A-H 322 Byzantine Art and Civilization
Spring, 1999
Analysis of a Saint's Life for Insights into Art

St. Athanasia of Aegina:
your analyses

The author of Saint Athanasia of Aegina's VITA is unknown, but due to the use of masculine tenses in the writing, it is presumed that the author was a male who wrote the VITA soon after St. Athanasia's death. The VITA of St. Athanasia of Aegina records the virtuous life that Athanasia led and also contributes to the understanding of how Athanasia's society viewed the religious, the miraculous, and the art that surrounded them.

Athanasia was born on the island of Aegina to Christian nobles, Niketas and Irene. Her VITA states that already by the age of seven she had learned the Psalms, and soon after, while weaving, a shining star descended on her chest that enlightened her and inspired her to look beyon the maaterial world (142-143). Athanasia knew she wanted to enter the monastic life, however, Athanasia's parents had different plans for her.

Although completely against it, Athanasia's parents forced her to marry. Her VITA claims that after only 16 days of marriage her husband died during an Arab raid on Aegina. Soon after, an imperial edict was issued stating that all unwed women should enter into marriage with foreigners. Athanasia's parents arranged her second marriage (143). It is through the study of these dates, the Arab raids (between 805 and 830) and the imperial edict by Theophillos (829-42) that help us put an approximate date on Athanasia's life, the early ninth century (139).

Athanasia, still dedicated to the idea of a monastic life, continued to study scripture, assist the poor with food and clothing, and teach Christian ideals to her neighbors. She soon convinced her husband to leave the material world, and each other, so that both could enter the monastic life. Athanasia could finally dedicate her entire life to God. She then sought out other pious women and founded a monastic community. A few years later she became the Mother Superior, although, because of her strong humility, felt uncomfortable with this title. Athanasia continued her ascetic lifestyle, living off of raw greens and little water, sleeping against a rock, and wearing rough, irritating clothing (145).

After four years of this monastic life, Athanasia convinced her partners that they needed to completely withdraw from civilization in order to better serve God. At this time, a priest, Matthias, offered to put the women up in a new convent called Timia, the location of the ancient church of Stephen the Protomartyr.

Her VITA claims that often, when Athanasia would pray, "she would be filled with ecstasy and awe; for she would see a shining cloud emitting rays of sunlight, and in the middle of it, a beautiful man, brilliant in form" (149). The man's voice told her to follow humility. This vision is similar to THE TRANSFIGURATION c.1150, a painted and gilded wooden beam at St. Catherine's monastery in Sinai (Lowden 367). THE TRANSFIGURATION is also an image of Christ, standing in front of bright rays of light and illuminated clouds, emphasized by the fact that only Christ stands in this light; the rest of the images depicted are darker and demand less attention. St. Athanasia performed one miracle of healing during her life. The VITA recounts this event, saying that one day while praying, a man with diseased eyes asked Athanasia to pray for him. The man, after being told by Athanasia to have patience in the Lord, "asked in faith to gain healing." Athanasia placed her hands on his eyes, prayed, and restored his sight instantly (150).

Saint Athanasia built three churches on Aegina: one for the Theotokos, one for John the Baptist, and one for Nicholas of Myra. This must have meant that Aegina's economy was doing well, that Christianity, as seen throughout the Byzantine empire, was an important part of culture, and that there was no problem with spending a large portion of money on the advancement of Christianity.

Athanasia moved to Constantinople, due to business, staying there for seven years at a monastery. She decided to return to Aegina after a vision where she saw the doors of her church of the Theotokos open and beckon her to enter. Soon after her return to Aegina, Athanasia became very ill and was warned, in a vision by two men in white, that she had only a few days to live. During the last days of her life, Athanasia meditated and fasted until she died peacefully in her sleep.

After Athanasia's death, many miracles occurred at her gravesite. A sick woman at Athanasia's tomb was the first to be healed. Priests found Athanasia's coffin dripping with oil and Athanasia fully preserved inside. A twelve year old girl and a young boy were both cured of their illnesses after spending time at Athanasia's grave. A man with an "internal demon" was also cured after having a vision of Athanasia and visiting her holy relics at the convent. Numerous other accounts of the sick visiting Athanasia's gravesite, and at times having visions of her, and then being saved are told in her VITA (155-56).

St. Athanasia's VITA can serve as an account of ninth century Byzantine art, specifically religious art. Through the study of her VITA, we are able to learn about the founding of monasteries and churches, such as the Church of the Theotokos, in Aegina and also learn aabout the function of others, such as the Church of Stephen the Protomartyr by the convent Athanasia ran in Timia. This vita also stresses the importance of holy relics, where believers went for miracles to be performed. Every miracle accounted for in the VITA occurred near Athanasia's holy relics.

The VITA of Saint Athanasia not only tells us the amazing story of a truly virtuous woman's life, but is also a valuable source in the understanding of ninth century Aegina. It helps to date architectural structures, monasteries and churches of Aegina and nearby cities. It also confirms the intense devotion and commitment the Aegians had for religion, and the strong faith they had in the powers of holy men and women.

- Megan Chaney

The life of Athanasia is contained only in the vitae, which is held in the manuscript, Vaticanus Graecus 1660, of 916 AD. The time in which Athanasia lived is uncertain, but evidence shows that she may have lived during the Arab raids on the Aegean Islands during the ninth century. Aegina is an island in the Saronic Gulf southwest of Athens, Greece. Evidence stated by the monk Ioannikios, concludes that he predicted that a place on the Aegean island called Tamia, would hold a holy future burial of a Saint, presumably Athanasia. The author of this vitae is an anonymous hagiographer, and was an eyewitness to the miracles displayed by Athanasia. The meaning or significance of Athanasia's future monastic career, first developed when she saw a heavenly figure of a man in the clouds, and a voice which told her to remain meek and practice humility.

Athanasia's life began on the Greek island of Aegina, she received an education of only the readings in the Psalter and of the Holy Scripture. Athanasia's parents were Christian nobles and were named Niketas and Irene. They forced her to marry at a young age, but her marriage ended abruptly when her husband was killed in the Arab raid. Athanasia began to struggle with her self, her only salvation seemed to lead toward a monastic life. Unfortunately, her desires were again denied to her, when an imperial edict was issued on the island which demanded that unmarried or widowed women were to marry foreign men. Athanasia was again forced into marriage, but still she was concerned only of her salvation. She devoted herself to reading the Scripture, and developing humility even though she remained meek and confined. Together both Athanasia and her husband decided on a mutual agreement to separate so that she could adopt a monastic lifestyle, and help teach and manifest the visions of asceticism, and also to help orphans and those in need of the necessities of life. When famine had struck the island she distributed food and clothing to her believers as well as the Athinganoi's (heretics from Asia Minor). Athanasia tells them, "Be ye merciful as your heavenly Father, for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust" (Graecus 144). This blessed women now free from marriage, decided to devote herself to God, her convent, and eventually an ascetic way of life with regard to sleep, food, and dress. An example of this was written, "Distributing to the poor all that she possessed according to the commandment of the lord, along with the aforementioned honorable women, she changed her garb together with her way of life" (Graecus 144).

Athanasia was soon given the title, mother superior and also with the permission of the bishop, offered a new site for her convent on the island Timia, where the church of Stephen the Protomartyr was built. Athanasia was completely devoted to God and spent all of her time shedding tears and chanting psalms of prayer. Her eyes were constantly fixed to Christ, so it is was not unlikely that God would give her the gift of creating miracles. One day she was approached by a man who had a serious disease which was present in his eyes. Athanasia also suffered from this disease, and when he came to her and asked her to address a prayer to God for him, she placed her hand on his eyes and asked Christ to heal his affliction. It was at this moment that the man gained the healing which he so desired, and a miracle was performed. This was the only miracle that Athanasia had given, but it represented the divine powers that had been given to her by Christ. This miracle also meant that it was time for her to depart from "this" life, and join Christ. In twelve days, she was to die, and so on August fifteenth, on the feast of the Dormition of the Virgin, this was to become her day of commemoration. Athanasia's tomb was to become the source of many healing miracles, her relics were collected and exhumed and put into a coffin in open view. After the death of Athanasia, there were many miracles that were performed when people who believed and remained faithful to Christ came to visit Athanasia's holy burial. Her ascent to the heights of virtue was proven by the only healing miracle that she performed in her lifetime, and even though, nothing is know about the cult of Athanasia, the lack of iconoclasm suggests that she was mostly respected and well known on the local island of Aegina.

The absence of surviving works of art, or monuments, and statues may question the existence of the St. Athanasia of Aegina. But, the underlying fact was that presented in her vitae, was the notion that she was a person with the loftiness of meekness. She never allowed anyone to serve her and it is said that she considered herself unworthy to be with the women of her convent, let alone be served by them. Athanasia practiced abstinence, and only ate a little bread and water each day. She never ate cheese, or fish and especially not fruit. She slept very little as well and merely leaned on a rock when she did sleep. All of this showed her great devotion to God, but also demonstrated her meekness an opinion and rectitude of heart. "Although enduring many tribulations, in as much as she was a leader of her sisters and was concerned about them, she never upbraided any of them because of the great humility she had attained"(Graecus 146).

The text of the vitae can serve as a source on the works of the art from this period, because it specifically speaks of Churches, and even of the City of Constantinople which means that decoration of chapels and of the city is evident. An example would be, "Athanasia built three churches on Aegina: one of Theotokos, one to John the Baptist, and one to Nicholas of Myra"(Graecus 138). Another example is "on account of some business she departed to the Queen of Cities (Constantinople) and resided in a monastery there for six or seven years"(Graecus 150). The practice of worship, was the main theme in the vitae of Athanasia, because it is all that she did in order to assure herself as a faithfully committing follower of God. This is also the main reason for her becoming a Saint and also being able to spread her humility and gift of healing. Athanasia's devotion to Christ and his teachings, help demonstrate the reason for wanting to depict art of this nature, and for becoming the prominent reason for identifying Byzantine Art.

- Robert Swarts

" I will bless the lord at all times; His praise shall be continually in my mouth" A quote form the sacred psalmist David exemplifies one of the many ways St. Athanasia served God. She would recite Psalms striving to ensure that she would spend every hour glorifying god. In the early ninth century, St. Athanasia of Aegiana was born to Niketas and Irene of Aegiana, hence the epithet given to her. Born and reared by good parents, she became a useful vessel of the Holy Spirit. Her education consisted of readings from the Holy Scripture, which she eagerly studied.

A monumental experience effected St. Athanasia greatly. One day while weaving she saw a star that gave off an abundant light, shed it upon her, and then disappeared. This light enlightened her soul, giving her a true hate for the vanity of life. This enlightenment had urged St. Athanasia to enter the monastic way of life; however, that was not the plan of her mother and father. Only sixteen days after she was married her husband died in battle. Shortly after the death of her first husband there was an imperial edict issued that stated unmarried women and widows should be given in marriage to foreign men. After her second marriage she devoted herself to God. Along with endless amounts of selfless deeds she also assembled neighbor women by reading Holy Scriptures.

Athanasia had now liberated her self from the bonds of marriage, by persuading her spouse to withdraw form the world to enter the monks way of life, where he later died. With this newfound liberation, Athanasia dedicate her self totally to joining with other women to withdraw from normal worldly confusion. Unwilling to be the leader, she took the spot. However her didn't place her self in any higher regard than the other women. She didn't allow herself to be served by the women, or for water to be poured over her hands. She thought she was unworthy to be with them although she was in fact their superior. The Sacrifices she went to were unreal. Fasting during Lent, Christmas and that of the Holy Apostles, sleeping on rocks, and using goathair for her innergarment are some examples. After four years she moved the female companions to a living setting that would seclude and completely isolate them form all human intercourse. Here they could devote themselves to God in solitude.

Not only was St. Athanasia a wonderful leader and devoted Saint, she also had power to heal. One day a man who had a serious eye disease approached her. Asking her to prey to god on his behalf. She did so saying that she had the same disease. After he asked in faith to gain healing, with her hand on his eyes he heard these words with sure faith and gained healing desired.

To add to the long list of accomplishments Athanasia built three churches, one to the Theotokos, one to John the Baptist and one to Nicholas of Myra. These not only serve as works of art for the time, but they also help give reference to the time period in which we are dealing with. This is great evidence of a flourishing economy.

Later in life business had brought her to Constiantinople. Here she spent about seven years. While away a divine vision appeared to her. Telling her to go home, that the time had come for her to depart. Only 12 days later she passed away.

The gravesite of St. Athanasia became a healing ground. One example is when two old men and a tormented woman, that all possessed wicked spirits, were cough dancing above the holy relics of the blessed woman that removed the overlaying soil and dragged the coffin out. Immediately after the woman was restored to health. Some holy men near by observed the coffin and come to the conclusion that it should be placed in view of all. When they tried to change her shroud to a gray color she did not cooperate, keeping her hands fixed, as to say I'm just fine as is. There was a child that was eight years old who had a demon in his hand. For he would to into a spasm and hurt pitiably. Remaining at the divine relics of the blessed woman for seven entire days. At the end of the seven days he became healthy.

To conclude, St. Athanasia was a wonderful saint that truly made the most of her sainthood. Not only did she contribute a wonderful amount throughout the course of her life, but also she has, left a lasting impression through art.

-Hillary Mitchell

St. Athanasia lived during the first portion of the ninth century CE, this concluded from the records of Arab raids in the Aegean Sea in this time period. The Athinganoi that the saint assists corroborate with heretics by the same name which appear under the reigns of Nikephoros I (802-811) and Michael I Rangabe (811-813).

Her epithet refers to her place of birth, the island of Aegina. Her parents were Christian nobles on this Greek island, and raised her with a strong Christian background. The Orthodox Church as a result of the number of miracles her relics manifested also gave her the title of "miracle-worker", or thaumaturge.

Athanasia's vitae begins with Athanasia working at a loom where she envisions a bright star which caused her to be "…abundantly enlightened in her soul…"(143). She wished to become a nun, but was married off, not once, but twice by her parents. The first husband dies in one of the Arab raids that help to date her life. During her second marriage she is said to have donated food during a famine to a group of Athinganoi. She is soon able to convince her second husband to take holy orders, but he soon dies after becoming a monk.

Freed of her earthly responsibilities, Athanasia devotes her whole being to God. Athanasia goes on to gather a group of like-minded women and they form a small convent, of which Athanasia is soon asked to lead. She is described as an ascetic: sleeping on rocks, when she slept at all, wearing hair shirts throughout her life, refusing to be served by anyone, and devoting her life to the Psalms and prayer.

After a time Athanasia moved the convent to a remote mountain, where they came upon a man called Matthias. Matthias convinces the nuns to follow him to a place where they may continue their work. Athanasia identifies the site they are to remain at for the rest of their lives by saying she once saw it in a vision. This area was called Timia, or "place worthy of honor." A church to St. Stephen the protomartyr was already on the site, and Matthias makes it possible for the nuns to establish themselves at the site.

After a description of the miracles and powers Matthias comes into, the vitae relates a vision of Athanasia's is said to have occurred often. A waking vision, the saint is said to have seen a man shining in the center of a brilliantly glowing cloud. It is from contemplation of this repeated vision that Athanasia comes to know that through humility and meekness can enlightenment be attained.

Athanasia is credited with having built three churches: the church of Theotokos, the church of John the Baptist, and the church of Nicholas of Myra-herald of God. These churches were constructed in addition to the already present building dedicated to Stephen. Sometime after the completion of the three churches the saint went to Constantinople and lived in a monastery for almost seven years. A vision comes to her after these seven years that she must return to Timia. Soon after another vision comes to the saint, foretelling her impending death. After twelve days of fasting and meditation, on the day of the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, Athanasia lay on her deathbed in the company of the nuns Marina and Eupraxia. With her face glowing, she instructs that the rites of the Dormition be particularly adhered to; and that she be buried at their completion.

A variety of miracles are attributed to Athanasia. Her first was made while she lived at Timia. She prayed to God to heal the eyes of a man who suffered from and eye disease, and he was cured then and there.

Immediately after her death she appeared in a vision to her successor as mother superior. Athanasia told the woman that forty days after her death she would be granted something by God. On the fortieth day she appeared again to chastise the mother superior for having forgotten her remembrance. At the service that resulted, two nuns saw a vision of Athanasia accompanied by two angels who at the front of the sanctuary dressed her in jeweled purple robes, crowned her, and gave her a jeweled scepter. Following this service, her coffin was said to creak for a year.

A slew of miracles followed these visions. Two madwomen, whose insanity left when they touched it, unearthed the coffin. Two priests were on hand to view the perfectly preserved body, which was placed in a new coffin on public display. Miracle after miracle followed. All involved the healing of illnesses, crippling injuries, and demonic possessions. The sick either touched or were placed on the coffin to be healed. In one case a piece of her body leapt to the mouth of a diseased man to cure him.

The vitae of St. Athanasia tells a great deal about the belief in miracles and the way saints interacted with the common believer. The populace seemed to have seen the saint not as a person, but as a conduit to communicate with God in a more direct manner. Likewise, the saint (as evidenced by miracles) was the way God could make Himself manifest to the people. While the actions of the saint in life were viewed as models for Christian lifestyles, it is their relics that hold the true fascination. The intense belief that the bodies, or parts of the bodies, of a saint could cause miracles seems to have been very widespread as shown by the number of cases in Athanasia's story.

The great veneration of saints and their relics shows how desirable the physical presence to link to God was to the Byzantine people. The tangible evidence of God's power would be a powerful part of a person's life. It is not surprising therefore, that the use of icons would crop up to fill in this need when an actual relic would be unavailable. Stories such as Athanasia's life serve to show how in the forefront of Byzantine thought saints were.

-Robert Neureither

The life of St. Athanasia is uncertain, but there is evidence of the life she lived. She was believed to have lived during the first half of the ninth- century. The are clues that help determine the years in which she was believed to have lived. First, the presence of Athinganoi on the island of Aegina would suggest a date after 813. Athinganoi, heretics to whom Athanansia gave assistance during famine on Aegina occurred during the reign of Nikephoros (802-813). Second, the imperial edict, joining in marriage of both widow and unmarried women to foreign men had been promulgated by Theophilos (829-842). Third, the attack of the Maurousioi is when her first husband was killed. Maurousioi refers to the Arabs who fled from Spain in 815. “The earliest possible dating for the raid on Aegina is 805-807”.

Athanasia, a natural leader in her society was born and raised on the Island of Aegina by her noble parents, Miketas and Irene. At age seven, she was already learning psalter and was eagerly studying the Holy Scriptures. Athanasia wanted to live the monastic way of life, but her parents were forcing her to marry. Later, she became a widow because her husband joined battle and became a casualty of war. She was then force to marry again because an imperial edict was issued that she had to marry.

Aside from her second marriage, Athanasia new she could not practice monaticism, instead she devoted herself to chant psalms, read scriptures, and value humility and meakness. She was loved by many people. She generously gave to the poor, monks visited her from all over, and she provided the necessities to widows and orphans. Later, Athanasia was able to convince her husband to take monastic vows, so she could do the same. This is probably the highest point in her life because she could dedicate her entire self to the monastic way of life. Differentiating her from other saints, was the fact that she was looking out for other people. “Her saintly qualities were manifested in her leadership asceticism and visions: and by the miraculous cures affected by her relics.” She provided food and clothing to her believers and Athinganoi, heretics from Asia Minor who adopted a number of Jewish practices.” She read Holy Scriptures to all neighboring women, such as on the Lord’s day, she was able to open their minds and direct them into a fear and desire of the lord.

Athanasia gathered a group of women on an Island and provide them a convent where she built three churches dedicated to the Mother of God, to St. John Prodromos, and to Nichokas. Later she moved to Constantinople and lived in a monastery for six to seven years. But, feeling exiled from the church, she decided to return to Timia where she established a monastic community.

At an early age, Athanasia had a spiritual vision of light on her and then disappeared from her site. “By this light, therefore, she was abundantly enlighted in her soul and came into an absolute hatred for the vanity of life.” She lived in life in isolation and in sever ascetisms. The first healing by Athanasia occurred after she had a vision that engaged her to pursue humility and meakness. The vision was of a man gleaming in a cloud. This was a vision of her futures sanctity, that would exist if she tried to imitate the man’s humility. The image of a cloud or light is one of the main images accompanying a spiritual experience. Once she reached the levels of ascetisms, she would acquire powers to heal, to have visions, and to fight the demons.

Anthanasia dedicated herself to other peoples needs, she also experience miracles, most of which occurred after her death. For instance, as her body rest in her coffin and on the anniversary of her dormition, two men and a women were possessed by wicked spirits were found dancing on the holy relics of Athanasia. They removed the soil and dragged her coffin from her tomb. Then, the woman returned to great health. The men observed that drips of Myron, a fragrant oil was found from the relics coffin. Because of the special event of healing, they felt her coffin should be seen by all people. Later, she had a change of coffin and a change of clothing in which her body refused the clothing at first. After a plead from the nun, the saint obeyed and accepted the blessed fashion, a gray silkened tunic.

Among the people who were healed were children, a twelve-year old was possessed by an unclean spirit, an eight-year old with a possessed hand (black sparrows), a twelve-year old boy with his hands and legs that were totally numb. All these were cured by the touch of the saints relics. For adults, a man had an internal demon and was approached by Anthanasia in his dream. He visited her coffin, heard voices, and received a form of a healing power form her. By touching the coffin and healing thereafter, was not the only way to be healed. Her dreams, clothing, and a bay leaf from her tomb were all ways to heal the people. For example, Mary, a nun who had a pain in her neck was blessed by the saint in a dream. She asked her to take her clothing, goathair, and place it on the area. Later, she was regaining her health.

This text can be a good source on works of art just from what we know about Athanasia’s life and how people perceived her as being. For instance, at her death she was clothed in flashing bright robes of purple and decorated with gems and pearls. She was dressed as an empress. This act was unlike Athanasia, she wanted to live the monastic way of life and be clothed with natural qualities in which to cover her sacred body. She did not care about the status she was under. The transfer of her coffin from underground tomb to an above-ground tomb had her dressed in a cheap tunic where she would be viewed and more accessible to pilgrims. They wanted people to view her as she wanted to be. Works of art found before the transfer were probably works that were not significant to her lifestyle.

Interesting enough, in the Life of St. Athanasia, the hagiographer makes no reference in the Life either to iconoclasm or to the use of icons. Iconoclasm was the imperial policy that prevailed between 730-787 and occurring again between 815 and 843. The policy prohibited the depiction and veneration of the images of Christ, the Virgin, and the saints. The only evidence can be found in her vita which is preserved in one manuscript, Vaticanus Graecus 1660. This reference of iconoclasm “suggest that the question of images veneration was not as fiercely disputed on Aegean islands as in Constantinople and Bithynia.” This Life of St Athanasia was written and available as a reference to understand how she was worshipped by the common people. They wanted her to be worship as she would have wanted to be. For example, at her death she was dressed as an empress. Then later they change her dress to a cheap tunic and her tomb was viewed to all the people. She was a natural leader in her society because she exiled in humility. Because Athanasia lived during the first half of the ninth century during Iconoclasm, images were prevailed of saints. Therefore, the vitea would be a good reference to understand the life of Athanasia and how people appreciated her.

- Heather Panko

St. Athanasia of Aegina was a woman who gave herself a rough life in the first half of the ninth century that she lived. This vita, Life of St. Athanasia of Aegina translated by Lee Francis Sherry (Talbot, Alice-Mary, ed. Holy Women of Byzantium. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1996.) was written by a young man in the year 916 A.D. "Aegina" refers to the Greek island from where St. Athanasia was raised by two noble parents that gave her a standard education consisting of reading in the Psalter, which is a book of the Bible Book of Psalms, and the Holy Scripture. (137) She was forced to marry by her parents, but the man was short lived. So she married again, and convinced her husband to go into the ascetic life with her, but he "fell asleep in the Lord", also. This loss did not stop St. Athanasia from keeping to her virtues.

When she was just a girl weaving on the loom by herself, she had an awesome, sublime moment. She saw a shining star descend as far as her chest that shed abundant light on her and then disappeared from her sight.(142) By this , therefore, she was abundantly enlightened in her soul and came into an absolute hatred for the vanity of life.(143) This is a very medieval ascetic idea: to hate vane actions, but love the actions where there is no self reward. Obviously from the vita this changed her life.

Before and during her second marriage she wanted so badly to become dedicated to the monastic life. It showed in her almsgiving to the poor, the fellow believers, the destituted, and even the untouchables after a famine wiped everyone into despair. She gave all she could because she knew that the Lord would take care of her in such a deep faith. She would gather women of the area where she lived and read Holy Scriptures to them. She convinced her soon to be dead husband to become a monk. After his death she "totally dedicated her entire self (maybe that should be capitalized, 'Self') to God. She withdrew herself from he world and enjoyed the peace that came to her from this devotion to Him.

St. Athanasia quickly became a leader of an assembled women, but denying/rejecting any service from them to her, always with her head in humility, feeling unworthy. She would not eat cheeses and fish, take fasting very seriously. This self-starvation, self-destruction, self-restriction caused her to be "tolerant of everyone in meekness of opinion and in rectitude of heart, continually looking forward to her future reward." (147) The author of the vita, who was "very spare and entirely devoid of lofty expression" wrote that St. Athanasia had pondered with questions of to the virtue of the man she always dreamt about in her head as the Almighty. "She seemed to hear a voice telling her, "Humility and meekness have rendered this man upon whom you look with amazement so illustrious that if you imitate it is evident that you will be outstandingly enlightened." (149) From this vision she found the virtue that she should not have any trace anger or pride in her at all.

The only miracle St. Athanasia performed on the record is the curing of a man's diseased eyes, which she had when she was younger, and obviously cured from it. She lay her hand on his eyes and repeated a bible verse about blindness, and on the spot he was healed.

St. Athanasia had built four churches on Aegina: the church of Stephen the Protomartyr, the church of the Theotokos, the church of John the Baptist, and the church of Nicholas of Myra. She resided to Constantinople for six or seven years in a monastery, then returned after a vision to the place she was before with a group of women. Once she got back she became very ill and was "forewarned that she would depart from life within twelve days." Sure enough in faith, she died on that twelfth day.

The site where St. Athanasia's corpse was laid bore sacred healing qualities. Her holy relics were buried and said to have "creaked continuously for an entire year." (153) Many people were healed from the exposure to this site, supposedly. From her coffin dripping streams of fragrant oil to a child's hand rid of a demon, from a woman with a paralyzed hand healed to a woman's baby with a blind right eye healed, the site of the relic and the effects of it sent people off rejoicing in the Lord.

- Chadney Spencer

Meekness and humility; according to her vitae, it was these two traits which were especially strong in St. Athanasia of Aegina, and set her apart from others. St. Athanasia had visions of a man in a cloud who told her to vigorously pursue these two virtues if she wanted to more closely commune with God. While meekness and humility may have been defining themes in the life of St. Athanasia, it was not these virtues alone that stand out in her vitae. We learn from her anonymous biographer that St. Athanasia was married twice before joining the monastery. There is mention made that St. Athanasia was not the only saint during this time who had previously been married, but it is still a fact that is somewhat unusual.

St. Athanasia was born on, and lived on the island of Aegina. From clues contained in her vitae, we know that St. Athanasia lived sometime during the first part of the ninth century. The writer of her vitae tells us that St. Athanasia lived during the time when the barbarian Maurousioi led raids into Aegina. From history, we know that these raids occurred sometime between 805 and 807, so we can use these dates to determine roughly when St. Athanasia must have lived.

In a vision she had before she joined the monastery, a man told St. Athanasia, "Humility and meekness have rendered this man (the man in her vision) upon whom you look with amazement so illustrious that if you imitate (these virtues) it is evident that you will be outstandingly enlightened." St. Athanasia took these words to heart. She, along with her followers, gave up all their possessions, and went to live in a monastery on Aegina. So abundant were the traits of humility and meekness in St. Athanasia, that she would wear only the simplest goat hair garment. This garment was very rough, and would irritate the skin of the woman, but St. Athanasia was not concerned with this mere matter of the flesh.

There is only one miracle attributed to St. Athanasia during her lifetime. It is told that a blind man once came to her asking to be healed. Even at this time, St. Athanasia's humility was so great that at first, she told the man to simply have patience and the Lord would heal him, for she herself had been afflicted with the same disease. St. Athanasia was finally convinced by the blind man to say a prayer for him. Upon the completion of this prayer, the man was immediately healed on the spot.

St. Athanasia is credited with the building of four churches during her lifetime. These churches were dedicated to Stephen the Portomartyr, John the Baptist, Nicholas of Myra, and the Theotokos respectively. There is not much of a description of any of these churches contained in the vitae of St. Athanasia, but we can make certain inferences about how these churches probably looked based on the churches we have looked at in class. From what we have seen in other churches that were built around this time in this general part of the world, we know that it was common for churches of the time to be decorated with mosaics in the apse, on the walls of the nave, in the domes, and sometimes in the arches. We have even looked at another church which was dedicated to the Theotokos. Even though it was built much earlier (430 - 432), Sta Maria Maggiore in Rome could provide some insight as to how St. Athanasia's church of the Theotokos may have been decorated.

Just before her death, St. Athanasia had a vision which told of her coming demise. Forty days after her death, two of her fellow nuns had a vision of St. Athanasia being escorted by two men. These men led St. Athanasia to the holy sanctuary, where they placed a purple robe decorated with gems and pearly on her. The men also placed a crown upon her head, and they put a jeweled staff in her hand. All of these adornments have the quality of Imperial imagery from the time. The color purple is certainly associated with royalty at the time, as is the crown and jeweled staff.

On the first anniversary of her death, two men and a woman were caught dancing around the tomb of St. Athanasia. It was thought that these three people were all possessed by demons. These three dug the coffin of St. Athanasia out of the tomb with their bare hands. Upon the completion of the digging, the woman was immediately cured of her possession. Some holy men, who were nearby during all of this dancing, digging and healing, claimed that there was holy oil dripping from the saint's coffin. These men removed Athanasia's body from the coffin, and found that it appeared she had only been dead for a few days.

While St. Athanasia may have only been responsible for the one healing miracle during her lifetime, her body was responsible for many miracles after death. Relics are not truly works of art, but they are so close that they deserve some examination in any analysis of art from this time period. One child who was possessed by a demon spent forty days at the tomb of Athanasia. After this time, the demon had departed her body. Another child whose hand was possessed spent seven days at the tomb of Athanasia, after which time, the hand was completely cured.

St. Athanasia is credited with many other miracles after her death, but the most bizarre tale if the story of a slave man whose body was bloated by an internal "demon". This man had a vision in which Athanasia told him, "Stay a short while, brother, and I, with the cooperation of God, will provide you a cure. For I will send out to you a part of my body through which you will be entirely delivered from the disease that afflicts you." About a month later, the man heard a voice coming from the coffin that told him, "Open your mouth quickly, open it!" Upon opening his mouth, the man received what was offered to him by the saint, and he was immediately healed. The really strange and somewhat sickening part of this story is that it was the nail from her big toe that St. Athanasia offered to the man for healing.

From the vitae of St. Athanasia, we can see what a role relics played in the worship practices of the day. These parts of a saint's body were commonly used as instruments to heal. It is also possible from the telling of St. Athanasia's life to get some sense of the kind of art that was being produced at the time. Even though there are no specific references made to particular works of art, it is simple enough to deduce that the images that filled the churches built by Athanasia would have somewhat resembled images that we have looked at in other churches. More generally, we can see how we can use known facts about certain types of artwork to make inferences about how other, similar art from roughly the same time and place would have looked.

- Jason Crowe

According to her hagiographer, Athanasia led a blessed and wondrous life. She was born and reared by a noble family where the life of her had taken place during the first half of the ninth century. As Christian noblest Niketas and Irene raised their child Athanasia on the Greek Island of Aegina. Around the beginning of the ninth century (approximately 805-807), the Arabs from Africa had invaded the island. According to her vita, Athanasia was being forced to marry before the nightmare had occurred in Aegina. Unfortunately, Athanasia's marriage shortly ended when her husband had joined the battle that taken his life. Again, Athanasia had been forced into her second marriage by both her parents and the issue of an imperial edict. According to her vita, this edict had meant all women either unmarried or widowed must marry foreigners. During her marriage, she and her husband both directed themselves into monastery practices to detract themselves from evil ways of the world. Much like Athanasia's last marriage, we do not know the date of when her husband's death had taken place.

Athanasia, who bears the name of "immortality" could not be like any other saint during this period, because had been loved by so many who praised her for her kind ways. Not only was Athanasia able to provide food during the famine, but also very kindly she distributed clothing to those who needed her gracious hand. She graciously did what the Lord had commanded, "Be ye merciful as your heavenly Father, for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust." On the Lord's day, Athanasia openly read Holy Scripture in the Bible so she could feed the minds of her neighbors with the knowledge beliefs of the their Lord. Through the Lord Athanasia was given the ability to teach and guide people who needed encouragement. After the death of her last husband, Athanasia totally dedicated her life to serving the Lord. For example, the ways in which she had change her way of life. Following, the clothing she had worn consisted of goathair and sheep wool. Her life consisted of only one thing, and that was giving her body, mind, and soul to the God who had provided her with "the breath of life."

Athanasia had a great impact on the people she associated with, particularly those who were very much a part of her daily routines. She spent a lot of her time with her sisters reciting the Psalms and praising in the name of the Lord. Just before the death of her husband Athanasia had completely convinced him to put forth monastic ways in his life. The two of them wanted to live absorbed without being distracted from their Lord.

Athanasia grew up learning her family was of great nobility and power and she would always be taken care. Although Athanasia could have lived this lifestyle, she chose to do just the opposite. She did not want to be served by anyone during her lifetime and she was content with dedication shedding tears in singing and praying the Psalms. She even spent four years with her companions in a secluded place where they made great devotions to God and they separated themselves from any human existance on earth. A friend Matthias had joined them by praying with them and focusing on the important aspects in the Scriptures. He took part in activities to heal many people by the presence of the Lord. He later died out in the sea where no reliquaries of his sacred and blessed remains.

Anthanasia saw many different visions in her lifetime, especially in her time of devotion and praise. First, during her earliest years of growing up one day Athanasia was sitting weaving and an extreme amount of light had shone near her body and then suddenly disappeared. This was the time for Athanasia to have hatred in the life she had lived. Following, she had needs to pursue a life in monastic ways. Other times Athanasia saw heavenly visions of a man in the clouds, which told her to "pursue humility and meekness." Another time that Athanasia had spoken of her visions was during the time when she and her sisters were off in their secluded place of worship. After Athanasia observed the church of the holy protomartyr Stephen she had said, "A long time ago I saw this place in my mind's eye. And so I think we will live here from now on and here we will die." It is made clear to us that Athanasia had visions of what her life was going to be like only in a matter of time.

In some of the works of art that remain today have a particular iconographic meaning. We see pictures in churches throughout the world which portray an image of our Lord. This helps us to understand why we should believe and follow the ways of the Lord. Byzantinium works of art exemplified the cross to relate us to our "Savior," the son of God. Several of images were expressed by narrative stories found in the Bible and they were used to show the relationships they had dating back to ancient times.

One of the most important visions that had occurred during Athanasia's life was when she had been told the day of her death was soon coming. Before this had happened, Athanasia had journeyed off to Costantinople around seven years and when she returned had become very ill. In her vision she was given twelve days to depart from her life. She had seen two men dressed like angels wearing all white and they had given her a paper that contained writing. They said, "Behold your liberation. Take and rejoice." During the last twelve days of Athanasia's life she continully remained in meditation without food or drink. Athanania was noted for many miracles during her life on earth. She had been accounted for building three churches on the island of Aegina dedicating each one in names of Theotokos, John the Baptist, and Nicholas of Myra. During her death in her coffin, Athanasia served as a miracle girl who healed the sick and enabled. After a year of her death Athanasia's body was transferred into a coffin where all the people who came to visit could see her remains. After this had taken place, Athanasia's body became the treasure of all blessings. Her relics abled people to come to her when they were in need of a healing or needed to sing a prayer. Through the Grace of the Lord she was able to assist miracles into their lives.

Athanasia's remains reveal to us the way in which people during the Byzantinium had reacted to the art during that period. They worshipped the remains of the deceaced as they valued their lives. In the vita, it does not specifically talk about the works of art during the life of Athanasia. We can assume that the artwork consisted of Biblical narratives by what we have learned so far in Byzantium. Imperial reliquaries of the Byzantinium's were included in martyrs, mausoleums, and basilicas. They were used for religious reasons to which people could use their remains of the deceaced to partake in prayer or worship. One reliquary that seems to be of great remains from the ninth century art is the Crucifixion and saints, front of the Fieschi-Morgan. On the outside of this large shallow box there is the crusifixion and surrounded by a border of saints. Other scenes on the box scenes from the life of Christ: the Annunciation, Nativity, Crucifixion and Antastasis (Christ's Resurrection).

- Michelle Panko

The vita of St. Athanasia of Aegiana is not only a summary of her life and works but indirectly gives insight on the importance of icons to the Byzantines. Although no specific works of art are mentioned by her hagiographer, visions that nuns of her monastery had and those of afflicted people give us clues about why images were considered so powerful to the Byzantines.

St. Athanasia was born of noble Greek parents and was educated in the Holy Scripture. I'm not familiar enough with the vitae of other saints so as to distinguish her works from all others, and I assume that most saints lived pious, chaste lives devoid of many human comforts. What I do know that sets her apart is that she was married twice, forced into matrimony by her parents and by the law. Her first husband died in battle and before she could pursue a monastic life she was forced to marry due to an imperial edict stating that all unmarried and widowed Greek women must marry foreigners. She and her second husband parted ways decided to pursue lives with God. Her saintly works included her giving of food, clothing, and gifts to Christians and to the so-called "untouchables" who took on Jewish practices. She took care of widows and orphans and wouldn't allow herself to be served by anyone. She considered herself unworthy to be in the presence of other nuns, even though she was mother superior. Her food consisted of very little bread and water. Like Matthias, who helped her establish the convent, she wore clothes made of rough goat skin and slept in a seated position.

We know that St. Athanasia lived sometime in the second half of the ninth century during the Arab raids of the island of Aegiana from "internal evidence" from her vita, "The Life of St. Athanasia of Aegiana". The imperial edict that forced her to marry a second time may be attributed to Theophilos, whose regnal dates were 829-842; this edict helps "date" her life.

Visions play an extremely important part of her life, those that she herself had and those of the nuns of her convent. Her religious destiny began with visions of a man in a cloud and a voice directing her to pursue meekness and humility. Her soul was enlightened when a shining star came upon her, another vision giving her direction in a life in God. When she was overcome with a serious illness, she had a vision of two angels forewarning her that she would be "liberated" from life within twelve days to live with God.

The new mother superior would not leave the saint's tomb after her death and Athanasia appeared to her in a dream. Two nuns had a vision two men dressed in rich red robes with Athanasia between them dressed like an empress. The men dressed her in a purple robe decorated with gems and pearls and placed a crown on her head and a jewel-studded staff in her hand. No surviving works of art that illustrate these visions were mentioned in the vita, but an icon from the year 907 is a reminder of such a vision. The St. Eudokia panel made of marble and opus sectile shows the saint, who was actually an empress as the wife of Theodosius II. She is dressed in a jewel-studded purple robe and wears a crown in the same way as described in the vision of Athanasia. The painted wooden panel from St. Catherine's monastery in Sinai showing the Theotokos and child with saints and angels from the sixth century shows the seated Theotokos flanked by two angels who look toward God and are very three-dimensional. The vision of St. Athanasia dressed as an empress flanked by angels calls to mind this icon. Perhaps the nuns that had the visions were drawing a parallel between the Theotokos and the saint. This vision of Athanasia as an empress dressed in jewels is the complete opposite portrayal of the humble life that she led. This image is important in showing that the Byzantines believed that living a pious and meek life of sacrifice and total devotion to God would assure one the comforts of an empress (or emperor) in the afterlife.

Athanasia is known for curing a man from an eye disease during her life, and posthumously for curing people through her relics and gravesite. An example of a miracle recorded in her vita is of a twelve year old girl who after spending forty days at the saint's gravesite was cured of her affliction of foaming at the mouth and falling down. At one of Athanasia's commemoration celebrations a woman with a paralyzed hand was healed when a nun grabbed her hand and placed it under the saint's armpit. Another woman brought her paralyzed baby and placed him on the saint's coffin making him healthy. One of the nuns whom Athanasia embraced as she died had a stomach disease and was healed by the laurel leaves that decorated her coffin at the time of her death.

This text tells us not only about the significance of visions as they relate to the veneration of icons throughout the Byzantine period but also about the practice of worship during her lifetime. The fact that she was able to build three churches on the island shows the flourishing economy of Aegina and the spread of Christianity that created the need for more churches. Since the hagiographer does not mention iconoclasm, we can conclude from this vita that the question of image worship was not as much an issue on the Aegean islands as in Constantinople.

- Jill Carby

Athanasia was born the daughter of Greek nobles Niketas and Irene on the Greek Island of Aegina, thus the meaning of her epithet. She was educated and well versed in the Psalter and Holy Scriptures. She intended to enter into a monastic way of life, but her parents forced her to marry. This was short-lived due to the sudden death of her husband days after their marriage. Soon there after, an imperial edict was issued which ordered unmarried women to marry foreign men. Yet again her parents drove her to a second marriage.

Although she was married, she maintained a desire to devote her life to God. She unselfishly gave to the poor and needy and devotionally read Holy Scripture. Several years soon passed and she convinced her husband to abandon their lifestyle and take monastic vows. He died soon there after. Taking advantage of her new freedom, she was the founder and later became mother superior of a female monastic community. After some time, the women embarked on a search for a new location for their convent. They wanted to separate themselves from the material world. They soon encountered the priest, Matthias, who empathized with their cause and offered them a new place of settlement. The women enthusiastically accepted and established their convent, Timia, on the site of the ancient church of Stephen the Protomartyr. Athanasia later built three more churches, one each to: Thoetokos, John The Baptist, and Nicholas of Myra. After construction was completed she traveled to Constantinople. Athanasia stayed there for six or seven years, but felt as though she abandoned her church of Theotokos. She immediately returned to Aegina. Days there after she fell gravely ill, and was forewarned of her death through a vision.

It is thought that Athanasia lived in the first half of the ninth century. The exact dates of her life are unclear, but based on the vita Vaticanus Graecus 1660, 916 A.D., she lived during the Arab raids on the island of Aegina which occurred during this time. The monk Ioannikios, 752/4 or 762-846, traveled through the island early in the life of Athanasia and foretold of a place in Aegina called Timia, place of honor. He said this spot would be honored by the future burial of holy remains. Byzantine sources correspond with these events by alluding to Athinganoi, heretics Athanasia assisted at the time a famine, during the reigns of Nikephoros I (802-811) and Michael I Rangabe (811-813). Theophilos (829-842) probably declared the imperial edict, which forced Athanasia to marry her second husband.

Athanasia's vita describes several visions. Her first vision occurred at a young age while weaving alone. She saw a bright star fall to her chest then disappear. This is thought to signify enlightenment of her soul and her loathing of the "vanity of life". Athanasia was faithful in her devotion to God every minute of every day. She lived a very humble, meek and selfless life. According to her vita, often during prayer she stared into the heavens with awe, for she saw a cloud emitting rays of shinning light. A beautiful man was at the center, in brilliant form, with incomparable beauty. She heard a voice which said, "Humility and meekness have rendered this man upon whom you look with amazement so illustrious that if you imitate these virtues, it is evident you will be outstandingly enlightened."

Athanasia and the nuns returned to Aegina from Constantinople after a vision in which she saw the doors of Theotokos open and invite the women to enter. Her vita refers to Theotokos as Timia, which means place of honor, as stated earlier. Before her death, she was forewarned in a vision that she would die in twelve days. She was visited by two male angels who gave her manumission, or emancipation papers, which represent her liberation from the bonds and slavery of the physical world. After her death, Athanasia appeared before the new mother superior in a dream, instructing her to commemorate her death forty days later. The fortieth day commemoration was forgotten due to confusion in calculation. Athanasia again appeared before the mother superior questioning the oversight. The following morning two nuns had a vision in which they observed two brightly clad men escort Athanasia into the sanctuary and drape her in a "purple robe decorated with gems and pearls." They placed a crown on her head adorned with crosses on the front and back, and placed a jeweled staff in her hand. After this vision and the commemoration, the tomb of her relics creaked continually for one year.

Her vita credits her with only one healing miracle during the span of her life. A blind man approached her requesting prayer on his behalf. She modestly declined initially due to humility. He persisted and she placed her hand over his eyes, and asked for God's blessing. The man was cured instantly. One year after her death, two men and a woman, all three having wicked spirits, according to her vita, were dancing above the holy relics of Athanasia. They removed her coffin from the tomb and the woman was instantly cured and returned to a normal state of health. Other miracles were soon to follow such as nearby monks observing her coffin dripping oil. Upon removal of the top, they found her remains in a perfect state. They assumed she only recently died. A twelve-year-old girl was stricken with disease, and spent forty days and nights at the tomb of Athanasia. She then departed having been fully cured. An eight-year-old boy was afflicted with disease of the hand. He spent seven days at the divine relics and was fully restored to good health. The tomb of the holy relics of Athanasia was the site of many miracles in the following years.

The vita alludes to little art during this period, except for those noted as follows. As stated earlier, she built three churches on the island of Aegina: one to Theotokos, later also referred to as Timia, one to John the Baptist, and one to Nicholas of Myra. The vita suggests this activity is evidence of a prosperous economy in Aegina. Thus being the case, other works of art presumably existed at the time. The vita makes reference to a lavishly decorated robe, crown, and staff adorning Athanasia in a vision by two nuns after her death, as stated earlier. This ornamentation is symbolic of how Athanasia was perceived by others, but entirely opposite of her self-perception. Perhaps she was portrayed in such a lavish fashion, because she lived her life opposite of such representation. The vita states that little is known regarding the cult of Athanasia, but it is thought that she continued to be venerated on the island of Aegina. Thus being the case, later images and her relics presumably existed.

- Laura Disney

 


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