founded a monastery in Constantinople, become its first abbess, and devoted herself to the composition of hymns — another form of art in aid of religious devotion. Of the 49 hymns attributed to her, 30 or so are in current use in the Eastern Orthodox church. These include a challenging hymn that takes the voice of one of the myrrh-bearing women, traditionally sung on Holy Tuesday.
Another of her hymns, a paean to Christ’s liberation of the dead, concludes . . .
You who breathed life into mortals
Lived with those in hell.
Those in darkness you told to come out
And those in bonds to be released,
To the destruction of the enemy.
And when you called those who had died before
To rise up,
I came to life.
On this International Women’s Day, we wish all women — and men, for that matter — abundant life.
More about Kassia (and others) . . .
Biographical entry and links to her work and primary and secondary sources at Other Women’s Voices
Wikipedia’s entry on Kassia includes the text of the Hymn of Kassia
A reading of the meaning of Kassia’s legend for contemporary Orthodox women — and perhaps others
A bit more on the iconoclastic controversy (with slides)